Twenty Years after Castoriadis, one Hundred Years after the October Revolution

Source: Le Monde Diplomatique.

Editors’ note: this text has been published in cooperation with the web journal dVersia / dВЕРСИЯ, where it first appeared. The text is also available in Bulgarian.

Two consecutive events in Sofia at the end of September 2017 – one on the 27th at Sofia University and another one on the 29th at Fabrika Autonomia – gathered radical activists, scholars and others involved with social and political issues, to commemorate the heritage left by Cornelius Castoriadis on the twentieth year after his passing. The way we as dVERSIA saw it, the discussions sought to provoke deeper reflection regarding the complex nature of imagination as a force in history and of history-based praxis in the light of the struggles of today.

The following interview with Nicos Ioannou (political journalist) and Alexandros Schismenos (philosopher, PhD) – activists and scholars of Castoriadis – is meant to provide further food for thought. Our belief is that in Bulgaria (but also throughout the whole of the post-communist world, if not further beyond) there’s an urgent need for critical reflection of the past which simultaneously keeps the idea of the political and the urge for social transformation. This is where radical political theory gets in, becoming a challenge of utmost importance. And this is where these two temporal occasions – the 20th anniversary of Castoriadis’ passing and the centenary of the October revolution– come to aid our efforts in their own significances, clashes and interpellations.

–Ivaylo Dinev and Stanislav Dodov

Looking at the political context, what is the importance of Castoriadis’ work and what can we learn from him for today’s struggles? And what is your take on today’s big trends in social imaginary judging by what social movements are achieving?

Nicos Ioannou: Castoriadis teaches us how to interpret the activity of the social imaginary. In order to imagine, to achieve radical social transformation, we need to speak about the fundamental, basic elements of every society. And the basic question of our society is whether the economy should be a dominant and separated sector. Through Castoriadis we cannot create an ideological or political system, but we can learn how to install the idea of a radical transformation of society, which is the creation of social activity.

Alexandros Schismenos: Castoriadis is one of the few thinkers of his era whose critique of Marxism did not lead to the abandonment of the aspiration of revolution. He was part of a generation that saw the true face of the regimes that used Marxism as an alibi. But his critique of Marxism was creative – he didn’t slide from Marxism to capitalism, or to Liberal Democracy, but continued the critique of capitalism and continued the critique of the politics of oligarchy, while retaining the idea of revolutionary praxis.

When he was young he was hunted by both the Nazis and the Stalinists – he was a member of the resistance, but from a Trotskyist perspective. He went to France and participated in the events that led to May 1968 in Paris by criticizing both the Stalinist regime and Trotskyism. This is an example of a man who devoted his life to his ideas and praxis, not just to theory. He was in his middle age when he renounced Marxism, meaning that he renounced his own life in a way!

In the context of his theory I think the basic idea is that we create our own history, collectively, that humanity is self-creating its own ideas, and that this creation is not deterministic; of course, nor is it chaotic, it occurs under the circumstances of society, but not in a deterministic way. Castoriadis revived some of the basic notions of democracy. I think these are lessons that resonate with the social movements of today, because they denounce hierarchy, denounce the old ideologies, and still seek another transformation. This transformation needs creativity and it also needs critical remembrance of the past.

May 28, 2011: anti-austerity protest on Syntagma Square, Athens. Source: Kevrekidis (Deviant Art).

Since the beginning of the 21st century the “triumph” of capitalism shows that this system will not hold for long. From 1994 and the Zapatista movement, from the antiglobalist movements, and then to the riots in Europe – in Athens, Paris, London, the Occupy movement– we can see that there is a global resonance, correspondence between local movements and global aspirations. I think that now we find a deeper meaning for our local activities, because we can project them to a global network, in terms of global solidarity. This is very important, because in the past revolutionary movements were inspired by their own local history. Nowadays we can be inspired by the present struggles all across the world. And I think this is a thing which breaks up dogmatist isolation and sectarianism, because in order to understand our world you have to understand simultaneously the Dakota Indians, the Rojava Kurds, and the Bulgarians occupying their squares.

NI: Being here in Sofia, a very beautiful city, and our participation in the discussion at Fabrika Autonomia on the 29th of September, reminds me that it is very important nowadays to create communities like free social spaces inside the urban area, within the city, in order to create institutions of self-education and a different culture, while at the same time keeping in touch with the social movements and understanding the complexity, but also the creativity, the opportunity within the city that cannot be defined by statistics. The modern cities provide us with the chance not only to reclaim or reoccupy, but to recreate the city from the beginning in a democratic and egalitarian manner.

There are many who would claim that today’s liberal, representative democracy is just and equal for all, because people can vote and choose rationally their leaders during elections. You agree with Castoriadis that we need another form of democracy, the direct democracy, an ancient concept of democracy. But someone would ask how in this democracy can we avoid the same inequalities that we all know we face in liberal democracy, like political, economic, environmental inequalities, etc.?

AS: Our social reality, as you said, faces multiple forms of inequality. The first thing is political inequality, which is the false narrative of liberal oligarchy under the name of democracy. “Democracy” is like a mask that regimes in modern times wear to justify themselves.

However, elections – and this was already known to Aristotle, – is an aristocratic institution, because we do not elect an opinion or a policy, we elect a person to decide the policy. We do not even elect the person to decide upon a specific policy – we elect the person to decide on any policy they want. For example, the prime minister of Greece was elected with a promise to end social inequalities, but he is not in any legal way contained by his promise. He can just take another policy, as is being done.

So, what could guarantee that when direct democracy emerges, it will not fail? The first thing is that direct democracy should put economy and economical structures in service to the community, in service of democracy. There has to be economic equality, and Castoriadis is explicit on that, even in the last text he wrote before his death in 1997. He said that we cannot really speak of democracy without economic equality. He has always supported this Marxist idea of equality of salaries, of wages, and that every human activity should be equally paid. Because otherwise this economic inequality will create the seeds for another inequality.

Castoriadis discussing democracy ancient and modern on Chris Marker’s 1989 documentary, “The Owl’s Legacy.” Source: Sapardanis Kostas’s blog.

Castoriadis criticized ancient democracy, seeing that the workers’ movements in modern times are more radical than the ancients. First because ancient democracy excluded many people, which is for us despicable – we think that everybody should participate. Second, because the ancients did not fight economic inequality, they only tried to tax the rich, but they did not fight inequality explicitly. So, democracy fell from within. The modern revolutionary movement saw that we can move to a society without these problems, but in order to do that we have to place economy in service of the community.

NI: Nowadays people just choose someone to manage everything. And this idea of inequality will continue to exist as long as people give up their political power, the power to decide, to someone else. In Barcelona recently there was a big movement regarding the urban space, the right to the city, the right to free space, the right to residence, home, the right to food. It managed to create public spaces within the city that promoted different alternatives, but it did not take the next step – to make a public space for political decisions. Instead, they gave this space and this power to municipal programs and organizations that later on just ran for the local municipal elections. Some of these people were elected, started fighting for different policies and the movement began to lose trust. In a peculiar way even people from the movement thought that a political decision made at the square and not in parliament has no value. The idea of authority still has a magical influence even on people in social movements, and we must move beyond this situation.

But recent movements of global importance like Occupy and Indignados are now gone, and in the mainstream politics most people are divided between traditional parties and the far right. How will you discuss the popularity of authoritarian leaders like Trump or Orban and the increasing support for the far-right? In terms of Castoriadis’ idea of social imaginary, can we say that this trend has something to do with a crisis of social imaginary and the need for subversive movements (instituting imagination), for a social imaginary from below which will clash with the instituted imagination?

AS: What we see now in my opinion with the rise of Trump and the far-right is yet another symptom of the collapse of traditional institutions, the collapse of the people’s trust in them. What this collapse represents is on the one hand opportunity for social movements, but on the other – it destroys even further the social cohesion, which is also under attack by the system. So, we see a revival of the old narratives and the old ghosts as slogans in the name of marginal interest groups that want dominance. These are the far-right’s efforts to use people’s adversity and to use tricks, slogans, even leftist slogans, and subvert them so as to provide for their own social agenda. The problem is that we live in a moment when the power of the nation state in my opinion is declining. People feel that their governments do not represent them and they feel that their identity is threatened. The most prominent instrument for controlling the population is the nation narrative because it is everywhere.

I think there is a revival of the far-right that is not coming from the people, but from strong economic interests that see that traditional forms of representation fail, so they try to control the population through this nationalistic narrative. Yet it’s very interesting because nationalists serve the same neoliberal international policies in banking, in everything. The Nazis in Greece for example serve the international ship-owners’ interests, which are huge.

Nationalism is not a form of community, it is a form of division, especially in a world where the Internet gives us the feeling of a greater world. So, it’s a very big threat not only because it’s antisocial and antihuman (this nationalism and fascism), but also because it resonates with the problems that people have with governments. The most conservative and brutal aspect of the system manages to project itself as anti-system.

NI: When traditional and fundamental functions of society collapse, like social welfare or the basis of production, the basis of agriculture, the basis of labor, even when the productive individual, the productive person disappears – even the consumerist is starting to fade! – there is a kind of a reflex in society to cling itself to the most extreme part of the system. Like a reflex towards this collapse which takes different forms in every countries, but is connected with this collapse of traditional national institutions and provisions. The European democratic movement in its broadest sense should go beyond this conservative nationalistic reflex.

In the theory of Castoriadis the social movement is the agent of revolutionary change. When we look at recent movements like those mentioned above, the movements of „the square“, can we see that they changed something – the „common sense“, the practices of everyday life, or were they used by political parties, the media, the economic elites and failed? And considering the previous question about the rise of the far-right or generally the rise of neoliberal authoritarianism, shall we say that these big movements failed?

AS: These social movements in my opinion did not fail – they just reached their limits. For example, what happened in Syntagma in Athens is that the people that gathered there managed to maintain the square, to liberate it, managed to create discussions, common kitchens, games… They created a free space within the heart of the city, but they could not by definition move to the next step and create an autonomous neighborhood or autonomous society within the city, because they are limited by their means and by their own actions. Their action was an action to reclaim public space and to pose the question of democracy. What they left behind is the significance of this question as a central question – who makes the decisions, and not just the old question „Do you like this party or that party?“ This question was posed in the center of some of the most powerful societies. The other thing is that they created free social spaces in Athens, in Thessaloniki, in Sofia, in many places around the world, which remained as cells of the new social transformation. So, currently, as we’re still in the same historical period, we see the emergence, the spread and the decline of such movements throughout the world.

We’re now arriving at the centenary of the October revolution in 1917. Castoriadis discusses the revolution in terms of lost hopes – the Soviets as positive example at first, which later on failed to establish actual democratic practices. How Castoriadis perceived and analyzed the October revolution from its beginning to its effects?

NI: When we get back to the past and those days of the revolutions we make use of the safety of historical distance – we’re not involved in the fights, when we judge them. Now we can say with certainty that this model of changing the world that Lenin and the Bolsheviks followed is not the right way and may even lead us to worse situations. And that is the basic truth that we have to accept and move forward.

AS: Castoriadis says that there was a popular revolution in February when the tsar fell, and then came the period of dual coexistence – the government of Kerensky, which was powerless, and the Soviets which really brought the sense of revolution. And then he said that Lenin hijacked the government in the name of the Soviets, the assemblies. According to Castoriadis, October is closer to a coup d’état than to a revolution. And of course he says that it was this element of authority, of scientific authority that allowed Lenin to create a new bureaucracy. This proved that the question of authority is deeper than just the economic relations.

However the Russian revolution, as well as the French one, are for Castoriadis the most prominent signs for the emergence of social autonomy in the direst of conditions. The thing with both revolutions is that when the people retreat to their homes, the revolution is lost.

But I also bear in mind that Castoriadis though these things during the Cold War, so he was in his own way pretty much an anticommunist when it comes to the regimes.

How in Castoriadis’ words will you discuss the transition from state socialist regime to liberal democracy and free market economy that happened in Eastern Europe and led to a great transformation of society in post-socialist states?

AS: Castoriadis was a prominent researcher of the socialist regimes after World War I, especially of the social relations in the Soviet regime. He was one of its most furious accusers, saying that such regimes are totalitarian and not liberating. But he was also very much inspired by the workers’ riots in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and of course in Prague in 1968. In the 1980s he was explicit that only the people can overthrow these regimes, because only the people can withdraw their trust from the party, and only social revolution would bring something like that. Yet he did not see that coming.

During an interview with Greek anarchists in 1990s, he was asked for his opinion on the collapse of socialist regimes. His answer is that at first he was very surprised by the anger the people showed, although he could not really understand it from France, because propaganda would not let these voices of dissidents appear. But he was also very disappointed by the fact that these revolts led to the overthrow of governments, yet the people did not create anything new and just accepted the capitalist paradigm.

So he saw these populations being politicized the moment they rose, but then abandoning politics altogether. And he claimed that this was a bad inheritance from the distraction of the revolutionary movement by the Bolshevik-Leninist oligarchies. What was very tragic was that this experience destroyed the idea of social transformation better than capitalism itself.

Of course he said that what will happen still remains open – will we see an overhaul of capitalism, will these countries become like Third world countries under exploitation, or will we see a revival of old community forms with a new meaning.

Alexandros Schismenos is a member of the Greek journals ContAct and Babylonia. Co-founder of Heronomia and Alimura social centers in Ioannina. Author of numerous books on autonomy and democracy.

Nicos Ioannu is an author and founder of different political journals like ContAct and Babylonia and radio podcasts in his hometown Agrinio and in Athens. Co-author (with Alexandros Schismenos) of the books (in Greek language) After Castoriadis: Roads to Autonomy in the 21st century and The End of National Politics.