‘Castoriadis and Critical Theory: Crisis, Critique and Radical Alternatives’ reviewed by Frederik Richthofen

Reviewed by Frederik Richthofen

About the reviewer

Frederik Richthofen is currently an MA-student of Global Political Economy at the University of …


By 2017 the world has gone through a decade of continuous crisis. Affecting diverse fields, its global reach provokes the impression that we face a crisis of society as a whole. This is especially unsettling with regard to the critical social sciences, since one reason for that the crisis’ causes and symptoms momentarily remain unchallenged is that a crisis of society always comes along with a crisis of critique (123 ).

The tenth anniversary of the present crisis-cycle is therefore a good occasion to reflect upon the relationship of crisis and critique. Reassessing the political thought of Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), Christos Memos, who today is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Abertay Dundee, UK, has dealt with this problematic in his most recent book. Over the course of his academic career, Memos engaged with the theory and praxis of the anti-capitalist social movements that emerged during the actual crisis. Focusing on the Greek case in his analyses, he found the Greek-French philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst to be an inspirational source. Over the years, he has published several papers on the critical content of Castoriadis’ work, who had been cast out of the realm of critical scholarship for his seemingly ‘domesticated, bloodless and apolitical’ theory (130), but has recently regained attention (e.g. Adams 2014; Karalis 2014). Now, Memos has bundled his findings in a well-structured and challenging monograph that attempts to reintroduce the radical thinker’s critical project to the academic public, and to find in it hints for a new radicalism that might lead us out of the crisis of critique (1).

In dissociation from the reception of Castoriadis in Sociology, which mainly takes into account his later works, Memos focuses on Castoriadis’ involvement with Marx, which climaxed in the years of the group Socialisme Ou Barbarie’s existence (SouB, 1948-1964). After contextualising Castoriadis’ work in Chapter 1, he chronologically follows the development of the philosopher’s theoretical and practical life-project in four succeeding chapters. On the one hand, the chronological account proves to be adequate to Castoriadis’ evolutionary political thinking, which evolves in a procedural dialogue with the historically contingent matter of society. On the other hand, at times it complicates the exposition of Castoriadis’ theoretical framework. Still, through the use of clear and accessible language, Memos generally succeeds in his attempt to provide a ‘biography of thought’.

The point of departure of the activist’s theoretical engagement is the traumatising impression of the totalitarian and authoritarian Stalinism that was hegemonic within the communist movements of Greece and France in the 1940s and 50s. Castoriadis’ critical project of ‘keep[ing] the question open’ (42) translated into an exceptional receptiveness to arguments disclosed in political praxis. Starting off as a member of a Stalinist youth organisation, he joined the Trotskyist current of the Fourth International after the Second World War, which he dismissed after formulating his critique of Marxism and later, as a member of SouB and working for the OECD, of Marx himself. His critique of Marx led him to develop his anti-authoritarian, psychoanalytically inspired political philosophy portrayed in his main-work The Imaginary Institution of Society (Castoriadis 1987).

As outlined in Chapter 2, soon after arriving in France in 1945, Castoriadis developed his critique of Trotsky (27ff.). In his eyes, Trotsky ignored the class character of the Soviet Union apparent in the dominant position of the bureaucracy. To illustrate the critique’s argumentative background, Memos introduces the reader to an exchange of letters from 1953/4 between Castoriadis and Anton Pannekoek (34ff.), in which the former clarifies his notion of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’ as the source of Soviet totalitarianism. He claims it to be a ‘third historical solution’ (37), based on the circumstance that the Soviet society is subject to the same ‘junction point’ of capitalism, namely the ‘social imaginary signification of rational mastery’ (39), but as a class antagonism not between workers and capital but between the directors and executants within bureaucracy.

In his critique of bureaucratic domination, Castoriadis not only draws upon the insights of Max Weber but also on the works of his contemporary Hannah Arendt. As Memos shows in Chapter 3, his theoretical affinity to the latter reoccurs in their assessment of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Eliding among others E.P. Thompson’s and Ernst Bloch’s breaks with their respective parties on that occasion, Memos praises Arendt and Castoriadis for that they ‘saved the honour of critical and radical thought’ (47). Still, two of the few, they apprehended the revolutionary and emancipatory struggle embodied in the uprising, while large parts of the Western European Left dismissed it as counter-revolutionary and anti-communist (47ff.). To Castoriadis, it was a struggle against the bureaucratic capitalism promoted by the totalitarian Hungarian regime.

Considering the Uprising and its reception, and following his objective of bringing together thought and praxis, Castoriadis had growing doubts that the failures of real socialism can be ascribed to totalitarian tendencies only within Marxism. He was increasingly convinced that the ‘social imaginary signification of rational mastery’ (39) as the root of totalitarianism, is inherent to Karl Marx’s thinking, too. According to Castoriadis’ interpretation of Marx, the latter economistically identified historical progress with the development of the productive forces, and relatively neglected class struggle as a constituent element of history (83).

Castoriadis’ critique of Marx led him to engage with the ‘Crisis of Marxism’-debate fueled by Althusser’s famous speech of 1977 (55ff.). Addressing Althusser, he made his point that the Crisis does not derive from the omissions within Marxian theory but from its inherent positive elements relating to capitalist imaginary significations (65). It is at this point half way through the book that Memos eventually provides a more systematic picture of Castoriadis’ theoretical argument against Marx. He outlines Castoriadis’ argument in comparison with the thought of the two Greek Philosophers, Kostas Axelos and Kostas Pappaioannou in Chapter 4 (71ff.). The three independently reinterpret Marx mainly by tracing back the references in Marx’s early writings to G.W.F. Hegel. They identify a positivist notion of technique in his oeuvre that translates into an economistic notion of progress (72ff.). Secondly, they criticise Marx for propagating a teleological concept of history that resembles a Christian-eschatological concept of complete truth (75ff.). This notion of history brings about his statical understanding of emancipation, which equates to human striving for the recovery of unalienated human essence (82).

The fifth Chapter then deals with Castoriadis’ assessment of the potentials of emancipatory politics in crisis-prone modern societies. Here, Memos introduces the reader to the author’s interpretation of the French crisis of May 1968. Castoriadis’ central claim is that it was not the outcome of an economic crisis or any structural dysfunctionality, but of popular initiatives opposing alienated social relations (103). In dissociation of a statical notion of alienation, he defines alienation as the ‘process’ of ‘thingification’ (111). As described by Memos, Castoriadis himself brought forward a second understanding of crisis partly contradicting the one just mentioned. In line with the notion that crisis prevails in a moment of decision between opposing alternatives (124), he argues that, facing the lack of positive political projects after 1968, modern societies are not at all in a state of crisis but merely experience a period of disintegration (Ibid).

Despite their disparities, the two crisis-analyses have an implicit critique of heteronomously instituted singular social imaginary significations in common, which relates them back to Castoriadis’ critique of capitalism and totalitarianism. As Memos puts it, the practical anti-capitalist and anti-totalitarian project Castoriadis’ pursues ‘is not a logical inference from [his] correct theory’ (128) but derives from his political will to ‘keep open the question’. In order to regain autonomy, a society needs to find a mode that allows it to question, discuss and finally consciously self-institute the prevailing imaginary significations. The underlying vision of a democratic ‘autonomous society’ draws on the practical experiences of class struggle in the Hungarian Uprising’s council movement, for, as Memos quotes Castoriadis, ‘[a] representative democracy is not a democracy’ (129).

It is exactly this will to take seriously the role of class struggle in constituting the alterable, contingent character of history, that makes Castoriadis’ endeavor on the one hand elatingly inspiring. On the other hand, it seduces him to largely neglect the ‘historical forces working behind the backs’ of the people. Memos seems to be well aware of Castoriadis’ short-comings and designates a subchapter to his own assessment of Castoriadis’ critique of Marx. According to him, Castoriadis treats Marx as a ‘finished and done with’ (95) and bases his critique on a closed and orthodox reading overly stressing the importance of Marx’s early works, which you find in Althusser and Poulantzas (90). Strangely, Memos does not seem to reject the possibility of somehow distilling Marx’s ‘essence’ from his writings, as he sees it uncovered in ‘critical Marxism’. He even seems to equate critical Marxism with critical theory in general and thus fails in his attempt to judge him as a critical theorist in a broader sense. A second shortcoming is the omission of Castoriadis’ later political philosophy circling around the concepts of imagination, magma, legein and teukhein. Memos, presumably correctly, dismisses them as fetishistic and abstracting from social relations, but does not provide further arguments for the blunt rejection (130).

Thirdly, Memos fails to criticise Castoriadis for his disregard towards the wide range of antagonistically structured social fields. He applaudes the attempt to broaden the Marxist account of social antagonisms by adding to the analysis of production an analysis of bureaucracy, but does not develop what Castoriadis seems to have only mentioned en passant, namely the need to examine ‘every societal domain’ (116) that contributes to the ‘multilateral crisis of modernity’ (111). Additionally disregarding the feminist critique of the concept of ‘autonomy’, the impression arises that Memos is generally unwilling to engage with approaches of intersectional social analysis, and thus neglects one of today’s most promising projects in critical theory.

In this light, Memos’ aim to reintroduce Castoriadis into the realm of critical theory becomes somewhat questionable. Despite the ‘militant philosopher’s’ inspirational will to act and think critically, which makes following him through his endeavors, and thus the book, an insightful lesson in the history of ideas and a challenge to personal theoretical assumptions, Memos does not specify what closed doors to which Castoriadis provides us the keys. Though the concept of ‘autonomy’ hints at possible answers to Memos’ question of why we are not able to escape the current crisis, its theoretical disembeddedness shows that Castoriadis gives preference to political action over critical theory. Different from what Memos implies, Castoriadis’ great merit is thus not primarily the positive side of his political theory, but the inherent constructive negativity of his critical project. He built his theory in a process of mutual responsiveness to the contingent matter of praxis. The outcome of this process was not necessarily a better theory but a better praxis of making theory. Since, as we learned from Castoriadis, the crisis of society implies a crisis of critique, Memos’ effort to introduce his readers to an inspirational role model of theory turns out to be invaluable. After a decade of crisis and the eclipse of autonomy, our society is in dire need of a ‘new radicalism’, in both critical theory and praxis.

28 November 2017


  • Adams, Suzi (ed.) 2014 Cornelius Castoriadis. Key Concepts London: Bloomsbury Academic
  • Castoriadis, Cornelius 1987 The Imaginary Institution of Society [IIS] Cambridge: MIT Press
  • Karalis, Vrasidas (ed.) 2014 Cornelius Castoriadis and Radical Democracy Leiden: Brill

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