Cornelius Castoriadis – History as creation (Part II)

(Read the first part here).

This is a further instalment, in English, of Marxisme et Teorie Revolutionnaire by Cornelius Castoriadis (Paul Cardan). The original French text appeared between 1961 and 1964) in issues 36-40 of the now defunct journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. Published in English by Solidarity London in 1966 (vol. IV, no.3) under the title ‘The fate of Marxism’.

Coherence in society

Let us consider for example the question of the coherence of a given society – be it a primitive society or a capitalist one. What is that ensures that the rules (legal or normal) which regulate the behaviour of its adults are in keeping with their motivations, and that they are not only compatible but deeply and mysteriously related to the society’s method of work and production? How is it that all this, in turn, corresponds to the structure of the family, to how mothers breastfeed their infants, to weaning, to the bringing up of children? How is it that there is a definite structure of the human personality in that particular culture, including its particular neuroses (and no others) – and that all this coordinates itself with one world-view, one religion, such and such a manner of eating or dancing? When studying a primitive society (3) one sometimes has the giddy impression that a team of psychoanalysts, economists, sociologists, etc., of superhuman capacity and knowledge, has made laws setting out the rules that would ensure it. Even ethnologists, while analysing the functions of such a society and revealing it to us, introduce more coherence than actually is, this impression is not, and cannot be, totally illusory. After all, these societies function. They are stable. They are even self-stabilising and capable of absorbing important shocks (except, obviously, that of contact with ‘civilisation’).

To be sure, the mystery of this coherence can be vastly reduced through causal considerations. This is what is involved in the ‘exact’ study of a society. If adults behave in a certain fashion, it is because they were brought up in a certain way; if the religion of a people contains such and such and element, it is because it corresponds to the ‘basic personality’ of the culture in question; if the authority relations are organised in a particular way, this is due to these particular economic factors, or vice versa, etc. But this causal reduction does not exhaust the problem, it only gradually strips it to the bone. The links which it detects, for instance, are those between individual acts situated in a predefined framework. The framework is both that of a social life already coherent at any moment as a concrete totality (4) (for without such a coherence there would be no individual acts), and of a collection of rules both explicit and implicit, of an organisation, of a structure which is at one and the same time both an aspect of this totality and something different from it. The rules are themselves the product, in some respects, of that social life. In a number of instances (hardly ever in primitive societies, more often in the case of historical societies) we can insert their emergence into a pattern of social causation (for example free competition and the abolition of serfdom, introduced by the bourgeois, serve the ends of the bourgeois and are explicitly desired for this reason). But even when one succeeds in ‘producing’ the rules in such a manner, the fact remains that their authors were not, and could not have been, conscious of the totality of their results and of their implications – and yet there results and implications were inexplicably ‘harmonised’ with what already existed or with what others were producing, at the same time, in other areas of the social scene. (5) In most instances, conscious #authors’ quiet simply did not exist. The evolution of forms of family life, fundamental to the understanding of all cultures, did not depend on explicit legislative acts. Still less did such acts stem from an awareness of obscure psychoanalytical mechanism, at work in the family. There also remains the fact that these rules are given at the point of departure of each society (6) and that they are coherent with each other, whatever the distance between the areas they cover.

(When we talk of coherence in this context, we take the word in its widest possible sense: for a given society even crisis and being torn apart can, in a certain way, be manifestations of coherence, for they are inserted in its functioning. They are never followed by a total collapse, by a pure and simple atomisation. They are its crises and its incoherence. The great depression of 1929, like the two world wars, are entirely ‘coherent# manifestations of capitalism. It is not simply that they are integrated into its concatenations of causality, but also that they promote the functioning, qua functioning, of the system. In their very meaninglessness we can still see in many ways the meaning of capitalism.)

There is a second reduction we can apply. There is no reason to be surprised if all current and past societies are coherent. By definition, o0nly coherent societies are observable. Non-coherent societies would have collapsed immediately and we wouldn’t be able to talk about them. This idea, important as it is, does not put an end to the discussion either. It would only enable us to ‘understand’ the coherence of the societies we are looking at by reference to a process of ‘trial and error’, whereby only viable societies would have survived by some sort of natural selection. But already in biology, where evolution has many millions of years at its disposal and where there is an infinitely rich process of contingent variations, natural selections thought trial and error does not seem a sufficient answer to the problem of the origin of species. ‘Viable’ forms seem to be produced far more often that the statistical probability of their appearance would predict. In history, this reference to random variations and to a process of selection seems gratuitous. Besides, the problem is posed at a previous level (in biology, too!): the disappearance of peoples and nations described by Herodotus may well have been the outcome of their encounter with other peoples who crushed or absorbed them; nevertheless the former already had an organised and coherent way of life, which would have continued had not the encounter occurred. Anyway, we have seen with our own eyes, literally or metaphorically, the birth of new societies and we know things don’t happen like this. Between the 13th and the 19th century, we don’t see an enormous number of different types of society appearing in Europe, all of which bad one disappear because incapable of surviving. We see a different phenomenon: the birth (accidental, in relation to the system preceding it) of the bourgeois, which through thousands of contradictory ramifications and manifestations, from the Lombard bankers to Calvin, and from Giordano Bruno to the use of the compass, causes the appearance from the outset of a coherent meaning which will go on developing and strengthening itself.

On the Russian Revolution

These considerations allow one to grasp a second aspect of the problem. It isn’t only in the structure of a society that we see how a system of significations imposes itself upon a network of causes. We see it also in the succession of historical societies or, more simply, in each historical process. Let us look, for instance, at the process, already touched upon, whereby the bourgeois emerged. Or better still, let us look at one we think we know so well, which led first to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and subsequently to the power of the bureaucracy.

It isn’t possible here, and it is hardly necessary, to recall the causes deep at work in Russian society which were leading it towards a second violent social crisis after that of 1905, and which were allocating roles to the main actors of the drama in the person of the basic classes of society. It doesn’t seem difficult for us to understand that Russian society was pregnant with revolution, or that in this revolution the working class was going to play a decisive role. We don’t dwell on it. But this comprehensible necessity remains ‘sociological’ and abstract. It has to be manifested through definite processes. It must embody itself in acts (or omissions) dated and signed by particular individuals and groups, ending up with the appropriate result. Necessity has also to find combined, at the outset, a mass of conditions whose presence wasn’t always guaranteed by the very factors which generated the ‘general necessity’ of revolution. One aspect of the question, a minor one if you like but which allows one to see easily and clearly what we are driving at, is that of the role of individuals. Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, certainly doesn’t neglect it. He is himself sometimes seized with an astonishment, which he conveys to his readers, when confronted with the perfect adequacy of the character of people for the ‘historic roles’ they will be called upon to place. He is also struck by the fact that when the situation ‘demands’ a person of a given type, this person somehow emerges (one recalls the parallels he draws between Nicholas II and Louis XVI, between the Tsarina and Marie Antoniette).

What then is the key to this mystery? Trotsky’s answer still seems sociological: everything in the life and historical existence of a decadent privileged class leads it to produce individuals without ideas and without character. If a different type of individual were exceptionally to appear, he could do nothing with this particular social fabric, and he could do nothing against ‘historical necessity’. On the other hand, everything in the life and existence of a revolutionary class tends to produce individuals of hardened temperament, with strongly-help opinions. This answer contains without doubt a large part of truth. Yet it is not sufficient. Or rather it says both too much and not enough. It says too much because it ought to be valid in all cases, whereas it is only valid where the revolution has been victorious. Why did the Hungarian proletariat only produce as ‘hardened’ leader a Bela Kun – for whom Trotsky never has enough scornful irony? Why could not the German working class recognise – and eventually replace – Rosa Luxemburg and Larl Liebknecth? Where was the French Lenin in 1936?

To say in these cases the situation was not ripe for the appropriate leaders to appear is precisely to abandon the sociological interpretation, which can legitimately lay claim to a certain comprehensibility, and to return to the mystery of particular situations which either ‘demand’ or ‘forbid’. Besides, the situation which ought to forbid sometimes doesn’t. For half a century now the ruling classes have been able to provide themselves with leaders who, whatever their historical role was, have been neither Prince Lvovs nor Kerenskys. But the explanation doesn’t say enough either, for it cannot explain why chance is excluded from the business in the very place where it appears to be at work in the most blinding fashion, why chance always operates ‘in the right direction’, and why the infinite number of possible events which would operate in other directions never materialise. For the revolution to come about we need the weakness, flabbiness and inertia of the Tsar. We need the character of the Tsarina. We need Kerensky and Kornilov. Lenin and Trotsky must return to Petrograd, and for this we need a mistaken reasoning on the part of the German General Staff and another by the British government, not to mention all the pneumococci and diptheria bacilli which conscientiously avoided these two persons ever since their birth. Trotsky puts the question squarely: without Lenin, would the revolution have been completed? After discussing the matter, he tends to answer ‘no’. We are inclined to think that he is right, and moreover that one could say just as much about Trotsky himself. (7) But what in what sense can we say that the internal necessities of the revolution guaranteed the appearance of individuals like Lenin and Trotsky, their survival until 1917, and their more than improbable presence in Petrograd at the right moment? We are compelled to note that the signification of the revolution affirms and completes itself though chains of causes bearing no relationship to it, but nonetheless inexplicable bound up with it.

The emergence of the bureaucracy in Russian after the revolution enables us to envisage the problem at yet another level. In this case too, analysis lets us see deep and understandable factors at work, upon which can’t dwell again here. (8) The birth of the bureaucracy in Russia was certainly not a chance occurrence. The proof is that bureaucratisation has since then increasingly appeared as the dominant trend of the modern world. But to understand the bureaucratisation of capitalist countries we call upon the tendencies immanent in the organisation of production, of the economy and of the state under capitalism. Yet the bureaucracy which first appeared historically was that which arose in Russia, on the very morrow of the revolution, on the social and material ruins of capitalism; it is even this bureaucratisation within capitalism. Everything happened as though the modern world was pregnant with bureaucracy – and that to produce it was ready to bring all grist to its mill, including some which seemed least appropriate such as Marxism, the workers’ movement and the proletarian revolution.

On retrospective rationalism

As with the problem of the coherence of a society, there is here again a causal reduction which one can and should operate – and this is precisely what an exact and reasoned study of history consists of. But this causal reduction, as we have just seen does not abolish the problem. An illusion must then be eliminated: the illusion of retrospective rationalisation. The historical material, in which we cannot help seeing links between meanings, well defined entities, one might even say a personal aspect – the Peloponnesian War, the Spartacus revolt, the Reformation, the French Revolution – has itself cast our idea of what historical meaning – or historical figure – is. These particular events have taught us what an event is, and the rationality we later detect in them only surprises us because we have forgotten that we have ourselves first extracted it from them. When Hegel more or less asserts that Alexander had of necessity to die at the age of thirty three, because it was of the essence of a hero to die young and that one could not imagine an old Alexander, and when he thus builds up an accidental fever into the manifestation of Reason hidden in history, we not that our image of what a hero is was precisely forged our of the real case of Alexander and other similar ones, and that there is therefore nothing surprising if one discovers in the event a form which constituted itself for us through the event.

Similar demystifications are needed in many cases. But even this won’t exhaust the problem. Firstly, because here too we meet something similar to what happens in our knowledge of nature (9): when one has reduces all that appears rational in the physical world to the rationalising activity of the cognisant subject, there still remains the fact that this a-rational world should be such that this activity can impinge upon it, which excludes its being chaotic. Secondly, because the historical meaning (that is to say, a meaning which surpasses the meaning effectively lived and carried by individuals) seems truly pre-constituted in the material which history offers us. To keep the fore-mentioned example, the myth of Achilles who also died young (and of numerous other heroes who shared the same fate) was not forged on the basis of the example of Alexander (it was rather the other way round). (10) The meaning expressed by the phrase: ‘The hero dies young’ seems from way back to have fascinated humanity in spite of – or because of – the absurdity it denotes. Reality seems to have provided enough support for it to become ‘obvious’. In the same way the myth of the birth of a hero (11) presents – throughout very different epochs and in very different cultural environments  – similar features (features which simultaneously deform and reproduce real facts). Ultimately, all myths bear witness to hos facts and significations are mingled in historical reality long before the rationalising consciousness of the historian or of the philosopher appears on the scene. Thirdly, because history seems constantly dominated by tendencies, because one encourages in it a sort of ‘internal logic’ of its processes which confers a central place to a signification or complex of significations (we referred earlier to the birth and development of the bourgeois and of the bureaucracy), links with one another causal sequences which have no necessary ‘accidental’ conditions. The first surprise one experiences on looking at history is to note that in truth, had Cleopatra’s  nose been shorter, the face of the world would have been changed. The second, even greater surprise, is to not that there noses did have, most of the time, the required dimensions.

3) See for example, the studies of Margaret Mead in Male ad Female, or in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.
4) Thus merely to refer an ‘infinite series of causations’ doesn’t solve the problem
5) Of course, that is not an absolute truth. There are also bad laws which are incoherent, or which themselves destroy the ends they seek to serve. This phenomenon seems, moreover, curiously restricted to modern societies. But this doesn’t alter the essence of what we are saying: it remains an extreme variant of the production of coherent social rules.
6) We do not say ‘of society in general’. We are not discussing the metaphysical problem of the origins.
7) One could obviously go on discussing this for ever. One can almost certainly say that the revolution would not have taken the form of a seizure of power by the Bolshevik party. Perhaps it might have consisted of a re-enactment of the Commune. The content of such considerations may seen pointless. The fact that they are unavoidable shows that history cannot be thought of, even retrospectively, outside of the categories of the possible or of the accident which is more than an accident.
8 ) See, for example, in No. 36 of Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Workers’ Opposition by Alexandra Kollontai. Also the introduction and notes accompanying this text.
9) What Kant was already referring to as ‘a happy accident’.
10) We know that Alexander ‘took Achilles as a model’.
11) See The Myth of the Hero’s Birth by O.Rank, and Freud’s Moses.

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