Cornelius Castoriadis – History as creation (Part III)

[Start from the first part (link) and the second (link)].

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’.

The impossible synthesis

There is therefore a central problem: there are significations which go beyond the immediate significations experiences and lived in reality, and they are conveyed by causal mechanism which, in themselves, have no signification – or not that particular signification. Sensed by humanity from time immemorial, explicitly although metaphorically posited in both myth and tragedy (in which necessity takes the form of accident), the problem was clearly envisaged by Hegel. But Hegel’s answer things as to rope into its own historical fulfilment events which appear to have no signification, is evidently only a phrase. It resolves nothing. And it is ultimately part of the old mumbo-jumbo about the ways of Providence.

With Marxism, the problem becomes even more acute. For Marxism simultaneously maintains the notion of significations assignable to events and to whole slices of history, asserts more than any other conception the power of the internal logic of historical processes, adds up these significations into a single, already given, significations to the level of causations. The two poles of the contradiction are thus pushed to the limit of their depth, but their synthesis remains purely verbal. When Lukacs says (seeking to show that Marx had, in this respect too, solves the problem which Hegel could only pose) that ‘the ‘cunning of reason” can only be something more than mythology if real reason is discovered and shown in a really concrete way. It is then a genial explanation for as yet non-conscious phases of history, he (Lukacs) isn’t really saying anything. It is not only that this ‘real reason shown in a really concrete way’ boils down for Marx to technico-economic factors and that the letter are insufficient, at the level of causality itself integrally to ‘explain’ how the results arose. The question is how can technico-economic factors have a rationality which vastly exceeds them? How can their operation throughout the whole of history embody a unity of signification, expressed at another level? It is already to do first violence to the facts to transform technico-economic evolution into a ‘dialectic of the productive forces’. It is to do violence to them again to superimpose on this dialectic another, which produces freedom out of necessity. The third violence is to claim that the former can be totally reduced to the question of the adequate development of the productive forces, and even if this development flowed inexorably from the functioning of objective laws established in all certainly, the mystery would remain total. For how could the functioning of blind laws produce a result which, for humanity, has both a signification and a positive value?

Even more precisely and strikingly, this mystery is again encountered in the Marxist idea of an objective dynamic of the contradictions of capitalism. More precisely, because the idea is buttressed by a specific analysis of capitalist economies. More strikingly, because here are added a series of negative significations. On the surface the mystery seems to be resolved: one shows, in the functioning of the economic system, the concatenations of causes and effects which lead the system to its crisis, and prepare the crossing to a new social order. In reality the mystery remains complete. In accepting the Marxist analysis of the capitalism economy we would find themselves confronted with a unique, coherent and oriented dynamic of contradictions, with the chimera represented by a beautiful rationality of the irrational, with the philosophical riddle of a world of non-meaning which would produce meanings at all levels and would finally fulfil our desires. In fact the analysis is false and the projection implicit in its conclusions is obvious. But never mind. The riddle exists in actual fact, and Marxism does not solve it, far from it. By asserting that everything should be grasped in terms of causations, and that at the same time everything should be envisaged in terms of significations, by claiming that there is a single and immense causal chain, which is at the same time a single and immense concatenation of meanings, Marxism exacerbates the two component poles of the riddle to the point of making it impossible to think of it rationally.

Marxism does not therefore transcend the philosophy of history. It is merely another philosophy of history. The rationality it seems to extract from the facts is a rationality which it actually imposes upon them. The ‘historical necessity’ of which it speaks (in the usual sense of this expression, namely that of a concatenation of facts leading history towards progress) in no way differs, philosophically speaking, from Hegelian Reason. In both cases one is dealing with a truly theological type of human alienation. A communist Providence, which would so have pre-ordained history as to produce our freedom, is nevertheless a Providence. In both cases one eliminates the central concern of any reflexion: the rationality of the (natural or historical) world, by providing oneself in advance with a rationally constructed world. Clearly, nothing can be resolved in this way: a totally rational world would, by virtue of this very fact, be infinitely more mysterious than the world in which we struggle. A history that would be rational from beginning to end – and through and through – would be more massively incomprehensible than the history we know. Its whole rationality would be founded on a total ittarionality, for it would be in the nature of pure, fact, and of fact so brutal, solid and all-embracing that we should suffocate under it. Finally, under these conditions, the main problem of praxis would disappear, namely that people have to give to their individual and collective lives a signification which is not pre-assigned, and that they have to do so while at grips with real conditions which neither exclude nor guarantee the fulfilment of their project.

Dialectic and ‘materialism’

When Marx’s rationalism takes on an explicit philosophical expression, it is presented as a dialectic. Not as a dialectic in general but as Hegelian dialectic, shorn of its ‘mystified idealist form’.

Generations of Marxists have thus mechanically parroted Marx’s phrase: ‘with Hegel, the dialectic was standing on its head; I replaces it on its feet’, without asking themselves whether such an operation was actually feasible, and especially whether it would be able to transform the nature of its object. Is it enough to turn a thing upside down to change its substance? Was the ‘content’ of Hegelianism so loosely linked to its dialectical ‘method’ that one could substitute another content radically opposed to it? And could one do this to a philosophy which proclaimed that its content was ‘produced’ by its method, or rather that method and content were but two moments in the production of the system?

It is obviously impossible. If Marx retained the Hegelian dialectic he also retained its real philosophical content, which was rationalism. He only modified the garment which, ‘idealist’ in Hegel becomes ‘materialist’ in Marx. Using the words in this way, we are only playing with them.

A closed dialectic such as that of Hegel is of necessity rationalist. It simultaneously presupposes and ‘proves’ that all experience is exhaustively reducible to rational determinations. (That moreover these determinations are found each time miraculously to coincide with the ‘reason’ of such and such a thinker of society, that there is consequently at the core of all rationalism an anthropocentricism or sociocentricism, that in other words all rationalism erects as Reason a particular reason, is plainly evident and would already be enough to put an end to the discussion.) A closed dialectic is the necessary end of all speculative and systematic philosophy which seeks to answer the question: ‘how can we have true knowledge?’ – and which conceives of truth as a complete system of relations without ambiguity or residue. It matters little in this respect of its rationalism takes an an ‘objectivist’ form (as with Marx and Engels) or a ‘subjectivist’ form (as with the German idealist philosophers, including ultimately even Hegel). In the ‘objectivist’ form, where the world is rational in itself, a system of laws governs without limit an absolutely neutral substratum and our grasp of these laws flows from the (truly incomprehensible) fact that our knowledge reflects reality. In the ‘subjectivist’ form the world in question (in fact the universe of discourse) is the product of activity of the subject, which thereby guarantees its rationality [12].

Conversely, any rationalist dialectic is necessarily a closed dialectic. Without this closure the whole system remain suspended in mid air. The ‘truth’ of each determination is nothing more than the return to the totality of determinations, without which return each moment of the system remains both arbitrary and indefinite. One must therefore posit the totality, without residue. Nothing must remain outside it, otherwise the system is not incomplete, it is nothing at all. Any systematic dialectic must lead to an ‘end of history’, be it in the form of Hegel’s absolute knowledge or of Marx’s ‘complete man’.

The essence of the Hegelian dialectic is not to be found in assertion that the ‘logos’ (the organisation of intelligible appearances) ‘precedes’ nature, still less in the vocabulary which forms its ‘theological vestment’. It lies in the method itself, in the fundamental postulate according to which ‘all that is real is rational’, in the inevitable claim that it can produce all the possible determinations of the object. This essence cannot be destroyed by putting dialectic ‘black on its feet’ since it will always remain visibly the same animal. A revolutionary transcendence of Hegelian dialectics demands not that it be put back on its feet, but that, as a first step, its head be chopped off.

The nature and meaning of Hegel’s dialectic cannot therefore change because one starts calling ‘matter’ what was previously called ‘logos’ or ‘spirit’ – provided that by ‘spirit’ one doesn’t mean a white bearded Gentleman dwelling in Heaven, and provided one knows the ‘material nature’ is not a mass of coloured objects, solid to the touch. It is quiet irrelevant in this respect to say that nature is one moment of the logos, or that the logos arises at a given stage in the evolution of matter, since in both cases the two entities are posited from the onset as being of the same essence, to with, of rational essence. Besides, neither of these assertions had any meaning since no one can state what spirit is, or what matter is, etc. Matter and spirit, in these philosophies are nothing ultimately but pure Being, that is to say as Hegel correctly put it, pure Nothingness. To call oneself a ‘materialist’ is no way different from calling oneself an ‘idealist’ if, by matter, one understand an otherwise indefinable entity, exhaustively submitted to laws co-substantial and co-extensive with our reason, and this, from this very moment de jure penetrable by is (as even de facto, since the ‘laws of these laws’, the ‘supreme principles of nature and knowledge’ are already known here and now: they are ‘principles’ or ‘laws of dialectics’ discovered 150 years ago (and now even numbered, thanks to the efforts of Comrade Mao Tse-Tung). When an ‘idealist’ astronomer like Sir James Jeans claims that God is mathematician, and when dialectical materialists fiercely assert that matter, life and history are wholly subordinate to a determinism of which we shall one day discover the mathematical expression, it is sad to think that under certain historical circumstances the supporters of each of these schools could (and in fact did) have the others shot. It is sad because they all say exactly the same thing, simply giving it a different name.

A ‘non-idealist’ dialectic must also be a ‘non-materialist’ dialectic, in the sense that it refuses to posit an absolute Being, whether as idea, as matter, or as the de jure already given totality of all possible determinations. Such dialectic must eliminate notions such as closure and completion, and reject all finite world systems. It should set aside the rationalist illusion, seriously accept the idea that there is infinite and indefinite, admit- without thereby forsaking work on the matter – that all rational residue, that the residue is just as essential as what has been analysed, that necessity and contingency continually interprenetrate, that ‘nature’, both outside and within us, is always something other and something more than what our consciousness makes of it – and that all this is not only valid for the ‘object’, but also for the subject, and not just for the ’empirical’ subject but also for the ‘transcendental’ subject, since all transcendental law-making by consciousness presupposes the raw fact that a consciousness exists in a world (order and disorder, seizable and inexhaustible), a fact that consciousness cannot itself produce, either really or symbolically. It is only on this condition that a dialectic can really envisage living history, which a rationalist dialectic is obliged to kill before it can lay it out on the benches of its laboratories.

But such transformation of the dialectic is only possible in its turn, if one goes beyond the traditional and age-old idea of theory as both closed system and contemplation. That was, in fact, one of the key insights of the young Marx.

[12] Elements of ‘subjectivist’ dialectic of this type may be found in the early works of Marx, and they dorm the substance of Lukacs’ thought. We shall return to this later.