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Cornelius Castoriadis


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Paris-based Greek political philosopher and psychoanalyst. Born in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and educated in Greece, Castoriadis lived in France from the end of the Second World War until his death. At 15 he joined the Kommounistike Neolaia (Communist Youth) in Athens and in 1941 he joined the Communist Party, but left after only a year to become a Trotskyist. His association with communist groups caused him considerable trouble during the Nazi occupation of Greece. When he moved to Paris he joined the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste, but cancelled his membership after three years in response to Tito's break with Stalin in 1948 and helped to establish the breakaway group (which included Guy Debord, Claude Lefort, and Jean-François Lyotard) who have come to be known by the name of the journal they founded, Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism).

The Socialism or Barbarism group was always very small, but its journal provided an important outlet for Castoriadis. He did not obtain an academic job until very late in life and for most of his professional career he was employed as an economist by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Neither did he have French citizenship until 1970, which meant he could have been deported back to Greece at virtually any time. Consequently most of his early writings were written under a variety of pseudonyms (Paul Chardan and Pierre Chalieu were the most commonly used).

His work as an economist influenced his view of Marxism. Although a committed Marxist, Castoriadis was an anti-Soviet. He saw the USSR as a bureaucratic state rather than a communist country and was highly critical of its centralized power structure. He came to reject Marxist economic theories and focused more on the idea of revolution, stressing that it was the spirit not the doctrine of Marx that was important. Although an activist throughout the 1960s, he also started to move in this period towards a more psychoanalytic view of the world as he tried to understand the relationship between individuals and social formations.

He trained as a psychoanalyst (though not with Jacques Lacan or his Ecole Freudienne) and obtained a licence to practise in 1974. His most well-known publications date from this period, such as L'institution imaginaire de la société (1975), translated as The Imaginary Institution of Society (1987), in which Castoriadis set out to articulate his theory of the autonomous subject. For Castoriadis the subject is not completely self-producing; he or she must constitute themselves using the pre-existing resources of society. So revolutionary change can come only insofar as it is possible to increase one's autonomy in relation to these resources of the psyche. This was consistent with his earlier political writings that insisted neither capital nor the state could be entrusted with the control of society and that the only hope for socialism lay in the autonomy of the workers.

Castoriadis was a prolific writer until his untimely death. His writings have largely been translated into English. For an excellent cross section of his work see the three-volume work Political and Social Writings (1988–93).


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