Commune At 150 /// The Commune, Paris 1871

Written by Maurice Brinton and Phillipe Guillaume ||| May 1961


The Commune…from Marx to Trotsky

“Each time we study the history of the Commune we see something new in it, thanks to the experiences gained in later revolutionary struggles…” Thus wrote Trotsky in 1921, in his preface to a book about Tales which was to become basic reading for a whole generation of French revolutionaries (1).

The “tricks of History,” as Marx delighted to call them, have amply confirmed the correctness of Trotsky’s statement. We can now examine the Paris Commune in a new light – in the light precisely of the rich experience of Bolshevism and of Trotskyism. We mean, more specifically, in the light of their failure. Stated more concretely, the proletarian revolution of 1871 must now be re-evaluated in the light of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and of the positive lessons of the revolutionary struggle of the Hungarian Workers Councils in 1956 against bureaucratic society in which the means of production were completely “nationalized.”

Trotsky could hardly have foreseen these developments when he wrote his prophetic words in the heroic days of 1921. This however in no way detracts from their absolute correctness.

For Trotsky and Tales the great defect of the Commune was the absence of a revolutionary leadership. “The Commune,” Trotsky emphasized, shows us “the incapacity of the masses to choose their own path, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their fatal inclination to stop after their first successes…” How can this be overcome? Trotsky is quite explicit: “It is only through the help of the party, basing itself on the whole history of the past, theoretically foreseeing the paths of development and all itsb stages, and extracting from them the necessary formulas for action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need to constantly restart its own history…” He summarizes his views with his usual logic: “We can look, page by page, through the history of the Commune. We will find in it only a single lesson: there must be a strong Party leadership” (MB and PG emphasis).

The present generation of revolutionaries have lived through or studied the history of the last forty years, and have experienced all the ills that have flown from the hypertrophy and subsequent degeneration of such a “leadership” – even when it has proved victorious in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. They have witnessed its gradual separation from the masses and its steady conversion into a ruling group, as fundamentally opposed to the basic wishes of the masses themselves to administer society as any previous ruling group in history. For the revolutionaries of 1961 the Paris Commune of 1871 should be seen as an historical precursor of the essentially anti-bureaucratic mass movement that swept through Hungary in 1956. The measures taken by the Communards to prevent the emergence of a bureaucracy from within their own ranks were to be taken up again by the Budapest workers in 1956. Both revolutions posed the question of who was in reality to manage both production and society in no uncertain terms.

It is interesting to contrast the Bolshevik appreciation of the Commune with that of the Commune’s great contemporaries, Marx and Engels. In his Civil War in France, written as the last Communards were being slaughtered by the forces of the victorious Versaillese, Marx does not once attribute the defeat to the absence of a “strong Party leadership”. He is vastly impressed by its positive achievements. He describes the Commune as “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form, at last discovered, under which to work out the emancipation of of Labour.” He does not say that it was the Party who discovered this particular form, a form which neither he nor any other member of the First International had either foreseen or prepared for. The masses in struggle themselves created this form of organization, just as in 1905 they were themselves to create the Soviets, at first denounced by the Bolsheviks as “sectarian organizations.” There is no question of the party, or anyone else for that matter, “theoretically foreseeing the paths of development and all its stages…” Twenty years later, in 1891, Engels was to write, “what is still more wonderful is the correctness of much that was done by the Commune composed as it was Blanquists and Proudhonists” (2). In other words the everyday experience of the masses impelled them to take measures of a class character. They generated their own social consciousness, assisted but not dictated to by conscious revolutionaries of various kinds.

The Commune was militarily crushed, having held power for just over two years months. Its defeat was an extremely bloody one. It is scarcely surprising that Trotsky, president in October 1917 of the Revolutionary War Committee in Petrograd, brilliant military strategist and creator of the Red Army, should have been exasperated by the Commune’s lack of military success, by its vacillations, by the “inefficiency” of a number of its leaders and by its total lack of a clearly thought-out military policy, when confronted by a cynical bourgeoisie prepared ruthlessly to destroy it and to “restore order for a generation.”

What is less permissible however is that the same Trotsky should have lent military authority to Tales’s effort systematically to denigrate the most creative and positive aspects of the Paris Commune. But the real culprit here is not even Tales. It is Bolshevism and Trotskyism themselves. If as they tell us, “the crisis of society is the crisis of revolutionary leadership”, it is easy to equate the history of the Commune with the history of its leadership. From this postulate everything flows quite logically…and in particular the defeat of the Commune! Or so they would have us believe!

History, on this basis, becomes an easy subject. The social composition and the prevailing ideologies of the Central Committee of the National Guard and the Commune itself were extremely diverse. The predominating influence was that of the radical, patriotic, anti-clerical petit-bourgeoisie. The members of the First International lacked ideological clarity. The Blanquists, the most determined revolutionaries and the ones most prepared to struggle, lacked any positive social conceptions. To these facts should be added the backward structure of the Parisian proletariat of the time. Industrial concentration, which had been achieved many years previously in the textile mills of Manchester and which was to be achieved some decades later by the Russian proletariat in the great Putilov works in Petrograd was only just beginning in Paris (3).

But such an emphasis on the leadership of the Commune immediately leads to an insoluble contradiction. If history is an account of the achievements or shortcomings of revolutionary leaderships, how can we explain that the Commune, with its petty-bourgeois leaderships, was capable of introducing to the modern world the most advanced conceptions of proletarian democracy? Why did Marx refer to it as “the glorious harbinger of a new society?” Why did Engels state that the measures taken by the Communards would, in the last resort, have led “to the abolition of class antagonism between capitalists and workers”? Why did he taunt the Social-Democratic philistines with his famous “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!”

The Commune introduced the eligibility and revocability of all officials and the payment to them of working men’s salaries. These are profoundly revolutionary measures. Their application will inevitably undermine and destroy any bourgeois (or bureaucratic) state machine. These demands introduce complete popular domination of the civil administration, of the army and judiciary. They lead to the creation, from below, of a completely new kind of social organization. The October Revolution, in its early days, sought to implement these demands. The developing Stalinist bureaucracy sought to ruthlessly destroy them. Nearly a century after they were first put forward by the Communards, they still form the basis of all genuinely revolutionary struggles.

Marx stated that the Communards had “stormed heaven”. Tales explains that the story of the Commune is the story of the failure of a radical-anarchist-petty-bourgeois leadership! His “explanation” is also peddled today by the crudest Stalinists. This is no accident. In March 1961 during the ninetieth anniversary celebrations in Paris, Garaudy, Stalinist senator for the Seine department and university pen pusher in the cause of Stalinism (completely unknown in England…and rightly so), declared: “The greatest lesson of the Commune is that the working class can only overcome its enemies under the leadership of a revolutionary party. It is essential to grasp this fundamental precondition of revolutionary victories at a time when some people under the pretext of a creative development of Marxism-Leninism are leading us back to the worst illusions of pre-Marxist socialism, to petty bourgeois anarchism, to Proudhonism, or to Blanquist adventurism…” Sundry Trotskyists and non-Trotskyists Leninists would agree with every word of this. In doing so they reveal themselves to be worthy successors of those Marx castigated as “mere bawlers, who by dint of repeating year after year the same set of stereotyped declamations…have sneaked into the reputation of revolutionists of the first water.”

How did it come about, we could ask these gentlemen (or at least those of them who refuse to accept that Russia is not in any sense a socialist society) that in the twentieth century all revolutionary movements, despite their repeated victories over and expropriations of the bourgeoisie, and despite the drastic changes they have introduced in the property relations, have failed to bring about socialism, that is a fundamental change in the relations of production, in the relation of man to man in his labour and in his social life?

To answer this question one needs a very different conception of history than that of Tales or of the Bolsheviks. A serious study of the Commune, which we cannot here undertake in full, will suggest some of the answers. The real history of the Commune is the history of the masses themselves, struggling for fundamentally different conditions of existence, and not primarily the history of leadership. Seen in this light the history of the Commune has still be written.

The Commune: A Creation of the people

The workers, artisans and ordinary people of the period did not conceive of social life, least of all their own, in terms of universal concepts, but in terms of action. Nine workers out of ten still do so today. Action is their language. It is in fact the only language of which they have acquired complete mastery. For intellectuals words are often a substitute for action. For workers, actions are a form of speech. To add to revolutionary theory in the course of revolutionary action is the essential task of the revolutionary proletariat (4). This was the immortal contribution to revolutionary theory of the Parisian workers in 1871 and their successors, the Hungarian workers of 1956. Such was the language of the Commune, which socialists must now attempt to decipher.

The decisive date in the history of the Commune is March 18 1871. Thiers sees the armed workers of Paris as his main obstacle to the conclusion of a peace treaty with Bismarck, and as a potential danger for the whole of bourgeois France. He decides to send ‘loyal’ battalions to remove the cannons held by the National Guard at Montmartre, Butte, Chaumont and Belleville, cannons bought by public subscription during the siege. The operation starts successfully in the early hours of the morning. After a little firing the guns at Montmartre are captured. But time passes. The operation has been bureaucratically and inefficiently planned. The necessary gun-carriages don’t arrive to remove the captured guns. The crowd begins to grow. Women, children, old people mingle with the troops . The National Guard, hastily summoned, arrives. An extraordinary confusion reigns. Some soldiers of the 88th regiment start talking to the Guard. When General Lecomte, losing his head, orders his troops to open fire, it is already too late. The soldiers refuse to fire, turn their rifle butts up, join with the people. The language of acts has been heard. Soldiers and civilians have fraternized.

But acts have a logic of their own. The soldiers have compromised themselves. They take General Lecomte as a hostage. A little late General Thomas, “the butcher of 1848”, is spotted in the crowd. Tempers mount. Both generals are shot by their own soldiers (5).

Thiers orders the withdrawal from the town of the standing Army. There is a precipitous retreat, in complete confusion, to Versailles. The major part of the civilian administration, government officials, senior officials in charge of food supplies, of the post, of lighting, of sewerage, of public assistance, of public health and of the thousand and one other aspects of life in a big city, leave Paris precipitously in the course of the next few days. An enormous social vacuum is created. Everything has to be created anew, from next to nothing, from below. And a war has to be fought at the same time.

We must dispose of the myth, which has gained much credence in the Bolshevik circles, that alone a revolutionary Party would have had the “correct answers” at such a moment. “If there had been in Paris a Party leadership”, Trotsky wrote, “it would have incorporated in the retreating armies…a hundred or a few dozen devoted workers giving them the following directives: work up the discontent of the soldiers against their officers and take advantage of the first psychologically favourable moment to break the soldiers from their officers and bring them back to Paris to unite with the people.”

Trotsky speaks with the wisdom of hindsight and somewhat distorts the real facts. Tales himself tells us that “March 18…started by the collective and anonymous action of the masses and ended in acts of individual initiative, isolated militants rallying the support of (local) committees of the National Guard.” On March 19 leading Blanquists such as Eudes and Duval “proposed an immediate march on Versailles” but their proposals “encountered no echo on the Central Committee.” A far sighted minority had a fairly clear idea of what was required. That the majority were not at stage prepared to follow their advice was a regrettable fact, but was also an objective element in the real situation. To argue that “if there had been a revolutionary Party, this or that would have followed” is like arguing that “if my aunt had…she would be my uncle.”

What of the creativity of the Commune? What were its prevailing moods and the level of consciousness of its participants? These are clearly enumerated in Engels’s 1891 introduction to Marx’s The Civil In France. We don’t apologise for reproducing the relevant passage, in full:

“On March 30 the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared the sole armed force to be the National Guard. in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April, the amounts already paid to be booked as future rent payments, and stopped all sales of articles pledged in the municipal loan office. On the same day the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because of “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic.” On April 1 it was decided that the highest salary to be received by any employee of the Commune, and therefore also by its members themselves, was not to exceed 6,000 francs…On the following day the Commune decreed the separation of the church from the state, and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all church property into national property; as a result of which, April 8, the exclusion from the school of all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers – in a word, “of all that belongs to the sphere of individual’s conscience” – was ordered and gradually put into effect. On the 5th, in reply to the shooting, day after day, of captured Commune fighters by the Versailles troops, a decree was issued for the imprisonment of hostages, but it was never carried into execution. On the 6th, the guillotine was brought out by the 137th battalion of the National Guard, and publicly burnt, amid great rejoicing. On the 12th, the Commune decided that the Viceroy Column on the Place Vendome, which had been cast from captured guns by Napoleon after the war of 1809, should be demolished as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. This was carried out on May 16. On April 16 it ordered a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed down by the manufacturers, and the working out of plans for the operation of these factories by the workers formerly employed in them, who were to be organized in co-operative societies in one great union. On the 20th it abolished night work for bakers, and also the employment offices, which since the Second Empire had been run as a monopoly by creatures appointed by the police – labour exploiters of the first rank; these offices were transferred to the mayoralties of the twenty arrondissemonts of Paris. On April 30 it ordered the closing of the pawnshops, on the ground that they were the private exploitation of the workers, and were in contradiction with the right of workers to their instruments of labour and to credit. On May 5 it ordered the razing of the Chapel of Atonement, which had been built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI.

Thus from March 18 onwards the class character of the Paris movement, which had previously been pushed into the background by the fight against the foreign invaders, emerged sharply and clearly. As almost only workers, or recognized representatives of the workers, sat in the Commune, its decisions bore a decidedly proletarian character” (Marx).

The Commune was born of the exasperation provoked by the prolonged siege of Paris and the disgust engendered by its capitulation without a fight. Nationalist or even chauvinist feeling might have been strong in the Paris of 1871. Yet the Commune “admitted all foreigners to the honour of dying for an immortal cause” and made a German working man, Leo Frankel, its Minister of Labour. It “honoured the sons of Poland by placing them at the head of the defenders of Paris” (Marx) (6).

Much has been made the advocates of the “hegemony of the Party” of the fact that few, if any, of the social measures taken by the Commune were consciously socialist ones. To accept that they were would of course deny the exclusive function of the Party, that of bringing “socialist consciousness” to the working class. What did the Communards think of their own activities? The very first proclamation of the Central Committee of the National Guard, on March 18, said: “The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures treasons of the ruling class, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation, by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs…they have understood that it is their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.” We would suggest that this reveals an extremely high degree of political consciousness, a degree which was again to be achieved by the Hungarian workers in 1956. One of the essential reasons of the degeneration of the Russian revolution was that the Russian masses were unable to sustain this degree of revolutionary consciousness for more than a few months. Under the mistaken belief that they could “leave it to the Party” which they had themselves created out of their flesh and blood, they retreated from the historical arena. The bureaucratic degeneration set in with the Party as its nucleus.

Marx himself was aware of the importance of self conscious activity. He refers to “the new era of history” which the Commune “was conscious of initiating.” The great positive achievements of the Commune were no isolated or artificial gestures, but were measures reflecting the popular will and determined by it. Tales, our “Bolshevik” historian, makes fun of the love of the masses, at the time, for what he calls “symbolic acts.” To illustrate his point he quotes the destruction of the monuments. This is because he has never understood this language of acts, through which ordinary people express themselves. When it pulled down the Vendome Column, which Marx referred to as a “colossal symbol of martial glory”, the crowd was expressing in actions the very notion which completes internationalism, namely anti-militarism.

The Meaning of the Commune

Almost every measure taken by the Commune can be explained through an understanding of the deepest daily experiences of the masses. Such was decree limiting to 6,000 francs a year the top salary paid to any member of the revolutionary government (incidentally, such a salary was in practice ever received by anyone). Such also was the decree stipulating that workshops abandoned by the employers should be taken over by then working class organizations and run by them, for the workers themselves.

These two measures were among the most characteristic taken by the Commune. Bolsheviks have argued interminably on the compensation clause. Today we realise how academic such a discussion really is. What the workers felt at the time was the importance of themselves managing production and distribution. As long as they managed what mattered indemnity to the previous owners, an indemnity whose effects would be restricted in time in time anyway? Ninety years later the Chinese bureaucracy was to discover all this anew…and in its own interests. Having bureaucratically ensured to itself the effective management of industry, it allowed itself the luxury of compensation – and even at times even of employing – the previous owners as salaried executives!

Marx was quite conscious of these deep going aspects of the Commune. “When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands,” he wrote, “when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their ‘natural superiors’ and under the circumstances of unexampled difficulty performed their work modestly, conscientiously and efficiently…the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour, floating over the Hotel de Ville.” The distance separating this evaluation of the role of the Commune and that of Trotsky who saw the “only lesson” of the Commune to be the need for “a strong Party leadership” could hardly be greater!

As for the strivings of the Commune towards an equalization of wages, and its demands for the eligibility and revocability of all representatives, they reflect a fundamental preoccupation with the question of destroying at its very roots the hierarchical organization of society.

Since then much has been written and said about “soviets” and “workers councils.” But it would seem the real nature of these new forms of social life has been forgotten by those who stand in admiration before their bureaucratic caricatures. Discussing the Commune Marx wrote:

“Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the People in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for workmen and managers in their business. And it is well known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally know how to put the right man in the right place, and, if they for once make a mistake, to redress it promptly…Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchic investiture” (Marx).

“Hierarchic investiture!” Here is the hub of the whole problem. How is the hierarchical structure of society to be destroyed and superseded? The Commune showed in its acts how this was to be done. At all levels, all functionaries and officials were to be elected. And all were to be removable by those who elected them!

Direct election and immediate revocability are clearly not panaceas for the solution of all problems. But in themselves they carry the seed for the most profound transformation of society. An officer or a magistrate whom one elects and whom one controls at all times is already no longer fully an officer or a magistrate. This is the yardstick by which one can begin to measure the “withering away of the state.” The real content of this withering away is precisely the progressive elimination of hierarchical investiture and of hierarchical institutions.

Engels was quite emphatic on this question. Again referring to the Commune he stated “the working class must…safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception subject to recall at any moment” (our emphasis).

There has been much misunderstanding about the significance of the “communal” regime, some of it patently dishonest. Thus Trotsky, correctly criticizing some of the leaders of the Commune, could give vent to his sarcasm: “Paris, you see, is but one commune among many others. Paris does not wish to impose anything on anyone. Paris dos not struggle for anything other than the ‘dictatorship of example.'” But he continues quite wrongly: “The Commune was but an attempt to replace the developing proletarian revolution with by a petty-bourgeois reform: communal autonomy. This idealist chatter, of the type indulged by parlour anarchists, was in reality a cover for cowardice when confronted with revolutionary action which needed to be carried out ceaselessly and to the end…” (7). Marx had seen deeper than this. He pointed out that the Commune had (already in May 1871!) been subjected to a “multiplicity of interpretations” but that its essential features were that it was “a working class government” and “a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive.”

The most significant aspect, however, of the Paris Commune is that it created social forms which in a sense define socialism itself, social forms which serve as yardsticks for proletarian revolutions passed, present and to come. These forms provide criteria for analyzing the social nature of any particular regime. Nearly a century later, societies can still be looked at according to the categories established by the Paris Commune. And it is most revealing how clearly things fall into proper perspective when one confronts the Russian and Chinese realities of today with the first, short, hesitant experience in 1871 of a genuinely proletarian revolution and of genuine working class power.

Paris 1871-Hungary 1956

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is seen in a completely new light when looked at with the experience of 1871 in mind.

There are both superficial and deep analogies. The central facts of the Hungarian revolution were firstly the active participation of the masses and secondly the anti-bureaucratic and anti-hierarchical of the most spontaneous and deepest going demands of the working class, demands which emerged more and more clearly as the Workers Councils became the sole revolutionary force, in the later stages of the struggle.

In the first stages of both revolutions one sees the civilian crowds, women, children, old people massively erupt on to the scene. Their total participation paralyzes for a while the intervention of the enemy. In both revolutions temporary conditions exist for genuine fraternization.

The Hungarian workers in 1956 immediately put forward demands for workers’ management of the factory, for a drastic reduction in the wage differential and for the abolition of piece rates. Like the Parisians they get straight down to the essentials. Managers are elected and subjected to continuous, direct control. It matters less, in this respect, that a number of the previous managers were re-elected. What is essential is the radical transformation of all existing relations between men.

On a more tragic plane, in their fate each revolution resembles one another. In both cases it is a desperate, bitter struggle, fought out street by street, to the last drop of blood, without compromise, without submission, as only men can fight who know what they are fighting for and who have themselves determined the objectives of their struggle. Despite military defeat, which the revolutionaries in both circumstances came to see as more or less inevitable, it was a timeless ideal they fought for, an ideal to be defended unconditionally, in a fight in which inevitable death was almost welcomed as a release.

In both revolutions the threatened classes resorted to bloody repression. This was done with the calculated ferocity which ruling classes resort to when their most fundamental prerogative is threatened, namely their right to rule. The iron fist then emerges from the velvet glove. Class society reveals itself in its true colours – as the perpetual, systematized, organization of violence by the minority against the immense majority. That Thiers was “more liberal” than Napoleon III is about as relevant in this respect as the fact that Khruschev was “more liberal” than Stalin.

During both civil wars moreover, bystanders stood cynically on the side lines (Bismarck and Eisenhower) protesting at the use of so much violence, and forgetting that this class violence was but an image of their own.

The tragic defeat of the Hungarian revolution, like the tragic defeat of the Paris Commune, both call for reflection. Their lessons are innumerable. The need for an efficient co-ordination and for an organization capable of ensuring it should be obvious to all. But what kind of organization? How is it to be evolved? What are its relationships to the masses? This is the whole question. When we speak of organization we mean an organization evolved through struggles by the communes, by the soviets, by the workers councils themselves.

In his preface to the book by Tales, mentioned at the beginning, Trotsky wrote:

“Before the broad masses of the soldiers can acquire the experience of well choosing and selecting commanders, the revolution will be beaten by the enemy, who is guided in the choice of his commanders by the experience of centuries. The methods of amorphous democracy (simple eligibility) must be supplemented and to a certain degree replaced by measures of selection from above. The revolution must create an organ composed of experienced, reliable organizers in which one (8) can have absolute confidence, and give it full powers to choose, designate and educate the command” (Trotsky).

In this last quotation from Trotsky two little words epitomise, in a way, the whole subsequent degeneration of the great proletarian revolution of 1917: the words “from above.” No one denies the need for selection, particularly in so crucial a field as the field of armed struggle, to which the whole fate of the revolution is tied. Obviously the command must be selected. Training, aptitudes, experiences vary enormously. The proletarian heritage is heterogenous in the extreme. But is a question of selection from below.

Selection from above has a remarkable tendency to transform itself from the exception to the rule. it is carried over by its own momentum, from wartime into peace time. It spreads from the regiment into the factory. from the barracks it invades the factories involved in war work and the workers councils themselves. From the military “High Command” it takes a brisk step into the “High Command” of the Party. It becomes systematized. It becomes the “hierarchic investiture” of which Marx spoke and which is one of the essential features of all class society. And as the principle proceeds on its way the masses soon retreat from the historical arena, leaving it to others who “are more efficient”, who “know better”, to act “on their behalf.” The degeneration has begun. The seeds of the Stalinist regime are sown: the co-option of the bureaucracy by the bureaucracy itself. Engels was almost prophetic in his foresight when he insisted that “all officials, without exception, must be subject to recall at any moment.”

A new generation of young revolutionaries must now seriously turn the lessons of the Paris Commune and the lessons of the great contemporary analogue, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Scattered, misinterpreted, deliberately misused for ends that are not the ends of the Revolution, the basic documents of both are to be found by those wishing to find them (9). They should be studied. Both revolutions are of fundamental importance to the socialist movement, and to an understanding of the class struggle in our epoch.

SOLIDARITY, 1, 6, (May 1961).


(1) C. Tales La Commune de 1871 (Paris: Libraire du Travail, 1924).

(2) Engels introduction to Marx’s The Civil War In France (1872).

(3) “In 1886, at the apogee of Parisian expansion in this period, the total population was 1,825,274. There were 570,280 workshops (as against 64,816 in 1847 and 101,171 in 1860), owned by 65,987 masters, employing only 442,310 workers (besides 34,846 clerks and 23,251 servants). This meant that the average number of workers per shop was only 7.7 sinking from 13 in the building and metal trades to 1.4 in the food industry. By far the largest number were employed in the garment industry: 306,567 (208,675 women); and building owing to Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of the capital, employed most men, 125,371 (63,675 women); and the various luxury industries, upon which the repute and prosperity of Paris mainly depended, employed 63,617 workers. In all, workers (468,337) and their dependents (286,670) made up about 40 per cent of the population of Paris” (F. Jellinek, The Paris Commune of 1871 (London: Gollancz, 1937).

(4) The idea revolutionary theory is something static, enshrined once and for all in the writings of the four great teachers, something to be derived from the study of books, and the idea that socialist consciousness has to be brought to the proletariat ‘from outside’ (Lenin) by the bourgeois intelligentsia, which is the “vehicle of science” (Kautsky), are both profoundly reactionary and profoundly anti-dialectical, in the deepest sense of the term.

(5) As Marx so clearly put it: “the inveterate habits acquired by the soldiery under the training of the enemies of the working class, are not of course likely to change, the very moment these soldiers change sides.”

(6) Dombrowski and Wroblewski.

(7) Trotsky’s introduction to Tales La Commune de 1871.

(8) Who is this anonymous and mysterious “one”? Who is to bestow “absolute confidence” in the revolutionary organ and the revolutionary organizers? Is it the masses? Is it the Party “acting in the interests of the masses”? Is it the Party leaders “acting in the interests of the Party” as a whole? Is Trotsky’s ambiguity on this point entirely accidental?

(9) See R.W. Postgate Revolution From 1789-1906 (London 1920) and Socialisme ou Barbarie Vol IV, Nos 20 and 21.


Paths And Bridges Afterword 2021 /// Commune At 150

Only a few words of brief commentary are necessary here. Firstly Brinton and Guillaume’s account of the Paris Commune leans heavily on Marx and Engels for its appreciation of the Commune’s historic significance. Solidarity was only months old when this joint article appeared and the group was yet to ditch Marxism for full fledged libertarian socialism. Not that repudiating Marxism inevitably meant casting Marx aside in his entirety. It was Marx after all who famously declared he was not a Marxist as Marxists of many different hues remind us ad nauseam without quite taking Marx at his word.

Despite our authors ‘enthusiasm’ for Marx aspects of the latter’s analysis and role are overlooked. Marx and Engels were superior observers of the Commune than Trotsky and the Third International (as Brinton and Guillaume show all the resources of half a century of scholarship didn’t immunise Trotsky against offering anachronistic banalities such as the ‘fateful’ absence of centralised revolutionary party). But Marx and Engels were also active in trying to build solidarity and support for the Commune and influence its leaders during its existence. From England they both communicated with leading figures in the Commune like Leo Frankel and Louis Varlin.

Marx and Engels pushed the IWMA’s General Council to embrace the Commune and take a lead in organising solidarity in Europe and North America during its short life and to organise aid to refugees fleeing the vengeful bloodletting when the Commune was crushed. The IWMA’s GC issued a number of addresses against the Franco-Prussian war, appealing to proletarian internationalism and for fraternization among French and German workers. Over the months various GC addresses appeared in the in British newspapers and the press in Geneva, Zurich, Augsburg, Vienna and New York. Letters urging support for the Commune were also sent to various prominent public figures like Thomas Huxley and John Stuart Mill.

But it’s Marx’s political judgements about the Commune that are best known and these can be reduced to two related conclusions: firstly, the Commune was the first historical instance of the political rule of the working class and, secondly, the Commune marked a new historical era when the revolution would no longer aim to lay hold of, or perfect the bureaucratic state machine but instead break it up and replace it with political forms that were more democratic because they went beyond representative democracy. There is no space to explore the fate of this idea in the classical workers movement, what it meant in practical terms or whether it was viable other than note the idea of breaking up the existing bureaucratic state machine would not be fully articulated again until 1912 when Karl Kautsky (the leading intellectual authority of Marxism and the German SPD) defended the primacy of the SPD’s parliamentary path to power against Anton Pannekoek who appealed to Marx’s Commune lessons to underline his own case that aspiring to take over the state machine or waiting to achieve a parliamentary majority without mass strikes and the maximum mobilisation of workers, was a fatalist recipe that could only result in defeat of the workers movement. Clearly we – and the contemporary revolution – are distant from such strategic arguments conducted in a world that is long gone.

So Marx considered the Commune to be a harbinger of the ‘Social Republic’ – its “true Secret” despite a “multiplicity of interests” claiming it for their own, was that it was at heart a “working class government.” Marx observed the revolution did not always take place in ideal circumstances. The violence the Commune attracted from the camp of reaction could never be an argument against revolution or embarking on struggle despite the danger of reprisals. This is an argument that resonates today in our social universe if we recall the counter-revolutionary headwinds faced by the ‘Arab Spring’ since 2011 especially in Syria or the great odds oppositions face challenging powerfully entrenched authoritarianism like Belarus or Myanmar where the sheer murderous scale of the violence the state can unleash, greatly hampers social rebellion, feeding the phenomena of the arrested revolution where the potential space for grassroots or participatory democracy to appear, is severely curtailed. In an age where revolution has long lost its elan and global apocalypse is easier to imagine than progressive social transformation, repression renders it even more difficult for revolution to fully announce itself or reflexively set out goals or articulate a vision.

Finally, the Commune might be an unexpected model in our age – or at least aspects of the Commune if not Marx’s ‘Social Republic’ – where the socialist goal has disappeared with the eclipse of the traditional workers movement but rebellions and revolutions which ‘perplex’ the traditional left, still miraculously occur. That they do so is in no way a vindication of Marxism but does throw up many questions for social movements and radical politics. These are are just some of the themes Paths and Bridges visits in a forthcoming post Is The Revolution Dead?

18 March 2021

Commune At 150 /// Theses On The Paris Commune

Guy Debord, Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem || 18 March 1962

Translated by Ken Knabb | |


“The classical workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, because all they have inherited is failure. The apparent successes of the movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future” (Internationale Situationnist no.7).*


The Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they have become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of “governmental” politics as on the level of their everyday life. (Consider for example, the games everyone played with their weapons: they were in fact playing with power). It is also in this sense that Marx should be understood when he says that “the most important social measure of the Commune was its own existence in acts.”**


Engels’s remark, “Look at the Paris Commune – that was the dictatorship of the proletariat,” should be taken seriously in order to reveal what the dictatorship of the proletariat is not (the various forms of state dictatorship over the proletariat in the name of the proletariat).


It has been easy to make justified criticisms of the Commune’s obvious lack of a coherent organizational structure. But as the problem of political structures seems far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be, it is time that we examine the Commune not just as an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism, all of whose mistakes can easily be overcome, but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled.


The Commune had no leaders. And this at a time when the idea of the necessity of leaders was universally accepted in the workers movement. This is the first reason for its paradoxical successes and failures. The official organizers of the Commune were incompetent (compared with Marx or Lenin or even Blanqui). But on the other hand, the various “irresponsible” acts of that moment are precisely what is needed for the continuation of the revolutionary movement of our time (even if the circumstances restricted almost all those acts to the purely destructive level – the most famous example being the rebel who, when a suspect bourgeois insisted that he had never had anything to do with politics, replied, “That’s precisely why I’m going to kill you”).


The vital importance of the general arming of the people was manifested practically and symbolically from the beginning to the end of the movement. By and large the right to impose popular will by force was not surrendered and left to any specialized detachments. This exemplary autonomy of the armed groups had its unfortunate flip side in their lack of co-ordination: at no point in the offensive or defensive struggle against Versailles did the people’s forces attain military effectiveness. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Spanish revolution was lost – as, in the final analysis, was the civil war itself – in the name of such a transformation into a “republican army.” The contradiction between autonomy and co-ordination would seem to have been largely related to the technological level of the period.



The Commune represents the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to date – attacking on the spot the petrified signs of the dominant organization of life, understanding social peace in political terms, refusing to accept the innocence of any monument. Anyone who disparages this attack as some “lumpenproletarian nihilism”, some “irresponsibility of the petroleuses,” should specify what he believes to be of positive value in the present society and worth preserving (it will turn out to be almost everything). “All space is already occupied by the enemy…Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics” (“Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism” Internationale Situationniste no.6).


The Paris Commune succumbed less to the force of arms than to the force of habit. The most scandalous practical example was the refusal to use cannons to seize the French National Bank when money was so desperately needed. During the entire existence of the Commune the bank remained a Versailles enclave in Paris, defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property and theft. The other ideological habits proved in every respect equally disastrous (the resurrection of Jacobinism, the defeatist strategy of barricades in memory of 1848, etc).


The Commune shows how those who defend the old world always benefit in one way or another from the complicity of revolutionaries – particularly of those revolutionaries who merely think about revolution, and who turn out to still think like the defenders. In this way the old world retains bases (ideology, language, customs, tastes) among its enemies, and uses them to reconquer the terrain it has lost. (Only the thought-in-acts natural to the revolutionary proletariat escapes it irrevocably: the Tax Bureau went up in flames). The real “fifth column” is in the very minds of revolutionaries.


The story of the arsonists who during the final days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find it defended by an armed battalion of Commune artists, is a richly provocative example of direct democracy. It gives an idea of the kind of problems that will need to be resolved in the perspective of the power of the councils. Were those artists right to defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values – and in the final analysis, in the name of museum culture – while other people wanted to express themselves then and there by making this destruction symbolize their absolute defiance of a society that, in its moment of triumph, was about to consign their entire lives to silence and oblivion? The artist partisans of the Commune, acting as specialists, already found themselves in conflict with an extremist form of struggle against alienation. The Communards must be criticised for not having dared to answer the totalitarian terror of power with the use of the totality of their weapons. Everything indicates that the poets were simply wiped out. The Commune’s mass of unaccomplished acts enabled its tentative actions to be turned into “atrocities” and their memory to be censored. Saint-Just’s remark, “Those who make the revolution half way dig their own graves”, also explains his own silence.


Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement from a divinely omniscient viewpoint (like that found in classical novels) can easily demonstrate that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the consummation was already there.


The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the solidarity of all the common assumptions that it blasted to pieces. The profound solidarity of presently prevailing assumptions (right and left) give us an idea of the inventiveness we can expect of a comparable explosion today.


The social war of which the Commune was one episode is still being fought today (though its superficial conditions have changed considerably). In the task of “making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune” (Engels), the last word has yet to be said.


For almost twenty years in France the Stalinists and the leftist Christians have agreed, in memory of their anti-German national front, to stress the element of national disarray and offended patriotism in the Commune. (According to the current Stalinist line, “the French people petitioned to be better governed” and were finally driven to desperate measures by the treachery of the unpatriotic right wing of the bourgeoisie). In order to refute this pious nonsense it would suffice to consider the role played by all the foreigners who came to fight for the Commune. As Marx said, the Commune was the inevitable battle, the climax of 23 years of struggle in Europe by “our party.”

Debord, Kotanyi and Vaneigem


Paths and Bridges Afterword 2021 |||

This Paths and Bridges post of the Situationist International’s Theses On The Paris Commune is the first in a series of notable articles on the great Commune for our Commune At 150 anniversary series which falls on March 18. We make no apologies for sharing the SI’s brilliant gnomic Theses which are packed with insights in their fourteen theses as well as revealing something of certain intransigent style of revolutionary romanticism whose sources have historically faded.

As many readers will know the Paris Commune – formed by the Parisian working class and poor – lasted just over two months from 18 March to 28 May before it was bloodily suppressed. We consider the Commune to be a notable chapter not only in working class or socialist history but also profoundly relevant to the struggle for autonomy and radical democracy in our own time.


A few specific remarks on the SI’s Theses On The Paris Commune (1965) are in order if only to clarify some points. This is a good moment to ask if the Commune still exists today? Is the Commune, or something like it, still a realistic goal? My tentative answer is both yes and no (or a heavily qualified yes). Perhaps the Commune is no more than a ghostly revenant of a fleetingly brief past event of interest only to ‘antiquarians.’ Yet it is possible something like the Commune is trying to be born in Belarus, Thailand, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Sudan, Lebanon or elsewhere.

In our recent past the Commune might have been trying to make an appearance during the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, or Bahrain. Certainly aspects of the ‘Syrian Spring’ closely resemble the Commune 150 years ago from the role of embattled revolutionary urban centres (Aleppo, Homs and so on), to the brief green shoots of participatory democracy and finally the frightful counter-revolutionary violence mobilised by domestic and foreign reaction working together hand in glove. In this connection Franz Borkenau suggested the crushing of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s was the apotheosis of a certain trend in the development of the classical revolution ended by the age of fascism when domestic and international counter-revolution was able to unite in a destructive alliance preventing the revolution’s ‘internal unfolding.’ In a sense internationalism gravitated toward reaction. Whether or not we agree with Borkenau’s fear of the heightened significance of the geo-political context meaning revolution becomes the object of international reaction (surely true from modernity’s onset?), it’s clear contemporary revolution’s face greater adversity because of the growth of the modern state’s firepower.

More importantly we can think of the Paris Commune as both the Commune and not the Commune. The Commune is not the model it was assumed to be. The Commune has been the object of near universal incomprehension: fearful hysteria at one pole animating counter-revolutionary violence (though Marx and Debord would no doubt have insisted the Commune’s enemies understood the Commune perfectly well – perhaps better than the Communards themselves) but also what Maurice Brinton described as the “Balkanisation of utopia”: a selective elevation and veneration which assumed the Commune prefigured the world socialist revolution.

So the Paris Commune was not a singular possibility in the sense of today’s radical (but tacitly plangent) call to arms of ‘Another World Is Possible!’ but rather a multitude of possibilities – possibilities that were bloodily suppressed and lost to oblivion. Paradoxically the disappearance of the socialist goal in our era has not meant the end of revolution. Revolutions still happen but the revolution ‘perplexes’ the traditional left because it doesn’t fit the old models or templates (as Yassin al-Haj Saleh also recently observed). The modern revolution long ago shed the gravitas and historical sweep of the Great Revolutions which helped give birth to, and define modernity. An example? The historical moment when Progress as viable goal or horizon is now long past. It seems the revolution today has blank spaces and is missing steps while social struggles are rarely consummated and have to begin again after a period of disoriented groping. Lacking the elan of the Great Revolution’s (the American and the French revolutions or even their Dutch or English prequels) in a world addicted to apocalypse but largely indifferent to dramatic or progressive social transformations, contemporary revolution often arrives abruptly and departs again like a furtive tsunami. Incomplete, perplexing, destructive and leaving few traces – we could be describing the Paris Commune.

The tenuous threads linking the Paris Commune to these modern ‘perplexing’ revolutions isn’t obvious. Previously in the age of the classical workers movement, the Second International and the moment of Leninism – the Paris Commune was retrospectively read through the optic of a particular understanding of historical development, the formation of the working class globally as a class-for-itself, embodying a new collective social order and so on. Linking the Commune to present day battles to defend or extend democracy and the rest, is perhaps a more valid position. We would suggest there is continuity in terms of the weak telos of autonomy (as I describe it) – the struggle to defend or extend the circumference of freedom and autonomy, to extend democracy throughout the world that takes many different forms. Clearly what used to be called the Social Question (social justice) is, in the final analysis, a part of that struggle but primarily because autonomy implies and rests on social equality and vice versa.

So we would conclude by repeating that what remains of relevance today in the Commune’s record are those aspects that were obscured by those who promoted “the Balkanisation of utopia” (Maurice Brinton) mentioned above, those who saw the Commune as a strong link in a historically unfolding chain of events or global narrative with the working class at its heart as Marxism did. If the ‘system’ is a global system at some level, imposing a certain genetic logic of the whole on the parts, it is also true the social, history or whatever, are not ‘closed’ but radically open: there are many locales and spaces, multiple modernities as S.N. Eisenstadt insisted, and that implies many paths (and destinations). Maurice Brinton caught this insight in a slightly different context but it’s worth quoting:

“There is no road to utopia, no one organisation, or prophet, or Party, destined to lead the masses to the Promised Land. There is no one historically determined, no single vision of a different and new society, no solitary economic panacea that will do away with the alienation of man from his fellow men and from the products of his own activity.”

(Maurice Brinton The Balkanisation of Utopia 1965)

We return in more detail to these and similar themes in a forthcoming Paths and Bridges post Is The Revolution Dead?

Julian Alford


*Above we observed the Paris Commune was incomplete, full of possibilities or potentials which never had a chance to run their course, to succeed or fail, to be trialled or discarded as practical living experiments. In the first theses Debord et al judge the Commune’s failures were its greatest successes, presumably in part because of the unprecedented character of its acts and the vaulting ambition animating those acts. As Marx famously expressed the idea: “the greatest social measure of the Commune was its own existence in acts.” Yet as Len Bracken summarises the common balance sheet of the Commune’s so-called failures – lack of leadership, absence of revolutionary decisiveness (“those who make the revolution half way dig their own graves” Saint-Just – see the tenth theses), primitivism and the other criticisms levelled at the Commune by Social Democracy and Bolshevism, all look far less damning in light of the ‘failures’ these two traditions.

Perhaps the ‘primitivism’ of the Commune might contain some elements of an antidote to the stubborn problem of bureaucracy and the division between leaders and led that has sorely afflicted workers movements since the beginning of the twentieth century? Yet the issue of bureaucracy as a contemporary problem is likely to be far more intractable than this sunny judgement implies partly because of the point reached by social complexity and social differentiation in our era but also because the idea of global workers movement embodying a social and political agenda for radically transforming society seems to have run its course. As we essentially argued above, any vision of the role of labour movements in progressive politics or radical democracy or autonomy, must strike a far more modest orientation than has hitherto been the case.

**The second theses contains the brilliant apercu claiming the Commune was the “greatest festival of the nineteenth century.” This insight was at the centre of an unpleasant dispute between the SI (Debord in practice) and Henri Lefebvre. The fourteen theses appeared in Lefebvre’s book on the Commune without the acknowledgement they were written by Debord, Kotanyi and Vaneigem. So the SI blasted Lefebvre for plagiarism. Yet such claims were “bad faith” according to Lefebvre’s sadly wistful memory of the five years of close personal relations and intellectual exchange between him and Debord’s circle. The evidence of mutual intellectual exchange is indisputable – Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday of Everyday Life (1958) was an influence on the SI’s ideas with Lefebvre’s notion of moments inspiring the SI’s concept of situations for example, while differences were honestly acknowledged between both parties. Lefebvre maintains the Theses were handwritten by him in the company of Debord, Kotanyi and Vaneigem while the specific idea of the Commune as festival was actually proposed by himself. This account is plausible compared to the destructive, sectarian rancour of the SI’s denunciations (essentially Debord). Yet in many ways the subject of intellectual priority is moot as the general idea of revolution as festival (originally proposed by Georges Bataille) was already circulating in French intellectual culture before the war long before the SI Theses were composed. Also as an idea revolution as festival was clearly inspired by ideas circulating in anthropology, sociology and literary criticism – for example, the idea of the carnivalesque or the transfiguration of the plebeian everyday by festivals and Saturnalia where the “law of freedom” or life briefly becomes the organising principle (Mikhail Bakhtin), the Day of Fools (celebratory festivals symbolically turning the world upside and making the fool King for the Day), sumptuary consumption and gluttony, potlach (Marcel Mauss), revolution as the liberation of expenditure (Bataille again utilising Mauss) and so on.


A Lost World and The People We Lose: An Obituary for Ken Weller

The Hungarian revolution 1956

On 25 January Ken Weller – engineer, trade union militant, libertarian socialist and radical peace activist – died at the age of 85 after a period of poor health. The sad news of Ken Weller’s death means another living link to the post-war milieu of radical politics, has been broken. Weller’s politics were shaped like a generation of Britain’s left by the fallout from the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which cascaded into various domestic streams of radical politics including CND and the direct action of the Committee of 100. All this took place against the backdrop of intensifying industrial struggle in the 1960s and 1970s which Weller – an electrical engineer, revolutionary and AEU shop steward – also directly participated in.

Of course Weller will forever be associated with the pioneering libertarian socialist group Solidarity which he co-founded with the group’s most well known member and Weller’s comrade in arms, the neurosurgeon Chris Pallis, also known as Maurice Brinton (1923-2005). Solidarity was truly distinctive among the many revolutionary groups that emerged on the British left – a classic example of a group whose influence far outweighed its modest size. Solidarity was responsible for translating and transmitting the distinct ideas of the French revolutionary group Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB) in particular those of its leading member, Cornelius Castoriadis, whose works appeared in a number of Solidarity pamphlets in the 1960s and 1970s under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan. Weller’s own contribution to Solidarity, aside from his activism, was a series of trenchant articles and pamphlets using his experience as an electrical engineer and AEU shop steward to explore worker autonomy in the workplace struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Transmission belt for Castoriadis in the Anglophone world

Ken Weller was born 30 June 1935 at the Royal Free hospital Kings Cross in north London and grew up in a working class family nearby in Islington. As a teenager Weller joined the Young Communist League (YCL), not uncommon for working class youths with a basic ‘us against the bosses’ socialist outlook. Other family members had also passed through the CPGB. Indeed in Britain the war and immediate post-war years marked a highpoint for CPGB membership (there were 56,000 members in 1942) due partly to opposition to fascism and defence of the only extant ‘socialist state’ as well as Stalin’s belated alliance with Britain and the US. Weller was still young when a radicalised working class helped Atlee’s Labour party win its 1945 electoral landslide. Compared to the CPGB – not to speak of the Labour Party – the radical left from Trotskyism to anarchism, was miniscule and deeply unappealing to most workers.

Participation in the struggles of the 1950s to the 1970s must have been exhilarating in such ‘interesting times’ but many radicals, especially industrial militants, paid a price (whether periods of joblessness resulting from victimisation or blacklisting or the attritional impact of activism on their personal life). When the tide of struggle receded many militants experienced acute isolation. This was doubly true of those like Weller belonging to the fringe of a radical fringe and he experienced more than his fair share of lows in life it seems. In 1970 Weller was returning from a night shift at Ford’s Dagenham plant in East London on his motorbike when he was struck by a car being driven by a driver under the influence breaking an arm, leg and his pelvis. Weller was unable to work and a year after his accident he separated from his partner Gwen and began raising his young son Owen as a single dad.

From the mid to late 1970s shop floor or industrial struggle was becoming more defensive on a number of measures even before Margaret Thatcher’s electoral triumph in 1979. A longer term process of proletarian decomposition/recomposition was already occurring (declining proportion of manual workers, the inflation of immaterial labour, the growth of services, the end of full employment and so on), contributing to the erosion of patterns of industrial, workplace and trade union organisation basically laid down in the 1930s and the Second World War. This meant a whole universe of manual labour with its ecology of rugged shop floor organisation and struggle began to disappear. Between 1979-85 the Tory governments savage deflation of the economy led to the loss of one in four manufacturing jobs. Allied to the impact of the Tory anti-union laws, these trends decisively fed what CP historian Raphael Samuel characterised as the waning of collectivity as worker solidarity withered on the vine.

Solidarity began life in 1960 as a small group organised around a journal briefly named Socialism Reaffirmed and then the Agitator before settling on Solidarity with its sixth issue. The origin of the group was the political ferment created by the impact of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. When Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) journalist Peter Fryer reported factually on the workers opposition to the Russian Red Army’s intervention in Budapest and the reality of workers councils, his reports in the Daily Worker were censored or suppressed prompting many rank and file CP members to tear up their membership cards and head for the exit. Ken Weller was among them. Politically some moved to the right and others to the left. Weller belonged to the latter and joined the main political beneficiary on the left Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist group ‘The Club’, which became the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959 and later the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). In Britain there were three main currents of Trotskyism that emerged when the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) broke up in 1949, the only organisation in Britain that ever succeeded in uniting all of Britain’s Trotskyists albeit briefly between 1944-49. Healy’s group ‘The Club’ was by far the largest of the group’s to come from the RCP and it was ‘The Club’ where Weller first met Pallis in London. Pallis was a consultant neurologist at Hammersmith hospital. Born 1923 Pallis’s political journey also began in the CPGB in 1941 albeit briefly before he was expelled for criticising the party’s policy on the war and was drawn to wartime Trotskyism.

Inevitably neither Weller or Pallis were destined to last in Healy’s outfit. Healy, notorious for his short temper, heresy hunting and iron authority, struggled to tolerate ‘opposition’ (other viewpoints). Though Healy initially kept his autocratic inclinations in check with the boon in members, such restraint couldn’t last. 6-7,000 members of the CPGB left their party over its support for the Stalinist repression of the Hungarian revolution. ‘The Club’ (SLL) was the greatest beneficiary. Yet many ex-CPGBers and others soon found themselves outside Healy’s group. Among them was Weller and Pallis. Weller was expelled with a small group he belonged to by the SLL’s national committee which ironically Pallis sat on. Months later Pallis was himself expelled from the SLL.

Though Solidarity began life in the milieu of British Trotskyism the group rapidly left the tradition behind for libertarian socialism and would shortly take the brave lucid step of rejecting Marxism strongly influenced by Cardan/Castoriadis’s brilliant demonstration of Marxism’s redundancy. As we noted, Solidarity played a pioneering role in purveying the work of Cardan/Castoriadis of SouB to the Anglophone world. The main themes of Cardan/Castoriadis’s as they appeared in a series of Solidarity pamphlets printed between 1961 and 1978 were: the nature of modern bureaucratic capitalism in the West and the East (not identical according to Cardan but both forms of capitalism), the division of society between a minority of order givers (directors) and order takers (executants) that overlaid and cut across social classes, the emphasis on working class autonomy and worker management (autogestion) and rejection of traditional left politics – Social Democracy but also the revolutionary or Marxist left on grounds of Marxism’s eclipse and degeneration into ideology. Such perspective pointed to new radical directions for libertarian socialism and autonomy.

Despite its tiny size Solidarity was at the heart of Britain’s anti-nuclear peace movement in the early 1960s and played a major, outsized part in shifting the strategy of the anti-nuclear peace movement from the CND’s high profile marches on Aldermaston and trying to win the Labour Party to a position of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The problem wasn’t only Labour’s leaders were strongly committed to maintaining Britain’s nuclear ‘defence’ (Attlee’s Labour government after all started building Britain’s bomb) but the victories were symbolic and reversible. So the unilateral disarmament policy won at Labour’s Scarborough conference in 1960 was reversed the following year. More relevantly it was the Conservatives who were in power.

CND on the march in the early 1960s

In October 1960 the direct action Committee of 100 was set up leading to the demise of the Direct Action Committee (DAC). The DAC was hitherto the organisational focus of non-violent direct action including the trespass at the nuclear submarine base Holy Loch in Scotland. The Committee of 100 was notionally made up of 100 individuals – signatories who sponsored the Committee of 100 and its aims, many of them prominent figures in British life such as philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who resigned from the presidency of CND to take part in the Committee of 100.

Despite its ‘big names’ signatories the Committee of 100 was in practice an umbrella enabling younger, more energetic activists to set the direct action agenda. Throughout 1961 a number of sit downs in central London took place. Thousands were arrested including an 89 year old Russell. For Russell escalating civil disobedience and direct action could awaken a sleeping British public. Others in the CND leadership were uneasy with direct action tactics and breaking the law except in the most anodyne tradition of genteel civil disobedience. Yet it was widely known the national press and media was devoting less attention to CND’s marches and protests firing up the more radical voices. The Committee of 100 was made up of thirteen regional committees and this effectively decentralised the protest. Some argued for more militant action while Solidarity also suggested linking anti-nuclear protest to the working class shop floor struggles that were taking place. Such links were difficult to achieve though Pat Arrowsmith – working full time for Merseyside CND – had some modest but impressive success in 1962 when 800-1000 workers building the Carrington petro-chemical site, halted work to protest the resumption of atmospheric tests by the US. However such working class action was rare and the Carrington protest failed to spark a wave of similar action.

The previous non-violent protests like sit downs failed to disrupt the warfare state. Such protest required many who were willing to be arrested and even imprisoned. But the protest movement over-estimated the degree of disruption such tactics would cause while the publicity barely justified the ‘sacrifice’ required of protestors facing aggressive and intimidating policing. Such state intransigence was effective if apathy or fatalism was the dominant tenor of the public mood and growing despondency among the protestors was inevitable.

So with the appearance of the Committee of 100 Solidarity came into its own in London which was the Committee’s dominant region. As the historian of the British anti-nuclear peace movement in this period, Richard Taylor observed, Solidarity and a handful of anarchist activists formed the core of the Committee of 100 in 1962 and 1963. They would circulate the Beyond Counting Arses document diagnosing the CND’s impasse while making the case for direct action to jam up the machinery of the warfare state. Weller was the convenor of the industrial sub-committee and he was the heart of various direct action initiatives including occupying the Russian embassy to protest the so-called ‘workers bomb’ in autumn 1963. Also it was Weller who penned a leaflet addressed to Russian workers, explaining the aims of the British peace movement and declaring workers West and East faced a common enemy. A Russian translation of the leaflet was distributed in Red Square Moscow.

Weller was also one of the eight Spies for Peace activists who severely embarrassed the Macmillan government when they broke into a secret bunker – a Regional Seat of Government – at Warren Row in Berkshire in 1963. The RSG was part of the state’s countrywide network of bunkers intended to allow government officials and civil servants to ‘govern’ the country in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The Spies for Peace duplicated 3,000 copies of a pamphlet exposing the state’s callous ‘civil defence’ plans, posting copies to journalists, prominent individuals and MPs. The pamphlet was also distributed on CND’s Aldermaston march. Efforts by the police and security service to identify the culprits behind the Spies for Peace failed. The Spies for Peace were careful in covering their tracks. They left no fingerprints at Warren Row and the typewriter used to write their exposure was thrown into a canal. Neither the police or MI5 were able to identify the Spies for Peace despite raiding Weller’s home. Yet Harold Wilson’s 1964 election victory effectively delivered a coup de grace to the peace movement and the issue of Britain’s suicidal nuclear weapons policy wouldn’t become a major political question again until the late 1970s when British governments decided to host US Cruise and Pershing missiles on British soil.

Car workers vote in open air union meeting

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Weller was mainly responsible for Solidarity’s excellent ‘industrial’ coverage that frequently focused on the unofficial action generated by the shop floor or rank and file militancy which detoured the trade union officials to beat the bosses and challenge their ‘right to manage’. The relatively high level of industrial struggle measured in official and unofficial action, strike days ‘lost’ and so on, appeared to strikingly confirm the global possibilities contained in the autonomous activity of the working class which was at the centre of SouB and Solidarity’s socialism.

Weller – an AEU shop steward – provided sharp insight on the tactics and strategy of the employers, the machinations of the trade union officials but most importantly the workers rank and file action in a variety of disputes mainly in engineering in numerous articles that appeared both in Solidarity’s journal and as pamphlets including: What Next For Engineers? (the 10 week strike at Ford Dagenham in 1962), Standard Triumph Strike 1961 (a strike of 126 workers in the repair shop penned by Weller and others), BLSP Dispute: The Story of the Strike 1961 (a strike at the steel factory which was undermined by the union leaders), The Truth About Vauxhall (Weller’s look in 1961 at the cost of ‘industrial peace’ American management style at Vauxhall’s new Ellesmere Port factory), Busmen: What Next? (written by workers in London bus garages with Weller’s aid in 1964), What Happened at Ford’s? (written by Weller and Ernie Stanton dissecting the reasons for a 1962 defeat), G.M.W.U.: Scab Union (written in 1970 by Weller using the pseudonym Mark Fore), Strategy for Industrial Struggle (a general analysis of Heath’s 1972 Industrial Relations Bill and how to defeat its anti-working class provisions), The Lordstown Struggle and the Real Crisis of Production (an analysis of the struggles of American auto workers in the early 1970s which also focused on the nature of modern manufacturing production).

Ken Weller

Weller’s 1972 pamphlet Strategy for Industrial Struggle attracted the unwelcome attention of the News of the World (a nasty but now defunct tabloid acquired by Murdoch in 1969). Weller examined different forms of industrial and workplace resistance to the employers including strike action, ‘go slows’ and work to rules, occupations and sit downs and what he termed “industrial sabotage.” The NoW executed a hatchet job on Weller – “the man with no job” (no mention was made of Weller being in recovery from a serious motorcycle accident) – as the tabloids routinely did in this period elevating a few among the tens of thousands of faceless active socialists, trade union militants, shop stewards and conveners, to be demonised (like Alan Thornett, Trotskyist shop steward at British Leyland’s Cowley plant) alongside serial killers, ‘deviants’ from normopathy, miscreant celebrities, prominent leftists and other ‘wreckers of civilization.’ Thus the NoW dubbed Weller a “disciple of industrial sabotage.”

Weller’s 1972 Solidarity pamphlet addressed the shortcomings of what he called “reflex” action by workers in resisting their bosses. Too often energy was expended trying to get all workers out on strike when quicker, more flexible or cleverer tactics might be suitable before the union head office could intervene and potentially scupper a quick victory. Workers needed to have tactical and strategical nous when defending pay and conditions or trying to improve them. The backdrop for Weller’s argument was the Edward Heath’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act whose premise was militancy and unofficial action in the workplace was the root of Britain’s economic malaise. So the Act proposed making union officials and leaders responsible for legally enforceable collective agreements – opening the door to the courts to wade into disputes between bosses and workers in a concerted effort to stifle or outlaw wildcats and unofficial action. The Act prompted much resistance and a refusal to comply by many trade unions supported by the TUC, demonstrations, strike action and protest. Therefore an Act designed to curtail worker action and “lawbreaking” instead created flashpoints and resistance.

Weller insisted the resistance would need to be resolute to secure victory and prevent victimisation and it was in this context he outlined five different modes of struggle. Briefly they were:

(a) informal resistance to production (any method where workers collectively imposed their own interests on production in the struggle at the ‘frontier of control’ in opposition to scientific management, the bosses prerogatives and so on).

(b) sabotage – less sensational that it sounded, sabotage was a part of the informal daily resistance that could exist in the workplace (and was a reality in Britain’s factories in this period) including absenteeism, neglecting machinery, damaging machinery, losing tools, literally obeying employers orders even if it was understood they would harm production and so on.

(c) the go slow and work to rule.

(d) the ‘good work’ strike (strikes often faced some hostility from the public especially in sectors like transport. If workers could win the public opinion battle they should – for example striking rail or tube workers allowing commuters/passengers to travel free.

(e) occupations and sit ins.

(f) the adoption of any method that increase the effectiveness of ‘normal’ strikes.

The stiff resistance the Tories Industrial Relations Act met eventually led to its repeal in 1974 following Labour’s election. So from proposing an armoury of tactics for the industrial struggle, Weller linked these tactics to the final objective: a “socialist society based on the management of production by the producers themselves.”

Let us make two final observations concerning Weller’s ‘global’ argument about working class struggle in the workplace. Firstly, Weller concluded that such methods as formulated and used by workers themselves at the cutting edge of workplace struggle was distant from the preoccupations of the ‘revolutionary intellectuals’ or ‘leaders’ analysing ‘economic trends’ and formulating the ‘correct’ demands based on something called ‘scientific socialism’. The second point, is simply that much of this universe – an organised powerful working class, if not always on the front foot but able to react strongly against the bosses – has simply disappeared in the ‘neoliberal’ era of globalised late capitalism. The disaggregation of the working class and the profound retreat of the last four decades is a huge topic that cannot be addressed here but anyone who is interested in radical democracy or autonomy or even the more modest place of the ‘actually existing’ working class in such a project after the end of the working class as the revolutionary subject of History, must appreciate what was lost. In an important sense Weller’s industrial writings help us to appreciate what is gone by providing a glimpse of that ‘lost world.’


Later in life Weller turned to a project close to his heart researching, writing and publishing an account of the north London militant pacifism during the First World War entitled “Don’t Be A Soldier!” The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918 (’t%20be%20a%20soldier.pdf).

About 2000 Weller had his kneecap surgically replaced. In his last years Weller’s physical condition worsened and he was cared for in east London by his son Owen who returned home to look after his Dad. Weller is survived by his ex-wife, Owen and a sister. In 2022 PM Press have a welcome plan to publish a selection of Ken Weller’s writings.

Jules Alford February 2021

The author would like to acknowledge that a variety of sources were used to write this obituary (and appreciation) for Ken Weller, including David Goodway’s Anarchist Seeds Beneath The Snow (2012 edition), Richard Taylor’s Against The Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-65 (1987), Natasha Walter’s account of her father – Nicholas Walter – and his involvement in the Spies for Peace, Chris Spannos’s two obituaries of Ken Weller (one for The Guardian and the other lengthier obituary for PM Press), as well as various articles by Pallis and Weller themselves.

Terrestrial Landings and Ecological Dead Ends – a review of Bruno Latour

Review – Bruno Latour Down to Earth: The Politics of the New Climatic Regime (2018).

Theodor Kittelsen, Pesta Kommer, 1894–95 (Plague’s Coming)

Bruno Latour’s short book makes an arresting case for a progressive new politics to tackle the gravest problem of our age: the anthropogenic climate change hot housing the Earth. A growing band of scientists believe this development signals the arrival of the Anthropocene or what in social-historical terms Latour defines as the New Climate Regime. As we will discover Latour’s radical renovation of ‘ecological politics’ – all politics – turns on the themes of landing on Earth and redefining social action from the perspective of being-in-the-world itself framed by the Terrestrial. Though not quite the emphatic call to arms of a celebrated manifesto published 170 years before, The Terrestrial Manifesto would make a fitting alternative title for Latour’s tract and though the Terrestrial Party is hardly haunting anyone yet, growing apprehension of common ruin looms though Latour claims our rulers and elites are plotting their own improbable escape by throwing the rest of us overboard.

Latour sardonically notes the ‘collapse of communism’ and the ‘end of history’ three decades ago kickstarted another history: the convergence of globalisation, deregulation and deepening inequality all combined with the first systematic attempts to deny the reality of climate change. Significant sections of the global elite have “decided the earth no longer has room for them and everyone else” and so no longer act as though humanity is travelling towards a common horizon. From the 1980s elites everywhere started to take flight and “shelter themselves from the world” (1).

Climate change denial is front and centre of the New Climatic Regime as the recent extreme weather events in the US show including the super storms and the wild fires which swept through California, Oregon and Washington. In September 2020 Trump travelled to northern California where he falsely blamed poor forest management for the huge wild fires. Trump was accompanied by the Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom and various state and federal officials. When an official suggested the science demonstrated the planet was heating up in response to Trump’s claim the planet would cool down Trump shot back “I don’t think science knows, actually.”

When Trump jettisoned the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement war was declared. This is the central geo-political question of our age Latour argues. A new path beckons: we have to come down to earth while “something like a map” is urgently needed because existing maps are useless (2). The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement indicated a dawning realisation that if business as usual continued we would need several planets. No planet or soil can house the Globe of globalisation. Trump’s ascension has been hugely “clarifying” exposing a retrograde desire for borders and identity while acting as if no one else inhabited the planet. We can continue to seek illusory escapes or leave a liveable planet for our children. Denial versus looking “for a place to land” is the political fault line of the age (3).

Everything must change for humanity to survive. Climate change is devastating lands at the heart of the migrant and refugee crisis like that in Central America. One response has been the Walls and hostile borders favoured by Trump’s supporters who float in dreams and denial and so postpone a landing thereby threatening to push us all into the abyss. For Latour the subject of landing somewhere was slow to emerge. The significance of the Terrestrial eluded the early Modernizers who initiated globalisation with colonialism and violence. The impact of globalisation, the climate crisis, the dwindling of habitable land retrospectively justifies the anti-colonial resistance. The faux universalism of globalisation now retreats before a “wicked universality” as the ground disappears beneath our feet (4).

Populism grips citizens of the global North via identity and the migrant crisis but walls won’t keep the ‘invaders’ out. Latour observes that the apostles of wide open spaces and eternal modernisation propose risks for us while their safety is guaranteed. We lack the golden parachutes and luxury boltholes. Identity and safety are bound together. As Zygmunt Bauman argued politics in the global North gradually shifted from welfare to security and the various ‘threats’ to the citizen. Yet these threats were notional or vanishingly rare like terrorism while real if intangible threats like climate change are scotomised or repressed (5).

Latour views globalisation as consisting of two opposed developments. A move from Local to the Global with its proliferating viewpoints and the universal imposition of a single elite or provincial viewpoint resulting in confusion: accept or fight globalisation? Globalisation-minus denigrates the ‘archaic’ and promotes monochrome ‘progress’ while the ‘arrow of time’ is in the pocket of the modernizers who scorn the ‘reactionaries’ who hanker for the land/soil. Yet Latour defends attachment to the land while insisting opposition to hyper-modernisation means rejecting the suzerainty of another province (Wall St, Brussels or Beijing). Reactionaries dismiss globalisation in toto but defence of some of the old ways is the root of admitting difference. So while repudiating Blut und Boden Latour differentiates between Local-plus cherishing different ways of life and Local-minus defined by an insular fear of strangers.

A ‘huge event’ has made modernisation and globalisation impossible to sustain. The planet is too narrow for the globe of modernisation and too large and complex for confinement to the Local adding urgency to humanity’s task of reorientation. Elites everywhere desert a common humanity while pouring fortunes into climate change denial. This isn’t sincere denial – obliterating the science is all about saving their skins at the expense of billions of lives (their calculation). Latour concedes his polemic sounds like conspiracy theory as he defends his basic thesis while resisting the wilder fringes of impotent fabulation. Yet in the QAnon era perhaps more wary defences against conspiracy theory are required. Of course there are extraordinary examples of state and corporate betrayal of common humanity. What is the appropriate response to the case of Exxon-Mobil and global warming? The basic facts – hidden for years – are incontrovertible though Exxon-Mobil dispute the evidence presented by their senior scientist James F. Black were as bald as its critics have subsequently suggested. The US oil giant was told CO2 emissions were heating the planet courtesy of their scientists extensive research as early as 1977. Yet by the late 1980s Exxon-Mobil was spending millions spreading misinformation and later played a role in dissuading the US from signing the 1998 Kyoto Protocol (6).

Science is a casualty in the age of post-truth or rather post-politics as “epistemological delirium” reigns. Latour sharply criticises those who have attacked ordinary people embracing Populism and “alternative facts.” For Latour such arguments elide the huge betrayal perpetrated by elites and political classes. Facts “remain robust when they are supported by a common culture” but Latour complains epistemology’s vice is blaming intellectual deficits while deficits in shared practice are overlooked. Ordinary people are “fed a fog of disinformation” by Trump and his political kin. It’s hard to escape the feeling Latour is too lenient toward this demographic – in the US other demographics, blacks and Hispanics for example, know perfectly well Trump’s message is not for them (7).

So the problem – climate change scepticism, clinging to identity – isn’t primarily cognitive but positional for Latour. There are several mutually incompatible worlds but to discover where we are Latour asks we imagine a vector travelling from the Local to the Global and our place on it. The Global qua Globe qua globalisation-plus encompasses science, modernisation, progress. It was expansive (cartography > spatial plus the arrow of time > temporal), pushing outwards, abandoning the Local to modernise though this Local could be remade after the Global’s arrival acquiring new signification as the anti-Global. Romantic revolts, antagonisms aroused by globalising modernity and melancholy for a vanished past conflict with acceleration into the future. There were protestors on the other side: natives, subalterns and excluded. Colonialism and imperialism were brutal but for some the ‘arrow of time’ was going somewhere – toward endless modernisation and development (8).

Latour defines the Local and the Global as two poles or attractors. Between the two attractors was a modernisation front dividing what lay behind and ahead. Moderns, whether the left or right, generally saw the age in terms of a conflict between the Local and Global. Latour suggests the attractor of globalisation-plus has degenerated into globalisation-minus as social inequality soars and the conditions of existence for much of the world population are impacted by a variety of stressors including climate change. What follows is a flight to Local-minus encapsulating tradition, protection, security, ethnic or religious identity and borders. Some rump territories ‘left behind’ by globalisation opt for reinvention – hence Poland, Brexit Britain and Trump’s US (9).

Modernisation as attractor was effective when everyone imagined they inhabited One space (or contiguous spaces) and were travelling to a common future. Presently a widening gulf separates the globe’s tribes as an occulted force twists modernisation’s temporal arrow. A shadowy third attractor is now disrupting the modernisation front. Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is a reaction to the third attractor and constitutes a dangerous movement built on a fourth attractor of climate change denial which Latour sums up as Out-of-this-World: the horizon of people who no longer belong to the realities of the Earth, who are enmeshed in the omnipotent fantasies of unlimited growth and consumption. This reaction is entirely comprehensible given America’s wealth and power and explains the utter indifference to the New Climatic regime. Latour is persuasive on this point while his analysis foreshadows Trump’s abysmal record on Covid 19: denying the virus’s severity and shockingly failing to protect US citizens (10).

Trump’s polysemous MAGA slogan promises Local-minus to the masses and like John Ford’s wagon master leads ‘back’ to a white ethnic past that only ever existed on celluloid. Yet huge profits and eye watering tax windfalls for the very wealthiest materially deprive those same masses. Burying truth at Boot Hill is strategically necessary if the drilling is to continue and coming back down to earth evaded. Latour is wistfully aware the US has the technology and resources to lead the world to the third attractor but spurns the opportunity (11).

At this point having outlined the dangerous Out-of-this-World dash for the abyss brazenly championed by Trumpism, Latour outlines the third attractor, the Terrestrial which offers a radical alternative to the other three attractors and an escape from suspension between rejecting and accepting modernisation. Latour argues the Terrestrial is neither to be understood as the Earth or Gaia (both definitions have acquired onerous baggage). The Terrestrial is presented as a new political actor, both a reaction and a growing factor in public life, illustrating the redundancy of separating the social and nature and simply treating nature as passive arena of human action (12).

The Terrestrial signifies the earth and soil are no longer a stable framework for human action (now mingling with other actions). If the Terrestrial is an unknown quantity the stability of ten millennia of civilisation and the Holocene is gone. Moderns will have to land on earth and learn to live with other inhabitants – those supposedly archaic ‘survivals’ (a designation suggesting the ante chamber to oblivion). The fluctuations or relative steady state of the “earth system” or the Holocene, is being supplanted by violent upheavals of the Anthropocene usually assumed to have begun with the Industrial Revolution. Previously human action modified the world around it like a stage hand rearranging the scenery but the “earth system’s” reaction sees the scenery moving itself about stage. This “unprecedented” reality is too painful for many to face. Many abide in fantasy and apocalyptic, redemptive dramas that narcissistically provide the satisfactions of cathexis (think the alt-right militias or evangelical Christianity). Addressing the failures of the rump Green parties Latour argues political ecology is imprisoned on the Local to Global vector where it tried to chart a middle course between the left and the right. If the question of left/right divide is redundant in the age of the Terrestrial and the “earth system” striking back, the question of social equality remains central (13).

Latour stands by the label ‘progressive’ (‘radical’ is too compromised) and insists on some continuity between the old and new politics. Yet ways must be found to win those who look to either the Local or Global, to the new attractor of the Terrestrial, finding allies among progressives and reactionaries by means of hitherto unrealised political opportunities presented by the Terrestrial. For Latour politics was always orientated towards stakes and situations and this is no less true of the Terrestrial today. Energies have to be diverted from the old attractors like those who feel betrayed by the political class and desire the security of the Local and identity. Reactionary political positions must be challenged and absorbed though landing on earth isn’t to be confused with lebensraum. The desire for attachment whether infant to care giver or people to nature, isn’t reactionary per se. If the local differentiates by closing itself off, the Terrestrial does so in opening up – a potential point of entry for those attracted to the Global (14).

The Terrestrial relates to the earth but Latour defines it as a ‘way of worlding’ aligning with no borders and no particular identity. In contrast the other attractors are illusory and incoherent. The Terrestrial can rejuvenate politics and aid comprehension of a world that politics is presently trailing so badly. Another articulation of a radical Terrestrial vision is the proposal for a political relay between social and ecological struggles going deeper than the Red-Green rapprochement of the 1970s and 1980s when ecology embraced social justice and vice versa. Then each pole retained its own identity having failed to politically absorb its opposite. In recent years following Communism’s historical defeat socialism, ecology and feminism have submitted to the markets Great Acceleration. In terms of the continued appeal of social justice, the language of social class, the idea of history as regression/progression and the continuing relevance of material interests to politics – we all remain Marxists to a certain degree or so Latour claims. Though Latour is not actually arguing Marxism is viable as revolutionary social-historical project the point remains contentious and we think too generous on Marxism’s relevance even if it’s only confined to elucidating the realities of social class (15).

As the politics of social class wane new maps are needed to navigate the “struggles of the geo-social loci”: firstly, what are the real interests involved? Secondly, who do we – radical Terrestrials – make alliances with and against whom? If the C19th was age of the social struggle then the C21st is the age of the geo-social struggle and the parties and social movements of the left must catch up with the new reality. Socialists are not exempt from rethinking the scientific ‘materialism’ that ‘inadvertently’ allowed the planet heat up and reach the threshold of the sixth extinction in the name of progress. Radical terrestrials must be more materialist. Science – targeted by climate change deniers – is important in the battle against anthropogenic climate change. Latour cautions against ditching scientific rationality for allegedly deeper relations with nature. Science has a positive role though we shouldn’t forget the infirmities of the ‘dismal science.’ Economics was blind to resource finitude and allied to industrial capitalism treated the Earth as an inexhaustible source of raw materials and an infinite ‘carbon sink’. It failed to anticipate the reaction of the “terraqueous globe” to human action. Such forecasting failures might mean our children are left an uninhabitable planet and so restoring science’s credibility means undertaking a turn to the Terrestrial (16).

In remarkable passages Latour further explores the dominant optic since the Enlightenment on our terrestrial home. In the ‘disinterested’ scientific perspective the Globe is ‘seen’ from far away, an orb in the dark of space from some indeterminate, imaginary point in contrast to the Terrestrial perspective which sees the Earth close up. The former is the Galilean perspective where the Earth is just one object among an infinite multitude of similar objects. Latour maintains conceptualising the Earth as a Galilean object seen from distance was a barrier to the Terrestrial perspective. We aren’t simply observers, we are in the world while the view of the universe adopted by science is the view from nowhere. Viewing Earth from a notional Sirius – a double distancing – constitutes a divorce from the minutiae of Terrestrial happenings (17).

The Global horizon of modernity viewing the world from the distance rested on a “brutal” division of inside/outside. Nature was an external object while progress and modernisation meant tearing oneself away from the “primordial soil” and striking out for the Great Outside. The detachment of the New Climatic Regime is inherently alien to the Terrestrial orientation. Efforts to politically mobilise in coming geo-social conflicts while assuming the Earth is a Galilean object would doom resistance or mitigation to failure. The ecological party must be located here not on Sirius while the renovation of science via the Terrestrial entails replacing a nature-as-universe perspective with a nature-as-process perspective instead. Nature’s object-beings are actors and not simply inert factors of production indifferent to human goals (18).

Ethnography has uncovered ways of seeing or being in nature untouched by notions like ‘production’, ‘accumulation’ or ‘resources.’ Formerly these ‘philosophies’ were intellectual curiosities or archaic optics pulverised by modernisation but now these could be models for survival (suitably transformed). Similarly Rene Girard noted consumer society (an object universe with built in obsolescence) nudged its denizens towards an awareness of the superfluity of many ‘needs’ and the emptiness of endless consumption prompting them to become ‘mystics.’ Latour’s thinking also shares many common themes with Cornelius Castoriadis and if he rejects the overly rational provenance of Earth as distant Galilean object for Gaia or Terrestrial object, this chimes with late period Castoriadis who as Suzi Adams relates embarked on a second ontological turn in the late 1970s/1980s in reinterpreting physis (Nature) as a trans-regional domain of creative, active nature. To clarify, Castoriadis’s first ontological turn in the 1970s presented a social-historical ontology of creative being that foregrounded the power of the imagination. Crucially Castoriadis’s first ontological turn was a revolt against social science’s dominant currents which could only think social being as determined and never really determining. Following in the post-transcendental phenomenological tradition, Castoriadis presented an anthropic conception of self creating social beings radicalising conceptions of the imagination first tentatively presented by Kant in his Third Critique (implicitly cutting against Kant’s first two critiques of reason). Castoriadis’s ontology of creative being defined the nomos with its various regional modes of self-creation. Nomos was presented as a realm of autonomy but implicitly situated in the context of the trans-regional domain of physis which had its own efficacy separate from human action. Castoriadis defined physis/phusis as “…the push, the endogenous and spontaneous growth of things that nevertheless is also generative of an order.” In the Aristotelian sense Nature moves itself (the finality of “endogenous and spontaneous growth”), as beings positing themselves as their own ends (teleonomy). Both physis/phusis/Nature and nomos were characterised by self creation but nomos as the field of human social action or autonomy was distinct Castoriadis argued in being explicit self creation (19).

Latour’s Terrestrial ontology departs from viewing the atmosphere as part of the bio-film as a container for the air animate beings breath. Rather there is a complex interaction or co-production that suggests to Latour a widening and redistribution of agencies belonging to the Terrestrial. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis was an important milestone in formulating the idea life or biota were active participants in all the physical, biochemical, geochemical processes forming the environment including the planet’s atmosphere. As Latour summarises Lovelock’s innovation as a refusal to de-animate the planet by erasing agents/actors as participants in the causal chains constituting the ‘earth system’ (to use the nomenclature which has subsequently given rise to an interdisciplinary field encompassing biology, chemistry, geology, physics and mathematics). Latour detects many actors imbricated in different casual chains, a view that allows an explicit political reorientation compared to the Lovelockian perspective which arguably closed down possible collective remedial exits from the consequences of anthropogenic climate change. In one universe Galilean objects are an exploitable resource while in another Lovelockian objects are agents. Latour boldly dismisses the naivety of thinking such objects will remain inert whatever pressure is exerted on them. One camp simply cannot comprehend that suffering nature can react – ignorance not simply confined to climate change sceptics. Latour contextualises the coming geo-social conflicts asserting they are not simply confined to the thin bio-film humanity inhabits. Instead all Terrestrial processes are part of the Critical Zone while scientific debates concerning this zone are anything but pedagogical (20).

The science of the Terrestrial isn’t as ‘disinterested’ as the science of nature as universe itself claims to be. Latour paints a picture of conflicting interests framed either by nature as universe/Galilean object or nature as process/Lovelockian object. The Terrestrial is a sheet anchor of resistance and emancipation through ploughing and digging in opposition to the “weightlessness” of the Galilean Globe. The Terrestrial orientation also promises a new epoch of discovery but not by recapitulating the arc of “hyper neo-modernity.” Instead the Terrestrial could be a cathartic kick start to the collective endeavour of tackling the ‘climate emergency’. So Latour contrasts two radically different regulative principles: system of production <> system of engendering and argues a shift from the former to latter is necessary. The former represents ‘freedom’ and situates humanity at the centre of existence while the latter signifies the co-dependency of distributed agents. The system of production encapsulates humanity’s separation from, and intensive exploitation of Nature while the system of engendering is an arena of actors, animate beings or engendering terrestrials (not only humans), sharing a capacity for reacting and influencing the wider environment. The two systems, based on divergent regulative principles, inevitably clash. The system of production also entailed the utopia of modernisation and globalisation-plus but no planet qua Critical Zone could encompass them indefinitely (21).

Latour notes the politics of ‘climate emergency’ prompts consideration of how ‘deep’ the ecological response should be to begin exiting the Anthropocene – assuming, strictly speaking, such an exit is possible in terms of what Timothy Lenton calls strong mitigation measures. Lenton says one important conclusion of ‘earth system’ models and their projections is CO2 emissions will eventually have to be reduced to zero in the atmosphere to prevent continuing rises. Yet stabilizing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere to match oceanic CO2 levels (10 per cent of atmospheric levels) would leave the CO2 atmospheric level at 560ppm – twice the pre-industrial level. Existing international carbon emission goals are more ambitious. Scenarios proposing limiting global warming rises to 2 degrees centigrade would require global society to begin deliberately removing CO2 from the atmosphere by the end of this century. Lenton notes finite carbon reserves should provide a notional ceiling to CO2 emissions but reserves remain significant while extractive technology constantly improves though the ‘economics’ of extraction and use and the shift to alternative energy sources would be expected to make carbon increasingly less viable. Crucially avoiding warming by staying on or under 2 degrees centigrade, rests on drastic cuts in using remaining carbon reserves. Most carbon reserves need to be ‘left in the ground’ as the estimated 5,000 billion tonnes of reserves could add an additional 10 degrees centigrade to average global temperatures (22).

Would humanity remain at the centre? Our question is neither meant to imply a humanist or anti-humanist stance but address the form or composition of the human. The New Climatic Regime raises the question of humanity’s fate and if this is modified, then the definition of humanity’s interests is also modified. The climate crisis is destroying the old framework exposing humanity <> nature dichotomy to be an illusion because humanity is not above or outside Nature. Latour paraphrases Pascal to the effect the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere to encapsulate the frame of being-in-the-world which needs to be inserted into the terrestrial. Ultimately humans are terrestrials even if we are unaware of this reality. Castoriadis pointed to how humans as big brained primates always-already entangled in the social-historical and symbolic, had become constitutionally maladapted to surviving in Nature. In this context humans were both more intelligent than animals and less rational. This apprehension is allergic to the Galilean Globe and the view from Sirius which also implies – if not a separation – then at least a profound rift based on the dominant system of production (23)?

So a system of engendering means radically multiplying the number of agents and therefore redefining objects as animate object-beings or agents. These terrestrials have to discover a way to cohabitate and find their place among many other actors/beings. Moderns might see the past not as a passage to the present/future but as surpassing the archaic implying a concept of transition where little by way of tradition or culture is actually transmitted in contrast to a system of engendering. Yet there is a major problem – though many actors/beings can protest or react against climate change, if humanity is integrated into the system of production (and perhaps domesticated as Jacques Camatte maintained) then it will be extremely difficult to comprehend protest. In Camatte’s terms integration into the circuits of capital and consumer society must also function to scotomise the painful implications of climate change especially given the deficit of praxis Latour alluded to. The deficits in praxis are also reflected in a generalised atrophying of social praxis. Alain Touraine pointed to a transition from doing with capitalism’s rise to being in late modernity or the ‘post-industrial society’ implying the proliferation of ‘supernumerary’ demographics and also raising the issue of the continuing efficacy of social action in the contemporary period which Castoriadis characterised as the dilemma of insignificance in his late writings on democracy and autonomy (24).

Latour insists the reactions are real – a system of engendering implies proliferating points of life and proliferating points of revolt throwing up potential allies for different groups of Terrestrials. So changing views on geo-social struggles and geo-politics cannot rest on “philosophical decisions” alone. Here Latour is advancing a huge claim that his preliminary analysis is well founded and based on something stirring into life. A conflict is dramatized between modern humans who believe they are alone in the Holocene in flight towards the Global (or exodus to the Local) and those terrestrials who understand the Anthropocene has arrived and will cohabit with other terrestrials under the authority of a power they don’t yet possess. Presently Latour’s hypothesis poses the question: what should we do? (25).

Humanity must escape the ‘economic’ or as Polyani described it the secular religion of the market which is not of this world. As Latour observes: “…it’s materialism is an idealism that the climate mutation had made even more immaterial.” If the political goal is to disavow Local and Global utopia’s and land on earth, we are still trapped in a phony war and second guessing the coming politics of the Terrestrial. The “great displacement” has taken place but those supporting the traditional political parties are largely unaware of this. At this point Latour’s efforts to conjure the elusive world turned upside down patina of the coming Terrestrial politics is suggestive but lacks detail. We need to attach ourselves to the soil and so become attached to the world. Various political strategies are suggested including collective projects but also minoritarian exits from the system of production like off grid eco communes. The Terrestrial as attractor links the soil and the world but the soil is not the Local and the world is not globalisation. Humans belong to the soil/earth/dust but not in any regressive ideological sense (26).

Insisting on its inherently progressive nature Latour separates the Terrestrial from borders, identity, the regional and so on, and claims it subverts these stultifying forms but given the present indistinct shape of the Terrestrial he doesn’t really address the difficulty the third attractor could be more politically ambiguous and messy than he allows. For example, it is clear eco-fascism is a growing force in North America and Europe in line with renascent nationalism and neo-fascism globally. Some forms of eco-fascism have no problem embracing borders while advocating a social Darwinian winnowing of black and brown humanity that would involve bunkering down, erecting borders and allowing climate change to rip. This in extremis is simply an exterminatory version of a ‘program’ likely to grow in strength as the ‘climate emergency’ is disclosed to growing numbers especially in the developed world – an admission of the need to adapt allied to a presumption that accumulated wealth and resilience will ‘insulate’ the developed world from the gravest aspects of climate change. Obviously such presumption derives from observing climate changes differential impact thus far but also any number of narcissistic assumptions that are likely to unravel if climate change unfolds in the absence of concerted global action. Differential reactions of the ‘earth system’ may continue but no one could live on a planet ten degrees centigrade warmer than it is today. Fatalism and the ‘omnipotence of thought’ as well as a sociopathic totalitarianism are concealed in the ‘realism’ of such a heartless adaptionist stance.

Conscious geo-social struggles will emerge but Latour thinks a preparatory task consists in outlining “alternative descriptions” and undertaking investigations to formulate a putative Terrestrial politics for departing globalisation-minus and its dominant system of production. For Latour this work of description is for all animate beings. People are lost but the Terrestrial attractor can provide alternative meaning and political direction and help land on earth. Does Latour succumb to catastrophism? He argues a disaster far greater in scope than the two world wars of the C20th looms and the world shouldn’t bet on aid from the US even assuming ‘normalcy’ could be restored after Joe Biden’s election. Also what was established as ‘normal’ is the very thing which has brought us to the threshold of climate oblivion in the first place (27).

Latour believes Europe has a special role to play at the centre of Terrestrial politics. The nation-state (the Local) is not a habitable future (Britain faces real problems exiting Europe) but Europe’s provincialization effectively saved the continent allowing it to transition into a club of nations who gave up empire (Peter Sloterdijk). Europe points the way to a new relationship with the Earth after the rediscovery of “habitable ground” and Latour is convinced Europe has lessons it can teach other parts of the world because it invented the Globe in the first place (cartography, circumnavigation, trade and the eventually creation of a world economy or global system of production), including elaborating the first representations of a common world as an unintended by-product of voraciously plundering the world and its non-European inhabitants (27).

The Globe slipped through Europe’s fingers in becoming global but now globalisation-minus (development, modernisation and so on) must be abandoned and Europe can pioneer a new trail despite its past crimes. Repudiating its colonial and martial past a united Europe having drawn closer together can redefine sovereignty. Yet “smallness” or being liberally provincial is not an answer either. Perhaps Latour has in mind the problem posed by the rise of authoritarian powers who would remake globalisation and modernisation by subtracting democracy from economic liberalism and markets. Europe offers a model of ‘reflexive modernisation’ at odds with the siren voices who want to build Fortress Europe. Instead Europe is called upon to give home to millions of “displaced persons” (migrants, refugees). So Latour makes a case for Europe’s leading role in a global political reorientation toward the Terrestrial minus the old imperial hubris. Yet this advocacy raises questions – if we acquit him of ethnocentrism (as we do unequivocally) there are alternative readings of Europe’s fate. For example many today argue the ‘locomotive of history’ has shifted to the other zones of the globe such as South East Asia and countries like China and India (28).

So Latour maintains three great questions of the day converge on Europe: how can we escape globalisation-minus? How should we respond to the earth system’s reactions? How can we organise to welcome refugees? Others will also do this but Europe’s history demands that a cosmopolitan, democratic Europe adopts this goal and faces the stern challenges involved. To repeat Latour’s argument invites criticism – Achille Mbembe for example maintains European democracy rested on violence, exclusion and colonialism even in the present. Latour acknowledges this destructive history and Europe’s central culpability for the climate crisis as global capitalism’s natal crucible (29).

Europe retains its welfare states (if reduced) and it hasn’t been intoxicated by the system of production it helped to generalise around the world. Latour claims Europeans have produced subtle antidotes to the poisons of modernity and considers talk of Europe’s decadence hollow where it emanates from aggressively authoritarian quarters. If Europe almost committed suicide via world wars but survived to recuperate under the US umbrella (now folded up), it can find its feet again. We should add a Biden victory in 2020 will not entirely erase the incalculable damage Trump delivered to US’s international alliances in his four years in office. There is the question as to what the Trump interregnum indicated about the US: permanent US decline? Irreversible degeneration of the GOP with all the implications for the destruction of bipartisanship, the Republic’s stability and relations with the rest of the world? The ‘experiment’ or ‘accident’ of Trump can’t simply be dismissed as a blip while more pertinently opposition to rigorous action to tackle climate change in the US is likely to remain.

Latour argues this is the moment for Europe to re-enter history minus the narcissism Europe will dominate history. The new Terrestrial direction Latour suggests Europe could pioneer might only be a provincial experiment but the Old World would be receiving a “second chance” after its baleful historic role. Europe could be a homeland for all those looking for “ground”. Clearly the ‘ecological question’ will only become more prominent globally but whether the Terrestrial as defined by Latour is a viable frame for renovating or galvanising ecological politics remains to be seen (29).

Jules Etjim



(1) Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018) pp.1-2.

(2) Op. cit. p.2.

(3) Op. cit. pp.3-5.

(4) Op. cit. pp.7-8.

(5) Zygmunt Bauman Liquid Times (2000). On Populism also see Joseph Aylmer’s excellent post A rough beast: Populism as repression and displacement on this blog from 2019.

(6) Shannon Hall article ‘Exxon Knew About Climate Change almost 40 Years Ago’ in Scientific American October 26 2015.

(7) Op. cit. pp.20-25.

(8) Op. cit. pp.25-27.

(9) Op. cit. pp.28-30.

(10) Op. cit. pp.31-36.

(11) Op. cit. pp.37-38.

(12) Op. cit. pp.39-41.

(13) Op. cit. pp.42-48.

(14) Op. cit. pp.49-54.

(15) Op. cit. pp.55-62.

(16) Op. cit. pp.63-66.

(17) Op. cit. pp.67-70.

(18) Op. cit. pp.71-74.

(19) Rene Girard’s observation about consumers becoming “mystics” (or consuming the New Age) can be found in Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (2017) pp.58-59. See Suzi Adams Castoriadis’s Ontology: Being and Creation (2011), see pp.1-15 and pp.145-62. Adams also points to the significance of Castoriadis’s late essay ‘Phusis and Autonomy’ collected in World in Fragments (1997) edited by David Ames Curtis pp.331-41.

(20) Op. cit. pp.75-79. The interdisciplinary discipline of ‘earth system science’ was strongly inspired by James Lovelock. A very useful brief summary is provided by Timothy Lenton Earth System Science (2016).

(21) Op. cit. pp.80-83.

(22) Lenton (2016) pp.95-97.

(23) Op. cit. pp.85-86.

(24) See Jacques Camatte ‘Against Domestication’ in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays (1995) pp.91-135.

(25) Op. cit. pp.87-88.

(26) Op. cit. pp.89-90.

(27) Op. cit. pp.92-95.

(28) Op. cit. pp.99-100.

(29) Op. cit. pp.101-106.

The Revolutionary Potency of Ecology

An Interview with Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis was interviewed by Pascal Egre November 16 and 29 1992. The interview originally appeared in a French collection ‘Planete Verte – L’ecologie en Question’ under the title ‘La Force Revolutionairre de L’ecologie’. The interview was translated into English by Helen Arnold and appears in an invaluable collection of Castoriadis interviews and articles that focus on ecology, democracy, autonomy and politics entitled: ‘A Society Adrift: Interviews and Debates 1974-1997’ (Fordham University Press, 2010) translated by Helen Arnold.

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Interviewer: What does ecology mean to you?

Castoriadis: Understanding of the fundamental fact that social life must necessarily be primarily concerned with the environment in which it takes place. Strangely, that understanding seems to have been much more present in the archaic and traditional societies of the past than nowadays. In the 1970s, there were still villages in Greece that recycled almost everything. In France, concern with maintaining waterways, forests, and so on, has been constant for centuries. People had a ‘‘naive’’ but correct awareness of their vital dependence on the environment, without any ‘‘scientific knowledge’’ (the film ‘Dersu Uzala’ gives another example). That has changed radically with capitalism and modern technoscience, based on the continuous, rapid growth of production and consumption, catastrophically affecting the ecosphere of this planet, as is already visible. If scientific discourse bores you, just look at the beaches, or breathe the air in large cities. So there can no longer be any conception of politics worth speaking about in which ecology is not a major concern.

Interviewer: Can ecology be scientific?

Castoriadis: Ecology is primarily political; it isn’t ‘‘scientific.’’ Science as such is unable to set its own limits or its ends. If we ask it for the most efficient or the most economical means of exterminating the global population, it can (and actually must!) furnish a scientific answer. In its role as science it has strictly nothing to say about whether that project is ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad.’’ We can and certainly should, call upon scientific research to explore the effects of various kinds of productive activity on the environment, and occasionally to explore ways of preventing some undesirable side effect. But in the last analysis the response can only be political. To claim, as do the people who signed the ‘‘Heidelberg Appeal’’ (I personally prefer to call it the Nuremberg Appeal), that science and science only can solve every problem is absolutely dismaying. On the part of so many Nobel Prize winners, it indicates a basic illiteracy, a lack of thought about their own activity, and total historical amnesia. They make those statements, whereas just a few years ago the main inventors and makers of atomic bombs were publicly doing acts of contrition, beating their breasts, proclaiming their guilt, and so forth—take Oppenheimer and Sakharov, to mention a few. It wasn’t philosophers who built atomic bombs—nor was it the scientists who decided whether or not to use them. It’s precisely the development of technoscience, and the fact that scientists don’t and never will have anything to say about its use, or even about its capitalist orientation, that has created the environmental problem and made it so serious today. What we realize now is the huge margin of uncertainty as to the facts and prospects for the future of the environment on Earth. That margin goes both ways, of course. My personal opinion is that the darkest prospects are the most probable ones. But the true question is elsewhere: it’s the complete disappearance of cautiousness, of phronesis. Since no-one can say conclusively that the greenhouse effect will or will not cause the level of the oceans to rise, or how many years it will take for the ozone hole to extend to the whole atmosphere, the only proper attitude is that of the diligens pater familias, the conscientious father who says to himself, since the stakes are so huge, even if the probabilities are unknown, I’ll proceed extremely cautiously, and not as if the problem didn’t exist. Now, what we’re seeing presently, at the Rio carnival (known as the Rio Summit), for example, is total irresponsibility. It’s Bush and the neoliberals relentlessly pushing on, precisely invoking the argument of uncertainty in reverse (since it hasn’t been ‘‘proved,’’ we can continue on the same course . . .). It’s the monstrous alliance between right-wing American Protestants and the Catholic Church to oppose any aid for birth control in the third world, whereas the link between the population explosion and environmental problems is obvious. At the same time, the height of hypocrisy is their so-called concern with those peoples’ standard of living. But to improve their standard of living would require a further acceleration of the production and consumption that are destroying non-renewable resources.

Interviewer: Still and all, the Rio Summit adopted two conventions that some people view as historic: the Climate Change Convention and the one on biological diversity. Are they part of the ‘‘carnival’’?

Castoriadis: Yes, since they don’t propose a single concrete measure or include a single sanction. They are the tribute paid by vice to virtue. Just a word about biodiversity. Really, the signatories of the Heidelberg Appeal should be reminded that no-one knows how many living species exist on Earth right now. The estimates range from ten to thirty million, but some people have even advanced the figure of one hundred million. Now, we know only a small fraction of those species. But what we do know practically surely is how many species we are causing to disappear each year, especially by destroying tropical forests. E. O. Wilson estimates that thirty years from now we will have exterminated approximately 20 percent of existing species, representing an average of seventy thousand species a year, or two hundred a day, based on the lowest estimate of the overall total! Any other consideration aside, the destruction of a single species can cause the breakdown of a balance and therefore the destruction of a whole ecotope. . . .

Interviewer: When reading some of your writings, one has the impression that ecology is only the tip of an iceberg behind which it’s not just science that is called into question, but the political and economic system as well. Are you a revolutionary?

Castoriadis: Revolution doesn’t mean wanton bloodshed, taking the Winter Palace, and so forth. Revolution means a radical transformation of societal institutions. In that sense I am a revolutionary. But that sort of revolution would require profound changes in the psychosocial structure of people in the Western world, in their attitude toward life, in short, in their imaginary. The idea that the only goal in life is to produce and consume more—an absurd, humiliating idea—must be abandoned. The capitalist imaginary of pseudo-rational pseudo-mastery, and of unlimited expansion, must be abandoned. Only men and women can do that. A single individual, or an organization, can only prepare, criticize, encourage, and sketch out possible orientations, at best.

Interviewer: What parallel can be drawn between the decline of Marxism and of ideologies, and the rise of political ecology?

Castoriadis: The relationship is a complex one, of course. First of all, you have to see that Marx is already entirely in step with the capitalist imaginary. Like the dominant ideology of his time, he thought that everything is conditioned by the increase in productive forces. When production will have reached a sufficiently high level, then we will be able to talk about a truly free, truly equal society, and so on. Nowhere in Marx can you find any criticism of capitalist technology, be it as technology for production or as to the kind and nature of goods made. He views capitalist technology and its products as an integral part of the process of human development. Nor can you find any criticism of the organization of the work process within factories. He does of course criticize some ‘‘outrageous’’ aspects, but he sees that very way of organizing it as a pure and simple rational achievement. Most of his criticism has to do with the way that technology and that organization are used: their use for the benefit of capital only instead of for all of humankind. He doesn’t see that the technology and organization of capitalist production should be criticized as such. That ‘‘omission’’ is strange, in Marx, since many other writers of his time did reflect on the subject. Think of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’, to take a well-known example. When Jean Valjean carries Marius through the Paris sewer system to save him, Hugo indulges in one of those digressions of which he is so fond. Basing himself, no doubt, on the calculations by the great chemists of the time, probably Liebig, he says that Paris evacuates the equivalent of five hundred million French gold coins a year to the sea through its sewers. And he contrasts that with the way Chinese peasants fertilize the earth with their own excrement. That’s why, more or less in his words, China’s land is as fertile today as on the first day of the Creation. He knew that traditional economies were based on recycling, whereas contemporary economy is an economy of squandering. Marx overlooked all that, or considered it marginal. And that was to be the attitude of the Marxist movement to the end.

Starting in the late 1950s, several factors combined to change that situation. First, after the 20th Congress of the Russian CP, and the Hungarian revolution that same year (1956), followed by Poland, Prague, and so on, Marxist ideology lost its attraction. The capitalist ideology then began to be criticized. Let me say, in passing, that in one of my writings dated 1957, ‘On the Content of Socialism,’ (1) I developed a radical critique of Marx as having totally refrained from criticizing capitalist technology, especially in production, and as having completely shared the views of his contemporaries in that respect. At the same time, people were beginning to discover the ravages wrought by capitalism on the environment. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (2) was one of the first influential books on the subject, describing the way pesticides ravage the environment. Pesticides destroy plant parasites, but also other insects, and therefore the birds that eat them: a clear illustration of the circularity of an ecological balance and of how it is totally destroyed by the destruction of one single element.

An ecological awareness then began to take shape, and has developed all the more rapidly since young people in rich countries, unhappy with the social regimes there, can no longer express their criticism through the traditional Marxist channel, which has practically become pathetic. Criticism emphasizing the most sordid aspects was no longer relevant: you can no longer accuse capitalism of starving the workers when working class families all have a car, and sometimes two. At the same time, the specifically ecological themes merged with antinuclear themes.

Interviewer: So is ecology the new ideology of the late 20th century?

Castoriadis: No, I wouldn’t say that, and at any rate we shouldn’t talk of ecology as an ideology in the traditional sense of the word. But it’s obvious that any true, serious politics must take the environment and the balance between humankind and global resources into account as a central issue. This is made necessary by the unbridled advance of autonomized technoscience and by the huge population explosion whose effects will continue to be felt for at least another half-century. But that taking into account must be integrated in a political project that will necessarily exceed ‘‘ecology’’ alone. And if there is no new movement, no revival of the project of democracy, ‘‘ecology’’ can very well be integrated in a neo-fascist ideology. In the case of a global ecological catastrophe, for instance, one can well imagine authoritarian regimes imposing harsh restrictions on a terrified, apathetic population. The insertion of an ecological component in a radical democratic political project is indispensable. And it is all the more imperative since any such project implies calling into question the values and orientations of present-day society, which is inseparable from the criticism of today’s underlying imaginary of ‘‘development.’’

Interviewer: Do the French ecology movements convey that project?

Castoriadis: I think the political component of both the ‘‘Verts’’ and ‘‘Generation Ecologie’’ is inadequate and insufficient. They are not developing any thinking about the anthropological structures of contemporary society, or about political and institutional structures, the nature of true democracy, the issues that would be raised by its institution and functioning, and so forth. Those movements are exclusively concerned with environmental issues, almost not at all with social and political issues. That they want to be ‘‘neither left nor right’’ is understandable. But making a point of honor, so to speak, of not taking sides on crucial political issues, is highly open to criticism. It tends to turn those movements into lobbies of a sort. When we do see an awareness of the political dimension, it seems insufficient to me. That was the case in Germany, where the Greens had established the rule of rotation/revocability for their parliamentary representatives. Rotation and revocability are central notions in my political thinking. But cut off from the rest they’re meaningless. That’s what happened in Germany where they no longer had any sense, integrated as they were in the parliamentary system. Because the very spirit of the parliamentary system is to elect ‘‘representatives’’ for five years, so as to get rid of political issues, to hand them over to ‘‘representatives’’ so you don’t have to take care of them, which is the exact opposite of a democratic project.

Interviewer: Does that specifically political component of a project for radical change include North–South relations as well?

Castoriadis: Of course. It’s nightmarish to see well-fed people watch Somalians die of hunger on the news, and then return to their football game. But it’s also, from a crudely realistic viewpoint, a terribly shortsighted attitude. You close your eyes and let them die. But they won’t let themselves die off, in the long run. Clandestine immigration is increasing as the demographic pressure rises, and we haven’t seen anything yet, for sure. The Mexicans crossing the Mexican–U.S. border practically meet no hurdles, and soon it won’t be only the Mexicans. For present-day Europe, it’s the straits of Gibraltar, among other places. And they aren’t just Moroccans; there are people coming from everywhere in Africa, including Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast, who endure inconceivable hardships to get to Tangiers and pay people to smuggle them across. But soon it won’t be only Gibraltar. There are something like forty thousand kilometers of Mediterranean coasts bordering what Churchill called ‘‘the soft underbelly of Europe.’’ Iraqi fugitives are already crossing Turkey and entering Greece illegally. Then there is the whole eastern border of the Twelve [European Union countries as of 1992]. Will they build a new Berlin wall, three or four thousand kilometers long, to prevent famished Easterners from entering Europe-the-affluent?

There is a tremendous economic and social imbalance between the affluent West and the rest of the world, as we know. That imbalance isn’t declining; it’s increasing. All that the ‘‘civilized’’ West exports to those countries by way of culture are techniques for coups d’etat, arms, and television exhibiting models for consumerism that are out of those poor peoples’ reach. That imbalance can’t go on, unless Europe becomes a fortress run by a police state.

Interviewer: What do you think of Luc Ferry’s book (3) in which he explains that the Greens are the bearers of a comprehensive vision of the world that calls into question man’s relations with nature?

Castoriadis: Luc Ferry’s book attacks the wrong enemy and finally turns into a diversionary maneuver. With the house on fire and the planet in danger, Luc Ferry takes on an easy enemy, in the form of some marginal ideologists who are neither representative nor threatening, and says nothing or next to nothing about the real problems. At the same time, he sets an extremely superficial ‘‘humanist,’’ or ‘‘anthropocentric,’’ ideology in opposition to a ‘‘naturalist’’ ideology. Human beings are anchored in something other than themselves; the fact that they are not ‘‘natural’’ beings doesn’t mean they are hanging in thin air. There’s no sense in harping on the finitude of human beings when you’re talking about the philosophy of knowledge if you forget that finitude when talking about practical philosophy.

Interviewer: Is any philosopher the founding father of ecology?

Castoriadis: I don’t see any philosopher who could be called the founding father of ecology. There is of course a ‘‘love of nature’’ among the English, German, and French romantics. But ecology isn’t ‘‘love of nature’’: it’s the need for self-limitation (which is true freedom) of human beings with respect to the planet on which they happen to exist by chance, and which they are now destroying. Some philosophies, on the other hand, definitely display that arrogance, that hubris, as the Greeks called it, the presumptuous excess that establishes mankind as the ‘‘master and possessor of nature,’’ a most ridiculous claim, actually. We aren’t even masters of what we will do, individually, tomorrow or a few weeks from now. But hubris always brings on nemesis, punishment, and that’s what may well happen to us.

Interviewer: Would we do well to rediscover the dimension of balance and harmony in ancient philosophy?

Castoriadis: Rediscovering philosophy in general would be a good thing, for we are experiencing one of the least philosophical, if not to say anti-philosophical periods of the history of humankind. But the ancient Greek attitude is not one of balance and harmony. It is grounded in acknowledgment of the invisible limits to our actions, of our inherent mortality, and of the need for self-limitation.

Interviewer: Can growing concern with the environment be viewed as one aspect of the revival of religion, in the form of belief in nature?

Castoriadis: First of all, in spite of everything people are saying, I don’t think there is a revival of religion in the Western world. Next, when correctly conceived (and it almost always is, from that standpoint), ecology doesn’t turn nature—any more than mankind, in fact—into a deity. The only link I can see is quite indirect. It has to do with the hold religion has on almost all societies. We are living in the first society since the inception of the history of humankind in which religion is longer central to social life. Why did religion occupy such a tremendous place? Because it reminded you that you are not the master of the world, that you are living on top of the Abyss, Chaos, the Bottomless Pit, that there is something other than humankind, something that it ‘‘personified’’ in one way or another, and which it called taboo, totem, Amon-Ra, Olympian gods—or the Fates—or Jehovah. . . . Religion showed the Abyss, and at the same time masked it, by putting a face on it: it’s God; God is Love; and so on. By the same token, it gave meaning to human life and death. It did of course project essentially anthropomorphic, anthropocentric attributes on the divine powers or the monotheistic God, and that’s precisely how it ‘‘gave meaning’’ to everything in existence. The Abyss became familiar, something like us, so to speak. But at the same time it reminded humans of their limits, reminded them that Being is unfathomable and uncontrollable. Now ecology, as a part of a political project of autonomy, must simultaneously mark that human limitation and remind us that Being has no meaning, that it is we who create meaning at our own risk (including in the form of religions). So there is a proximity, in some sense, but also, in another sense, there is an insurmountable opposition.

Interviewer: So you are for the defense of humankind, even more than the defense of nature?

Castoriadis: Defending humankind against itself, that’s the question. Humankind is its own main threat. No natural catastrophe equals the catastrophes, massacres, and holocausts produced by people, against people. Today, human beings are still, or more than ever, their own worst enemy, not only because they continue as much as ever to slaughter their fellow creatures, but also because they are digging their own grave by destroying the environment. It’s the awareness of that fact that we should try to awaken again, at a time when religion can no longer play that role, for very good reasons. People must be reminded that there are limits, not only individual, but social. It’s not just that each of us is subject to the law and will die some day; it’s that we all, collectively, cannot do just anything; we have to limit ourselves. Autonomy—true freedom—is that necessary self-limitation, not only with respect to the rules of social behavior but also in the rules we adopt in our behavior toward the environment.

Interviewer: Are you optimistic as to that revival of that awareness of human limits?

Castoriadis: The creative power of human beings, their power to change what exists, is indeterminable and unforeseeable by nature and by definition. But it is neither positive nor negative in itself, and to talk about optimism or pessimism at that level is rash. Man as creative power is just as much man when he builds the Parthenon or Notre-Dame in Paris as when he organizes Auschwitz and the Gulag. Only afterwards can we discuss the value of what he has created (and that’s clearly most important). At present, there is definitely the agonizing interrogation about the way contemporary society is bogged down in increasingly empty repetition; then, supposing that this repetition gives way to a new surge of historical creation, about the nature and value of that creation. We can’t ignore those interrogations or be silent about them, nor can we answer them in advance. That’s what history is about.



(1) Castoriadis’s article can be found in ‘Political and Social Writings Volume 2 – 1955-60: From Workers Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism’ (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 1988). ‘The Content of Socialism’ was originally published under the pseudonym Pierre Chaulieu and first appeared in French in Socialisme ou Barbarie no 22 July-September 1957. Translated into English by David Ames Curtis.

(2) Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was originally published in September 1962 and was hugely influential. Carson focused on the effects of artificial chemical pesticides used in agriculture on the land and wildlife in the US particularly the widespread use of DDT. Despite the fierce attacks of the chemical and pesticides industry on Carson’s work, DDT was banned in the US while the outcry helped lead to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

(3) Luc Ferry ‘Le Nouvel Ordre Ecologique; l’arbre, l’animal et l’homme’ (1992). French philosopher.







The Fall of Meaning? Christopher Bollas on the Age of Trump

Review: Christopher Bollas ‘Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment’ (2018)

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In this small but densely packed book teeming with vivid observation and bold, gnomic argument, Christopher Bollas, talked of in some quarters as one of the greatest living psychoanalysts, grapples with the psychosocial malaise afflicting our contemporary civilization as it lies stretched out, as it were, on the proverbial analyst’s couch. Frames of mindIntellectual climate changeBollas’s limpid, centaur like sentences: ceaselessly coining new concepts and neologisms, ensure his text is packed with many fireworks in its hundred and twenty nine pages. The downside of such admirable economy is most points are never really unpacked or fully developed. Though Bollas’s arguments are often provocative this doesn’t detract from this arresting, thought provoking intellectual ride. 

Bollas’s bold, diagnostic intent is not dissimilar to Freud’s late, great cultural books like The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism and though Bollas doesn’t replicate Freud’s panoramic sweeping back and forth between humanity’s archaic past and modernity, he is far more politically pointed and engaged than Freud was ever prepared to be. Inevitably the leaps are not always convincing but the speculative brilliance on show makes it easy to forgive such lapses. In Freud’s case the spur prompting the wider examination of civilization and culture was the catastrophic blows the First World War rained down on the bourgeois world which had shaped him. Similarly Bollas identifies a gaping void at the heart of our civilization so starkly exposed in 2016 by Trump’s America First electoral triumph and Brexit in Britain. Both earthquakes were symptomatic of a quickening global political tide energising the renascence of the populist right and fascism. It is to Bollas’s immense credit that he grasps the grave threat posed by a Trump Presidency and the return of fascism globally. Of course Bollas is also striking shapes not that dissimilar to earlier criticism of Americanism which reflected resistance to the seductions of the Coca-Cola Empire. However the continuing ‘boom’ of this critical, diagnostic discourse in recent years has thrived on a new axes, boosted by the startlingly visible decline and decadence of the American Republic exemplified by the arrival of the Narcissist in Chief in the Oval Office in 2016 but apparent even before this High Noon.

Though an American Bollas very much belongs to the ‘British School’ or Object Relations branch of psychoanalysis pioneered by Melanie Klein and her followers and based at the Tavistock clinic in London (where Bollas worked and trained for a period).

Bollas considers Trump and Brexit to be symptoms of Splitting and enjoyment. While more than half the American citizens who voted rejected Trump and were distressed by his victory, Trump’s voters were ecstatic. Yet nevertheless they shared some of the sense of loss felt by anti-Trump voters. Trump voters have cut out a part of their selves and disposed of it while Trump’s victory is partly the fruition of a longstanding “psychological distress.” Here Bollas echoes other critical summaries of our times specifically focused on the rapid transformation of the Self that has paralleled social media’s dramatic global inflation meaning instant connectedness displaced reflection and introspection. Powerful psychosocial forces are shaping our culture. Bollas believes the extant psychological topography is evolving into customs, axioms and patterns of thought aiding the establishment of organizing structures that can generate discrete mentalities or forms of behaviour. Some of these mentalities “cripple being” revealing the existence of certain baleful, structuralized frames of mind. An example Bollas cites is the structuralized depression which was imposed on generations of African Americans and passed on as an “unconscious principle” and dominating how they were to live during and after slavery.

Bollas argues psychological axioms may constitute culture via frames of mind. Certain frames of mind aided Trump while his electoral victory as an event was also a psychosocial ‘split’: the manic euphoria of the winning side contrasting with the depression of the losing side. Similar psychosocial trends stretch back to the birth of modernity. The First World War caused a profound plague of loss, unresolved mourning and mass melancholia accompanying widespread anger, despair and disorientation. Today life has been hollowed of meaning while ‘recreation’ for millions is dominated by forms of avoidance and pain dulling: painkillers, drugs, alcohol, fitness regimes, pop psychologies, swinging and forms of self guided existence as an alternative to religion. 

The C21st is now dominated by “myopic utilitarianism” as a universal ‘social amnesia’ sees life to sink to existence. In the virtualsphere of social media, form seizes the heights as content becomes vestigial. Meanwhile religion as ideology, armed faith and fundamentalism revive in allergic reaction to thinking and autonomy. Neoliberalism’s rise paralleled a loss of faith in collective progress and the individual’s ability to be the mediators of their own lives. Instead many embraced the “narcosis of self-abandonment.” Freud’s early 1920s rethinking of the topology of the psyche suggested a new theory of Super Ego, Ego and Id sought to explain how our archaic drives were regulated. Similarly the arrival of Id Capitalism (Bollas) was the moment unregulated capitalism pushed regulated capitalism aside. The gulf between reality and the American Dream yawned wider.

Before 1914 the ‘future’ was a desirable destination but over a century later Western societies had exchanged the search for individual or collective meaning for material comfort. A social epidemic of pain marked by generalized anxiety, depression and profound disorientation prevailed while Trump was evidence of a universal malaise also incidentally supplying a post facto justification for “psychological analysis.”

The greatest danger of our age is war and violence and Bollas observes “…it is a sad fact that our psychology allows us to take pleasure in killing, especially in mass slaughter.” A key psychological enabling mechanism for aggression is Projective Identification ie. projecting our own murderous wishes on to the Other as a prelude to unleashing violence as in the exemplary example of Bush and Blair’s WMD fables. Like past critics of violence as a political weapon (like Claude Lefort and Jacques Ellul for example), Bollas recognises how the mechanism of Projective Identification also harbours a wish to rid society of complexity while violence flourishes with the simplification of reality. War and violence is the abattoir of truth and modernity has raised this reality to the nth degree.

Before modernity’s arrival, religion was central to making life ‘meaningful’ but from the C18th onward the locus of meaning migrated to ordinary life and people now had to search for, or construct their own meaning. Authority and tradition were no longer the pre-eminent forces shaping belief with the breakdown of the old rigid classes and estates of an overwhelmingly agrarian society. The C19th was increasingly the age of organized memory and self observation. There was an explosion of culture (museums, libraries, literacy) and the idea of the mutually reinforcing development of individual and society took hold. This expansive new world made psychoanalysis possible – Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) delved into the unconscious and dreams to disinter the meaning that could be transmitted to each one of us but by the mid C20th the elan of this cultural explosion was already waning. The destruction of the First World War was a watershed. Germany, which had rapidly industrialised in the last half the C19th and only politically unified five years before the Franco-Prussian war, greeted war’s outbreak in 1914 with manic celebrations. Defeat for Germany was devastating. Gustav Le Bon, a pioneer of mass psychology and a powerful influence on Freud, had already underlined the arrival of the crowd with modernity ushering in the age of gross politik. According to Le Bon the individual in the crowd essentially regressed and as the religious sea of faith receded, new modes of thinking started to appear.

Bollas suggests Europe’s development was like an accelerating electric tram allowing certain psychological states or ‘frames of mind’ to blossom in opposition to the ‘persistence of ancien regime’ (Arno Mayer). This novel ‘frame of mind’ was inflected by narcissism and exulted belief in the Western world’s superiority which in some forms would hatch into mania (fascism and war) though the ultimate apotheosis of this runaway trend didn’t arrive until the Second World War. Freud himself struggled to assimilate the brutal impact of the First World War, its shattering of the lofty ideals of European ‘civilization’. Writing to Lou-Andreas Salome, Freud lamented: “I know for certain that for me and my contemporaries the world will never be a happy place. It is too hideous…humanity seems to be really dead.”

Such a crisis provided the backdrop for the psychological mechanism of ‘splitting’ to flourish claims Bollas. C19th Europe fallen upon splitting to allow Christian civilization to coexist with the barbarism of colonialism and imperialism. In psychoanalytical terms ‘splitting of the Self or the object is an ordinary mental action including compartmentalisation that usually allows individuals to ‘function’ and get work done. Splitting’ is a form of psychical homeostasis: often what is split off is painful, it has to be dumped or banished but such processes could also diminish the mind, provoking a vicious cycle of flight from painful, refractory reality. In essence such evasions could be symptomatic of difficulties tolerating the imperfections or complexity of reality. It could also prompt delusional grandiosity apparent in the murderous ‘Projective Identification’ classifying black Africans as primitive and savage and therefore legitimate targets of unspeakable colonial violence. A near impregnable European sense of superiority and entitlement enabled the murder of millions. ‘Splitting’ was also central to aesthetic modernism. Dramatists like Strindberg captured the complexity of life and vacillated between various positions undermining the integrative capacity of the Self. Bollas contrasts the democratic ‘frame of mind’ able to tolerate differing elements of the whole mind and cognitively using vacillation to empathise with the other – to a closed or manic ‘frame of mind’ that exalted the violence as in exultant plague of the First World War. ‘Splitting’ and Projective Identification of the Other as ‘enemy’ ensured the Other-Enemy embodied the hated parts of the Self that one wished to be rid of. The obliteration of the Other – murder – was ‘cleansing’ or cathartic, allowing the manic Self to be rid of depressive elements but such catharsis was short lived at best. In Kleinian fashion a manic defence desperately sought to ward off depression but depression was destined to return nourished by the Self’s desolating loss of belief in the mind’s goodness. Murder – as means of relief and banishing depressive elements, instead intensified depression and would never off stable psychical respite.

The period from the First to the Second World War marked a Rubicon for the human psyche. The trauma of war, civil war and fascism was almost unfathomable. Life literally was meaningless as Camus and Sartre apprehended because the living were dead inside, realising Freud’s fear. Bollas continually underlines psychoanalysis’s historicity and in this spirit explores the concept of the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or ‘borderline personality’ introduced originally by Phillip Knight in 1953. The ‘borderline personality’ – exemplified ‘splitting.’ One part of the mind was unaware another part held diametrically opposed views – a globally relevant vision also applicable to nations and inter-state relations. This wasn’t to be confused with ambivalence either. Rather see-sawing between negative and positive mental representations typified the ‘borderline personality’ who might also display symptoms of manic depression. For example, in the immediate post-war years the US basked in the prestige of being the world’s ‘liberator’ after fascism’s defeat and the roll out of the Marshall Plan for Europe. Yet the US was also a global “war-machine” and its supposed raison d’etre to defend liberal democracy and the free market was belied somewhat by aggression in Vietnam. America was bewildered: why doesn’t the world like us? The ‘borderline personality’ split was highlighted by reaction to 50,000 US war dead – lachrymose self pity in contrast to the sociopathic disregard for the millions of Vietnamese war dead (combatants and non-combatants, not to mention the death toll in neighbouring countries).

The split within US society between an Ideal America (land of the free, Manifest Destiny, the American Dream) and paranoid America (white supremacism, intolerant Christian fundamentalism) was mirrored by the global love/hate attitude to the US. Bollas follows Freud’s fundamental thesis stating social life requires the diversion of sexual and aggressive drives to the Super-Ego (the origin of conscience but also the starting point of culture and civilization). So Bollas draws an intriguing distinction between oppressed ideas and repressed ideas. The latter could lie dormant but return from the past reanimated while oppressed ideas might reflect the overdetermination of the outside (Adorno’s preponderance of the object) – for example, black colonial subjects internalising the racist imperial ideology of the ‘mother’ country Fanon studied, or Bollas’s unthought known”, the oppressive, refractory weight of the always already social world impinging on intra-psychic life. In one sense the manic frame of mind was a defence – depression and splitting with one part of the mind immersed in events and another part dissociated and elsewhere. This was how most individuals were able to carry out murder or atrocities in war. The threat of imminent death already generated a state of dissociation. The dissociated Self walked hand in hand with the other (damaged) Self, helping it along like a friend though Bollas proposed the net effect was indifference to the mental suffering of the damaged half. Why else allow the damaged other Self carry out ‘bad’ acts or atrocities? This in nuce was splitting (individual and communal): “American innocence has been built upon the house of cards of self-idealization. Vulnerable ultimately to the incontestable evidence of its capacity for grievous wrongdoing, the Vietnam era opened up a fissure in American identity that has never been healed” (37).

According to Bollas’s judgement, (echoing an angsty trope of native criticism), the American mind is unable to reflect on its guilt in the war’s aftermath and in the “cold Civil War” (Carl Bernstein) still dividing America, the nation’s imperial crimes are buried deep, ignored in acts of refusal and deferral amounting to dissociation that might prevent shock but also bars critical discussion of the departure from the ideals of the Republic. Bollas believes that America’s crisis has a deeper fundamental meaning: a loss of faith in a progressive tide and economic uplift. In the C21st Americans and Europeans seek substitutes in the absence of meaning including drugs, alcohol, Netflix, alternative religions and so on. Bollas boldly claims the citizens of the developed world have immersed themselves in material comforts and recreation incidentally liquidating introspection as Normopathic life becomes universal and mental functioning including empathy and curiosity, withers before encroaching depression.

In this context Bollas reflects on the relation of the Self to globalisation and draws attention to the contrast the sociologists Elliott and Urry’s drew between ‘globals’ and ‘locals’ in their study ‘Mobile Lives’ (2008). ‘Locals’ are fixed to a specific spot and less able to participate in social networking. In contrast ‘globals’ travel extensively and experience “meetingness” and are able to exploit the material and social advantages of globalisation and burgeoning social and capital networks. What ‘globals’ embrace is the focus of grievance for ‘locals. In the contemporary world the I contains multitudes, a legion of specular selves enjoying many virtual relationships, transforming human beings who increasingly inhabit multiple worlds. Wherever we go our virtual companions accompany us: the self has become the transmissive self” allowing us to transmit our private selves to the world via various social media devices – phones, iPads, laptops. We are the extensions of our devices and when we upgrade them we effectively upgrade ourselves. In this new world we are asked to assume a role in a wider network, to identify with a thing or a part transforming our position from passive to an active position. As an example Bollas cites the anticipation surrounding the launch of the latest iPhone where transmissive object meets transmissive self. Bollas claims a downside of this emerging “global self” is the Self’s eclipse by group psychology that is regression in a novel form, enabling dissociation and allowing people to go back and forth between their actual and virtual selves and participate in social networks that offer the recognition and affirmation we crave.

The universe of social media with its multiple virtual worlds inevitably impacts on our interior world. Refuge is sought in psychical enclaves in contrast to the earlier dizzying modernist experience when people sought out the derangement of the senses and encountered the shock of the new living in the city (London, Paris, New York, Berlin). The retreat into enclaves (to slow life down and blunt Accelerationism) amounts to a sort of gentrification of the psyche. Yet the speed of life will not be thwarted as private space diminishes. As people desert interiority they no longer dwell in literature or music as they once did. In a derivation of Le Bon and Freud’s arguments about intellectual regression in the context of the group, Bollas proposes that shallow horizontal ‘thinking’ destroys vertical thinking (hierarchy and authority derive from expertise, reflection and introspection). Indeed the medium of social media, the virtualsphere, reduces everything to same level from storms in the US to revolution in the MENA. Differentiation retreats before the homogeneity that is the telos of globalization. Bollas thinks modernism brought people together to be different but the trend of homogenisation today proceeds because people fear being different – now “being on the same page” is at a premium.

Such tendencies unleashed by social media and globalisation have profound implications for meaning today. Meaning is being eliminated as sight replaces insight – we see but we don’t see, a malign tendency Bollas dubs as sightophilia. As corporations colonize the lifeworld they put a lock on the present and the future while the self undergoes “subjecticide” losing autonomy and agency and becoming an object among many objects. What remains of the Self or subject has an elective affinity with the object universe – she wants to become an object. “Refractive thinking” dislodges reflection as thought dissolves into fragments. Over a century ago psychoanalysis zeroed in on the ‘return of the repressed’: how unwanted psychical contents reappeared in disguised form. Bollas considers this psychical process has been joined by the ‘return of the oppressed’: where the Self is assailed by new oppressive forms of thought. These new forms of ‘thinking’ qua defence against thinking and the avoidance of psychical pain, reflect a novel Self that starts to crowd out the old Ego, expunging reflection and perception. In such a situation the analyst’s challenge is how to restore interest in being a subject again? In short the task of therapy (the revitalizing “Freudian pair”) is to dissolve these oppressive patterns of ‘thinking’ in order to help the Self or subject grasp what a subject is and who they are in opposition to the traps of a “normopathic universe.” Therapy has an ethical dimension or goal, an essential kernel that recalls Socrates adage: a life unexamined is a life not worth living.

Bollas is at his most arresting in applying his general psychoanalytical critique of the age, to the phenomenon of Trump, the global rise of the right and the revival of fascism, all of which are critically regarded as a reaction to globalisation, and a flight from complexity into the oceanic realm of simplicity and identity. In the US Trump’s supporters are united by a specific ‘frame of mind’ – many are voting for racism but – closely related – also wish to banish complexity which we might translate as reality which implies both a backward looking nostalgia for ‘simpler’ times (all white neighbourhoods, full employment) and forward looking fascist social engineering. Trump represents everything bad within the Self: sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia which he does little to conceal and this is what makes him ‘authentic’ in his supporters eyes in contrast to the career politicians. It was cathartic to hate Obama or gay marriage or environmentalists and this collective hate has a manic aspect in that it lifts people out of depression – at least temporarily – while aiding the evacuation of the mind by getting rid of the faecal objects of complexity (reality). Thinking, facts, genuine knowledge of the world only brings misery. Millions are offered the opposite by the Trump and the Republican party and they prefer it. It is no accident that Trump voters are the least likely to be college educated or value a degree – a badge of pride for some but actually an expression of their inferiority complex.

Clearly the psychical ‘relief’’ is vicarious and short lived as paranoia will inevitably assail the minds of those drawn to the racist, populist right and proto-fascism throughout the developed world. Those belonging to a group may partake in a process of paranoid projection: hatred for the Other based on the projection of dubious ideas and feelings onto others. Bollas cites Bush and Blair who worked themselves and their supporters up into a frenzy (not unlike Orwell’s daily two minute hate) over Saddam Hussein’s WMD. Yet the subsequent “shock and awe” rhetoric exposed the reality that the US and Britain didn’t really believe their own characterisation of the existential threat Saddam posed. The US could wax lachrymose: we are the ‘good guys’ as “might is right” held sway. While “violent innocence” and sanctimony walked hand in hand the “good guy” (or bully) was: “setting up Hussein as a toilet for the projection of American shit.” Today, Trump makes little effort to hide his mental processes as his racist trolling of the “squad”, four young Democrat Party women of colour sitting in the House of Representatives, has forcefully highlighted. These young Democrats have been powerful critics of Trump’s administration, particularly of Trump’s deliberate war against migrants, setting up barbaric detention centres where children are separated from their parents and people are forced to live in overcrowded facilities described as “cruel and unlawful” by Amnesty International and likened to concentration camps by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the Democratic Party “squad” who was racially abused by Trump. It is clearly far from politics as ‘normal’ in the US – and it has not been since Trump ran for the Republican party Presidential nomination and won it. Trump is a racist but he is also a clear and present danger to US liberal democracy. Significantly Trump isn’t simply a fascist or ethno white nationalist outlier but sits in the Oval Office wielding immense power in the US but also immense influence abroad. Clearly Trump and the Republican party have no compunction whatsoever in using racism in a determined campaign to win a second term in 2020 and will use racism (and misogyny and homophobia) to energise and mobilise white Americans against the multi-racial coalition of voters heavily reliant on minorities that the Democrat Party challenge to Trump will rest on.  There are plenty of instances of Trump’s racist Projective Identification for example when he accused Mexican migrants of being rapists that was really his own confession: ‘I am a Rapist’. Similarly Make America Great Again (Trump is allowed to criticise America unlike his political enemies) might be translated as Make Myself Great Again.

According to Bollas, the Military-Industrial-Psychological Complex is manned by Republican and Democrat “hawks” devoted to ceaselessly stoking hatred in established objects of Projective Identification and hunting for ‘new’ enemies who – lest the citizen forgets – never desist from trying to find ways to destroy America. The efficacy of having an Eternal Enemy feeds the repetitious search for new enemies and the cultivation of enmity reinforcing a paranoid, martial ‘frame of mind’. This is a bold if speculative insight on Bollas’s part and we would only add that if the ‘Spectacle’ or theatre of national politics demands Eternal Enemies then the homeostasis of the system is best served for most of the time by a Virtual Enemy. After all no rich or developed country can really afford to fight the modern age’s equivalent of the Peloponnesian War (it lasted 27 years). Such psychoanalytically functionalist reasoning hardly precludes the descent into a ‘real’ or hot war. The war launched against Iraq by Bush and Blair’s coalition was real but for the citizens on the home front in America, the war was instead ‘real’, a mediated specular double of the fury unleashed in Iraq, announcing a new phase of the spectacle.

More conventionally Bollas argues that succumbing to paranoia is an ever present danger though as a psychical stage it’s usually left behind as we attain maturity. Misery and unhappiness can always spark paranoia. Not all paranoia is ‘bad’ or negative – in Kleinian accounts of the development of the Self from infant to maturity, paranoia is an aspect of the development process that has to be psychically mastered and transcended as part of acquiring control of our internal and external universe, fusing love and hate and learning to accept the world’s complexity. In that important developmental sense as Bollas rightly argues, there is a positive paranoia. However, Bollas also warns against the cri de coeur of the Self: self pity. Paranoia feeds on the negative in a psychical process that is memorably described as “intrasubjective breastfeeding.” In an argument, again of Kleinian provenance Bollas suggests this entails the condensation of “hateful feelings” towards the outside world and “intense love” of the breast that “provides succour to the internal world.” This poisonous paranoia may manifest across a spectrum of behaviours: from addictive enjoyment of the “double expresso of hate” provided by shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh to the paranoid turning inward before the violent projection outward of the young men who carried out the Columbine massacre (significantly unlike ISIS these young men didn’t actually hate America). Massacres like Columbine are at the extreme end of the paranoid spectrum but millions also channelled paranoia when they voted for Trump and in doing so dangerously found confirmatory strength in numbers.

It is not only paranoia that can return and become outsized Bollas argues as certain ‘frames of mind’ can also be reanimated with the repurposing of older ideologies espoused by passionate new ideologues. As an example Bollas points to the mainstreaming of deregulation promoted in the US by fringe far right groups like the John Birch Society and suggests deregulation wasn’t an unmotivated ratiocinated policy but sprang from a hatred of the Federal government that is today deeply rooted in many US ‘Red’ states. Deregulation as a malignant political ideal that would eventually have real world consequences had a psychological correlate: the dismantling of all psychical regulation. Trump’s personal behaviour exemplifies the abandonment of self regulation – hence the constant lowering of the bar of acceptable political discourse with his sexism and racism. Bollas argues that the Republicans embody “Id capitalism” at its most naked while issues such healthcare and taxes, reveal them to be the most cold hearted sociopaths. For years now tax cutting and reducing regulation have been overriding political goals. There is also an acute sense of loss in America; that the ‘Golden Age’ of US growth and global supremacy lies in the past. Europe and South East Asia modernized, caught up and then started to leave the US behind. Bollas believes Americans largely share this sense of loss and are in the grip of a psychodynamic depression: loss of self belief, depression and feelings of helplessness. In this context the slogan Make America Great Again has more than a whiff of compensatory mania about it. Bollas suggests “ideological clinical depression” is at work while groups who support Trump or (like Brexit) are assailed by morbid states of mind. Essentially such manic depressive ideological outlooks are not simply ideological or political but also a psychological problem.

The malaise of the West and the developed world runs deep. In terms of Kleinian theory and Object Relations, the West ‘split’ from its manic depressive side (the D-Position in Melanie Klein) and projected it on to the post-colonial world and its people. The Western military-industrial complex, had a manic component: retain power and hegemony. Yet World War Two and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the definitive full stop to the roseate picture of the West embodying humanity’s Progress. Today the manic depressive splitting of the ‘borderline personality’ has two elements: one of which idealizes the world and the other denigrating the world. Controversially Bollas thinks the left/right political divide may be largely be accounted for by this splitting process. Those on the left basically identify with grievance and feed off misery. So Bollas understands left politicsuncharitably and a tad reductively – as a form of ressentiment (a critical argument present in Hegel and Kierkegaard but associated in its substantial form with Nietzsche though the most sophisticated version was elaborated by Max Scheler who wanted to insulate Christianity from Nietzsche’s charge that it was a slave morality animated by ressentiment like socialism). In this context Bollas aims some cautionary remarks toward ‘Identity’ politics viewed characteristically in terms of psychodynamics: both a welcome push back against oppression and prejudice but also a search for belonging and meaning. The danger in ‘Identity’ politics lies in splitting or allowing the differences between women, blacks or LGBT for example – to become walls or for oppression to become an additive badge of distinction undermining solidarity and separating people who should be natural allies. Bollas doesn’t really unpack his cautionary critique but it is worth noting that he is a veteran of an older form of Sixties radicalism having been an active participant in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (Bollas positively contrasts this experience to the moralism of contemporary campus leftism). In Bollas’s view this is a symptom of the universalisation of the ‘borderline personality’ and the fission of the normopathic Self. Trump and the right feed on efforts to evade the depressive side of life (perhaps this is one reason climate change denialism is such a fixture among hardcore supporters). Trump occupies the space of the death drive in dismissing the scientific facts – facts that constitute depressive Bad News and no doubt account for some of the popularity of Fox News which insulates its legion of loyal viewers from contact with reality. One positional good that a citizen of a developed country might have the luxury of enjoying is a paranoid retreat into an affluent silo while jettisoning any burdensome empathy with the global poor, exploited and oppressed, to create an alternative to reality. In an important sense as the global catastrophe of climate change comes into ever sharper relief, Trump and the Republicans double down on their promise of “normopathic materialism.”

How can such malign psychosocial forces be countered? Bollas suggests two approaches. The first, mentioned in passing, is social psychotherapy to address the psychosocial pandemics of contemporary life, to launch an assault on melancholia, depression and anger. The other approach is closely linked: therapy or the “talking cure” of the dyadic “Freudian pair” is analogous to democracy. Bollas approvingly cites J.S. Mill’s assertion that people were capable of rational reflection (a universal quality of the mind) and that the reflexive self inevitably made mistakes but in discussion with other reflexive subjects would be able to correct those mistakes. Bollas might have cited Habermasian arguments for the immanent rationality and democratic efficacy of communicative reason but he doesn’t take this route. Instead democracy is treated as a specific ‘frame of mind’ – a dialogue whose telos is a mutually beneficial enlightenment that banishes repression. Intriguingly Bollas points to the valuable lessons about groups and democracy that he learned while training in ‘Bion groups’ in the early 1970s at the Tavistock clinic. In this experience the whole group were responsible for any single address or remark made in the group and group leaders like a stenographer or clerk of record had to hold onto complex situations, register contrary arguments and resist trying to smooth out disagreement in the service of analytic listening. Wilfred Bion pioneered the idea of psychoanalytic group work and a working methodology that aimed to create a working democracy though Bion regarded his own efforts as a failure – see Bion’s dense and elliptical ‘Experiences in Groups’ (1961). The group encompassed all the good and bad impulses found in the Self (and wider humanity) and were simultaneously, spaces where the democratic process could potentially unfold and a space for the therapeutic process.

Bollas mounts a strong argument for the importance and reality of the democratic ‘frame of mind’: we all have an urge to express our views, to speak freely. Admirably, the ‘Arab Spring’ is offered as an example when people gathered on the street, in town and village squares or centres, and formed groups basically resting on democratic processes. Democracy is regarded as a ‘frame of mind’ but also something deeper and stronger. As Fukuyama noted between 1970 and 2010 democracies actually grew from 35 to nearly 120 or 60% of the world’s countries. The triumph of democracy would not happen because of Reason pace Hegel but instead the “reasoned self” would emerge from an “internal democracy” of many competing ideas as part of the development of the self. Bollas’s conception is not that distant from the sort of argument proposed by Axel Honneth in ‘The Struggle for Recognition’ and it is eminently Kleinian in that proposes the existence of an internal psychical universe of objects and an external object universe that the Self negotiates in the course of its development. Indeed the portrait of the mind – chaotic and shaped by powerful subterranean forces like the unconscious – presented by Bollas is one where democratic and totalitarian strivings conflict and interact and interact with the external world. Democracy is a potential within us all but requires careful nurturing in a collective or a specific institutional framework to flourish. The danger is that in the US (and elsewhere) liberal democracy is increasingly embattled and under immense pressure largely because of a profound sense of loss, of the appearance of a vacuum where meaning was supposed to reside at the heart of life. Instead a “shared bleakness” prevails; a sense that we have lost something and lost our way. In such a situation the essential twin pillars of democracy and a psychotherapy whose reigning sign is “know yourself” are both central to renewal, renovation and our survival as a species. As Bollas concludes:

“This work has attempted to explore a vital need to return to the creation of meaning, in our lives and in our societies, by making use of psychological insight within the experience of democracy. This offers a platform for national and international discourse predicated not on the free market of disturbed states of mind, but on a new form of collective understanding in which human beings can turn once again towards becoming humane beings” (129).

Jules Etjim

Failing better: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the end of the revolutionary Marxist tradition


Review: A Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology: Autonomy, Critique and Revolution in the Age of Bureaucratic Capitalism. Published by Eris (1 Oct. 2018)


A century ago in 1916, after two years of mass death on the battlefields of the First World War, the Polish revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg declared bourgeois civilization was at a crossroads while humanity faced a stark choice: either socialism or barbarism. The European state system was collapsing as a result of the terrible destruction inflicted by war which detonated a chain of rebellions and revolutions shattering nations and empires. The apotheosis of this cataclysmic moment was the October revolution – an apparent herald of a deluge that would sweep world capitalism away.

30 years later when a small French revolutionary group with just 20 members formed, adopting Luxemburg’s watchword as its name, the Socialisme ou Barbarie group inhabited an entirely different universe and socialism’s promise had been reduced to ashes by the monstrous existence of Stalinist bureaucratic totalitarianism across Eastern Europe. The ‘moment of Leninism’ in the early 1920s when the 3rd International’s mass Communist parties vied with Social Democracy for the allegiance of the working class across Europe, had long since passed. Fascism had triumphed in Italy in 1922 virtually unchallenged, foreshadowing the victories of Hitler and Franco. The defeats of the 1930s were grievous wounds. In Germany fascism’s ascendancy saw the jewels of the European working class, the SPD and KPD, crushed into dust while Stalinism’s ascendancy signalled a revolution betrayed in the East, itself a prelude to a revolution strangled in its cradle on the Iberian peninsula.

In stark contrast to the grim 1930s and the Second World War, the SouB group, formed in late 1948, led a subterranean existence on the margins of the French working class dominated by the Communists (PCF) and the Socialists (SFIO). There SouB remained for almost two decades before finally dissolving in June 1967 after 40 issues of the ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal whose strap line had been an ‘Organ of Revolutionary Criticism and Orientation.’ Many of the articles in the journal published between March 1949 and the last issue in June 1965 have enjoyed quite an afterlife as the posthumous reputation of the SouB group grew, translated and reprinted on numerous occasions. A major reason for the SouB group’s burgeoning reputation could largely be attributed to their political and theoretical perspicacity and originality, especially how SouB first re-imagined Marxism, revolution and socialism in a daring, lucid libertarian register that enabled SouB to push beyond Marxism and tentatively propose new directions for reconstituting radical politics, autonomy and democracy. Avenues would be opened up that Castoriadis in particular explored after SouB’s demise.

Over half a century later Eris Publications has produced an invaluable 485 page anthology collecting a variety of articles by many different contributors to the ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal’s 40 issues (translated from an earlier French anthology into English). ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie: An Anthology’ (2018) provides an indispensable collection with a wealth of invaluable historical background in the notes with introductions accompanying the anthology’s seven thematic sections. This anthology is an essential companion to (or supplement) the equally irreplaceable 3 volume ‘Political and Social Writings’ of Cornelius Castoriadis’ translated and edited by Castoriadis scholar David Ames Curtis who, unsurprisingly, is a moving spirit behind this English translation; or, an addition to the collections of Claude Lefort’s such as ‘The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism’ (1978 French edition, 1986 English edition) that started with two Lefort SouB era articles – a 1948 essay on the contradictions of Trotsky’s politics from ‘Les Tempes Modernes’ journal and a essay on totalitarianism after Stalin.

There are many different contributors to the anthology, not just Castoriadis and Lefort, reminding us SouB was a revolutionary group uniting intellectuals and workers who were revolutionaries first. The SouB group aspired to overcome the impact of the social division between mental and manual labour and workers dependence on intellectuals in their own political organizations. The idea workers were inescapably dependent on intellectuals as the bearers of science, was originally proposed and defended by Karl Kautsky against the challenge of ‘revisionism’ in German Social Democracy. ‘Revisionism’ basically dismissed Marxism and the maximum goal as alien impositions on the working class. Kautsky’s remarks (a gloss on Marx and Engels’s aside in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ observing bourgeois intellectuals able to scientifically grasp the direction of history would defect to the proletarian cause), greatly influenced Lenin’s own understanding of the party (the crucible of science). The alleged inability of workers to generate socialist (re: scientific) consciousness from their own ‘economic’ struggles was originally outlined by Kautsky before Lenin adopted it as Social Democratic or Marxist orthodoxy. Five decades later, such elitist arguments were plainly anachronistic as the social division between mental and manual labour was drastically modified due to changes in the nature of capitalism, the growth of immaterial labour, the advent of universal education, the expansion of higher education and many other developments.

The many articles included in this anthology appear variously under seven themes:

(1) ‘Bureaucratic Society’ – including ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, the statement of intent penned by Castoriadis (Chaulieu) in the first March 1949 issue. The SouB group immediately grasped the epochal significance of bureaucracy for the development of modern capitalism as an expression of the concentration and centralisation of capital and the growing salience of the state.

(2) ‘The World of Work’ – including Paul Romano’s ‘The American Worker’ from 1950, an article that demonstrated the SouB group’s awareness of what was taking place on the shop floor in the US, Britain and elsewhere in the West in the years of economic boom and workers wildcat resistance to both speed up and collaboration between the trade union officials and bosses and so on.

(3) ‘The Crisis of the Bureaucratic System 1953-57’ – addresses the working class challenge to Stalinism and bureaucratic rule in the East in East Berlin, Poland and the 1956 Hungarian revolution when workers councils appeared again in Europe.

(4) ‘The Content of Socialism’ – is devoted to Castoriadis’s long article of the same name which appeared in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ #22 (1957), when Castoriadis basically dismissed planning and nationalisation in the ‘name’ of the working class (‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’), as the programmatic goals of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’. Instead, socialism should be defined positively in terms of working class autonomous self activity and the self management of society that Castoriadis thought should be based in industrial enterprises ie a position privileging the industrial working class over other workers and social strata – a section of workers who were a declining minority given the secular recomposition (and disaggregation) of the working class as a whole. Castoriadis would shortly realize this himself and break with Marxism.

(5) ‘Organization’ – focuses on the dispute between Castoriadis and Lefort on the nature of workers political organisation. The SouB group arguably never fully broke with Leninism or the conviction the working class required revolutionary political organization though the latter was defined in terms of Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin. However Lefort dissented arguing any political organization was incompatible with proletarian autonomy because it would ultimately usurp the working class in any revolutionary scenario. In the 1950s Castoriadis and Lefort debated the question which was still unsettled when Lefort left SouB in 1958.

(6) ‘The Third World’ – as the anthology’s introduction to this section makes clear colonialism and the anti-colonial struggle was never at the forefront of the SouB group’s thinking in terms of global capitalism which focused on modern capitalism East and West and the significance of the bureaucratic trend, at the expense of struggles in the developing world or the Third World as it widely became known as after the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, the anti-colonial resistance in Algeria that began in full earnest in 1954 encouraged Jean-Francois Lyotard to take on the challenge of analysing the struggle – support for the struggle, anti-colonialism, anti- imperialism but also rejecting nationalism and suggesting the FLN was a putative bureaucratic ruling class in the making. Lyotard provided physical aid to the struggle but SouB did not insist on unconditional support for the resistance to French colonialism. The other issue arising from Algeria was the racism of the French working class and the utter failure of the Socialists and Communists to challenge that racism or argue the case for internationalism and solidarity with the Algerian anti-colonial struggle. The French settler state in Algeria conducted a vicious, bloody war against Algerian independence and anti-Arab, anti-North African racism ran deep in France itself (a poisonous legacy surviving in France to this day and extending to Islamophobia). In comparison with the Socialists and the Stalinist PCF who bestrode the working class, the tiny SouB group (less than a 100 members before 1957-58) was utterly marginal. This section has two excerpts from Lyotard’s SouB journal pieces on Algeria written between 1958 and 1961. The other article in this section is on China.

(7) ‘Modern Capitalism and the Break with Marxism’ – is devoted to SouB’s ongoing critical exploration of post-war capitalism’s nature which eventually led to Castoriadis’s break with Marxism tout court. Below, Paths and Bridges provides a brief history of SouB.

Finally, the Anthology has a full table of contents for every article (and author) in all 40 issues of the journal and a short biography for every SouB author anthologised here.

Origins of the SouB Group

Though the Second World War ended with fascism’s crushing defeat, there was no revolutionary reprise of the working class revolt that marked the end of the 1914-18 Great War as most revolutionaries had anticipated. Once a mass presence in the European working class, the surviving groups and currents of revolutionary socialists were a tiny minority (council communists, Bordigists, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalists and others), scattered by the calamities of the 1930s and facing a fresh challenge: how to digest the import of ‘total war’, the rise of bureaucracy and the transformation of capitalism. Pre-war expectations were brutally erased by new realities. Maps and compasses from another universe had to be discarded as worse than useless. The perspectives of the Fourth International (FI), founded in profoundly unpropitious circumstances in 1938, were a case in a point. These perspectives had been strongly influenced by Trotsky’s eve of war predictions – war would have a shattering effect on the Soviet Union and the usurping Soviet bureaucracy. Trotsky believed the Stalinist bureaucracy was no more stable than a pyramid standing on its point because it was parasitic social stratum, an excrescence sprung from the working class. However, the Stalinist bureaucracy proved to be far more resilient than expected. The bureaucracy survived Hitler’s military onslaught while the restorationist ‘political’ revolution of a reawakened Soviet working class expected by revolutionaries never happened. Also Trotsky was never able to revise his prognosis as he was murdered by a GPU agent in Mexico City in August 1940. Yet in ‘The USSR and the War’ (1939), Trotsky remarked:

‘If the international proletariat, as a result of the experience of our entire epoch and the current new war, proves incapable of becoming the masters of society, this would signify the foundering of all hope for a socialist revolution, for it is impossible to expect any more favourable conditions for it.’

The SouB group first began life as the Chaulieu-Montal tendency in the Trotskyist Parti Communist Internationale (PCI), the French section of the FI which was formed in 1946. Even by the modest standards of the post-war revolutionary left, the SouB group was never large and so when the Chaulieu-Montal tendency departed the PCI in late 1948 it had just 20 members. A decade later SouB had reached almost 100 members. The tendency was formed by Cornelius Castoriadis (Chaulieu) and Claude Lefort (Montal). Both men were drawn together by their common disagreement with the FI’s attitude to the Soviet Union and the historical role of the Stalinist bureaucracy. So Castoriadis rejected Trotsky’s portrayal in ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ (1936) of the Stalinist bureaucracy as a gendarme ensuring the orderly distribution of the social product among the different social classes and groups of Soviet society in a context of scarcity. Castoriadis didn’t believe the bureaucracy was simply an ephemeral or ‘transitional’ phenomena destined to wither away as the socialist economy finally achieved abundance for all. Rather the tendency and then the SouB group concluded bureaucracy was a major feature of a transformed modern capitalism defined by the growing weight of the state and the bureaucratic trend, presenting a major obstacle to working class autonomy and self activity.

The SouB group was made up of a handful of white collar workers and professional and manual workers most notably the car worker Daniel Mothe, a militant working at Renault’s huge Billancourt factory on the Parisian outskirts while Castoriadis and Lefort were the group’s most significant thinkers. Castoriadis was a Greek citizen (he didn’t become a French citizen until 1970) born in Constantinople in 1922. When Castoriadis was a few months old his parents were forced to return to Greece. During the Second World War the young Castoriadis was a Trotskyist hunted by the Nazi’s and the Stalinists. After the Germans were driven out Greece descended into civil war. Castoriadis fled to France where he resumed his education in Paris. Claude Lefort was a brilliant student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and became a Trotskyist during the occupation in 1943.

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Statement of Intent

In March 1949 the first issue of the ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal appeared. The eponymous editorial both established the restless critical tone that would characterize the journal for two decades while introducing many of the themes SouB scrutinized throughout its existence. The editorial cum statement of intent (uncredited but written by Castoriadis) began by observing that 100 years after ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848) and 30 years after the October revolution, the revolutionary proletarian movement had disappeared, like a river approaching the sea, breaking up into rivulets. A vast gulf separated socialism’s ideals from the tawdry reality of betrayal. In the so-called socialist countries labour camps and repression were the norm. In the West millions of workers were organised in bureaucratic parties and trade unions that functioned as a barrier to social revolution. This editorial introduced a major leitmotif of SouB, the idea the fault line of the modern age was a division between ‘directors’ and ‘executants’ rather than owners of the means of production and the propertyless. Though marginal groups of revolutionaries had ‘survived’ the “general shipwreck”, the FI was blinded by a “spurious faithfulness to the letter of Marxism as a substitute for an answer to the important questions of the day.”

Capitalism’s evolution meant new problems for revolutionaries in terms of rebuilding the proletarian revolutionary movement unknown in 1848 like bureaucracy in the workers movement but also new forms of capitalist organization especially state ownership of production which promised to eclipse private capitalist ownership in the age of “declining capitalism” (the notion of capitalism’s civilizational decadence was at the heart of the orthodox Trotskyist lexicon after Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme). The rising bureaucracy was the social embodiment of these new innovations in capitalism. In fact Castoriadis’s editorial strongly suggested an elective affinity between the goals of the labour movement (nationalisation, planning) and direction of capitalist development. Nationalisation and planning could no longer be regarded as unambiguously progressive goals but potentially heralded new forms of the domination and exploitation (1).

In ‘The Contradictions of Trotsky’ that appeared in ‘Les Temps Modernes’ in 1948 Claude Lefort offered a similar argument to Castoriadis but addressed the evasions of Trotsky’s analysis of the origins of the Stalinist bureaucracy – essentially Trotsky’s prime fault wasn’t only helping pave the way for the counterrevolution’s triumph, (for instance by helping crush the Kronstadt revolt in 1921), or temporizing with Stalin’s faction of the Bolshevik Party by failing to fully bloc with a stricken Lenin when the latter urged a campaign to crush Stalin or subsequently vacillating in the struggle against Stalin and the degeneration of the party-state but fundamentally misrecognising the bureaucracy’s significance, its social and historical import as the embodiment of new forms of class control and exploitation (2).

Intriguingly, the ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ editorial also pointed beyond Leninism though further years of disputes on the nature and raison d’etre of revolutionary organization, elapsed before the most intransigent anti-Leninists and most vocal proponents of proletarian autonomy like Claude Lefort and Henri Simon departed SouB in 1958. Shortly after the group around Castoriadis started relinquishing Marxism and became embroiled in another internal struggle with those unwilling to jettison Marxism including Jean-Francois Lyotard years before he coined the term postmodern or became known as a major figure in the French new wave of post-modern philosophy and social theory. Lyotard’s group split from SouB in 1963 and formed Pouvoir Ouvrier which survived until 1969, outliving its original host. SouB officially dissolved in 1967 though the group had effectively stopped functioning earlier when the final issue of the journal appeared in 1965.

Earlier, against Lefort and others, the SouB majority (including Castoriadis), defended the necessity of revolutionary political organization with their understanding of its nature indebted to Rosa Luxemburg’s devastating criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the October revolution: the exaggerated emphasis on centralisation, the importance of the revolutionary high command and its ‘infallible’ decisions at the expense of the necessary mistakes of the masses (the struggle was an indispensable school) – a model politically allergic to the authoritarian and anti-democratic biases of Bolshevik practice. There was also a tacit rejection of Lenin’s assumption the methods of struggle of the revolutionary movement had to be symmetrical to those of the state.

Beyond Marxism

SouB’s dazzlingly original attempt to relate revolutionary theory and practice to the world as it had become eventually pushed its most adventurous members to plead the case for going ‘beyond’ Marxism to reconstitute radical social theory. In 1959, Castoriadis (Paul Cardan) drafted ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’ (1960-61) laying bare Marxism’s ‘objectivism’ and the inadequacy of its critique of political economy. ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’ (1964-65) consolidated Castoriadis’s critique of Marxism. Castoriadis conceded Marxism’s historical role in foregrounding the ‘social question’ and establishing class politics as part of the social universe. Yet Marxism was no longer a revolutionary force in the world but instead an ideology of putative power. Marxism had not only sought to interpret but change the world and so it could not be exculpated from the consequences of the preceding decades of its practice and influence. Indeed, to do so would condemn Marxism to being “mere theory.” Castoriadis argued similar considerations barred a ‘return to Marx’, effectively elevating Marx above history or insulating actually existing Marxism(s) from criticism; a move that would certainly be a violation of Marx’s own understanding of his enterprise. Marxism had become many Marxism’s, so many pragmatic, delimited or ‘local’ ideologies (as Fredric Jameson once acknowledged) justifying the practice of a wide variety of social and historical forces. Marxism had long since stopped being a ‘living theory’ as the shedding of pitiless self criticism indicated. Fruitful applications of Marxism for grasping social reality had been replaced by endless and arcane discussion of Marxism that treated its theoretical corpus as a substitute object universe. Castoriadis also rejected appeals to ‘method’ as Marxism’s salvation (Lukács). Method was neither separate from history nor from the content of Marxism, its core and auxiliary concepts and hypotheses. The development of the social-historical world was the unfolding of a universe of meaning while the belief sharp logical distinctions separated fact and meaning, was in practice invalid. The contemporary reality of modern capitalism, falsified Marxism – it could not be grasped by traditional or ‘amended’ categories because it simply wasn’t a matter of the redundancy of auxiliary hypotheses but many of the core features and propositions of Marxism. Consequently, Castoriadis concluded revolutionaries faced a choice: remain a Marxist or a revolutionary but it was no longer possible to remain both.

Despite SouB’s invisibility during its lifetime, SouB’s ideas had a huge impact on the revolutionary ferment of May 1968 in France. SouB’s critique of Stalinism and the suffocating role of the bureaucracies at the summit of the workers movement (political parties and trade unions), was far more radical than orthodox Trotskyism’s critique of bureaucracy. Also, the SouB group generalised from the powerful shop floor militancy and wildcat strikes in the US, Britain and elsewhere and the workers revolts against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the East, to present a positive conception of socialism as workers self management resting on working class self activity and initiative. Any alienated, institutional product of working class passivity like the political party or the trade union, invariably strengthened the grip of bureaucracy and officialdom, and was antithetical to autonomy and socialism. Such ideas provided the student revolutionaries of the Sorbonne and Nanterre with powerful critical weapons. For example, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (or ‘Red Dany’) readily borrowed from the iron rations of SouB’s revolutionary politics. In Britain SouB’s politics was an inspiration to the small libertarian socialist group Solidarity (UK) group founded in October 1960 by Christopher Pallis (a surgeon who published as Maurice Brinton) and Ken Weller (a young engineer) and others when first Weller and then Pallis was expelled from Gerry Healy’s orthodox Trotskyist Socialist Labour League. Solidarity (UK) subsequently moved away from Trotskyism and though modest in size briefly played a key role in CND especially its advocacy of a shift in strategy from marching against the bomb, to carrying out acts of mass civil disobedience (advocated with the Direct Action Committees and then the Committee of 100) that aspired to disrupt the unruffled, invisible functioning of the “warfare state.” Pallis was the chief proselytiser of SouB in the Anglophone world from the 1960s onwards, translating nine of Castoriadis’s SouB texts (as Paul Cardan) into English which formed a significant proportion of the 60 pamphlets Solidarity (UK) published in its lifetime (the group finally folded in 1992).


In June 1967, two years after the final issue of the journal, the group circulated a notice ‘The Suspension of Publication of Socialisme ou Barbarie’ that announced the dissolution of the group explaining SouB had always been conceived as a “revolutionary political project” that had sought its raison d’etre in, and nourished itself on, struggle and political activity. With 18 years of collective activity and experience behind them those remaining in the group after the departures of 1958 and 1963, wondered if the nature of modern capitalism tended to extinguish political activity due to growing privatisation of social life, that with exception of noisy minorities, “silence” reigned in society. Also the forces countering this trend such as workers autonomous struggles, the self-directing struggles (gestionnaire) championed by SouB, would ominously become increasingly feeble or rather, more accurately, didn’t catch fire in France to the same extent they did in other countries. SouB had expected the shop floor militancy in the US and Britain to happen in France and then acquire a political aspect transcending the sphere of the economic. In fact SouB concluded that such shop floor, rank and file struggles in countries like Britain had proved to be inherently limited or circular, failing to breach the narrow economic sphere of wages and conditions. Yet this was arguably an over hasty conclusion. In Britain from the mid 1960s onwards successive Labour and Conservative governments had wrung their hands about Britain’s lack of economic competitiveness compared to other rival developed economies and how to improve productivity and profitability. Both Labour and Conservative governments identified workers shop floor muscle as the chief impediment to the renovation of British capitalism. Thus governments turned their attention to ways shop floor militancy could be bridled and mooted legislation to curb the trade unions with a mixture of voluntary and involuntary measures intended to enlist the help of the trade union bureaucracies in policing the rank and file. Instead such measures provoked significant shop floor resistance and it was clearly the case that the ‘wall’ between the economic and the political was – in some places at least – breached. In Britain, at least a combination of the economic impact of the breakdown of the post-war ‘long boom’ and the alliance of the trade union bureaucracy and the 1974-79 Labour government, finally broke the back of the shop floor militancy that had been such a feature of the post-war scene in Britain, and incidentally had a profoundly demoralising political impact, helping pave the way for Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

In France in the 1960s SouB saw little evidence of similar struggles and judged the working class politically quiescent (De Gaulle had returned to power in 1958 invited by the National Assembly and granted extraordinary powers to govern as a result of the political crisis directly sparked by pied-noir settler reaction in Algeria). In such an inhospitable context it was impossible to build revolutionary political organization in the absence of a living dialectic between revolutionary politics and struggle. SouB’s circular was damning about the pseudo activity of groups that were blind to the fact that praxis required certain conditions of possibility: a politically confident and attentive working class – instead a “useless and sterile simulacrum of this activity” was the unsentimental verdict (4). In hindsight, after the social explosion of May 1968 in France and events elsewhere (the Italian ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, industrial struggles in Britain during Heath’s 1970-74 government and so on), it might have seemed SouB was premature to liquidate itself and there was some attempt to reconvene the group in light of the May evenements but this came to nothing. Yet while May 1968 revived the radical left, the upturn in wider struggles began to lose its impetus in the course of the following decade before the triumph of Thatcher and Reagan confirmed the ebb tide. Finally, we might say that in terms of the broader social and historical canvas, SouB did accurately gauge the longer term post-war secular trends unfolding in the democratic developed countries apparent in our present moment: increasing privatisation, atrophying of the public sphere, decline in political participation, breakdown of political behaviour and party affiliation based on class identity.

Barbarism or..?

In our contemporary universe, two decades into the C21st everything is falling apart it seems. Yet not everything is as perishable as the ‘tradition’ of revolutionary socialism finally proved to be in the face of its mortal enemy, capitalism. Yet a dwindling band of adherents and believers still talk of the relevance of the ‘tradition’ – a certain sign of senescence. Some things remain because they changed while other things change and in doing so vanish. Today it may no longer seem plausible to argue the fundamental choice facing humanity is socialism or barbarism but it does appear there is a fork in the path looming, always assuming that there isn’t something fundamentally flawed or misplaced about continuing to think in such stark binaries in the first place or if there is, that there is still something useful to be gained from such an approach. Scepticism and suspicion is perhaps unavoidable after the postmodern ‘turn’ in social theory and culture with such binaries tainted by the eschatological connotation of a choice between salvation or oblivion but also a revenant of the ‘Midnight in the Century’ (Victor Serge) that ensured the destruction of any glib faith in the fatality of history moving in a progressive direction.

Nonetheless, if the shipwreck of socialism spells the definitive closure of the project associated with the classical workers movement and if the sobriety of our age insistently demands that we set aside all the cathected attachments and satisfactions associated with revolutionary millenarianism, there are still grounds and reasons to conclude that humanity is at a crossroads. Some of those reasons include the nature of instituted-instituting societies (Castoriadis), globalisation, the relatively open ended character of politics in the modern era, the reality of the climate change crisis among others. In fact, the climate change crisis indicates the Great Acceleration (the latest stage of the Anthropocene which began 12-15,000 years ago at the dawn of settled agriculture), is an urgent actuality and that humanity still faces collective choices. Barbarism or extinction, more or less (for what would the practical difference be?), will be our likely fate unless we collectively begin constructing an alternative that would also mean fashioning a different social order to global capitalism though we can no longer confidently state what that alternative order would look like concretely. Averting eco-malign barbarism implies a radical departure from ‘business as usual’ and probably exiting (revolutionary?) capitalism as it is irrevocably predicated on endless growth that must treat the biosphere as the enabling adjunct of capital accumulation. Such a vista or project implies a momentous effort to shape a viable civilizational alternative to the current destructive course that at a minima must be based on collective, democratic decision making linked to extant here and now struggles, for autonomy, recognition and social equality.

The libertarian socialism of SouB, its restless critical spirit, has been a point of departure and an inspiration for ‘Paths and Bridges’ as has the encounter with the thinking of Castoriadis and Lefort after they left SouB, especially their effort to rethink radical politics and the necessity of saying farewell to Marxism, for our far more modest political endeavour. It is this latter post-SouB political and theoretical endeavour that is of the greatest value and honesty compels us to make it clear that ‘adherence’ to the politics of SouB is not really possible. How can anyone maintain fidelity to the politics or outlook of a tiny revolutionary group that dissolved itself over 50 years ago in a different historical universe? Such a stance would practically amount to political necrophilia or hobbyism. The militants, activists and thinkers at the heart of the SouB group could not and did not stand still and neither can we (and certainly not in a spot last occupied half a century ago). Yet there is still a great deal to be learned from the SouB group but more so from the subsequent political and theoretical journey undertaken by Castoriadis and Lefort which represented both a break with, but also maintained strong elements of continuity with the politics of SouB.

Castoriadis’s project for autonomy in particular is valuable in this respect – ‘Paths and Bridges’ considers the numerous local struggles for autonomy taking place across the globe, to be hugely significant in relation to the fate of radical or progressive politics in the present and near future. In our view autonomy encompasses the struggle for recognition (Axel Honneth) and its extension, democracy, freedom, civil rights but also the struggle for social justice. It is a global struggle that has no other centre than civil society or nascent civil society. Apprehension of the goals of this struggle for autonomy and democracy also discloses the agency of this struggle – the citizen (citoyen), a collective formed of particular individuals whose telos in relation to identity implies a cosmopolitan meta-identity derived from autonomy and reciprocal recognition and incidentally, in terms of psychoanalysis, would also imply self knowledge and an ethics of the self and its free development that can only rest on respect for the other as self and its own free development. As Axel Honneth argues (following George Herbert Mead) the struggle for mutual or reciprocal recognition is linked to the reproduction of social life in our present – it underpins a practical a relation-to-self, meaning that an individual would only learn to view herself ‘objectively’ within the wider normative perspective of the inter-subjective sphere. But our present world or nomos falls far too short to allow autonomy to fully flourish. Mutual recognition and autonomy would also be a prerequisite for social esteem and individual differentiation. Such a view of autonomy as a political project with all that it implies about social agency is surely incompatible with Marxism and the idea the working class might as the identical subject-object of history (Georg Lukacs) or the revolutionary subject at the heart of a movement of the immense majority and part of the ‘real movement of history’ (Marx). In the last phase of its existence as a group, SouB started to grapple with the eclipse of the classical workers movement and the quietism of the working class. At present, we consider the evidence of the waning of collectivity (Raphael Samuel) or the atrophying of proletarian solidarity, too overwhelming to ignore, discount or treat as a temporary historical blip. Arguably, despite the ‘proletarianization’ of the globe including the formal expansion of wage-labour in countries like China, other global trends such as the disaggregation of the working class and erosion of proletarian solidarity, have been more decisive. Yet we concede it is possible to envisage labour movements – such as they are – playing a part at the heart of a broader political movement of citizens whose goals would be to continually extend and deepen autonomy and democracy.

Finally, no one who regards themselves as a radical or revolutionary could fail to be provoked or inspired by the SouB group and the Anthology is an irreplaceable resource – an opening not only to the SouB group whose politics anticipated our social universe but a door to Lefort and Castoriadis whose work is a major touchstone for ‘Paths and Bridges’ conception of radical politics and autonomy – a subject that we intend to return to in more detail in the near future.

Paths and Bridges

(1) Cornelius Castoriadis ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie: An
Anthology’ (2018), pp.43-64.
(2) Claude Lefort ‘The Contradiction of Trotsky’ (1948) in ‘The Political Forms of
Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism’ (1986) pp.31-51.

Objects of power in the frozen north: A reflection on ‘A Moon of Nickel and Ice’


A Moon of Nickel and Ice, Directed by Francois Jacob. Canada/Russia (2017)

The project, so intrinsic to capitalism, by which the world is conceptualised as resources, dead matter to be used toward the goals of accumulation and the transformation of the world, chrematistics and mastery, is sometimes laid so wide open in all its irrationality, that it brings into stark relief the madness of the civilisational complex we call modernity. Perhaps, now climate change threatens societal destruction, this has become understood on a wider basis. Up until now the question of why we seek to live this way has been mainly posed by ecological or religious thinkers – or both, like Jacques Ellul – or by “peripheral” communities at the sharp end of environmental destruction and social exclusion, who once lived by social significations totally incompatible with the ‘rational mastery’ master narrative at the heart of capitalism, and plainly see it as not rationality but dizzying delusion.

At the massive open mines of the Australian outback, on the levelled bauxite mountains of Orissa or in the Amazon perhaps there’s a clearer view? As for the Russian Arctic North, its history is perhaps the most entwined with the madness of the modern project. Though Communist Party bureaucrats from Lenin and Trotsky on would have considered the quest to master this massive landmass and draw from it the base materials of development as the epitome of sense, perhaps the young women and men from Lviv or Riga taken there under guard saw it for what it was, capitalist ideology spiralling out of control. Treated as much as objects as that which drew out of the Earth, they must have seen the madness as well as the cruelty there. To us now, it surely can be no more ‘rational’ than an Aguirre’s quest for El Dorado.


In this three places stand out. Magadan, the ‘gate of hell’ on ‘the island’ (so called as it was only accessible by boat despite being on the far eastern coast of Eurasia) from where prisoners were forced to mine gold and uranium at fifty below in the Kolyma mountains.(1) Vorkuta, where prisoners were sent from Moscow by train, until the railway ran out then marched hundreds of miles out into the wilderness alongside malarial waterways too shallow to navigate, to mine coal in prison camps at the Usa river basin (2). And Norilsk, created to mine the nickel from the Putorana mountains and process it in massive metallurgical plants, the northernmost city in the world, closed to outsiders and only accessible by plane or via the Arctic Sea. It is the subject of Francois Jacob’s documentary, ‘A Moon of Nickel and Ice’.

The foundation of these places read like some adventure story for trainee state bureaucrats, as free-wheeling explorers tapped the state to fund their expeditions into the endless permafrost horizon, with the promise of riches to follow. On having discovered deposits in the north of the remote Taymyr peninsula, such men put on Commissar uniforms to return with the state and 1200 prisoners to found Norillag (Norilsk Corrective Labour Camp). We are told that none of the 1200 survived long enough to be buried in graves. Seeing the frightening frozen windswept darkness filmed from a car window it is easy to see why.


The dilapidated housing blocks and the antique-looking but functional mines, a thousand kilometres from the next nearest city, are a testament to human endeavour, in addition to man’s ability to treat his fellows as chattel, creating human mega-machines of awesome co-ordination with the whip hand. A pinnacle of creation of a dark kind, summoning awesome imaginative powers to build prison camp mines 400 kilometres above the Arctic circle in the name of the loftiest aims. Now a city of 200,000 souls, the most polluted place on Earth.

Through Jacob’s lens we meet various inhabitants, who he wisely allows to speak freely without a master narrator to endorse or contradict them. A Lithuanian with a tragic past who left his family to work here alone.  A photographer-designer who says his home city was built through a kind of oppression that mirrors its merciless environment, he has recorded and commemorated its history in a book. Workers who joke their medical notes are as thick as a Tolstoy novel. Theatre makers who are used to playing to packed crowds for want of anything else to do (once commonplace in Soviet monogorods). A man whose grandfather was sent to the camp in 1937 as part of a purge of the Soviet intelligentsia. An articulate young writer who seems to see most clearly of all from the penury of her mother’s flat. A survivor who recalls he was known only by a number while he worked in the mines.

And we notice the long and thin street length concrete apartment blocks, overground pipes, metal towers, smokestacks and the thick sheets of ice. A camera tracks through empty evening streets, filled with florescent light, as a resident wonders where all these people came from and why they are still here.


To return to the question of man and nature, the ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood drew a very clear relationship between the domination of nature and the domination of people (and treating people and nature as objectified resources). She claims the dualistic relationship of dominator and dominated is based upon a denied dependency on the subordinated other. This shapes the imaginary contours of all social relationships whether human/nature, culture/nature, power/subjects (subject/objects), male/female and reason/nature. The second in these pairs is denigrated as inferior to justify its domination. For the bosses and bureaucrats that founded Norilsk the workers don’t think, the Party thought for them. Power plans and orders, the workers’ execute, or are executed.

“Dualism can be seen as an alienated form of differentiation, in which power construes and contructs difference in terms of an inferior and alien realm” (3)

Counter-revolutionaries, class enemies and non-historic peoples here are the inferiors to be worked to death in the name of the Party. Stalin in his Kremlin could hardly have considered those mining in the Far North or the environment they struggled in any differently to those who ran rubber plantations in the Congo or a Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy. Indeed, the landscape of Norilsk and its outlying areas look like a scene from apocalyptic science fiction, used up and bled dry. Prisoners, workers and nature are the resources for power projects independent of their purview.

“The natural world and the biosphere have been treated as a dump, as forming the unconsidered, instrumentalised and unimportant background to ‘civilised’ human life; they are merely the setting or stage on which what is really important, the drama of human life and culture, is played out. In the dominant view, the biosphere forms the taken-for-granted material substratum of human existence, always present, always functioning, always forgiving; its needs do not have to be considered, just as the needs of other species generally do not have to be considered, except as they occasionally impinge upon or threaten the satisfaction of our own. Systematic devaluation and denial are perceptually ingrained in backgrounding, involving systematic not noticing, not seeing. The way in which we background nature is evident in our treatment of it in a range of areas; for example, it is backgrounded in standard treatments of human history. It is also backgrounded in standard economics where, notoriously, no value is given to anything natural or to resources as they stand before they acquire use-value or before human labour is applied, where no account is taken of natural limits and ecological factors are treated as ‘externalities’.” (4)


We hear that 650,000 prisoners passed through this place between its foundation and 1956. Those men and women built the camps they lived and worked in, then the city itself, with their bare hands. We see chilling drawings of the way it looked; see the crumbling remains of the timber barracks and working quarters where 250,000 died. 150,000 bodies were apparently dumped at the edge of the tundra where a Golgotha now stands. Instrumentalised bodies, not beings, as disposable as slag.

We also hear something of the Norilsk Uprising. When in 1953, 16,000 men and women went on strike for 69 days while the post-Stalin leadership panicked before putting it down with characteristic brutality. Like the Vorkuta uprising of the same period, its failure nevertheless spelled the end of the Stalin era GULAG system of mass slave labour. The rebels were mainly Ukrainians, Balts and Georgians, people who knew a lot about national as well as personal oppression. Little known and written about outside of memoirs and specialist histories, these uprisings have a place in the history of the project for human freedom and autonomy yet to be articulated and reconstructed. However, considering the extremity of the regime of domination and heteronomy in the Arctic camps, they stand as a high point in the history of rebellion. Yevhen Hrytsyak’s memoir of the uprising is, as far as can be ascertained, yet to be translated into English.


Though the means have changed dramatically, even now Norilsk Nickel admit they have to trap people to stay, encouraging the young to make families knowing they will be likely to be forced to stay in Norilsk in order to provide for them, taking up extremely demanding work at -40 outside or in the blazing heat of the foundries. The young people in the film say they wish to leave, though many suspect they are trapped and will end up like their parents. Unsurprisingly, considering the state-private nexus in Putin’s Russia when a resident we have already met stages a memorial for the 1953 revolt he is fined and made to do community service by the local courts.

In a town where the company decides everything, a GULAG town turned company town (to steal the title of Alan Barenberg’s fascinating history of Vorkuta), this past of slave labour is not publicly alluded to, and one can’t help to wonder how that sits in the psyche of those who call Norilsk home. Marina Arutyunyan has written on how the mass killing of the purges, collectivisation and the GULAG means that Russia is a society of recent descendants of victims, guards and killers, living together (often in the same family). How this past has been repressed in the Russian collective memory, and how these things must inevitably return is, for Arutyunyan, central to the continued support for authoritarian government among many Russians. One can only speculate about how this must play out in a city like Norilsk.


The setting makes this a film of great formal beauty, wisely shot and cut in a plain and unobtrusive way, with awesome inspiring tracking shots of landscapes, apartments buildings and industrial enterprises intercut with close ups of faces, drab interiors and everyday existence. The ever present voices of Norilsk residents on the soundtrack speak plainly of life on the periphery of civilisation. There for an export economy that extracts commodities crucial for modern capitalism in a place built purely on the mad logic of a heteronomous system in which progress means the destruction of the planet.

Though residents see the town is dying one can only hope that the day this city is finally left to the tundra and the smokestacks have stopped billowing, it isn’t because the world is doomed but because a collective decision has been made that places and practices like this should not exist.

by Joseph Aylmer



(1) See Varlam Shalamov, The Kolyma Tales; Janusz Bardach, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag (1999)

(2) Alan Barenberg, Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labour and its Legacy in Vorkuta (2014)

(3) Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993).

(4) Plumwood, Ibid.

The Home Office, Racism and Bureaucratic Power


In this short article, I want to think about the nature of bureaucracy and the contribution bureaucratic organisation plays in the current accelerated deportation regime and ‘hostile environment’. It will start at the top and move downwards through the organisation, using quotes from wider analyses of bureaucratic forms to reinforce my argument. I am not trying to explain the use of disciplinary state functions as an aspect of contemporary capitalism as such, though my argument is not entirely disconnected from such a critical goal.

To start at the top is to start with the imaginary dimensions of what it means to be a member of a society. As Paths and Bridges has discussed before, all societies exclude others as part of the work of defining themselves and all regimes of domination instantiate the human tendency to use others as a scapegoat to absolve itself, so that its members project their disappointment, frustration and self-hatred toward what is different (which is not to say that leaders and power holders don’t also hate the others and participate in this projection). In this sense, the expanded immigration and expulsion regime initiated under Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary (complete with the vans roaming the streets telling migrants to go home) and continued under her Premiership, is about exploiting the worst instincts of human beings, instincts that are not readily sated. As grist to its base and other voters who had moved toward UKIP, the Tory government under David Cameron made promise after promise to reduce migration (‘to the tens of thousands’), promises utterly out of keeping with the historical reality of the post-colonial world and the nature of contemporary capitalism. It was in fact a rejection of reality. There is a straight line from this to Brexit and the Windrush scandal.

As the insatiable appetite for a whiter and more racist England was set loose – and as charlatans and opportunists of many political stripes made capital from it – a callous, brutal target based deportation regime was set in motion. Above the bureaucratic order is a daemon. Once a daemon referred to an occult power shadowing individuals drawing them into its machinations in a process that was a reification of the human tendency to project our own desires and fears outward, displacing them onto the world. Here we have the institution of racism as a daemon, fused with the conquering chrematistic logic of capitalist modernity, a devouring monster that stokes more racism and more deportations. Many Leave voters saw Brexit as about ramping up this racism to the level of mass deportations – ‘sending them all home’.

In such circumstances, we can see how May’s instruction to Civil Servants to set targets for deportations created an insatiable monster. When translated to a power order this devouring monster can make and break careers. Ulf Martin explains the reality of the atmosphere inside of bureaucracy:

“In theory, bureaucratic rules are “rational” and set up by disinterested persons / sections and are executed as written. In reality, everybody involved is interested in making a career, not to work too much etc. Bureaucratic institutions are pervaded with power struggles: managers of lower levels of the hierarchy try to rise and hence make informal arrangements, perform mobbing, withhold information etc. The subordinates either try to do the same or resist or try to keep out of the game. In any case, the activities are motivated by goals that are “irrational” from a “higher” perspective and are not a conceptual part of the bureaucratic schemes.”1

Here we see the beginnings of a situation where the ostensible values, domestic civil rights and even international law is continually broken by those supposedly bound by it (as was continually the case in the Windrush scandal and is likely to be post-Brexit). My point here is not to exculpate the political classes for this monster of their making but to note that any bureaucratic system of hierarchy will – in fact necessarily has to – get around formal rules (and if necessary laws) to deliver its targets; and that that any system of professional advancement based on such targets will lead to abuses that are against letter of the system but fully consonant with the spirit (imaginary) of the ends or goals sought.

It’s worth noting that while Marx’s almost perfect pithy explicandum of bureaucracy from 1844 still retains a great deal of validity, the apex of the bureaucratic order is always happy to turn a blind eye – or even issue plausibly deniable instructions on the quiet – if the benefit appears to outweighs the cost:

“The highest point entrusts the understanding of details to the lower echelons, whereas these, on the other hand, credit the highest point with an understanding of the universal, and thus they deceive one another.”2

Moving down the system to the lower echelons, we find not just the jockeying for position and mobbing we see in the Senior Civil Service and higher management grades but also a specific process of socialisation that requires those tasked to execute the actual day to day work to identify with the goals and ends sought; and ultimately with the broader ideology that has created the need for such ends. While jobs with a disciplinary function (especially those involving socially approved discrimination against marginalised groups) are likely to attract more authoritarian and prejudiced personalities than others, the pure struggle to live a psychically integrative life requires – as we all see and probably feel on an everyday level – a certain degree, inevitably, of identification with the organisation one serves.

“The functioning of the administrative departments presents a very different picture. Here, at the bottom of the scale, we find clerks without real qualifications, employees whose professional training is rudimentary or non-existent. Between these employees and the managing director of the firm, the hierarchy of jobs is a hierarchy of power. The relations of dependence become determinant and to have a function is to define oneself, at each level, with regard to a superior, whether he is a branch supervisor, a departmental supervisor or a manager. In this context, the double nature of work thus reappears: it both corresponds to a professional activity and constitutes itself as the expression of an established social order, an order within which the firm exists. Indeed, from the top to the bottom of the scale, the relations are such that they serve always to reinforce the authoritarian structure of the administration. But that does not mean that the individuals situated at the bottom of the scale participate in the bureaucracy in the same way as the middle or upper strata. In certain respects, clerks are like the workers who carry out orders, deprived of any authority. They often earn less than certain categories of workers who are paid by the hour. Their work could not be described as ‘responsible’ and it cannot be assumed that they find in their work a basis for identifying with the aims of the firm. Nevertheless, they are not unconnected to the bureaucracy: they are its dependents…Now as soon as we try to circumscribe the properly bureaucratic sector and are led to highlight a specific type of activity, we uncover a dialectic of socialization which is of a different order than the dialectic of the division of labour”3

So, while, as Lefort notes, in general clerks (in modern British parlance, administrative and operational delivery grades) may not identify with the goals of any organisation they serve in, when the work is the forcible and coercive work of the Home Office (rather than say, the production of paperwork or statistics), the notion of a dialectic of socialisation weighs even heavier. This is bureaucratic order in its purest sense, in which one cannot be a thinking individual or moral agent because to be so one could not do the work of the organisation. When Marx linked bureaucracy and alienation he saw them as spiritually synonymous for this very reason.

In keeping with our psychoanalytic starting point, we depart from Marx here only because he suggests a tautology, if the irrational logic of the system pervades its charges, and society is a human creation – where does society draw this perversion from? His answer, the mode of production, only issues in further tautology. Our answer, the infant situation which hates the others because it represents the society that socialised it, thus making it renounce the pleasure principle has more weight. It also suggests a way out of this mournful situation, via the acceptance of a reality principle that doesn’t hate others, doesn’t embrace divisions based on artificial differences or demand people be punished for their otherness by bureaucratic systems. So, it is socialisation itself that must be our starting point, inevitable as much as it is unwanted. The dialectic of socialisation is something different, that does indeed stamp the wider social values (rather than the tendency toward the adoption of such values based on unconscious motives) onto the individual. So, as noted above, to survive or accept with apparent equanimity the horror of ruining anonymous individuals lives such an organisation must render its charges truly ideological (at least while carrying out their professional activity), often forcing them to split (in the Kleinian sense) into good and bad, lawful and unlawful, worthy and unworthy (white and black?), those that they deal with. It must numb those flux of human responses that cut against the hatred of others – such as love, compassion and justice – and render unthinkable inconvenient truths and inferences that might lead them to question their tasks.

Taking in these elements, the social imaginary, political power, bureaucratic hierarchy and individual alienation – a bureaucratic department becomes a racist megamachine in Lewis Mumford’s sense. This is the reason why, from top to bottom, the logic of bureaucratic power can only serve authoritarian ends.

by Joseph Aylmer


1. Ulf Martin, Pseudorational Control and the Magma of Reality (2016). Seminar at the Department of Political Science, York University.
2. Karl Marx, Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844)
3. Claude Lefort, What is Bureaucracy?, in The Political Forms of Modern Society (1986)

A rough beast: Populism as repression and displacement

B 830

The Barque of Dante, Édouard Manet (1854–1858)

Much has been written about the election of ‘populists’ in the US, Italy, Hungary, Poland and other countries. Indeed, though these governments hold values and goals that may unambiguously be identified with the far right, ‘populism’ or ‘right-wing populism’ is not a misnomer. Populism invokes and appeals to the organic unity of the ‘People’ defined broadly (and covertly, selectively) with despotic and even totalitarian undertones. Polities employing this language evince different levels of authoritarianism from the illiberal or managed ‘democracy’ to fascism, mediated by particular local histories and political life.

Now we see the rise of populist revolt marked by variegated demands drawn from across the political spectrum – from higher wages for the struggling mass of ‘left behind’ employees and higher public spending, to tighter immigration controls and the deportation of immigrants, for a more generous benefits regime and to administering such a regime on a ‘racialized’ basis.

The commentary generated by these campaigns and movements – here we are thinking of the Brexit campaign in Britain which fundamentally reshaped the political terrain, the Italian national election that saw the Northern League break out of its relatively affluent northern strongholds and join the Five Star Movement in government and most recently the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests in France – all reveal a worrying trend to take populism at its own word, treating the phenomena as somehow transcending politics.

In reality, the idea of a revolt of the whole of society, of all the ‘popular classes’, except perhaps a narrow ruling stratum and their explicit supporters, was only ever valid in the colonial situation (but even then, often not). While the financialization of global capitalism has led to a world market economy, exacerbating uneven development and extremes of wealth and poverty (even as it raised incomes everywhere), to claim counter-systemic populism is a revolt against exploitation per se, seems far from the mark. Rather, in keeping with this highly cathected and risible  notion of majority victimhood in the global North, we are offered a simulcra of the colonial revolt in reverse with genuinely oppressed minorities cast as the pied noir aligned with ‘globalist’ liberal elites. Such a perverse view is a text book example of privilege or pathological narcissism. Having found oneself on the summit of Mount Olympus no less, our benighted First World citizen ignores the spectacular view in favour of a minute inspection of their navel. After years of austerity in Britain it would be foolish to deny the reality there is some degree of wretchedness in the country as the UN’s rappateur discovered recently while touring many of the poorest towns, cities and regions but the decisive battalions of Leave voters were provided by older UKIP and Tory voters who resemble nothing so much as The Fatted of the Earth.

The idea of social fluidity, multiculturalism and the long, slow decay of essentialist or traditional notions of identity, has provoked a reactionary backlash and come under sustained attack recently, especially since the referendum. Yet these ‘cosmopolitan’ conceptions were very much a positive part of global modernity’s curate’s egg. From the Brexiteers pantomine claim that Britain is a vassal of Brussels to the anti Semitic suggestion that Macron is a play thing of ‘the Jews’, much of the current situation in Europe is about the inability to face up to a baleful past of imperial domination and murder, preferring instead the narcissistic clinging to roseate illusions of a lost golden age of ‘sovereignty’.

With Toni Negri’s comical resuscitation of the idea of the ‘jacquerie’ to various anarchist inflected notions of spontaneous revolt in France, the left has an idea of a pre-political revolt in which the right and left duke it out to win hegemony. A left desperate to deny its own meaningless and nullity, instead acts as if History had granted a wish. This is utterly wrong, not just because the left is historically and culturally very unlikely to triumph as a result of the sedimentation of right-wing ideas as common sense in the social imaginary or because it leads, as we have already seen, to the left screening out stubborn facts or reading them as morbid symptoms pointing down the road to Calvary (that’s if they don’t simply tail ‘anti-systemic’ racism, as many do) but also because the idea of a social movement, however, amorphous, existing in a state of pre-signification and pre-meaning, is simply impossible. Only movements with a strong sense of civic or humanist values and significations of self government and equality, properly count as progressive social movements. Populism like other forms of majoritarianism is a pernicious poison because it draws from the doxa of the current value orientations of this society while rejecting that society. Populism hothouses, metastasises and mutates the worst reactions of the reigning social malaise.

Now with fascists across Europe donning yellow vests we are able to glimpse how fascists will organise for the foreseeable future. This could be a successful modus operandi as it battens on to the idea of ‘racial’ threat and an elite conspiracy against the plebeian nation. A conspiracy theory is often an act of displacement, with shadowy elites who are often invoked in such narratives, being much more psychically palatable than the truth that the global social order has run out of control – with no one truly in charge – the real condition of capitalism. We have already seen that C21st fascism in Europe comes with the words globalism on its lips,  Russian money in its pocket, Syrian blood on its hands and bawling conspiracy theories.

A striking feature of the current populism is the prominence of climate change denialism – if fascism has often been linked to a displacement of both death and change, particularly the individual’s inability to permit the thought that their identity and objects are not superior to another’s and thus begin to work on the unconscious egotism about perfection and eminence that haunts the human condition due to our long infancy and helplessness – we now see  individuals refusing to register the profound civilizational and personal change necessary to deal with global warming and its concomitant change of values. The current populism doesn’t suggest a New Man but the same man without the irritating challenges to his own self-satisfied sense of entitlement.

If fascism represents a drive to abolish the non-I by annihilating that which is in conflict with one’s own desires and fuse with an ‘archaic’ mother represented by the monist mass movement, perhaps we could also speak of climate change being the elephant in the psyche that is displaced by projective identification. If the grand changes brought about by modernity were displaced on to ‘the Jew’ in the Nazi imaginary, could today’s civilizational challenge posed by climate change now be displaced on to migrants, outsiders and ‘globalists’ (the last standing for anti-racists and liberals)? If in the unconscious nature is associated with the mother’s body, is it any wonder that we often repress the damage we have done to it and refuse to acknowledge the catastrophe at hand, can it but draw into consciousness repressed the guilty feelings about damaging mother that all children have?

For us, democratic revolt means the disenchanted radicalism of a project for an egalitarian future that openly acknowledges the damage that our imperial and ecocidal civilisation has done to others, the Earth and ourselves. Populism, drawing long and deep from the fascist imaginary, represents almost the exact antithesis of this project.

by Joseph Aylmer