Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cornelius Castoriadis - The Pulverization of Marxism-Leninism

The monstrous history of Marxism-Leninism shows what a movement for emancipation cannot and should not be. It in no way allows us to conclude that the capitalism and liberal oligarchy under which we now live embody the finally resolved secret of human history. The project of total mastery (which Marxism-Leninism took from capitalism and which, in both cases, was turned into its contrary) is a piece of delirium. It does not follow that we should suffer our history as a fatality... The term “equality” has served as a cover for a regime in which real inequalities were in fact worse than those of capitalism. We cannot for all that forget that there is no political freedom without political equality and that the latter is impossible when enormous inequalities of economic power, which translate directly into political power, not only exist but are growing. Marx’s idea that one could eliminate the market and money is an incoherent utopia. To understand that does not lead one to swallow the almightiness of money, or to believe in the “rationality” of an economy which has nothing to do with a genuine market and which is more and more coming to resemble a planetary casino...

Originally published as “L’Effondrement du marxisme-leninisme” in Le Monde, April 23–24, 1990

The downfall of the Roman Empire lasted three centuries. Two years have sufficed, without the aid of foreign barbarians, to dislocate irreparably the worldwide network of power directed from Moscow, its ambitions for world hegemony, and the economic, political and social relationships which held it together. Search as one might, it is impossible to find a historical analogy to this pulverization of what seemed just yesterday a steel fortress. The granite monolith has suddenly shown itself to be held together with its saliva, while the horrors, monstrosities, lies and absurdities being revealed day after day have proved to be even more incredible than anything the most acerbic critics among us had been able to affirm.
At the same time as are vanishing these Bolsheviks for whom “no fortress is impregnable” (Stalin), the nebula of “Marxism-Leninism,” which for more than a half century had almost everywhere played the role of dominant ideology, fascinating some, obliging others to take a stand in relation to it, has gone up in smoke. What remains of Marxism, “the unsurpassable philosophy of our time” (Sartre)? Upon what map, with what magnifying glass, will one now discover the “new continent of historical materialism,” in what antique shop will one purchase the scissors to make the “epistemological break” (Althusser) which was to have relegated to the status of worn-out metaphysical speculations the reflection on society and history, replacing it with “the science of Capital”? Hardly is it worth mentioning now that one will search in vain for the least connection between anything said and done today by Mr. Gorbachev and, not Marxist-Leninist “ideology,” but any idea whatsoever.
After the fact, the suddenness of the collapse may seem as if it could go without saying. Was this ideology, from the first years after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia, in head-on contradiction with reality--and was not this reality, despite the combined efforts of Communists, fellow travelers and even the respectable press of Western countries (which, for the most part, had swallowed whole the Moscow Trials), visible and knowable for those who wanted to see and to know? Considered in itself, did it not reach the height of incoherence and inconsistency? But the enigma only is doubled. How and why was this huge scaffolding capable of holding up for so long? Claiming to be “science” and “ideological criticism,” Marxism-Leninism promised the radical liberation of the human being, the instauration of a “really democratic” and “rational” society--and it came into being as the hitherto matchless figure of mass slavery, terror, “planned” poverty, absurdity, lies and obscurantism. How was this unprecedented historical fraud able to operate for so long?
Where Marxism-Leninism settled into power, the answer may appear simple: thirst for power and self-interest for some, Terror for all. This response is inadequate, for even in these cases the seizure of power has almost everywhere been made possible by a large popular mobilization. Nor does this response say anything about its near-universal attraction. To elucidate that attraction would require an analysis of world history over the past century and a half. Here we must limit ourselves to two factors. First, Marxism-Leninism presented itself as the continuation, the radicalization of the emancipatory, democratic, revolutionary project of the West. A presentation all the more credible as it was for a long time-as everyone today happily forgets--the only one seemingly opposed to the beauties of capitalism, both in the metropolises as well as in the colonies. 
Behind this, however, there is something more, and here lies its historical novelty. On the surface, there is what is called an ideology: a labyrinthine “scientific theory”--Marx’s--sufficient to keep hordes of intellectuals occupied until the end of their lives; a simplified version, a vulgate of this theory (first formulated by Marx himself), with an explanatory force adequate for the more faithful; finally, a “hidden” version for the true initiates, first appearing with Lenin, which makes the absolute power of the Party the supreme objective and the Archimedean point for “the transformation of history.” (I am not speaking here of the summits of the apparatuses, where the pure and simple obsession for power, coupled with total cynicism, has reigned at least since Stalin.)
Holding together this edifice, however, are not “ideas,” or reasonings. It is rather a new imaginary, which develops and changes in two stages. In the properly “Marxist” phase, during the era in which the old religious faith was dissolving, it was, as we know, the imaginary of secular Salvation. The project of emancipation, of freedom as activity, of the people as author of its own history, was inverted into an imaginary of a Promised Land, within reach and guaranteed by the substitute for transcendence produced by that age, viz., “scientific theory.” [1]
In the following Leninist phase, this element, while it did not disappear, found itself increasingly supplanted by another: more than the “laws of history,” it is the Party, its Boss, their actual power, power itself, Brute Force that became not only the guarantor but the ultimate point of fascination and fixation for representations and desires. At issue here is not fear of force--real and immense though it is where Communism is in power--but the positive attraction Force exercises over human beings. If we do not understand that, we will never understand the history of the twentieth century, neither Nazism, nor Communism. In the latter case, the combination of what people would like to believe and of Force has long proved irresistible. And it is only from the moment when this Force no longer succeeded in imposing itself--Poland, Afghanistan--only when it became clear that neither Russian tanks nor H-bombs could “resolve” all problems, that the rout truly began and that the various brooks of decomposition united in the Niagara which has been pouring down in torrents since the Summer of 1988 (the first demonstrations in Lithuania).
Marx and Marxism
The strongest reservations, the most radical criticism with regard to Marx, cancel neither his importance as a thinker nor the grandeur of his effort. People will still reflect upon Marx when they will search with difficulty in dictionaries for the names of Messrs. von Hayek and Friedman. It is not, however, by means of the effect of his work that Marx has played his immense role in actual history. He would have been only another Hobbes, Montesquieu or Tocqueville if a dogma had not been able to be drawn from him--and if his writings did not so lend themselves. And if they do so lend themselves, this is because his theory contains more than just the elements of that dogma.
The vulgate (derived from Engels), which attributed to Marx as sources Hegel, Ricardo and the French “utopian” socialists, masks half the truth. Marx is equally the inheritor of the emancipatory or democratic movement, whence his fascination, to the very end of his life, for the French Revolution and even, in his youth, for the Greek polls and demos. This movement of emancipation, this project of autonomy, had already been in motion for centuries in Europe and had reached its culmination with the Great Revolution.
But the Revolution left an enormous, and double, deficit. It maintained and even accentuated, in furnishing it with new bases, an immense inequality of actual power in society rooted in economic and social inequalities. It maintained and reinforced the strength and structure of state bureaucracy, “checked” to a superficial degree by a stratum of professional “representatives” separated from the people... Read more: