Thursday, 2 October 2008

What is (not) to be done. Castoriadis on Lenin.

It has been a long, long time since we read Lenin's "What is to be done?" - so long that we couldn't remember why we were so reluctant to call ourselves Leninists. By chance, though, we have just come across a gorgeous little essay by Castoriadis entitled "The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy" (going back to 1964) and now we remember just what is so cock-eyed about Leninism (and the Trotskyite version to boot).

What it boils down to is our disagreement with the idea that people ought to be subordinated both to the will of the Party and to the drive to increase the forces of production. Castoriadis emphasizes the way work is organised. Workers ought to be directly involved in determining what is done and how it is done. For Trotsky, apparently, there was no need for this because the aspirations of the workers had already been achieved once the Party had gained ascendance. Henceforth the priority was the fastest possible industrialisation, and the prevailing view was that this meant beating the capitalists at their own game - pushing the rationalisation of production further and faster, and cutting out the anarchy of the market. Although it was supposed to be a dictatorship of the proletariat, in practice the workers had no option but to do what they were damn well told to do. As Trotsky put it: "The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the supremacy over the whole Soviet mechanism of the collective will of the workers, and not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered."

Castoriadis has a nice summary of Lenin's advocacy of a rampant instrumental reason, borrowed from bourgeois/capitalist culture as if it were something entirely neutral: "In all Lenin's speeches and writings of this period, what recurs again and again like an obsession is the idea that Russia ought to learn from the advanced capitalist countries; that there are not a hundred and one different ways of developing production and labour productivity if one wants to emerge from backwardness and chaos; that one must adopt capitalist methods of rationalisation and management as well as capitalist forms of work "incentives." All these, for Lenin, are just "means" that apparently could freely be placed in the service of a radically different historical end, the building of socialism."

Castoriadis lets loose and slams into this ridiculous idea of the neutrality of technique: "The idea that like means cannot be placed indifferently into the service of different ends; that there is an intrinsic relationship between the instruments used and the result obtained; that, especially, neither the army nor the factory are simple "means" or instruments," but social structures in which are organised two fundamental aspects of human relations (production and violence); that in them can be seen in condensed form the essential expression of the type of social relations that characterise an era - this idea, though perfectly obvious and banal for Marxists, was totally "forgotten."

What a great guy? Why did we forget about Castoriadis? We were lucky enough to see him speak in Essex back in the 1980s, but then we stupidly forgot about him as everyone became obsessed with Derrida, Lacan and some rubbish about bodies without organs.


Werther said...

question: why are you an ex-academic? what happened?

George D. said...

Nice discussion of the issue. In response to the question at the end, a plausible answer is another ideaof Castoriadis on the conformism of modern thought adequately served by postmodernism (and its celebration of unrestrained subjectivism). My personal response to the question is that the stress on difference suffices to conceal social inequality which is made thus to appear as another form of mere difference