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Whitebook, J. (1999). Requiem for a Selbstdenker: in memoriam Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997). Free Associations, 7(3):331-356.

(1999). Free Associations, 7(3):331-356

Requiem for a Selbstdenker: in memoriam Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997)

Joel Whitebook

What Concatenation of Factors produces a resolutely independent thinker? This is a question which immediately suggests itself when considering the unparalleled life and work of Cornelius Castoriadis, who died in Paris on 25 December at the age of 75. It is also a question which naturally arises with regard to Hannah Arendt, who invites comparison with Castoriadis in this as well as other important respects. Indeed, Arendt and Castoriadis may represent the two pre-eminent Selbstdenkers1 of the postwar era. Before returning to our question, let us survey the accomplishments of this remarkable career.

Living in the most fashion-afflicted town of all, Castoriadis remained impervious to the intellectual vogues that have regularly cycled through Paris over the past 50 years. He was able to steer a course which remained focused on fundamental theoretical and political issues and which — we can now see in retrospect — followed its own internal logic and achieved a remarkable degree of overall coherence. When, after the war, the French intelligentsia were, almost without exception, in the thrall of the Communist Party and defenders of the Soviet Union, Castoriadis was not only a member of the Fourth International, but went on to reject the Trotskyist position itself. He argued that the Soviet Union did not constitute a degenerate workers' state, as the Trotskyists maintained, but a new form of class oppression, and that this fact stripped it of all revolutionary status. In what was to become a well-known line, Castoriadis quipped ‘“USSR”, four letters, four misnomers’ — it was not a union, soviet, socialist nor a republic.

It was during this period that Castoriadis met Claude Lefort, with whom he formed the ultra-leftist grouplet Socialisme ou Barbarie and published a journal under that same name.

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