TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Cornelius Castoriadis on Russian Society

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Sean McMorrow looks at Cornelius Castoriadis’s “Facing the War”, from Telos 46 (Winter 1980).

“Facing the War” is a translation from the first section of Devant la guerre, Cornelius Castoriadis’s least regarded work within English-speaking circles. The reason for this marginalization is its central claim that Russian society had transformed into a stratocratic regime, with increased probability for an escalation into a Third World War. Castoriadis’s critics claimed he had missed signs of perestroika and glasnost already on the horizon.[1] Viewed from this perspective, history could not have been more cruel to Castoriadis. However, the value of his work does not depend on a predictive mode of political analysis, a point that is clearly prefaced in this work: calls for predictive accuracy ignore the radical character of historical contingency. In fact, the unexpected events put into motion later by Gorbachev only strengthen Castoriadis’s perspective in the sense that such a development represents the deeper problem of historical indeterminacy, and it is in this respect that his analysis is finely tuned to any society’s condition of historical contingency.

Castoriadis’s analysis here is an updated version of the assessment of Russian society that had been developed within Socialisme ou Barbarie.[2] Castoriadis makes a compelling argument that Russia had regenerated itself into a full-blown stratocracy, armed to the teeth and yet still unable to provide its citizens with a functional civic bureaucracy; a decade later he reflects that a core argument of “Facing the War” was that brute force had become the sole signification holding this society together.[3] Castoriadis’s argument operates at two levels: as a political analysis of Russian bureaucratic spheres (the comparison of military capacity between superpowers and a critique of rational determinism within the justification of Cold War strategy—i.e., M.A.D.); and as a political judgement of the imaginary significations that served to orient Russian society. It is through the latter level that lessons on historical contingency are astutely relevant to the contemporary world situation.

The sociological conclusion of Castoriadis’s analysis is that the emergence of Russian stratocracy generated two separately instituted countries: “there is a ‘civilian’ life with its production and economy and a ‘military’ life with its production and economy” (47). Russia is constituted as two social bodies (corps social), the latter of which emerges from the military-industrial complex. A central political question for Russian society in 1980 is therefore: “To what degree is Russian society still a society dominated by the bureaucracy, whose active center, whose heart and soul is the party-state; and to what degree is it not already, or in the process of becoming, a stratocracy, the army as a social body assuming, by the intermediary of the upper echelons, the direction and orientation of society?” (48). Castoriadis takes the position that the emergence of this sub-bodily constitution “is a matter of a new social historical reality” (52). This is a crucial orientation for Castoriadis, because what he means by this is that at the imaginary level of Russian society the significations that had once animated it no longer do so in the same way. He claims that Russian society is bound by the creation of new conditions and characterizes the second body of the ‘military society’ as the “only modern sector of this bankrupt society” precisely due to its highly efficient bureaucratic functionality. Castoriadis proposed that: “for 50 years the Party tried to organize and modernize society—it failed lamentably, and says so. In one domain it did not fail: the military domain” (53n7). This observation may be instrumental to unravel the Gordian knot of Russia’s political orientation in the contemporary world situation.

It is striking that Castoriadis’s observations are highly pertinent to contemporary Russian self-definition. At a basic level Castoriadis cites the absence of political life in Russian society as responsible for the strangulation of its political institutions.[4] The persistence of civic political atrophy is considered to reflect a collapse of the ideological foundation of Soviet society. A constituent feature of the new historical reality of Russian society was that it had become “a cynical society” (51). The cynical society, in Castoriadis’s eyes, designates a persistent disbelief in the relevance of the ideological foundation of a society’s primary political institutions.[5] In this sense Russia went so far as to proclaim its own historical death, a sentiment that was echoed by Brezhnev; Castoriadis paraphrases him as follows: “don’t wait for anything else, there is no other ‘socialism’ before us, the only socialism is that which exists here and now, in Russia ‘socialism is really existing’. Briefly, there is not other ‘historic future’ than this appalling present” (51). With Russia in this necrotic state, what then kept society together? Castoriadis’s answer unveils the paradigm that continues to define Russian society today:

The only “Ideology” that remains, or can remain, living in Russia is Grand Russian Chauvinism. The only imaginary which retains an historical efficacy is this nationalist—or imperial—imaginary. This imaginary does not need the party, except as a mask, and above all, as an instrument of propaganda and action for international penetration. Its organic vehicle is the army. The army, in opposition to the party—which remains incapable of resolving the question of its “leadership”—is an essentially stable structure, which combines, since it has rid itself of the pernicious interferences of the party, the stability and regularity of a military-bureaucratic apparatus of the traditional type, with the traits and the “practice” of a modern bureaucracy dedicated to the task of its self-adaptation and modification. The army is the only truly modern sector of Russian society—and the only sector which functions effectively. (51)

The status of Russia as a cynical society was not necessarily altered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Particularly in light of the financial corruption that indicated the continuation of an exploitative class, state governance was still failing civic society.[6] The stability of “military society” was merely fused onto the larger nationalist imaginary and it was Putin’s ability (remembering that the source of his power was accumulated from the military society that Castoriadis detailed in his analysis), following the 1998 economic crisis, to transition the stability of the “military society” into a more general national imperialist imaginary within the political dimension of Russian society at large. Granted that this legitimacy was not and is not absolute, Putin has to some extent offered a historical transition beyond the cynical state of Russian society. The secret to Putin’s success has been his ability to harness this imaginary of “Grand Russian Chauvinism,” which can be viewed as a nationalist imperialism whose claim to mastery operates through an historical orientation that is separable from the modern constitution of Western liberal perspectives. This is an almost prophetic argument that was made by Castoriadis, and it finds resonance today in the work of Aleksandr Dugin, a highly influential philosophical thinker and (perhaps) spiritual advisor for Putin, Russian policy, and nationalist consciousness.[7] To take us right into the contemporary moment, it may be seen that Putin has taken a further step in developing this imaginary into a comprehensive Eurasian civilizational perspective.

Competing ideologies have surrounded the nationalist imperial signification of Russia, and these have ranged across the traditional political spectrum. However the most powerful interpretations at this moment seem to involve various expressions of third position politics; or a fourth position, if one follows Dugin’s attempt to separate a fourth political theory from the fascist third position. National Bolshevism represents the most influential of these ideologies; its imperial interpretation of Russian nationalism offers a Eurasian perspective as the only viable historical civilization (while China seems to be the only contentious problematic on this horizon). Western liberal societies are considered to offer no historical alternative following what is considered a crisis of existential implosion, and it is assumed that Western liberal societies themselves provide the clearest expression of this crisis. In this sense the Occident could be considered to be entering its own necrotic phase, as Castoriadis warned, “if ‘Western countries’ can maintain liberal regimes, without Gulag and without [political] ideas, it is—although not solely—because they can furnish the population with ‘commodities’ in increasing quantities each year (which evidently poses the question of the stability of these regimes, if a halt to this growth is prolonged)” (49). Even though the claim that liberal societies lack political ideas may seem overstated, is it overstated to suggest there is a sense that a creeping death pervades the political institution of these societies? A sense accompanied by a distinctly cynical taste? Could it be true that the echoes of Brezhnev’s historical eulogy of Russian socialism are not only resonant in the (now abated) Fukuyama consensus of classic post–cold war liberalism, but this death knell has also been heard far more recently in Merkel’s admission that the project of a multicultural society in Europe has failed—a project that signified a core signification of liberal modernity. What’s more, the political crisis of Western societies is perhaps the most chilling warning to come from Castoriadis’s political analysis, particularly in the light of accelerated processes of depoliticization. These are evident in the paradigm of “securitization for the sake of freedom,” which has been buffered by policies of control (i.e., anti-radicalization terror laws, etc.), the militarization of policing infrastructure and a mode of total war. While it is clear, as Castoriadis anticipated, “the war we find ourselves before will not be a Clausewitzian war” (61), in an age of total war the nature of this supposed Third World War is in fact formless—while, what lies at stake is civil society itself.

In such a situation, Russia continues to strive toward global dominance (perhaps conceived at the civilizational level) via military and geopolitical means. It is clear that given this orientation, civil society is still “sacrificed” (48) to the military sphere. It is interesting to suggest a comparison with the state of civil society in Western-liberal societies, where austerity has come to signify its sacrificial status in the high-stakes world system of domination. A historical pattern of modernity seems to have emerged, as “once again, the instability and internal problems of the world system of domination is such that we find ourselves in the shadow of a world war” (43)—granted that world war has since modified into geopolitical total war. There is an increased cynicism in Western liberal societies that appears with the perception of the sacrificial status of civil society, and this has contributed to a rising conservative movement of nationalist populist third position politics, which curiously echo the Russian turn to its own nationalist imperialist imaginary. It is in this sense that Castoriadis’s political analysis of Russian society offers a window facing into the contemporary world situation. The present flare of turbulent events must be taken to represent a situation of historical modification, as such, deeply historical concerns become immanent on a global scale. This relates to a crucial insight that Castoriadis achieved back in 1980, that “the effect that these events will have on the socio-historic base of the era is inestimable” (43). The same is true today, with the acceleration of depoliticization processes and the geopolitical field of total war more globally widespread, the chaos of historical contingency increasingly visible.


1. As Castoriadis himself readily accepted, the criticisms were historically accurate however they were arbitrary in the respect that he did not and could not have predicted the “Communist Party apparatus drawing out of itself a group of reformers.” Cornelius Castoriadis, “Cerisy Colloquium: Agora International Interview,” 1990 (unpublished), p. 12.

2. Socialisme ou Barbarie was an influential political Marxist group centered in Paris, which emerged from Castoriadis’s alliance with Claude Lefort in breaking with Trotskyism. The group’s critique was an early formulation of the state-capitalist structure of Russian society premised on the idea that the Communist Party apparatus had immaculately given birth to itself as a new exploitative bureaucratic class. This was contrary to the orthodox Trotskyist idea of the time that considered Russia as a degenerated worker’s state.

3. Castoriadis, “Cerisy Colloquium: Agora International Interview,” p. 11.

4. Of course, it is easy to cast the shadow of the Stalinist Terror at the root cause of this situation, however as Castoriadis points out, at least since La Boetie’s exegesis on voluntary servitude the dimension of complicity in all political institution should not be disregarded. Étienne de la Boétie, De La Servitude Volontaire, trans. Miguel Benasayag (Paris: Éditions le Passager Clandestin, 2010), p. 50.

5. It is interesting to note that only a few years later Peter Sloterdijk published a popular study of a Western-liberal version of this phenomena, titled Critique of Cynical Reason (1983). While offering a rather obverse meaning than that given by Castoriadis, Sloterdijk developed a not altogether dissimilar perspective with regard to a rising nihilism in Western-liberal societies. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987).

6. I am talking here of the so-called Russian untouchables, that capitalized on widespread financial corruption in the post-cold war power vacuum.

7. Dugin makes the point that Russia is not a modern society, but rather an archeo-modern form of society; in other words, it is at once emerging from an archaic/pre-modern social ontology and also existing as a modern military power. It is on these grounds that Russia is epistemologically different and opposed to Western-liberal societies. Aleksandr Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory, trans. Mark Sleboda and Michael Millerman (London: Arktos, 2012).

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