Wednesday, 1 September 1982


Solidarity leader, autumn 1982

“Without the development of revolutionary theory there can be no development of revolutionary practice.” Cornelius Castoriadis, Socialisme ou Barbarie, 1949

Solidarity was formed in 1959 and the group developed its perspectives for the most part during the 1960s. Probably the greatest single influence on this development was the work of the French thinker Cornelius Castoriadias (who also wrote as Paul Cardan) which appeared in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie between 1949 and 1965.

Over the years Solidarity published a significant selection of Castoriadis' and other S ou B texts in a series or pamphlets, and these, far more than the programmatic statements As We See It and As We Don’t See It, came to characterise the group’s orientation towards the world.

In many respects Castoriadis’ S ou B writings have stood the test of time very well; they certainly demand the continued attention of all those concerned with socialist theory and practice. Much has changed since the S ou B period, however, both in society at large and in the realm of ideas, and, unsurprisingly, certain aspects of Castoriadis'  ideas are beginning to show their age.

This is perhaps most notable in the economic analysis put forward in the essay “Modern Capitalism and Revolution”, published as a Solidarity book. Written in 1959, at the height of the unprecedentedly sustained economic boom that followed the second world war, it presents us with both a continuingly relevant critique of the scientistic categories of classical Marxist political economy and a projection of trends within modern capitalism that has been somewhat overtaken by events.

Specifically, it seems from the vantage point of 1982 that “Modern Capitalism and Revolution” over-estimates the stability of the western ruling class’s success in “controlling the general level of economic activity” and “preventing major crises of the classical type”. Today almost every national economy in the industrialised west is gripped by a profound and prolonged recession. Unemployment has risen to levels inconceivable twenty, fifteen or even ten years ago, industrial output is stagnating and the Keynesian consensus that lay behind government policies in the boom years appears to be in tatters. Quite obviously, these changed conditions demand that Castoriadis' account be brought up to date and significantly revised.

Castoriadis' economic projections are not the only parts of his S ou B work to have become problematic with the passing of time: there are also difficulties to be faced in his rejection of Marxism as a whole and in his espousal of a councilist paradigm of revolutionary practice. When Castoriadis asked in 1964: “Where since 1923 (when Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness was published) has anything been produced which has advanced Marxism?”, he was taking a stance which, though provocative (since it effectively dismissed the work of such writers as Gramsci, Korsch, Pannekoek, Marcuse and Sartre), was certainly defensible (since whatever good had come from Reich, Gramsci et al had been almost totally submerged in the appalling idiocies of Marxist orthodoxy). In other words, it was possible in 1964 to take “Marxism” to mean Marx-Engels-Kautsky-Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin thought.

Today such an identification is less easy. The submerged unofficial Marxist tradition has been rediscovered, and there has been a dramatic growth of new Marxist theory, at least some of which cannot be dismissed with a casual gesture. Of course, the rediscovery of the unorthodox Marxists of the past has led to much sterile fetishisation of sacred texts, and most new Marxist theory has been execrable – particularly in Britain, where the Althusserian poison administered in massive doses by New Left Review paralysed the minds (though not unfortunately the writing hands) of a large section of the left intelligentsia for more than a decade. Moreover, any advances in Marxist theory have been effectively ignored by the majority of the activist Marxist left, who remain imprisoned by a conceptual framework that is beneath contempt.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that it is now far more difficult to argue an informed rejection of the content of Marxism than it was twenty years ago. For such a critique to be rigourous, it would have to contend not only with the dire orthodoxy Castoriadis so efficiently laid to waste, but also with the far more sophisticated work of both the unorthodox Marxists of old and such contemporary theorists as Habermas, Lefebvre, Gorz, Thompson, the Italian autonomists and the many Marxist feminists.

This is not to claim that a critique of Marxism going beyond an assault on vulgar Marxism is impossible. Nor is it to deny the contributions made by Castoriadis to such a project, particularly in his post-S ou B writings. Neither is it to argue that a rejection of the Marxist label on grounds other than a critique of the content of self-professed Marxists' work cannot be justified; a strong case can be made for refusing the mantle of Marxism because its assumption serves to reinforce the faith of the crudest Leninist in the fundamental correctness of his or her idiotic and dangerous beliefs. All the same, the fact remains that many of the developments in Marxist theory over the past two decades deserve our critical attention: one of the tasks of this new series of Solidarity magazine will be to attempt to assess their worth.

If developments in the realm of ideas have been massive since S ou B, so too have changes in oppositional social practice. The developing general tendencies of the latter – towards the adoption of new forms of workplace struggle in the face of the changing character of work and the continued degeneration of traditional working-class organisations, and towards the opening up of new areas of contestation outside the conventional limits of the class struggle – were grasped by S ou B with a remarkable prescience. Perhaps unsurprisingly  S ou B had, however, little to say on the possibility of this “new movement” being integrated and effectively neutralised by adapting capitalism. And today, when workers' self-management (albeit in a hideously distorted form) is advocated by every established political party, the youth revolt has become the passive consumption of the products of the entertainment industry, and feminism is as much the ideology of the upwardly mobile career woman as it is the basis for a genuinely oppositional movement, this silence is clearly inadequate.

Moreover, Castoriadis and S ou B retained a vision of a post-revolutionary society run by workers' councils, the usefulness of which has been seriously brought into question by precisely the growth of contestation outside the sphere of production which they predicted. Workers' councils are perhaps a crucially necessary part of any self-managed socialist society: but to consider them as the organisational basis of such a society – as Castoriadis and with him Solidarity have tended to suggest – is to fall prey to the productivist illusion that characterises so much crude Marxist theory and practice.

The increasingly apparent outdatedness of certain parts of our inherited worldview does not in itself justify our beginning a new series of Solidarity magazine. Indeed it could be – and has been – used as an argument for disbanding it. Quite obviously we believe the obsolescence of certain elements of our thinking is less a cause for despair than an invigorating challenge. But why?

Well, firstly and most importantly, we do not think that those of our ideas made questionable by the passage of time are anything like the totality of our perspective, nor do we see them as the foundations of our politics. Although our critique of existing society and of traditional programmes for changing it needs to be further developed, it remains essentially sound enough to set as a springboard for such development.

There is not the space here to elaborate upon this assertion. We can only state our convictions that the current world recession does not invalidate our critique of classical Marxist crisis theory; that the sophistication of some modern Marxism cannot relegitimate the tired old platitudes of Marxist orthodoxy; that the fate of the new social movements does not necessitate a retreat from our emphasis on contestation outside the traditional politico-economic sphere; that the inappropriateness of councilism to modern conditions does not undermine either our critique of the tendencies towards bureaucratisation deeply embedded in the theory and practice of traditional working class organisations and parties of the left, or our emphasis on self-activity in struggle.

Secondly, we believe that whatever development is required is well within our capacity. This is not to pre-empt the necessary process of discussion: we have no magic formulae up our sleeves, nor would we wish to have. It is, however, to state that, unlike too many on the British libertarian left, we are not afraid of critical thinking.

This said, abstract theory is by no means all we plan to publish. At present there is no British periodical that habitually carries detailed and accurate critical reports of actual struggles - a situation which stems largely from the left's quite innocent (though harmful) preoccupation with forcing the complexities of real life into simplistic and outmoded interpretative frameworks, but which is also the product of a predilection for tactical distortions of reality. We aim to do all we can to rectify this state of affairs, by publishing in-depth second-hand accounts and first-hand testimonies of contemporary social conflicts, in industry and elsewhere.

Our older readers will recognise our twin priorities of interrogating radical social theory and investigating the practice of oppositional social movements as being very much those of the old Solidarity for Workers' Power journal published by London Solidarity from 1959 to 1977, when Solidarity fused with the group Social Revolution. It must be emphasised that the similarity of objectives does not mean that we are motivated by some escapist nostalgia for the 'good old days'. Even though Solidarity for Workers' Power was a more incisive publication than its successor Solidarity for Social Revolution, it was hardly perfect even in its time and its time has now passed. We are prepared to learn from our history, but we have no desire to use it as an emotional crutch.

Very poor scan not checked against original.