A Post on Optional Reading: Paul Cardan’s “Redefining Revolution”

In “Redefining Revolution”⁠1 Paul Cardan offers panoptic critique of Marxism as it stood in ’63. Cardan asserts that Marxist revolutionaries are faced with the choice to either be a revolutionary or to remain a Marxist.⁠2  This is to suggest that Marxism itself had become an institutionalized ideology whose categories are no longer useful for a revolutionary practice, and so to remain a revolutionary is to renounce Marxism.  The concepts of classical Marxism do not apply to contemporary capitalist conditions and the historical reality, as Cardan sees it, of Marxist communism in the USSR renders the tradition itself impotent for actual revolutionary practice.   He writes: “Marxism’s ‘defenders’ are both raping marxism and putting it to death by the very things they do to ‘defend’ it, and by their very act of defending it.  For they can only defend marxism by remaining silent about what has happened to it in the last 40 years.  They behave as if real history didn’t matter” (5). While we could certainly call into question Cardan’s use of “real history,” and at first glance, this critique of Marxism seems to be akin to what Gabriel has been calling “the blackmail of the Gulag,” —critiques we saw in both Arendt and Furet, which aligned Marxism with totalitarianism— Cardan’s critique is importantly distinct from these others and falls into a different category.  The thrust of his argument is that in order to remain faithful to the tradition of critical, revolutionary, Marxism, it is necessary to move beyond it. It is in the spirit of Marx, in other words, to kill Marxism.


Critique of Marxism and of Traditional Politics

In section 7 of the pamphlet, Cardan systematically lays out  11 points of contention with classical marxism.  They are as follows (I’ve attempted to summarize Cardan’s more intricate engagements with Marx for the purpose of getting an overview of the arc of the critique):

A) That the distinction between capitalists and proletarians is no longer useful or accurate

B) Bureaucracy is the real problem today, not capital

C) We need to theorize bureaucracy instead of the market as the place of domination

D) The “labor power as commodity” logic falls apart in contemporary capitalism because labor power cannot consistently be theorized as a commodity or as determined by objective factors.

E) The ‘contradiction’ in capitalism is now a contradiction brought about through the processes of management and inclusion/exclusion, not, as Marx had it, in the development of the productive forces and the system of private property.

F) The proletariat makes its own history, they don’t endure it.

G)  The role of culture is more complex in its modern form than Marx was able to account for.

H) Technology is not neutral but has to be consciously transformed to serve a post-revolutionary society

I)The identification of socialism and nationalization of the means of production is a problem

J) Absolute equality is necessary, not ‘bourgeois right’ in the transition period

K)  Economic determinism and the role of the Party are inadequate conceptions that need to be replaced with new ones that are based on “the autonomy of the working class [and] the capacity of the masses to manage their own activities” (7). Instead of focusing on economic relations as the object of social revolution, then, we need a new conception of the revolutionary process and organization that sees the working class as an autonomous body.


I am most interested in taking up the first and last of these points so in what follows I will address (a) Cardan’s rejection of the categories of capitalists and proletarians and (k) the critique of economic determinism.


The real structure to overthrow, according to Cardan, is not Capitalism according to the old categories with which Marxism thought it but bureaucracy and privatization.  We can see a similar sentiment in Graeber’s “Revolution in Reverse.”  Graeber writes, “Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules, statistics, or ques- tionnaires, bureaucracy is always about simplification. Ultimately the effect is not so different than the boss who walks in to make an arbitrary snap decision as to what went wrong: it’s a matter of applying very simple schemas to complex, ambiguous situations” (51-52).  For Cardan, classical marxist concepts have themselves been privatized through a kind of bureaucratic process, and leftist movements have been subsumed into and taken over by the official institutions of society.  Cardan writes, “The working class movement has become integrated into official society, its institutions (parties, unions) have become part of that society […] This privatization of the working class and of all social groups is the joint result of two factors: on the one hand the bureaucratization of parties and unions estranges the mass of workers; on the other the rise of living standards and the massive dissemination of new types and new objects of consumption provides them with a substitute for and the shame pretense of a meaningful life” (15). Cardan calls this substitute for a meaningful life  “barbarism.”  He writes “If the term ‘barbarism’ has any meaning today, it does not mean fascism, or mass poverty, or a return to the stone age.  It means precisely this ‘air-conditioned nightmare’: consumption for consumption’s sake in private life, organization for organization’s sake in public life, and their corollaries— privatization, withdrawal from and apathy towards social questions, dehumanization of social relationships” (15).  Cardan emphasizes a shift towards a radical politics that accounts for new configurations of the social imaginary, of new ways of creating ‘meaningful lives and work.’  He sees this as being opposed to the Marxist emphasis on the economic determinism of all revolutionary practice.  He writes, “The traditional organizations based themselves on the idea that economic demands were the central problem confronting workers and that capitalism would always be incapable of satisfying them.  This idea no longer corresponds to contemporary reality…” (17). But it is precisely as we shift away from thinking about economic determinism as the revolutionary impetus that we find another, which is how it is that the social imaginary configures meaningful lives and work. “Inasmuch as the narrow ‘economic’ problem becomes less important, the interest and concern of working people will turn to the real problems of life in modern society: to how work is organized, to the very meaning of work today and to other facts of social organization and of human life” (12).

Cardan’s critique is aimed primarily at those who would take Marxism as ideology.  The trick then is to try to think revolution without providing a totalizing system in which even one’s own identity as a revolutionary is pre-determined.  Cardan points out that   “A deep feeling of insecurity attracts people like a magnet towards any closed system of ideas which will relieve them from anxiety in the face of the unknown” (2).  One major question to which Cardan draws our attention is to the difficulty in uniting different kinds of working people within the new configurations of capitalism.  He writes, “Under capitalism it will always be difficult to unite the struggles of different categories of working people who are not in identical situations and never will be” (9).  I think that this is the real challenge Cardan identifies to contemporary revolutionary praxis but it is also the place where it is helpful to think about why, in spite of all of its problems, we might want to retain an affiliation to the tradition of Marxism in contemporary revolutionary thought and activity.  If it is the case that the proletariat is no longer a useful and mobilizing category and that social and economic stratifications sever the bonds of the proletariat, then  how are we to think about the possibility of solidarity or of revolutionary community?  Even if “the proletariat” is nothing more than a myth and doesn’t map onto current social configurations exactly as Marx understood them, I wonder if the concept itself isn’t useful precisely because it serves to provide a kind of narrative that serves to unite the individuals engaged in revolutionary practices not only to each other but to a tradition that precedes them.  The question, then, is whether or not we can talk about something like a revolutionary tradition as a possibility. Is “revolutionary” necessarily understood as opposed to “tradition”?




1 This text was written by Cornelius Castoriadis under the pseudo name of Paul Cardan in 1963.  It’s original publication and circulation within ‘Pouvoir Ouvrier’  led to the splitting of Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1965.  It was published again over a decade later by Solidarity (London).

2 This same ultimatum is echoed again later in Castoriadis’ career in the first chapter of The Imaginary Institution of Society

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