Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The meaning of life

“The Meaning of Socialism” is a pamphlet published by Solidarity, a now defunct British leftist group with a libertarian socialist orientation. The pamphlet was first published in 1961. My copy is from 1969. It was quite popular in its day, and has been translated to a number of foreign languages, including Japanese and Norwegian. It has also been translated into French, which is pretty ironic, since the pamphlet contains an article written by the French leftist intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis. Apparently, “The Meaning of Socialism” was originally an English-language article written by Castoriadis for the magazine International Socialism (associated with Tony Cliff's group in Britain). Castoriadis, who often used the pen name Paul Cardan, was the leader of a small group in France, Socialisme ou Barbarie. Solidarity seems to have been Cardan's foremost admirers in the Anglo-Saxon world.

“The Meaning of Socialism” is a relatively short text, in which Castoriadis alias Cardan explains his basic approach to socialism, revolution and the workers' movement. It has a family likeness to anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism and council communism, although Cardan never uses those terms. The main contradiction within capitalism goes between authoritarian management of production and the attempts of workers to free themselves from such. Capitalist production is fundamentally irrational. At several points, Cardan implies that the kind of large scale production dominated by machines which characterize the modern economy is irrational, too. One cannot therefore simply “take it over”, or hand it over to state planners, and expect workers' paradise to follow. Since the Soviet Union and similar societies are just as marked by the contradiction between workers and irrational production/dead machines/authoritarian management as the Western nations, these supposedly “socialist” systems are fundamentally capitalist, too.

Cardan also attacks the meaninglessness and anomie of modern life, how people despite their higher living standards nevertheless feel alienated, how capitalism tries to “solve” the problem by ever-changing and ever-increasing consumption, which is really just as empty, etc. (Here, he sounds like the later hippies or Situationists!) The task of the revolutionary organization isn't to act as a sectarian vanguard in order to “lead” the proletariat. That will simply reproduce the hierarchic relationship the revolution is supposed to get away from. Instead, revolutionaries should practice direct democracy and local autonomy within their own organizations. They should also concentrate their efforts at factory level and the level of everyday life, since it's there most workers actually are. Abstract slogans or programs of the type beloved by small Trotskyist groups are to be avoided. The “meaning of socialism” and the ultimate goal of the struggle is workers' self-management of production.

There are several problems with Cardan's text. It feels extremely narrow with its almost exclusive orientation towards the shop floor. It's also Euro-centrist. Most workers, of course, never experienced a higher standard of living after World War II. Third World workers, to be exact. Indeed, Cardan says literally *nothing* about the Third World, and this in a text on “the meaning of socialism” published in 1961! Cardan's text is also extremely vague and contradictory once he attempts to describe how workers' self-management should really work. Suddenly, there is central planning with the aid of computers (I assumed the dead labor of the machines was supposed to be abolished?) and a centralized distribution system, with the workers in each factory simply deciding on *how* the plan should be put into effect in their little corners. The plan itself is supposedly the result of a collective decision of the whole working class…and, I suppose, its computers. (Compare the later musings by Murray Bookchin.)

Finally, I must say that the cover of this pamphlet is priceless. At least the 1969 cover. It shows a comics character in the form of a smiling heart, with a tool in one hand and a flower in the other. This funny little guy shows up in several other Solidarity pamphlets, too. The whole thing feels so “love summer”! Perhaps this says something about how this particular group wants us to interpret the meaning of Cornelius Castoriadis?

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