Teaching Castoriadis.


A modest contribution on the BA (Hons) Politics at University of East London (UEL).


These notes were originally prepared for the Agora International website and can be found at:


Other notes on teaching Castoriadis are at:


                                                                                                                                                        LINKS:  Imagining Other Index Page


                                                                                                                                                                                                                Recommencing Revolution (notes on Castoriadis)




(i) Background: Liberal Studies (see also Biographical Background to the author of these pages


In 2003 I retired from teaching at UEL.  My career there started back in the ‘60s, when colleges in the UK introduced “Liberal Studies” into technical and scientific courses.  Liberal studies classes

introduced topics from social studies, literature and the arts, communication and media studies etc, as “add-on” elements to courses for e.g. mechanical engineers, civil engineers, biologists and even business

studies students. The tutors delivering these classes had a great deal of autonomy, but the classes were compulsory for students – a conflict that was but one of the issues we debated in those days!


The motivation for “Liberal Studies”, on the part of government, was undoubtedly that technicians and engineers in the UK had a narrow outlook, with little or no awareness of society or culture.  It was

believed, in line with the then popular theories of the “human relations” school of management, that workers would be more “fulfilled” – and less trouble! – if they were more broadly educated.  Also,

presumably, that UK workers were at a disadvantage in relation to their more broadly educated European counterparts. (Perhaps now we would talk of a “flexible” labour force!).


Of course, many of the tutors – including myself – were involved through a desire to reach FE and HE students and encourage social and political awareness, and to foster more critical attitudes among future

workers. Eventually (fashions change – and there had always been a fair amount of hostility among some of the recipient departments) Liberal Studies as such disappeared. However, some courses retained a

component that had been originally taught as Liberal Studies. 


(ii) BA Economics:


My own ‘survival package’ included teaching Corporate Social Responsibility for Business Studies students, and courses in political thought for economics students. In addition I developed an interdisciplinary course, which attempted to show (i) that economists, social scientists and political theorists often shared similar assumptions and methodologies (ii) that when this happened, what was shared was a “model” of society, based on questionable political/philosophical assumptions.


The economics degree at UEL went through some changes in the early to mid-1980s (becoming more heavily theoretical and narrow), and “my” course was pushed off.


(iii) BA Politics: ‘Capitalism, Bureaucracy and Democracy’


However, soon after this a politics degree was established at UEL, and I found a niche there for the course – now functioning as an introduction to economic and social theories for students of politics! By now the course was called: “Capitalism, Bureaucracy and Democracy”, and I had been drawing on a book with a similar title, by Alford, Robert R. and Friedland, Roger (Cambridge 1985): Powers of Theory: Capitalism, State and Democracy.  This book received little or no comment that I am aware of, in academic circles – I am not sure why.  I personally found its central idea thought-provoking: that different models of the state (for me this worked better as theories of society) viz: pluralism, managerialism, and class models, could be drawn together if it was recognised that each focussed on a different “level” of society (for pluralists: the individual – and the defence of capitalism; for managerialists: the organisation, and the state as the supreme organisation; for class theorists: the mode of production – and the demand for democracy).My view of the book was that it was neo-Marxist, since you could only draw these theories together by subsuming individualist or managerial perspectives under a theory of the “whole” society, and for these writers Marxism provided that theory. Hence also their odd coupling of “democracy” with the class view…


I have to admit that for most of its history this course was pretty orthodox, in the sense that (i) the models that it introduced were the predictable ones for social and political scientists, and (ii) although I always concluded the course by questioning the whole enterprise of bringing together these theories, Alford and Friedland really did not provide a convincing way of doing this. Another rather traditional feature of the course was that I dealt with one theorist (or sometimes a “school”) each week. We ranged from Adam Smith, (tracing his influence on such as Hayek), through Schumpeter, Weber and Keynes (as, loosely, “managerial”) and dealt with the arguments between “structural” Marxists (viz. Althusser) and a more humanist approach such as that taken by the late E.P. Thompson.


(iv) Castoriadis:


It was only in the last five or six years of my teaching on the politics degree (before retirement) that I tentatively brought in Castoriadis. “Tentatively” because of the difficulty and newness of the ideas in a traditional (undergraduate) academic context, and – I have to admit – difficult for me! However, once I gained more confidence I found that students were sometimes quite excited about Castoriadis’ approach.  What I found particularly convincing was the way that, through the “radical imaginary”, Castoriadis demonstrated how: (i) the individual is not separable from society; (ii) each society creates its own meanings and structures; (iii) “autonomy” is central to the development of both the balanced individual and the just society.  I used an extract from “Marxism and Revolutionary Theory” (see: ed.

David Ames Curtis, 1997: The Castoriadis Reader, pages 177 – 189) as a basis for discussion of ideas that I felt were relevant to the course.  Sadly the amount of time - one week! – that I had to spend on Castoriadis was not anything like enough, since the ideas are not only rather difficult, but very rich indeed, involving some knowledge of psychology and philosophy etc.


For me, Castoriadis helps to elucidate a whole number of questions, in addition to the three points just identified. Particularly helpful to me were:

(i) the interdisciplinary approach, which underlined the unreal separation of “disciplines” in academic practice (this was my starting-point as a Liberal Studies practitioner – now I see disciplines simply as “institutions” which can and must be challenged when taken as fixed);


(ii) the explanation of the frightening human tendency to “reify” institutions (how I wish I had been able to use Castoriadis back in the ‘60s when arguing against nuclear weapons, and when confronted by arguments about “not being able to stop scientific progress”!);


(iii) the stress on the importance of creativity to both the individual and society (music and the arts have always been essential to my life – and, like Oscar Wilde, I have always believed that socialism would be beautiful)


(iv) above all, the development of a way of thinking which demonstrates the possibility and not just the desirability of revolution.


(In addition to the Capitalism, Bureaucracy, Democracy course, I prepared, for the University of East London, the first part of what I intended to be a two-part paper on Castoriadis:  “Recommencing Revolution? Politics and Society in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1992 – 1997). Part I”.  See: Recommencing Revolution. This was published by the University in March 2001.ISSN:1 466-125X. My decision “out of the blue” to take early retirement has created a hiatus, but I would still like to write a more complete Introduction to Castoriadis.)


(v) Course Outline:

School of Social Sciences: PO320: Capitalism, Bureaucracy, Democracy.



To provide a complementary introduction, for students of politics, to economic and social theories which may help to understand some debates in twentieth century politics.

To explore some links between the disciplines of political theory, economics and sociology, and to see whether it is useful to try to bring the disciplines together.


The course will:

(a) introduce, and test the usefulness of, a number of models of modern capitalist society which bring together economics politics and social theory

(b) explore concepts and issues concerning the nature of capitalist society, and possible alternatives, drawing on political, economic and social theory

(c)introduce a number of significant writers from different backgrounds (viz. economics, social theory and politics).


Learning Outcomes:

On completion of this Unit, students should be able to:


Describe the differences and similarities between a number of models drawn from political,social and economic theory, which aim to explain (or explore) the problems of

(i) the relations between the individual, the organisation and society and/or (ii) the roles of economics, politics and social structures.


Discuss the work of a number of significant individual writers on economic, political and social theory, whose work may be said to examine the above problems.


Teaching Methods:

Each week (the course lasts 12 weeks) will comprise approximately two-thirds lecture (information input – but presented in such a way as to encourage a certain amount of discussion) and one-third

seminar (which will usually comprise primarily a discussion of issues raised in the lecture and a seminar reading). A handout will usually be given out each week for the following week's seminar. (Students should be sure to read the handout, and ideally look at some of the recommended texts cited below for each lecture - otherwise the seminar is likely to turn into another lecture-session!!)




A. Lecture List (and examples of seminar readings) – see B. below for “thematic list”:


1. Introduction:

Political theory, economics and the social sciences. Political & Social Models:

Pluralist/individualist and neo-liberal. Managerial. Class.

Levels of analysis (state/system, organisation/structure, individual/situation).

Functional vs. political approaches.

Alford and Friedland (1985) - Introduction and Chapter 1.


2. Economic models and approaches. The creation of value.

Cole et al 1983 pp. 6 - 20.


Block (i): Democracy – origins of the pluralist/individualist perspective.

3. Adam Smith. Origins of pluralist/individualist model: his ethics. Smith's economics.

Extracts from: Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" and "The Wealth of Nations"


4. Modern liberalism- Hayek, Friedman. Neo-liberalism.

Extracts from Hayek's "Road to Serfdom", Routledge 1976


5. Conservatism, Thatcherism, New Right.

G. Thompson, in: A. Gamble: The Free Economy and the Strong State, Macmillan 1988

Block (ii): Bureaucracy - the managerial perspective. Contemporary debates on statemanaged and corporate capitalism.


Block (ii) Bureaucracy, elites and managerialism.

6. Managerialism, industrial society. Economic and managerial/technocratic theories

(cost-of- production school); also Veblen, Burnham, Galbraith. Keynes.

Cole et al:(1983)4


7. Elites and bureaucrats/bureaucracy:

Weber and rationalisation. Defending Bureaucracy? Du Gay:(2000)


8. Elites and bureaucrats/bureaucracy: Schumpeter.

Extracts from Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). Ed. Richard Swedberg, Routledge 1992


Block (iii): Capitalism- the class perspective.

9. Socialism and Marxism.

The debate between functional/structuralist and humanist/political world-views: Structural Marxism, Althusser (1969/70)


10. Marxist “cultural and political theories”; critique of bureaucracy (New Left). E.P. Thompson.

Extracts from E.P. Thompson (1978)


Block (iv): A synthesis? Autonomy and the social imaginary.

11. C. Castoriadis: socialism, bureaucracy and autonomy. Institutions and instituting society. The individual psyche and the radical social imaginary.

C. Castoriadis: Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, Odeon, 1991.




B. Examples of concepts and issues which may be discussed (‘thematic list’):


philosophy, ideas, interests and ideology

the economy and politics

individualism, pluralism, socialism and collectivism

the market, morality, and planning

equality and freedom

conservatism and the new right

democracy and elitism

rationality, managerialism and bureaucracy

class, social structure and autonomy

economic determinism and class consciousness

social institutions/instituting society

the construction of the individual psyche, and its relation to social organisation



A. Recommended texts for the whole Unit: (specific readings for each week are given below).


(i) The main theoretical impetus for this course came from:  Alford, Robert R. and Friedland, Roger: Powers of Theory (Capitalism, the State and Democracy);Cambridge 1985.


(ii) A useful, if compactly-written text, aimed at students of economics, but which has summaries of similar economic models to those used in Alford and Friedland 1985, (and which relates these economic models to wider political perspectives): Cole, K., Cameron, J., and Edwards, C.: Why Economists Disagree; Longman 4th impression 1989.


(iii) More recently, focussing on the “growth” debate, and discussing: neo-liberal, state-led and negotiated or consensual capitalism: D. Coates: Models of Capitalism;Polity 2001.


(iv) Focussing on economic models, but in an accessible style: Brown, M.B.: Models in Political Economy; Penguin 1984.


(v) An even more enjoyable read, which introduces the major economists in some depth: Heilbroner, R: The Worldly Philosophers; Penguin 1991.


B. Some texts which cover, in a more general way, the political theories relevant to this Unit:

Lechte, J.: Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers; Routledge 1994

Goodwin, B.: Using Political Ideas; Wiley 1997

Hagopian, M.N: Ideals and Ideologies; Longman 1985

Ball, T. and Dagger, R: Ideals and Ideologies: a Reader; Harper Collins 1991.

Gamble, A: Ideas, Interests and Consequences; IEA 1989.

Held, D: Political Theory and the Modern State; Polity 1984.

Held, D: Models of Democracy; Polity 1987 .

Vincent, A: Modern Political Ideologies; Blackwell 1992


C. Other texts:

A recent book on political theory which explores models of the state: Ed. Marsh, D and Stoker, G: Theory and Methods in Political Science; Macmillan 1995.

A text which goes into considerable detail on the use of economic models in political science: Dunleavy, P: Democracy, Bureaucracy and Public Choice; Harvester Wheatsheaf 1991.

Useful (if basic) introduction to sociological perspectives: Haralambos, M: Sociology; Bell and Hyman 1985.

Post-Marxist approach to capitalism and democracy: Bowles, S., and Gintis, H: Democracy and Capitalism; Taylor and Francis 1987.

Recent critical text on corporate capitalism, which deals with the philosophical theories often underpinning economic models: Gupta, S. Corporate Capitalism and Political Philosophy, Pluto 2002.7

Specifically on approaches to democracy: Ed. Beetham, D: Defining and Measuring Democracy; Sage 1994.

Recent text taking a new look at bureaucracy, (referring extensively to Weber): Du Gay, P.: In Praise of Bureaucracy; Sage 20008


D.  Extra Reading for each Lecture:

1. A. Brown: Modern Political Philosophy; Penguin 1986.


2.  R. Barker: Political Ideas in Modern Britain; Methuen 1978.

Gamble (1989); Goodwin (1990) (ch 2); Hagopian (1985), (Intro); Vincent (1992).


3. D.D.Raphael: Adam Smith, OUP (Past Masters) 1985

R. Heilbroner: The Worldly Philosophers, Pelican 1986

L. Strauss, and J. Cropsey: History of Political Philosophy, Chicago 1965 (see also Sabine and Thorson)

W.J.Barber: A History of Economic Thought, Pelican 1972

Cole et al (1983) ch 2; Goodwin (1990) ch 3


4.  Hayek: Constitution of Liberty, Routledge 1960

ed. A. de Crespigny, and K. Minogue: Contemporary Political Philosophers, Methuen 1975

E. Butler: Hayek, his contribution.. Temple Smith 1983

Goodwin (1990) ch 3; Barker (1978) ch 7

Cunningham, F: Theories of Democracy, Routledge 2002 (has useful short discussion on democracy and capitalism).


5.  R. Barker: Political Ideas in Modern Britain, Methuen 1978

A. Gamble: Modern Social and Political Thought, Macmillan 1981

P. Dunleavy and B. O'Leary: Theories of the State, Macmillan 1987

G. McLennan, D. Held, S. Hall: State and Society in Contemporary Britain, Polity 1984

D. Marsh, and R.A.W. Rhodes: Implementing Thatcherite Policies, OUP 1992

W. Keegan: Mrs Thatcher's Economic Experiment, Pelican 1984

Hagopian (1985) ch 13; Dunleavy 1991


6. Galbraith: The New Industrial State, (first published 1967) also: The Affluent Society, etc, Pelican

W. Hutton: The State We're In; Cape 1995

Heilbroner(1991); Hagopian (1995) ch 4


7.&8…MacRae: Weber, Fontana 1974

M. Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) or Economy and Society (1921)

Anti-Minotaur: the myth of a value-free sociology, in: M.Stein and A.Vidich: Sociology on Trial, Prentice-Hall 1963

D. Held: Political Theory and the Modern State, Polity 1984

K. Morrison: Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Sage 1995

Haralambos (1985); Heilbroner(1991) - on Schumpeter….

Held (1984) p. 39 et seq: central perspectives on the modern state

Held (1987) ch 5: competitive elitism and the technocratic vision, covers Weber, and Schumpeter

K. Lowith: MaxWeber and KarlMarx. Routledge 1993


9 & 10: Dowd, D.  Understanding Capitalism; Pluto  2002  (on  how  economic  theory  has become capitalist ideology)


9.  L. Althusser: For Marx, Penguin 1969 or Reading Capital NLB1970

J. Lechte: Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, Routledge (1994) (extremely succinct summaries of e.g. Althusser, Foucault -structuralism, post- modernism etc)


10. E.P. Thompson: The Poverty of Theory , Merlin 1979. (contains other essays - is a vehement attack on Althusser)

M. Howard and J. King: The Political Economy of Karl Marx Longman 1975 (stresses active role of working class rather than economic 'laws');

P. Anderson: Considerations on Western Marxism, NLB1976

T. Benton: The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism, Macmillan 1984

G. Stedman Jones: Western Marxism, NLB1977 continued....

A. Gramsci: Selections from Prison Notebooks

E.W. Fromm: Marx's Concept of Man

R. Miliband: The State in Capitalist Society etc


11.  D. Howard: The Legacy of Marxism, Macmillan 1977 ch 10.

D. A. Curtis (ed): The Castoriadis Reader, Blackwell 1997

C. Castoriadis (ed. D.A. Curtis): The World in Fragments, Stanford U.P. 1997

Ditto: Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy; OUP 1991

Mouffe, C.: The Democratic Paradox, Verso 2000 (for an “agonistic” model of democracy),.

D. Coates: Models of Capitalism; Polity 2001.1


Ian Pirie 7/10/2003 – notes updated September 2012.