For Communism… Badiou and the re-emergence of the Communist Hypothesis

Infinite Thought has posted up a translation of a recent Badiou piece published in La Monde on the 13th of February. Translation by Alberto Toscano.

In this article Badiou attempts to confront those that seek to make the historic experience of Communism (in his words) ‘illegible’, that is to re-define emancipatory attempts as pathological periods which have no bearing on our current situation. Badiou, makes a strong argument for the ‘Communist Hypothesis’, a hypothesis which is larger than the disastrous experimentations in its name during the period of state communism in the 1900’s. The Communist hypothesis, Badiou argues, can be defined by its belief in three axioms. Namely;

1)      Universal equality. Not in terms of are individual attributes but in terms of our access to social wealth. Badiou criticises, quite rightly, those with a closed, pre-determined vision of humanity which accepts the inequality which Capitalism produces.

2)      Anti-Statism. Communist and Anarchists differ from Socialists in that they reject the so called necessity of the state. Power can be institutionalised in myriad ways and history is full of examples of collective democratic decision making

3)      The ‘polymorphousness of human labour’ – that is the possibility of sharing different tasks in a more equal way (think of Marx’s dream of a society in which one fishes in the morning, makes tables in the afternoon and debates in the evening). Badiou, interestingly, argues this is the material basis for the disappearance of social hierarchies.

‘These three principles do not constitute a programme; they are maxims of orientation, which anyone can use as a yardstick to evaluate what he or she says and does, personally or collectively, in its relation to the communist hypothesis’.

Communism then is an open concept, not a programme and certainly not a party. Indeed it is interesting to see how many traditional Communist parties match up to these ideals, with many of them uncritically supporting national liberation struggles and foreshortened anti-imperialist positions. This opening up of Communism that Badiou argues should be placed with his fellow Communist theorist Slavoj Zizek, whose latest book ‘First as Tragedy, then as Farce’ (see jouissance for a great review) also makes an impassioned plea for the re-definition of a Communist politics beyond its failed State Communist form. Whilst both are perhaps a little glib about the scale of the failure, Zizek being more alarming with his (hopefully) tongue in cheek endorsement of revolutionary discipline and terror, it is important that Communism be redefined and experiments with state communism be historicised as a tragic failure from which much can be learned. As Zizek has argued, we must be prepared to fail again, but fail better, in “First as Tragedy…” he argues that Communism should be seen as a problematic with which we face the world, not a utopian end goal. Indeed, within the movements which we would define as having Communist tendencies will surely be the seeds for new tensions and antagonisms. Perhaps then should Communism be seen as what John Holloway building upon Adorno argues a ‘movement of negation’ which seeks to challenge that which exists, rather than being a positive end goal to which we must strive. Whilst my knowledge of negative dialectics is admittedly rather shallow it seems a more fruitful direction in which the Communist discourse might move.

Historical Stages of the Eternal Idea?

Badiou then makes the case for historicising interpretations of the Communist Hypothesis. He argues that the first stage between 1848 and 1971 being organised around the themes of ‘Workers movements and insurrections’ whilst the second from 1905-1976 was built around the idea of the party. Badiou argues a third period, closer to the first rather than the second period, can be seen emerging from the rubble of our post-political period. He argues that the development of this period will be organised around the development of an impossible point, one which starkly highlights the functioning of modern capital. Badiou points towards the migrant worker as the point around which this hypothesis can manifest itself. He argues that this will require courage, a courage whose ‘horizon is the slow reestablishment of the communist hypothesis’.

Whilst agreeing with his argument for an open conception of Communism, it is perhaps this final section which demonstrates Badiou’s more traditional Marxist roots. The two clear problems with this section are his criteria for periodising the Communist movement and the traditional Marxist-Leninist obsession with defining the revolutionary subject in whatever form that may take be it proletarian, cognitive labourer, migrant or organic intellectual. These will be, briefly, dealt with in turn.

1)                          Firstly, it is interesting that Badiou discusses the first period of Communism as originating in 1848, the same year as the Communist manifesto was published. Badiou fails to mention the emancipatory tradition which has run throughout human history, from Peasant revolts to the wave of radical uprisings unleashed by the European reformation, A period which Luther Blisset’s Q has sought to argue, saw Communist ideals entwined with radical religious fervour. It is important to recognise that which is constant and common within history. It is this legacy which the Luther Blisset project sought to resurrect with their ‘mytho-poetic’ (see their interview linked in this weeks Sunday Papers) Genoa 2001, call out linking previous struggles with that of today (link). Whilst it is important to recognise the historical contingencies which have shaped our, considerable, political differences, it is also important to recognise that the Communist hypothesis existed before the existence of Capitalism itself, indeed, I would argue it is a central theme of human history itself.

2)                          Secondly, I would be sceptical about any search for a radical subject. Whilst the figure of the migrant, Agamben’s Homo Sacer, perhaps most clearly demonstrates the contradictions of both state and capital, any attempts at deliberately producing a subject around which struggle will emerge seems unlikely to be successful.

It is encouraging to see the Communist ideal being argued for once again. Whilst many argue that we no longer need this concept, or that its historical baggage ways it down, in many ways, I believe, this legacy is also its source of strength. The Communist problematic which has been posed throughout history can be a source of inspiration and strength for those of us seeking to challenge the state and capital today.


Posted on February 28, 2010, in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Missak Manouchian

    Badiou’s is an interesting piece, as are your reflections on it. I’ll take up the points of your text that I don’t agree with, in accordance with the principle that disagreement is the surest way of expressing respect.

    1. What’s the point in saying yes to terror?
    I think this idea that Zizek is being ‘tongue in cheek’ about revolutionary terror and discipline is a mistaken one. He is deadly serious. His basic point is that you cannot afford to be anti-state without some idea of how you are going to fill the hole left by the destruction of the state. The history of anti-statal movements shows how their successes are inevitably met with even more oppressive state forms. Think of the oppression of the Paris Commune, the state forms which followed the Russian and Chinese revolutionary movements, Italy after autonomia and still today. It is not enough to be anti-state. At best, when you don’t open the way for even more repression, you end up one of Hegel’s ‘beautiful souls.’ You can afford to be radical and bombard the state with impossible demands because the state will come along and do the dirty work of policy anyway. Furthermore we can be radical, bombarding the state with impossible demands, only when we face a liberal-democratic state. I think Zizek would even criticize Badiou a little for this as well. For Zizek, the point is not to conduct politics ‘at a distance to the state’, but to make the state function in a non-statal way. This is the specific source of his (limited) interests in Chavez’s politics – which in no way implies a global endorsement of his regime (I refer you to the sections in First as tragedy). Saying yes to terror and discipline, then, means having the courage and inventiveness to break out of the anti-state movement / new state-form dialectic.

    2. Badiou’s is not a negative dialectics
    This kind of relates to the previous point. A purely ‘negative’ conception of dialectics condemns action precisely to this anti-state movement/new state-form dialectic. There is of course need for a negative movement. How else to locate antagonism? But on its own this privileging of negativity just fetishizes the position of the underdog. Perhaps its model is Nietzsche’s ‘slave morality’, we can rebel, win, even, but we win as slaves. Adorno’s ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly’ is an ethical/moral principle, not a political one. Badiou knows there is a place for this (he talks of a provisional ethics in the piece you review), but the political is about change, not about how to live in a wrong world. In place of negative dialectics Badiou has a conception of ‘dialectical determination:’ the combative core of a movement is indeed determined by its placement within the global imperial order, but the measure of its antagonism is in how the affirmation of its existence as a movement manages to displace its placement in this imperial order. The strategic question then concerns finding the ‘impossible point’ which the system is necessarily blind to because it supports its global functioning. Hence, for Marxism, the importance of the scientific discovery of exploitation and the political discovery of the proletariat, the universal class whose abolishment would be simultaneously the abolishment of all classes. There is more to Badiou’s ‘materialist dialectic’ than either affirmation (hyper-lefty naivety) or negation (anti-repressive indignation). This is from his incredibly dense ‘Theory of the Subject’ (chapters 1&2, all I’ve mange dot get through so far).

    3. Periodization and orientation
    A common criticism of the Marxist approach to history is its obsession with periodization. In one sense, these criticisms are quire correct. History is far more complex than any periodization could allow. However, Marxist history is not history for the sake of history. It is not the activity of showing, starting form where we are today, how history has simply made it inevitable. On the contrary, Marxist history is future-orientated. Simplification is a necessary weapon. It is through simplification that we achieve orientation, which allows us not simply to be a part of history, but to actively make it. Concepts are perspectives. They simplify the indeterminacy of the world, making it possible to force something upon it. We absolutely need orientation, and it absolutely needs to be historical orientation. I know of no other way to approach this question (of historical, rather than metaphysical, ethical orientation) other than through periodization.

    4. Migrant as a subject of provisional morality
    I think you misinterpret Badiou on the question of the subject. In this piece his discussion of the migrant is in the context of a discussion of a ‘provisional morality,’ not as a revolutionary subject. I am surprised to see you close with the comment ‘any attempts at deliberately producing a subject around which struggle will emerge seems unlikely to be successful,’ since the question of the subject is undoubtedly the question of any revolutionary movement. There is a problem, I agree, in searching for a subject that will come and save us (God, the industrial working class, and so on), but we nevertheless have to become subjects of our own emancipation. The contradictions of capitalism won’t do it for us. There is no deus ex machina. The unfortunate history of Marx’s concept of proletariat is no doubt the source of you dismissal of the question of the subject. Beginning as a political concept, Marx’s proletariat gradually became identified with the industrial working class. Concrete sociological figures will never provide a revolutionary subject. They are not really subjects at all, but identities. Subjects are made through the dissolution of identities. Sociological figures can and do exemplify the contradictions of state and capital, as you say, but to get us out of this quagmire we need to act as a political subject, or else wait for a miracle or an apocalypse.

  2. Okay, so you say this:

    “Whilst it is important to recognise the historical contingencies which have shaped our, considerable, political differences, it is also important to recognise that the Communist hypothesis existed before the existence of Capitalism itself, indeed, I would argue it is a central theme of human history itself.”

    And then this:

    “Secondly, I would be sceptical about any search for a radical subject. Whilst the figure of the migrant, Agamben Homo Sacer, perhaps most clearly demonstrates the contradictions of both state and capital, any attempts at deliberately producing a subject around which struggle will emerge seems unlikely to be successful.”

    In the first paragraph you argue that Communism and the struggle surrounding it is the central theme of human history, and in the second deny a revolutionary subject entirely. So where is agency? How can we be inscribed with a historical constant, an essential drive towards equality, without then performing as actors to bring this about? Unless you’re arguing that the Communist hypothesis has always existed and determines our actions – in which case we’re back to metaphysics, which was the problem in the first place.

    And, in fact, I’d say that this is what Badiou falls back to when he prophesizes the “third historical sequence”, where he may as well have said he saw the second coming of Christ in a pancake. Structuring history in this way is a hangover from the 19th century and a bad reading of Marx. Althusser was sort of on the ball in Reading Capital when he argued that Capital represented a complete break with Hegel in Marx’s thought, and that therefore in Marx metaphysics was replaced by science. I’d go further and say that there’s a pragmatic core to Capital, and that Marx can be read as suggesting that the only valid analysis is one that undergoes a thorough material investigation without assuming a metaphysical logic (and, that, therefore, a given work is most relevant in its own episteme). Marx wasn’t looking for either a Hegelian logic or scientific laws, but rather just a new way of problematising modernity.

    So, my problem with the Communist hypothesis is, firstly, there’s no reason to suppose we’re heading into a third period of anything, without returning to baseless metaphysics. Secondly, there’s also no reason to suppose that Communism has had a long lineage, whether or not that lineage starts in 1848 or earlier. For sure, the idea of equality has been central to Western thought since the New Testament, but that doesn’t make its development clear-cut or constant. For instance, wealth distribution in a lot of peasant protests used to involve slaughtering Jews rather than fundamentally changing economic circumstances. There are obvious differences between the Diggers and the Chartists, say. That these movements are all related isn’t the issue: it’s how they’re related, i.e. specifically how they come into being, that counts. Here a Nietzschean or Foucauldian genealogy is useful. These ideas aren’t born, but are cobbled together from things waiting on the sidelines of history. A bit of the Bible here, a bit of Tom Paine there, and so on. Ideas become dominant only briefly, and are quickly replaced by something related yet starkly different. There’s no logic, and no essence.

    So it’s worrying when Badiou says the hypothesis “has yet to be re-established on a grand scale”. It is the grand scale that was the problem in the first place, and the failure of the 70 years of Communism that he refers to was because of the Hegelian belief in a fundamental grand scale. So I don’t think hedoes open Communism up. Communism as a way of life – i.e. a concern that resources should be collectively owned and that hierarchies shouldn’t exist – can only be a viable philosophy after people give up on the dialectic and metaphysics. It’s ethics we need, not more damn history.

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