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.