Badiou 101 for the RCP,USA Â« Kasama
By Stephen Mauldin at Apr 05, 2009
The posting I made a few days ago was originally a comment I put on the Kasama website where a discussion was (is) underway about the recent RCPUSA polemics against both the Maobadi revolution in Nepal and the communist philosophy of Alain Badiou. Subsequently John Steele and Mike Ely asked me to expand the piece for inclusion in a newKasama series
, the first of which was John Steele's item I posted at this site yesterday. Below is my expanded and modified job in defense of Badiou. It has also had the benefit of editing by John Steele including help with a couple of original misconceptions. But then I also did some more work on it when posting it here - so this is final reincarnation.
You can read it here in its latest form, but actually theKasama Location
has already started garnering dozens of comments and interesting discussion therein. If your still here, first John Steele's introduction:
Stephen Mauldin has been living and working in China, and has maintained a keen interest in revolutionary developments in Nepal, as well as in developments in revolutionary thinking, particularly that of Badiou, Zizek and others.
He blogs here and here as Stefandov. In a recent entry he writes about the RCP’s recent release of both an polemical exchange over difference with the Maoists in Nepal and draft excerpts from their developing polemic against Alain Badiou:
“I was really struck by the fact that the Nepal Maoists and the philosophy of Badiou have become my main points of interest over the last few years and the RCPUSA has chosen precisely these two elements in the development of 21st Century communism about which we should have the most fear.”
Following is his response to the RCP’s recent burst of polemics. Stephen will soon be traveling to Nepal, and we look forward to his reports from there.
In 2005-6 I first went to Nepal. The Maoists had finally succeeded in forming a coalition with several of the parliamentarian factions and armed conflict had ended. Since then Royal forces became the National Army and the Maoists PLA has stayed in cantonment. The Nepal monarchy has been dismantled over time and the Maoists then gained majority control of the new government, a mandate gained by election. A key issue remains: the integration of the NA with the PLA. The question then as now, is if the radical socialist policies envisioned by the Maoists at the onset of armed conflict can or will be finally implemented. Some fear the Maoists are merely engaging in a tactical process aimed at ending parliamentarian government and creating a communist party state. Others, even among Maoist supporters, fear a merely reformist “Maoist” controlled country that leaves Nepal once again subjected to an elite class within the coordinates of global capitalist power structures.
Many Kasama participants already know this basic background, but I am trying to situate why I am writing this. I am not a seasoned communist but as my study of the Maoist movement continued I have become a serious student. I have studied philosophy most of my life. With this background and a new focus on communism in Nepal , my course of investigation brought me to the communist philosophy of Alain Badiou. Only in recent years have Badiou’s writings been translated to English. That he has now been widely read and appreciated is evidenced by the recent Birkbeck conference most of us followed at Kasama.
So for me the twin interests have been Badiou and the Nepal revolution of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or the Maobadi as they are known. I was really struck by the fact that it is precisely these two developments in 21st century communism the RCPUSA has targeted in their recent aggressive polemics.
Let me say immediately that I am not going to go much into a detailed analysis of the polemics to construct a thorough rebuttal. This is to be a relative short piece with a certain specific tactic.
It started as a comment to the extensive discussion on the topic at Kasama. The moderators there, John Steele and Mike Ely found it interesting and requested me to develop something further. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute. I take for granted many readers have already become somewhat familiar with the polemic against the Maoists as it has been made available on Kasama and the commentary and analysis by readers has been voluminous. I understand that now the plan is to open more in-depth critical review of the attack on Badiou. My tactic is to simply point to the jugular vein in the RCP’s Badiou polemic.
Each section of the polemic is replete with quotes employed from Karl Marx supplemented by the wisdoms of RCP commander Bob Avakian. Every section is well salted with exhortations against the evils of capitalism. I am sure all of us abhor these evils as well, without resorting to such hyperbole.
However, at the end of each of the several sections of the polemic, we do get an original statement from the authors and these together comprise the heart of their polemic stripped of all the window dressing. From this we find they do not grasp the essential nature of Badiou’s philosophy. Beginning at the end of the final section, the end of the document as a whole:
“Alain Badiou’s ‘egalitarian maxim proper to every politics of emancipation’ does not offer a pathway of moving beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right—nor open the possibility of eliminating the bases for class society, commodity production, and exploitative and oppressive relations. It is stuck in bourgeois society.”
This is the final conclusion and the very essence of the attack: Badiou is no more than a throwback to Rousseau, about who the authors construct a criticism.
The next step is supposed to show Badiou’s published thoughts on the French Revolution are basically the same as Rousseau’s. Unfortunately, they have not understood Badiou. The polemic conflates the two thinkers mainly on Badiou’s statement about the “egalitarian maxim” as it is defined in Badiou’s conception of the “communist hypothesis.” The polemic has a long part about the former, but very little about the definition of the latter by Badiou.
To this I would like to supply Badiou’s statement of the “communist hypothesis” from an article on Sarkozy written sometime before his (Badiou’s) now famous attack on the president in the latest book:
“What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.”
Badiou is clear, the argument of the communist hypothesis has persisted since antiquity. Indeed, reading Badiou he finds traces of the history of the hypothesis as far back as Spartacus!
The polemic wants communism in a much narrower range: born with Marx and culminated at Avakian. They could have made their straw man much older than Rousseau. The more important thing about the definition of the hypothesis is the use of tense: “it can be overcome,” “will eliminate the inequality,” “will no longer appear,” and “will see it withering away.” What is said here is that the coming to be of communism has been with us a long time and continues now. The critical element in Badiou’s philosophy beyond the ken of the writers of the polemic is that the actualization of communism is a process involving belief in the hypothesis which will be shown to have been true. The key concepts of Badiou philosophy, the “Event” and the “Truth Procedure” are very much involved with expression in the future anterior tense.
Again, the polemic is clearly focused on the question of Badiou’s “egalitarian maxim” axiomatic. The thread of its argument leads back to the key statement ending the second to last section:
“Yes, people have a capacity for truth (a criterion of equality for Badiou) but exactly in consequence of the divides and inequalities in society, this capacity does not translate in spontaneous gravitation towards or embrace of truth.”
If “people” (by this they mean everybody) spontaneously embraced truth, then that truth whatever it may be would not be something humanity failed to embrace. Obviously Badiou is not indicating that rather oxymoronic or catch-22 idea of social relations. The “criterion of equality” is based on the “capacity for truth” not its spontaneous embrace.
What is missing is a comprehension of Badiou’s philosophy of the “Event” and the “Truth Process.”
If, and this means if, a genuine “Event” occurs engendering a “Truth’” it results in a novel situation. By this is meant the pre-existing situation is transformed over a period of time, and this is the “Truth Process.” This is a “performative” requirement: individuals’ acting in allegiance to what they believe is a novel truth may manifest the capacity to actualize it in social relations. That an “Event” has produced a radical change in the situation is realized in the future anterior.
The communist hypothesis is marked by events, historically the most significant of which has been the advent of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism which has engendered allegiance among revolutionaries and seen subsequent struggles in practice including May ‘68 and the Cultural Revolution and several insurgencies in different parts of the world.
For Badiou this allegiance could be said to be a faith, atheistic of course, and even an embrace of truth in a quite different sense than asserted by the polemic.
A lack of understanding of Badiou in the polemic is seen to have continued from the conclusion of the third to last section of the polemic as we follow the thread back from the polemics final conclusion:
“With his ‘communist hypothesis,’ Alain Badiou conflates the radical upsurges, social upheaval, and enthusiasm of the popular masses during the French Revolution with the communist revolution to overturn the bourgeois order and to create a new world.”
Actually Badiou presents the idea of revolutionary phases in the communist revolution. First, listen how Badiou positions the state of the communist hypothesis at the start of the 21st century (excerpts from the same single article):
“In many respects we are closer today to the questions of the 19th century than to the revolutionary history of the 20th. A wide variety of 19th-century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening inequalities, politics dissolved into the ‘service of wealth’, the nihilism of large sections of the young, the servility of much of the intelligentsia; the cramped, besieged experimentalism of a few groups seeking ways to express the communist hypothesis . . . Which is no doubt why, as in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence. This is our task, during the reactionary interlude that now prevails: through the combination of thought processes—always global, or universal, in character—and political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible, to renew the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and on the ground.”
So we come at last to the beginning of the polemic:
“Alain Badiou is driven to a framework of understanding of the ‘problem’ confronting humanity and its ’solution’ that corresponds to the class position and class outlook of a very definite segment of society, the radicalized petty bourgeoisie. He sees the problem of vast inequalities, but does not follow through to the taproots of exploitation in the economic base of society; he sees the solution as a ‘pure Idea of equality’ in the political realm…”
The polemic tries to tell us Badiou is stuck in a sequence beginning with Rousseau and culminating presently with the radicalized petty bourgeoisie.
Actually, to put it in terms something like the way Badiou employs set-theory, the RCPUSA is circumscribed by a set situation made up of dogmatic elements, demonstrating the inadequacy of their party for 21st century communism because all they have is their rigid conclusions and anything else is revisionist. Badiou says there is always a multiplicity of elements exceeding those of set situations. There is always the potential for novelty in the scope of our present understanding of how communism, or the egalitarian maxim, may manifest.
We are all students of the situation here. We don’t need authoritarian masters of the RCPUSA insisting they have the final form of communism. They have a theoretical stance; that is all.
Unlike the Maobadi, for example, they have no significant basis in practice, no practice in the context of holding state power, as the Maobadi have done in their base areas, and the Maobadi are now struggling for on a countrywide basis. Neither does Badiou of course, but Badiou’s theoretical stance is open and asserts “what remains is to determine the point at which we now find ourselves in the history of the communist hypothesis.”
This may be what we can look for in learning from the Maoist revolution in Nepal. This would include examining the theoretical struggles among the Maoists themselves – which are very interesting and instructive.
That is enough on the polemic and what its essential weakness is – all from a single article from Badiou. However, there is another Badiou article I wish to quote in conclusion and in saying something more regarding the Maobadi.
Badiou takes up a single sentence from Mao in the piece entitled An Essential Philosophical Thesis: “It Is Right to Rebel against the Reactionaries.”
Mao said in 1939:
“Marxism consists of thousands of truths, but they all boil down to one, ‘It is right to rebel!’ For thousands of years it has been said that it was right to oppress, it was right to exploit and it was wrong to rebel. This old verdict was only reversed with the appearance of Marxism. And from this truth there follows resistance, struggle, the fight for socialism.”
Mao’s quote was republished in the late 1960s, with the key phrase refined to read “It is right to rebel against reactionaries!” This became a central slogan of the Cultural Revolution and of Maoism generally.
In Badiou’s piece he writes:
” This phrase, which appears so simple, is at the same time rather mysterious: how is it conceivable that Marx’s enormous theoretical enterprise, with its ceaselessly and scrupulously reworked and recast analyses, can be concentrated in a single maxim.. And what is this maxim? Are we dealing with an observation, summarizing the Marxist analysis of objective contradictions, the ineluctable confrontation of revolution and counterrevolution? Is it a directive oriented toward the subjective mobilization of revolutionary forces? Is Marxist truth the following: one rebels, one is right? Or is it rather: one must rebel? The two, perhaps, and even more the spiraling movement from the one to the other, real rebellion (objective force) being enriched and returning on itself in the consciousness of its rightness or reason (subjective force).. every Marxist statement is—in a single, dividing movement—observation and directive. As a concentrate of real practice, it equals its movement in order to return to it. Since all that is draws its being only from its becoming, equally, theory as knowledge of what is has being only by moving toward that of which it is the theory.. Mao Zedong’s sentence clearly situates rebellion as the originary place of correct ideas, and reactionaries as those whose destruction is legitimated by theory. Mao’s sentence situates Marxist truth within the unity of theory and practice…”
So the real reactionaries are those whose destruction is legitimized by theory. Of course revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries each have theories. We need to decide which is which. Badiou’s philosophy offers a living and creative mode engendering novel development of the communist hypothesis. The truth of the hypothesis cannot really be said to exist until it is manifest on the planet as a whole, this would be its full development. The revolution in Nepal may be such an event whose truth process may establish that an early manifestation of communism for the 21st century has occurred. That’s why we might study it and speak of it with others and in so doing participate in allegiance to a truth process. We may be wrong in having faith in the Maobadi, but this does not ultimately matter because the core of that faith is in the communist hypothesis itself.