Badiou: The Future of the Communist Hypothesis
By Stephen Mauldin at Oct 01, 2009
Last fall, on November 6, Alain Badiou gave a talk in New York sponsored by Lacanian Ink. (The talk was announced on Kasama, and discussed a bit, at the time. What appears to be a transcript of the talk has just appeared at Lacan.com and is reprinted below.
I name ‘event’, a rupture in the normal disposition of bodies and normal ways of a particular situation. Or if you want, I name ‘event’ a rupture of the laws of the situation. So, in its very importance, an event is not the realization/variation of a possibility that resides inside the situation. An event is the creation of a new possibility. An event changes not only the real, but also the possible. An event is at the level not of simple possibility, but at the level of possibility of possibility.
First, and I hope it’s not too sad for you, it’s clear that Obama’s victory is not a political event.
The most important contemporary problem is that the political form of the party does not equate with the certain reorganization and the creative transformation of the Communist hypothesis.
The word Communism is today a completely forgotten word, only practically identified with a lost experience. It is why the political situation, and the ideological situation are so confusing…. If [the Communist] hypothesis must be ours, once more we need new words.
Is The Word “Communism” Forever Doomed?
by Alain Badiou
Thank you for being here today. It’s a real brave gesture to talk of Communism just after the victory of Barak Obama and when there is a violent crisis of capitalism. However, to do that in a theater in New York is magnificent.
I begin by two very different things. On the one hand some very abstract definitions, on the other hand some very concrete points in concern with the victory of Obama. And it’s from the point of view of the position between the two, philosophical definitions and concrete study of contemporary thought, that I shall introduce the old word Communism.
So first the definitions. I name ‘event’, a rupture in the normal disposition of bodies and normal ways of a particular situation. Or if you want, I name ‘event’ a rupture of the laws of the situation. So, in its very importance, an event is not the realization/variation of a possibility that resides inside the situation. An event is the creation of a new possibility. An event changes not only the real, but also the possible. An event is at the level not of simple possibility, but at the level of possibility of possibility.
I name ‘state’ or ‘state of the situation’ the system of constraints, which precisely limit the possibility. For example today I name the state of our situation, capitalist economy, constitutional form of government, veridical laws about the order of labor, army, police, and so on – all that composes the state of our situation. The state defines what is possible and what isn’t. So an event is always something which happens beyond the state. And therein lies the difference between an event and a simple fact.
I name ‘truth procedure’ or ‘truth’ an organization of consequences of an event. The process or the fact of naming the process of what follows an event.
And I name ‘facts’ the consequences of the existence of the state.
So the truth is not purely composed of facts. It’s my own position to complete. The truth is also the becoming of the new subject, the new collective subject, when the event is political. Concerning this new collective subject, I can speak of the creation of the truth. Concerning the state, I can speak of historical facts. For example, the revolution of October 1917 in Russia is the creation of a new political truth. In the same country, the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in 1945 is a historical fact. Towards the same history, which happens at times from an event and at times from a historical fact.
And finally a historical point. In fact when it transforms the relationship between the identities of individuals and the identity of the power. For example when Lula became the president of Brazil, it was a simple fact and not an event of historical transcendence. Because it was the first time a simple worker occupied the head of the state.
Identities like ‘worker’, ‘gay’, ‘black’, ‘woman’, ‘Jew’, ‘youth’, ‘small’, ‘red-haired’, etc., are of no importance in the true political being which is universal or general. But the relationship between these predicates, this identity and the power, can be of some simple value concerning the action of the state.
With all that in mind we can say some words about the great victory of Obama, though it is impossible for me to say anything concerning a fact, here and today. First, and I hope it’s not too sad for you, it’s clear that Obama’s victory is not a political event. To hard comparison, with the same feel for the movement of the civil rights, under the direction of Martin Luther King during the 60s, has been a great popular event. But the success of Obama is for the moment, of the moment, straight inside the apparatus of the state, the great capitalist economy, huge social inequalities, the war outside in Afghanistan, etc, two political parties. So Obama’s victory is a fact – maybe an important fact – of the history of the state, but not, at least for the time being, a political event.
Second, Obama’s victory is certainly a very important symbolic point of the state, of the history of the state. The development of this real from Africa – of black people, in the name of slavery, of cultural domination, of racism and poverty – is an enormous event, a strong symbol, and not only for African Americans, but also for humanity as such.
But the symbolic level of the state is different from political truth. This strong symbol can perfectly be, at the political level, empty or even negative. The decision will be, finally, not in the hands of Obama, but in the subjective determination of the symbol. Could you accept the advice from an old philosopher, from an old country? I just can say to you, separate the levels. Don’t confuse them. Enjoy the Symbolic. Don’t trust the state. And concerning politics rely only on yourself, on the collective action.
But here we have a new operation: How can we be prepared for a political event? How can we believe in something which is really a political event and not a fact of the state of history? Generally, in those acts we live in a sort of political activity. We accept the general laws of the state as a necessity. To anticipate the creation of the new possibility, the possibility which is not the simple development of the state facts, at least at an intellectual or ideological level, we must have an idea of the possibility, a general idea of the possibility of a different possibility. We have the ideal of the formal possibility of other possibilities. And during more than one century, Communism has been the name of this ideal. And it was a great name at first. When we find this name which was the name of the possibility of something else, we have to return to the signification it had originally in two texts of Karl Marx’s. One is from 1844 – the manuscripts of 1844 – and the other is from 1848, the famous Manifesto of the Communist Party.
In these texts Communism first signified negativity. It signified that the logic of place, of the fundamental subordination of global workers to a dominating class, could be surmounted. The structure of domination, which is that of history in its antiquity, is not to be confounded. Consequently, said Marx, the oligarchic power created in the corrupt state, although they’re paying the workers in an organized situation, is not ineluctable. Other, the negative part of the word Communism. The Communist idea, the good word, and I quote… not for Marx, but as a hypothesis. The Communism hypothesis is that another collective organization can go on. Each an every one that has this, this new organization will eliminate the inequality of worth and even, for Marx, the division of work. People who were separated between manual work and intellectual work, in other words between the city and the country, each and everyone will be polyvalent workers: this is the expression in Marx’s Manifesto. The private appropriation of monstrous fortunes and their transmission of within their means by the very existence of the political state apparatus, protected by the military and the police, separated from the civil society, will no longer appear to be an obvious necessity.
There will be, after Marx set up, after a brief sequence of what he names the plus-value, charged with destroying working men or the poor workers, a long sequence of the organization in the ways of free association of producing wealth, which would support what Marx named the Decline of the State. And it was the most important definition of Communism, which was ‘the process of the decline of the state’.
Let me remind you that the state is here not only the state of government, police, army, and so on, but all that limits the possibility of collective creation.
So Communism in the middle of the 19th century designated the very general fact of intellectual reorganizations. And this fact is the horizon for any action, although local and limited in time, as it may be, which breaking with the order of the established state composes a fragment of the new politics, fragment of politics of mobilization. It is in short Communism, an idea whose function is regulatory and not a program. It is absurd to categorize the Communist hypothesis to be a petit objet a because it serves to produce, between different politics, lines of demarcation for a given political sequence. It is extra compatible with the hypothesis of equality with which Communism is an ideal, and it is emancipating, on the one hand, as directly opposed to the Communist identity and its reactionary stance.
Communism in fact is a heuristic hypothesis frequently used in politics even if the word does not appear. And so it’s a useful idea for the political determination and not the concrete program of these politics.
Maybe you know the violence and kinds of ferocity with Jean-Paul Sartre who, in the 50s of the last century, said that any anti-communist is a dog. If we correctly read these abrupt contents it’s true. Any action of the state, because it can, any action of the state that appears formally contradictory with the communist hypothesis in the general sense must be judged as opposed to the recognition of the goal of humanity. And so it’s opposed to the properly united destiny of humanity.
As we know, the contemporality of, as we should say, capitalism, a name of social existence, as the correct name of social existence is competition. That is to say, it is the war within the capital and outside it, that the war as real is certainly the intra-human part of humanity.
In another interview, the same Sartre says, in such terms, I quote; “If the Communist hypothesis is not right, if it is not applicable, this means that humanity is not in itself something very different from ants or ferrets.”
What he is saying there is that if competition, free markets, the search for little jouissance and the walls that protect you from the desires of the weak are collectivified, the human being is not worth scum.
So only, to be a real actor, the real activity of the becoming-human of the human beast, we have to know the history of the Communist hypothesis. And we have to study the question: is really the Communist hypothesis right or completely wrong?
In fact, there are two great historical sequences of this hypothesis. And it is quite a question both of them. The sequence of the creation, the creation of the power itself and that of the first attempt to realize the theory. The first sequence begins with the French Revolution and goes to the Paris Commune. Let us say, from 1792 to 1871. The first sequence of the Communist hypothesis: it is that of the creation of the hypothesis. This sequence links (and develops) the idea of Communism as a popular mass movement with the notion of the savior of all. That is, the concrete form of the idea during this sequence, mass movement on one side and on the other side the savior of all. Because it was a mobilizing popular movement, under multiple forms – demonstrations, strikes, uprising, armed action, and so on – around the figure of overthrowing the state – we know, the state was, within its walls, not only the government, the state was the form of the reduction of possibility – it must be strong to emancipate the possibility as such. And the only possible actor of this destruction is the mass movement, and, first, the mass movement of workers. And this overthrowing of the state is an insurrectional overthrowing, which is called, as you know, revolution.
So finally, there is a strong lesson achieved between the Communist idea and the practical upheaval, revolution. This revolution must suppress the existing forms of society – private property, private means of ownership, the separation of humans into nations, the distribution of work, and so on – and establish Communist equality, or what the working-class thinkers of the 19th century, as my friend Jacques Rancière was so well inclined to, names the ‘community of peoples’. Communism was, by insurrection, the realization of the community of peoples.
This sequence closes with the astonishing newness and radical flavor of the Paris Commune in 1871. The Commune represented a different alternative, a rare combination of popular movement, working-class direction, and augmented insurrection. It showed the economy of modernism of this formula, namely who was murdered, as you know, or exercised the power of the completely new tying of two moments, in one of the largest capitals of Europe. But it also showed it for what it was worth, for it was not able either to extend the revolution to a national scale, or the capacity to organize resistance to the counter-revolution, which was entirely supported by the French middle class.
The second sequence of the Communist hypothesis goes from 1917, the Russian Revolution, to 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, which also marks the end of the militant youth movements in Europe and America (and Latin America of course), which arose all over the world, somewhere between 1966 and 1975, and whose center, from the point of view of political innovation, was May 1968 in Paris and consequently during the years that followed. But as you know during the late 60s we have many of the things forming political resistance to the Vietnam War in America and also the movement of the youth practically in all countries all over the world.
This second sequence lasts about 60 years, but notice that it is separated from the first by a gap of about the same length, more than 40 years. The history of the Communist hypothesis is not a continuous history; it’s a continuity by sequences, which are separated. It is important for us, for maybe we are right now between two sequences.
So this second sequence, which begins with the Russian Revolution, is dominated by one thing and it’s (betting on it): How can we be victorious? That is the somber and practically unique question during the revolution. How contrary to the Paris Commune can we endure, embracing the sanguine revelation, the rich people and their mercenaries? How can we organize the new power, the new state, in such a way that its enemies would not destroy it?
Lenin recognized it, since under Lenin it the first answer to this question was founded. And it’s certainly not for nothing that Lenin responded to the problem, when the insurrection lasted in Russia one day longer than the Paris Commune. This official victory and the real, what concerned Lenin were the problems of organization and indifference and was entirely contained, starting with 1902 and of course in What is to be done?, Lenin’s famous text What is to be done?, in the theory and the practice of the centralism and organization of a class party. We can say that the Communist Party only gives body in their thesis to the realization of the Communist hypothesis.
This construction of the second sequence of the hypothesis, the Party, actually restores the question initiated in the first sequence, the question of the victory, in Russia, in China, in Albania, in Korea, in Vietnam, and sometimes in Cuba, and thus gives directions to the Communist Party, the complete revolution of the political and social order at once.
After the first sequence, whose dividing line was the formulation of the Communist hypothesis, and of the reality of the movement, of the mass movement, there was effectively a second sequence whose very line was a harsh and militaristic organization, local victory, duration, and construction of the new state.
As it is known, the second sequence created in its turn a program that did not have the means to dissolve, with the result that apparently it did not solve the problem left by the first. And in fact, the Party, the Communist Party, which was the body of the Communist hypothesis, the Communist Party adapted to the insurrectional and military history that was successful against fighting their supporters, opposed to the inept, for the construction of the State around the dictatorship of the proletariat in the sense of Marx. That is, a state organizing the transition towards another state. The power of organizing the non-powered, the dialectical form of the decline of the state. Under the form of the party-state – like in Russia, China, and other places – a new form of state, which was authoritarian and imperialist, was instated. And this state was negative, very far from the practical law of the people, and very far from the ideal of the decline of the state. The deployment of, as some would have put it, violence, was in no recognition in the state of the inertia of its internal bureaucracy. When the peasant has competition imposed on him by a mercenary, with the army taking more than its share to demonstrate it, you would never win.
The most important contemporary problem is that the political form of the party does not equate with the certain reorganization and the creative transformation of the Communist hypothesis. And it is to this problem that participated the last important contributions of the second sequence. The Cultural Revolution in China and its neighbor Russia, is named, for example, after Mao. In China, Mao’s maxim on this point was: No Communism without the Communist movement. No Communism is without the Communist movement. The party is not sufficient: if you don’t have the movement, you have nothing at all – if any cause can be taken in the name of, to resonate, to develop the power of the state, and consequently the combination of the real world, the Cultural Revolution attempted to start, and quickly becomes cowardly and violent. The definition of the enemy, being either uncertain or directed against the unity – the whole of society, the Communist Party – Mao has something to do with this when he declares, and I quote: “We do now know, in our country, where the movement is, or whether the movement is in the Communist Party.”
So, the struggle was finally between the party and the facts. And it destroyed the social consistency. Finally, the old order had to be re-established in the worst conditions. In France, after May 68, the dominating motif was that the organized collective action should create new political space, and not reproduce the centralized management of the state. The reinvigorated content would be new forms of organization and action, enveloping the same political divisions, intellectuals and workers, and proposing the prolongation of the Communist hypothesis even beyond the logic of size or of power. There is an event that even if this experience were under new forms, at the end of May 68, it would be considered that on the whole the modern form of the reactionary state was once again dominant in markets, under the cover of democracy.
The word Communism is today a completely forgotten word, only practically identified with a lost experience. It is why the political situation, and the ideological situation are so confusing. Because in fact, the Communist hypothesis, with or without the word Communism, which is only a word, you can speak, for example of the egalitarian hypothesis or the hypothesis of radical equality or whatever, but all that remains of the right hypothesis, the right to think an idea of new possibilities, and not only of realization of old possibilities inscribed in the state. I see no hope. If this hypothesis must be ours, once more we need new words. But we know better to do anything whatsoever as far as the collective action is concerned. Without the horizon of equality and Communism, without this idea, nothing in historical and political revolution is of the nature to interest the philosopher. Let everyone mind his own business and talk no more about it.
In fact, what has become of it, or we can even say our ‘philosophical duty’, is to contribute with finding a new mode of existence of the hypothesis we have, new kinds of political organization this hypothesis can give rise to. We have learned from the second sequence and its fateful failure, we must return to the conditions of existence of the Communist hypothesis, and not only to perfect the means of our struggle.
The lesson of the second sequence is that the question of victory cannot be the center of our sequence. We have, and we must, experience something new, and, there is, after the resistance, the question of the power. What is the politics which is not to be confused with the question of the power? That is, the real one. We cannot be satisfied with the dialectic situation between the state and the mass movement, with the preparation of the insurrection, with the construction of the power pool and dialectic organization, with the concept of revolution, which today is obscure. We must, in reality, reestablish first the hypothesis, communist or egalitarian, with the ideological or militant fit. And with respect to this, we are closer to the powers already in mind in the 19th century. There we are with the history of the revolution of the last century. We are much closer to the 19th century than to the last century. In the dialectical division of history we have, sometimes, to move ahead of time.
Just like maybe after 1840, we are now confronted with absolutely cynical capitalism, more and more inspired by the ideas that only work backwards: poor are justly poor, the Africans are underdeveloped, and that the future with no discernable limit belongs to the civilized bourgeoisie of the Western world. All kinds of phenomena from the 19th century reappear, extraordinarily extended forms of misery within these countries themselves. Forever growing in inequality, the radical cut between the people of the working classes, of the uninformed, and the middle class, the complete dissolution of political power in the service of property and capitalist profits. Several years of ratiocination, disorganization of revolutionaries, and the nihilist despair of large portions of the youth, the servility of the large majority of them, and the experience of the base obsequiousness of formal groups in the quest of the contemporary means to establish, re-establish, find new definitions for the Communist hypothesis.
All these characteristics are very close to the political situation which was dominant in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Which is why the apparent victory of capitalism, occasion to the second sequence of the Communist hypothesis, had been, in fact, a very strong reaction, a very strong return to something very old. The politicization of contemporary capitalism is as you see the return to the cynical capitalism of the 19th century. And it is probably why after the 19th century the question is not for us the victory of the Communist hypothesis, but the conditions of its identity. Our problems are much more the problems of Marx than the problems of Lenin, and that was the great question of the revolutionaries of the 19th century.
First, did the historical existence of the hypothesis produce the conditions in a large nation of people and that we are not made prisoners by the very definition of the word uttered by our enemies? Even historical resistance to the hypothesis, where there is a lot of power, is that, sort of identified here, that is oppressing us. It is complex, but at the moment exciting too. By combining conflicts of thought because at the beginning we are dealing with a new form of an instance or idea, there is a weight to the constructions of thought, like the construction of a new form of dialectic by Marx. These constructions of thought are always normal and universal. But we are also with new political experimentations, which are local and singular, and the mixture of the two may constitute a thought at the universal level, with political experimentation at the local or singular level, which finally can produce the new form: the Communist hypothesis.
This existence must be, throughout history, in consciousness, by new forms of these organizations of what is the political event, and on the level by the result and by learning of local experimentation. So we can open the third sequence of this great time, we can. And if we can, we must.