Thursday, May 5, 2011

A. B. What does that mean?

John Steele: The Political Value of Alain Badiou

John Steele wrote the following introduction to his essay for our sister site Khukuri :

“Following is the paper I gave yesterday at the Platypus convention in Chicago, as part of a panel titled “Badiou and Post-Maoism: Marxism and Communism Today.”

“Other panelists were Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Mike Ely of Kasama, and Joe Ramsey [also a participant of the Kasama Project].

Cutrone’s paper strongly attacked Badiou, whom he characterized as a typical ’60s new leftist, deeply anti-Marxist, who would ‘reduce communism to the perennial complaint of the subaltern.’ The others of us on the panel looked far more favorably on Badiou.

“Parenthetically, what became far more clear to me at the conference is that, despite the group’s stated orientation of “self-criticism and self-education,” Platypus represents a very defined political position. In a nutshell: Marxism as the self-consciousness of the bourgeois revolution,and proletarian revolution as the fulfillment and culmination of the bourgeois revolution. I don’t raise this in order to discuss it, but simply as an observation.

“The following is not really a discussion of Badiou’s thought — certainly not a deep one — and does not attempt to assess his central philosophical positions. I’m simply, rather, attempting to address a question on a somewhat more crude level: Is Badiou, as a thinker and actor in today’s intellectual/cultural/social milieu, playing a valuable role, politically?”


Why is Badiou of political value?

by John Steele

I assume we all start out from “Marxism” (certainly I do) – but what does this mean? There have been, and will be, many Marxisms, and the way to deal with this fact is not to believe that we have somehow to excavate the “true and only” Marx or Marxism, but to recognize that the fact of many Marxisms is based not just in history but in the writings of Marx himself (as well, of course, as those of his close associate Engels). Marx did not create a completely integrated and self-consistent theoretical structure – let alone an integrated theoretical/strategic/practical edifice.

It is obvious that there are several (or many) strands and interpretations within the Marxist tradition. Most of these accept the “unitary Marx” thesis. In actuality, though, several strands of thinking co-exist in Marx and his writings, which do not necessarily form (in fact do not form) a self-consistent, integrated whole. Even within the critique of political economy, the most fully developed part of Marx’ work, there is (notoriously) more than one crisis theory.

But leaving all that aside, let’s preface the question of Badiou’s value by asking:

Why is Marx of political value?

First a point of clarification on the sort of politics I mean: the politics – to say it very broadly and for the moment without further elaboration – of human emancipation. Given that this is our politics, or our broad political aim, then what is of political value can be characterized, equally broadly, as what conduces to, or what is helpful in working toward this aim. (Obviously this will be relative to historical situation.)

So Marx is of political value if his works conduce toward this, and for quite a bit of the last hundred and fifty years he’s been thought, on a very broad scale, to be valuable in precisely this way.

Now of course a lot of the finding-Marx-of-political-value during this period was built upon an understanding of Marx as the creator of a science of society and a metaphysic of history which limned a sure course of development and eventual victory – a thesis, and an understanding of Marx, which I reject, as I’m sure do most here. That was a Marx, and it’s a Marx which has lost the political value it may once have had, but this is not the only Marx.

Turning to my subject, my thesis is that for us, at this historical moment, Badiou, in his writings and his public stance, is of political value. Or perhaps, less sweepingly: He speaks to the situation and dilemmas of this historical moment in a way that I think can help us move forward politically.


Part of the reason for his value is the fact that he does not pose his work as a development of Marxism. Although I would claim Badiou for Marxism (and for Maoism, as I’ve written elsewhere), it’s salutary to find a thinker who defines himself politically in terms of communism, who traces a complex identity with all that communism has meant in the 20th century, including the Russian and Chinese revolutions and their ramifications, but who does not seek to derive, deduce or define a contemporary emancipatory politics simply in those terms, nor in the language (for the most part) of this tradition.

This is a good thing, part of why Badiou is of political value, because this trajectory of revolutionary politics, along with much of its language and terminology, is dead – dead in the sense of being a living force in the world socially and politically. Let me make make sure what I’m saying is clear here, and guard against misunderstandings.

Marx is an intellectual and political resource – and Lenin, to cite just one other name, but along with many, many others – and it would be unthinkable for any contemporary emancipatory politics to attempt to do without this resource of past thinkers and actors. So I don’t mean at all that the works and example of Marx (& etc.) are dead, useless, outmoded.

As I said, we always need to beware of imposing a false unity and integration on this past, and to be alive to its contradictions, unevennesses, gaps, anomalies. But to say that Marx (etc.) is a necessary resource for rebuilding is clearly not to say that Marxism (or “Marxism-Leninism,” or —) is a living political/social force: it was – and there were many problematic aspects, but there was a living movement with a broad commonality of thinking and acting in the political realm: a subject pursuing a truth-process, in Badiou’s terms. This no longer exists as a real and living social/political force – that’s obvious. What’s often not so obvious to leftists is that the point is not to resuscitate or resurrect what has died.

Badiou: some terms

Before moving on into Badiou, let me just mention some of Badiou’s key concepts as they apply politically:

Event (this term has a specialized meaning in Badiou). A Badiouian event is a momentary break in the ruling or hegemonic structure of things, an opening out of which a new truth process may be born. To quote Badiou from his recent Communist Hypothesis, it is “a rupture in the normal order of bodies and languages as it exists for any particular situation….What is important to note here is that an event is not the realization of a possibility that resides within the situation or that is dependent on the transcendental laws of the world. An event is the creation of new possibilities. It is located not merely at the level of objective possibilities but at the level of the possibility of possibilities.” (242-3.) Not the realization of an already existing possibility but the creation of new possibilities.

Truth process. Politics – that is, a particular political sequence – is conceived as a truth-process. Politics is an autonomous realm, which forges its own truths through truth processes. Thus political truth processes and their truths are not derivative from those of another realm (such as philosophy, ethics, economics, etc.). Emancipatory politics as truth-process: both terms are notable and important. After a certain point a particular truth process becomes saturated (Badiou’s term) – in effect it reaches an impasse. The truth-process beginning from the Russian Revolution has (long since now) become saturated.

To sum up what I’ll call the beneficially destructive aspect of Badiou:

I think this emphasis on the autonomy of politics is important and valuable. Is he correct in saying this? I’m not completely sure. But what is valuable is this emphasis – because it helps to pry us loose from a century or 150 years of making, or trying to make, politics an appendage of something else – of economics, often, or of philosophy. This illustrates a prominent way in which Badiou can be, and is valuable politically: not because he outlines a new, grand theory to which all should give assent (and this is not at all the way it is, btw, in Badiou’s stance or in the attitudes of his fans and students), but in marking a new possible approach, which will at the very least have the virtue of challenging wellworn and habitual left platitudes, which have shown themselves by this point (in fact by long ago) to be thoroughly unfruitful.


Politics as truth – why truth? Why is that valuable? Actually of course, what Badiou says is not that politics is truth, or that a real emancipatory politics represents truth, but that any real politics is constituted by a truth process. Both words should be taken in full weight.

Let’s take the second word first: politics is process – not achieved or hoped-for result, and also not a proceedure based on recipe or body of knowledge (at least not knowledge taken as knowledge, so to speak – on which see more below).

Rather, it is a process beginning not from what exists or from knowledge of what is (including its contradictions or tendencies), but from an axiom (or axioms). Now this insistence on an axiomatic beginning might seem to introduce a strong element of decisionism – as if the starting point is something arbitrarily decided upon, or some wished-for thesis taken as beginning point: a sort of utopianism. But this is not Badiou’s thinking. Rather, this axiomatic beginning is taken up as a starting point in view of an event, another key term (as we all know) in Badiou’s thinking.

An event, in Badiou’s rather technical sense, is not a grand happening. It is not even a noteworthy “thing that occurred.” It is, rather, more like a little flicker, which might easily pass unnoticed, and which will pass unnoted in the historical annals unless it becomes the beginning of a truth process. An event gives a momentary glimpse, not of possibilities inherent in what exists, or in history, but (to repeat) a glimpse of the possibility of possibilities. And the axiomatic beginning of a truth-process is the taking of a stance: it is to assume that these possibilities are real. Or even more: to explore the world, to act, as if these possibilities will have already become true.

Thus politics – actual, emancipatory politics – is a leap in the dark. It is not action based on what we know, or what can be known. It is action based on a gamble, on the making of a very serious bet, not even on a possibility (to say it again), but on what would be the case if the implications of that initial glimpse of the possibility of what might be are followed out and made true.

To take up political truth-process is to assume that axiomatic beginning in practice, to take it up fully and follow out its implications – that is, to act on the supposition of what will have become true, given the axiom’s truth. This is not a toe-in-the-water attitude, or a testing-it-out-to-see-whether stance. It’s a leap which can only be made with courage and confidence – a confidence which cannot be founded in the world which surrounds the one who leaps.

So we can clearly see the process part; and we can also start to see what’s meant by truth here. Badiou makes a strong distinction between knowledge and truth. Knowledge is achieved and relates solely to an existing state of affairs – a situation or a world, in Badiou’s terminology. Truth, on the other hand, is always processual: always in process, never achieved (else it changes to knowledge, and relates to a new and achieved world or situation). The reference of truths is in the future perfect: what will have been the case should the political practice which is the truth process come to fruition and succeed in changing the world (making a new world). Truth can only reach a state of achievment (when it then becomes knowledge) retrospectively.

If we want to say that what is true must correspond to a state of affairs, then we have to say that truths, for Badiou, correspond to a state of affairs to be brought about only through the agency of a subject and its associated truth process.

Now I just mentioned the subject associated with a truth process. Badiou’s theory of the subject is a big topic, which I will gloss over here. But let’s at least note that the subject here is not an individual person or consciousness, but something trans-individual. Badiou describes the subject as a new body, constituted by the trace of an event, and oriented around a truth process.

Political value

But leaving that thorny topic aside, let’s return to the question of political value.

The concept of event is what’s most often taken from Badiou. This is important, yes, but there’s much more to Badiou than simply the admonition to be on the lookout for what is new, or for upsurges of rebellion. There is this admonition, if it’s understood with sufficient openness: what we’re on the lookout for is the possible beginning of a new truth process, not something we’re calling on to conform to an already-existing political template.

(A good place to see how this works for Badiou is in his recent remarks on the uprisings on Tunisia and Egypt, one of which have been reprinted here, the other on Kasama.)

Communism as process and axiom – not goal

Marxism as it has existed, and to a lesser and more ambiguous extent in the writings of Marx, has built politics upon a theory of history, a progressive historical schema (obviously very much part of enlightenment thinking) which projects a sequence from pre-capitalist society through capitalism to socialism and thence to communism, within which socialism becomes the proximate revolutionary goal, and communism is over the horizon, but a state of things to be achieved in the end. In this context politics becomes an activity which is both teleological (guided by a particular goal to be achieved), and instrumental (a process serving as an instrument for the achievement of this goal).

Badiou’s conception is a challenge precisely to this:

Communism is immanent within the process of emancipatory politics: an axiom, not an objective, a process, not a program. (I owe this formulation to Don Hamerquist.)

The “communist hypothesis” informs the political truth process, not as a plan or program, nor as a goal, but as the general and over-riding defining axiom. (In fact, Badiou holds, nothing will count as a political truth-process which is not defined by this axiom: he says that it is the only real political Idea – another term used in a technical way by Badiou, which I will dodge for now.) Communism (note: not socialism – another question to discuss another time) communism as axiom and process restores real contingency to politics, and at the same time cuts against a pragmatic orientation. Politics is a process of agency, a subjective process – that is, proceeding through a subject.

This process is not a strategically mapped-out march toward a pre-established goal, but an aleatory process, following a necessarily chance-ridden path. And in fact – isn’t this how revolutionary politics has actually proceeded, even though it is not how it has conceived of itself as proceeding?

The 2nd and 3rd Internationals (as well as Trotskyist variants of the latter) understood politics to be a matter of proceeding from scientific and historical analysis – and yet whatever real politics took place (and I do think it did, in particular places and times during this long period), was much more along the lines of what Badiou outlines, than the mythical self-understanding which was its ideology: real politics here too was, in practice, a leap in the dark, guided by a basic postulate, without assurance of success or where exactly what the end result would be. Look at any of whatever you may choose as great instances of revolutionary politics in the 20th century, or in your own experience, and I think this will hold true, if examined with full honesty. It certainly holds true in my own experience.

That aside, though, and whether you grant that this has been the case, I think it would be hard to deny that any emancipatory politics of the present historical moment would or must – if it’s going to take place – fit Badiou’s open but anchored process.

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