Friday, September 30, 2011

Orient mottos: a personal response to Alain Badiou's "The courage of the present"

Alain Badiou's 2010 essay "The Courage of the Present/Contemporary Obscurantism" [Le Monde, February 15/2010] arrived in English translation in my inbox a few months ago, courtesy of For those in need of a concise exposition of the great philosopher's political thinking, there is no better place to start.

Comrades politely wonder at my interest in Badiou and other "communist hypothesis" philosophers. The petty bourgeois intellectual is an extremely sensitive instrument. Deep changes within the political economy of capital, and in the social relations flowing therefrom, often manifest themselves first in this layer. Such intellectuals in the period 1929-1932 in the United States began turning toward Marxism just a year or two before the first big strikes of 1934, which inaugurated several years of labor militancy and the rise of the CIO. Similarly, in the late 1950s US intellectuals like C. Wright Mills were harbingers of bigger radicalizations to come.

Working class defeats and retreats are also frequently heralded by capitulations of radicalized intellectuals. In the United States on the eve of Wold War Two, well-before the most militant elements in the working class itself were demobilized, a long march rightward by previously radicalized intellectuals was in full swing. In the 1970s a similar social transformation took place; in France the 'new philosophers' broke with their strident and uncompromising Maoist in order to become strident and uncompromising rationalizers of capitalism. In the United States we have seen this happen repeatedly as working class radicalizations have waxed and waned. The names Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, James Burnham, David Horowitz, and Susan Sontag U.S. representatives of this trend.

And so when Badiou and several other primarily European intellectuals began talking about a renewal of their own interest in communism in the context of renewed imperialist wars and economic crises, I thought I detected the "chimes at midnight."


I find little congenial content in Badiou's political writings. [His philosophical and mathematical texts I am not qualified to comment on at all.] My own political autobiography began and, aside from a recent few vicissitudes, has never travelled far from the continuity of the [U.S.] Socialist Workers Party. The diamond clarity of its intellectuals' [Joseph Hansen, Evelyn Reed, George Novack] writing and speaking styles, their respect for the pedagogical role they played within the vanguard of the working class, has always been a touchstone.

Alain Badiou's political writings, whether one accepts or rejects their style and manner of organization, must be judged ultimately on content alone. And here the happy shock of the new quickly gives way to a nasty shock at the return of the old.

When Badiou writes

Let us note that our critics try to discard the term "communism" under the pretext that an experience of State communism, which lasted seventy years, tragically failed. What a joke! When it comes to upturning the domination by the rich and the hereditary nature of power, which have lasted for millennia, we are reproached for seventy years of groping, of violence and dead ends! Truth be said, the communist idea has only had a minuscule time for its verification, its implementation.

What is this hypothesis? It consists of three axioms.

Firstly, the egalitarian idea. The common pessimistic idea, which once more dominates these times, is that human nature is doomed to inequality, that it is a shame, but after shedding a few tears over this, it is essential to persuade oneself of its truth and accept it. To this, the communist idea replies not exactly by means of the proposition of equality as a program – let us bring about the fundamental equality that is immanent to human nature – but by declaring that the egalitarian principle makes it possible to distinguish, in any collective action, what is homogeneous to the communist hypothesis, and thus to a real value, and that which contradicts it, and thus brings us back to an animal view of mankind.

I can certainly agree, and acknowledge his obvious passion for an uncompromising defense of communism is one I share. That communism begins with a hypothesis, and in fact an egalitarian hypothetical principle, is too idiosyncratic a point to accept or reject without seeing what actions such a stance demands of cadre.

The problem, for me and perhaps for Badiou's communism, begins here:

Next comes the conviction that the existence of a coercive, detached State is not necessary. This is the thesis, common to anarchists and communists, of the decline of the State. There have been Stateless societies, and it is rational to posit that there can be other ones. But above all, popular political action can be organized without its being subject to the idea of power, of representation in the State, of elections, etc.

The liberating constraint of organized action can be exerted from outside the State. There are many examples of this, including some recent ones: the unexpected power of the December 1995 movement delayed by several years the unpopular measures concerning pensions. Militant action on behalf of illegal workers did not prevent a number of villainous laws, but it made it possible for them to be largely acknowledged as an element of our collective and political life.

Final axiom: the organization of labor does not involve its division, the specialization of tasks, and particularly the oppressive distinction between intellectual and manual labor. We must and can envisage an essential polymorph nature of human labor. This is the material basis for the disappearance of classes and social hierarchies.

These three principles do not constitute a program, but rather orient mottos, which anyone can invest as an operator in order to assess what he is saying and doing, personally or collectively, in his relation to the communist hypothesis.

This smacks, in its rhetorical flourishes, of a pre-Marxist view of the state, combined and telescoped with a hope that the state can be superseded and human labor transformed outside the line of march of the working class toward power, i.e. a state power of its own: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Badiou does not reject a Marxist definition of the state, but at the same time I do not think he takes its role, and the relation of working class mobilization in relation to it, seriously. The reason for this becomes clear as we read on:

The communist hypothesis has had two main stages, and I would like to state that we are entering the third stage of its existence.

The communist hypothesis was installed on a grand scale between the 1848 revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune. Its dominant themes are those of the workers' movement and insurrection. There followed a long interval of almost forty years (between 1871 and 1905), which corresponds to the apogee of European imperialism and the distribution of many regions of the world. The period between 1905 and 1976 (Cultural Revolution in China) is the second period in the effecting of the communist hypothesis.

Its dominant theme is the theme of the Party and its main (and unquestionable) slogan: discipline is the only weapon of those who have nothing. In 1976 starts a second period of reactive stabilization which lasts until our day – a period in which we still find ourselves, during which we have witnessed the collapse of the single-party Socialist dictatorships created in the second period.

My belief is that a third historical period of the communist hypothesis will inevitably take place – a period different from the two previous ones, but paradoxically closer to the former than to the latter. This period shared with the prevailing period in the 19th century the fact that what was at stake was the very existence of the communist hypothesis, which is nowadays massively denied. We can define what I, together with others, am trying to do, as a preliminary work towards the reinstallation of this hypothesis and the unfolding of its third period.

We are in need, in this new start of the third period in the existence of the communist hypothesis, of a provisional morality for a disoriented time. The point is to minimally maintain a consistent subjective figure, without thereby having the support of the communist hypothesis which has not yet been reinstalled on a large scale. What is important is to find a real point on which to stand -whatever the cost may be – an "impossible" point which cannot be inscribed within the law of the situation. We must have a real point of this kind and organize its consequences.

The key witness to the fact that our societies are obviously in-humane is nowadays the illegal proletarian alien: he is the mark, immanent to our situation, of the fact that there is only one world. Treating the proletarian alien as if he came from another world is the specific task of the "Ministry for the National Identity", which has its own police force (the "Border Police"). Stating, against such a State device, that any illegal worker comes from the same world as me, and drawing the practical, egalitarian and militant consequences of this, is an example of provisional morality, a local orientation which is homogeneous to the communist hypothesis, within the global disorientation which only its reinstallation can ward off.

The main virtue which we are in need of is courage. This is not the case universally: in other circumstances, other virtues may be required as a priority. Thus, at the time of the revolutionary war in China, Mao promoted patience as a cardinal virtue. But nowadays it is courage. Courage is the virtue that manifests itself, regardless of the laws of the world, through the endurance of the impossible. The thing to do is to maintain the impossible point without accounting for the situation as a whole: courage, inasmuch as it is a question of treating the point as such, is a local virtue. It arises from a local morality, and its horizon is the slow reinstallation of the communist hypothesis.

Courage, patience, and other subjective factors cannot be weighed or applied outside a Marxist understanding of the period: i.e. an understanding of social relations between and among all classes, their tendency and direction. To say that communists must retrace their steps and begin again by acknowledging the period 1905-1976 as roadblock or dead end would leave any current or future social struggle to the tender mercies of spontaneity at best, or to the class enemy's state power at worst. For communists themselves, such an "'impossible' point which cannot be inscribed within the law of the situation" would reduce all work to moral witnessing, second-guessing, and chasing the will-o'-the-wisp.

2011 has seen events which are a remarkable confirmation of [if not the "communist hypothesis"] then certainly the hypotheses of communists. All the great forwarding looking mass rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, as well as social explosions like those witnessed during the UK "riots", and even today's Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, have exhibited the courage, self confidence, and fighting capacity of proletarian and petty bourgeois youth opposed to the injustices and inhuman consequences of capitalism. They express Badiou's concepts very clearly. But they also express in action the extreme retardation in political consciousness our class and its oppressed allies are saddled with today, which is also fundamentally expressed in Badiou's political writings. This retardation does signify that the "communist hypothesis.... has not yet been reinstalled on a large scale." And it will not be if the only content of said hypothesis is a return to the swamp-like organizational existence of the First International.

Revolutionary leadership flowing from 2011's struggles has not had time to develop, test its forces and capabilities, and win a majority to its course. Decades of austerity, union-busting, and retreat by workers around the world; decades of renewed expropriation and accumulation by war, outright theft, and monopoly fiat; and a decade's-long erosion of the communist movement itself have created an unprecedented gap between current necessities for action and the capabilities of the international working class vanguard. What Badiou calls "eradicating power" will have to acknowledge these limitations before throwing out the Bolshevik baby with the 20th century bathwater.

Jay Rothermel


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