The Dignity of Communism: Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis

Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran. London & New York: Verso, 2010.

Since the late 1990s, the work of Alain Badiou has found a widespread readership in the English language. His philosophy has informed numerous recent investigations in political thought, aesthetic theory, social analysis, literary and artistic studies, and psychoanalysis, among other fields. Received at first as a thinker operating at the intersection of an eclectic combination of other figures and theoretical directions,1 Badiou has now entered fully into the “pantheon” of the major thinkers of our current moment in his own terms. In this sense, The Communist Hypothesis – a collection of materials spanning his entire career – arrives not only at time when the questions of the legacy and actuality of the communist movement seem to have returned to the world stage, but also at an opportune time to reassess the reception of Badiou himself, who has gone quickly from being a “new” figure (at least outside the Francophone world) to becoming an established major thinker who must be reckoned with.

The Communist Hypothesis centers around Badiou’s attempt to return our political focus today to the project of communism, to an open and forthright declaration that “the word ‘communism’ can and must now acquire a positive value once more” (37). Although the bulk of the texts contained here are recent writings, there are a few exceptions. The first overall section, “We Are Still the Contemporaries of May ‘68” combines recent texts on the rethinking of the historical moment of 1968 with a text of Badiou’s first published in 1968 itself, “Outline of a Beginning.” The subsequent sections are comprised of relatively recent essays on the history of the Cultural Revolution, the Paris Commune, and Badiou’s return to the thematic of the “Idea” of communism; these texts are appended by a “letter” to Slavoj Žižek on the work of Mao Zedong.

Examined as a whole, we ought to note from the outset that this combination of writings across a period of forty years testifies not only to the historical breadth of Badiou’s thought, but perhaps more importantly to its remarkable consistency. That is, this conception of the “communist hypothesis” put forward in the present work, cannot be understood as a recent turn or an entirely new moment in Badiou’s thought. We can find for instance in his 1985 Peut-on penser la politique? [Can Politics Be Thought?], the following summation of the Marxist revolutionary project: “The Marxist innovation… resides in the strategic hypothesis of communism, in other words, the abolition of politics conceived as a figure of violence around domination.”2 This statement concretizes Badiou’s reading of Marxism as a hypothesis, and it is this hypothetical character that in many ways constitutes the novelty of Badiou’s approach.

Just as Althusser attempted to affirmatively grasp the crisis of Marxism by arguing that Marxism had produced an internal crisis in which at last a new philosophy could be produced for Marx, so Badiou argues that today the communist hypothesis is at last back on the agenda, not in spite of the failures of the twentieth century, but because of them. The introduction, “Preamble: What is Called Failure?” sets the tone for the book by first strategically inverting the rightist rhetoric of the “failure of communism,” outflanking this critique by insisting on the truth of its inversion, and developing a careful meditationtowards an affirmative grasp of the “experience of failure,” the retrospective capacity to grasp the sequences inaugurated earlier in the twentieth century as “complete.” Badiou here intervenes against two misunderstandings of failure, against “the classic rightist failure,” in which “those who were weary of militant action rallied to the delights of parliamentary power,” as well as “the ultra-left failure, which, by handling every contradiction with brutality and death, trapped the entire process within the dark limits of terror” (18f). In charting a path between these two poles, Badiou illustrates his point with reference to three key historical moments: the Paris Commune, the events of May ’68, and the experience of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The decisive question for Badiou is how to grasp these moments not simply as “failures” as such, nor simply as a historical record of defeats, but as sites for thought itself, sites in which something was opened, a process was undertaken – all of these moments show us not the finality of “failure” but rather the importance of recalling that “failing is always very close to winning” (31).

It is this insight that requires us to revisit, to rethink from the ground up, the experience of May 1968. Here Badiou is particularly invested in refusing the dominant interpretations of this moment in favor of a focus on the more uncanny ensemble of effects that these events still present to us. He calls this “the heterogeneous multiplicity that was May ‘68” (45) – an intentionally broad and overarching thematic that would be opposed to certain bounded and limited readings of the May events (the uprising of youth and students, the massive general strike of the workers outside of the traditional forms of organization, the sexual and aesthetic liberation) – and it is this “multiplicity” that for Badiou calls for another reading: what we might call the “consistency” or the “persistence” of May ’68, a hard kernel of the question “what is politics?” The persistence of this question, which sustained and nurtured an elongation of May until the late 1970s, was for Badiou also the moment of a new conception of the motor-force of politics, the straining towards emergence of something other than the “common language” of “classes, class struggles, the proletarian leadership of struggles, mass organizations and the party” (54).

It is in this sense that Badiou tries to revisit the concrete “movement” history of politics that emerged around the May scenario. But he is concerned principally with a revisiting and rethinking of the limits and boundaries that emerged in this new opening: “The reason why we Maoists called the PCF and its satellites ‘revisionist’ is that we thought, in the same way that Lenin thought of the Social-Democrats Bernstein and Kautsky, that these organizations were turning the Marxist language they seemed to be using into its opposite. What we failed to see at the time was that it was the language itself that had to be transformed, but this time in an affirmative sense” (57). In other words, for Badiou, the failure of May ’68 is qualitatively different from what is assumed by the forces of reaction. This failure is a failure of recognition, a failure “to see” that the profundity of what was (and is) at stake in May was greater than was even assumed at the time. It was a moment of suspension of the existing and expected storyline of revolutionary politics, a suspension that threw us back on all the most fundamental and “burning questions” of social life. In this sense, Badiou complicates his affirmative grasp of failure in a doubled and reflexive pair of axiomatic points. On the one hand, we must uphold “the communist hypothesis” which reminds us that the “existing world is not necessary,” that is, “if we accept the inevitability of the unbridled capitalist economy and the parliamentary politics that supports it, then we quite simply cannot see the other possibilities that are inherent in the situation in which we find ourselves” (63). Yet, despite his historical insistence that there was a certain failure in May to transform the “language” of Marxist revolutionary politics, Badiou simultaneously insists that “we have to try to retain the words of our language.… We must be able to go on saying ‘people’, ‘workers’, ‘abolition of private property’, and so on, without being considered has-beens, and without considering ourselves as has-beens” (63). But these two dimensions should not be considered contradictory, or rather, Badiou’s entire wager on the “affirmative grasp of failure” is precisely an attempt to grasp the dynamism contained in this tension. We must transform our language tactically to account for our situation, to respond to its shifts and modifications, but we must not strategically give up on the “invariant” demands that this language of revolutionary politics teaches us.

Badiou moves fromthis insight into an analysis of the broad and multivalent impact of the Cultural Revolution, not only for his own political grouping, but for the thinking of politics on a world-scale. In essence, he argues, the Cultural Revolution is not simply one historical moment that can be “sorted out” or correctly categorized into a neat narrative of politics, but also more abstractly, was itself the “historical development of a contradiction” (113), a testimonial or witness to the incessant revolutionizing of the situation, even after the victory of the revolution, even at the heart of the successful party. “More generally,” argues Badiou, “the Cultural Revolution showed that it was no longer possible to submit either the revolutionary mass actions or the organizational phenomena to the strict logic of class representation” (116). Rather than dispute the particulars of Badiou’s short history of the Cultural Revolution, it would be more worthwhile to pay close attention to his displacement of this analysis; that is, his reading of the Cultural Revolution is not an attempt to “fully account” for this historical moment in an encyclopedic style, as a “comprehensive” or “total” historical image. Rather, he is practicing a certain “forcing” (forçage) here, a distillation and crystallization of this historical moment, reprocessed and recoded as theory. It is this practice that makes his historical grasp productive: there is here a certain methodological internationalism that is critical. In other words, Badiou does not simply undertake a superficial internationalism that would just point to the chronological simultaneity of revolutionary events in ostensibly different places around the world in order to demonstrate some kind of political similarity in appearances; rather he tries to argue that the experience of line-struggle, inner-party struggle, struggle within the world socialist movement, and the struggle within China itself was already contained in a certain theoretical problematic, that this moment was always-already occurring not merely “over there” but “in here.” Therefore, Badiou discovers in the re-reading of the Cultural Revolution something decisively similar to the limits produced by the “language” of May ’68. For him, the Cultural Revolution “marks an irreplaceable experience of saturation” (155), the impasse generated between the incessant re-revolutionizing of the revolution itself, and the need to maintain a consistency in the form of the party-state. In turn, his reading of the Paris Commune once again goes beyond its bounded historical characteristics: Badiou presents this moment as “not simply a glorious (but obsolete) episode of the history of worker insurrections but a historical exposition of principles that are to be reactivated” (188).

This relentless emphasis on the theoretical immediacy of history is one of the strengths of Badiou’s thought. By refusing at all times the reductive and historicist understanding of the historicity of revolutionary politics, Badiou restores for us a critical sense of continuity to his enterprise, which cannot be simply understood as an arid, theoreticist reading of communism. By emphasizing the theoretical density of these historical moments, Badiou does not merely extract the abstract and general kernel from the concrete situation – he undertakes in fact, the reverse: he draws our attention to the concreteness and thick historicity of the most abstract elements of revolutionary theory, reminding us that the history of the communist movement is a volatile concretization in which thought, theory, and ideas are amalgamated with the victories and defeats of the workers’ movement and struggles for liberation. That is, it is a historicity of thought in which these two aspects oscillate in a continuous dialectical reversal, the movement as theory and theory as the movement.

In my view, there are two overarching openings – rather than “deficiencies” or “problems” – in this collection which I believe are ripe for a critical development. The first is the question of the relation of Badiou’s “communist hypothesis” to the hypotheses of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others on capitalism. The second is a deepening of the intervention Badiou is attempting to make into the historicity of the world communist movement. In terms of the first question, the opening or gap in Badiou’s text is the problem of capitalism itself. In other words, although Badiou at all times gives us a subtle and critical conception of the “inversion” of the capitalist system, capitalism here appears at essential strategic moments, but is never theoretically investigated.3 For example, when Badiou alerts us to the most central definition of his “communist hypothesis” he argues as follows: “To put it in a nutshell: we have to be bold enough to have an idea. A great idea. We have to convince ourselves that there is nothing ridiculous or criminal about having a great idea. The world of global and arrogant capitalism in which we live is taking us back to the 1840s and the birth of capitalism. Its imperative, as formulated by Guizot, was: ‘Get rich!’ We can translate that as ‘Live without an idea!’ … We have to say: ‘Have the courage to support the idea, and it can only be the communist idea in its generic sense’” (66f). This decisive mention of the similarities between our moment and the broad moment of the advent of industrial capital on a world-scale is provocative and could be developed in important directions.

At another crucial point of the text, he returns to this suggestive historical designation: “The historical paradox is that, in a certain way, we are closer to problems investigated in the first half of the nineteenth century than we are to those we have inherited from the twentieth. Just as in around 1840, today we are faced with an utterly cynical capitalism which is certain that it is the only possible option for a rational organization of society.… More than ever, political power, as the current economic crisis … clearly proves, is merely an agent of capitalism” (258f). If we take this point, we must critically investigate how and why our moment would overlap with that of the origins of industrial capital, with the savage formation of the supposedly smooth circuit of capitalist accumulation. But the only attempt in The Communist Hypothesis to deal with this point is the short piece “This Crisis is the Spectacle: Where is the Real?” (91-100), a popular column originally published in Le Monde in response to the 2008 sub-prime crisis. Unfortunately, Badiou’s discussion here is not in any way linked to his broader points about the cross-over of our moment and that of the 1840s – but if he had taken this point up, we would immediately be drawn to something essential for the thinking of communist possibilities today. That is, because the formation of industrial capital in the advent of our modern era occurred and recurs above all as a strategy of dispossession (the stripping of the human being from the land and re-creation of this human being as the owner of nothing but labor power), the question of crisis is always returning cyclically around these two polarities of land and labor power, two inputs that capitalism requires but that it cannot originally produce as capitalist commodities. The expansion of this point might allow us not only to critically link our current stage of capitalist development to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” but also to follow up and develop his provocative and useful overlapping of the contemporary moment with the origins of industrial capitalism.

Paradoxically, although Badiou has done exceptionally important work in restoring for us today the meaning of the experience of the communist movement (taken in the broad and universal sense), not only as mere data but as theory itself, his formulations for our contemporary moment seem to continuously evade this necessary thinking of how such a reimagining of the project of communism must necessarily emerge from within this moment. What we live through every day in capitalist society is a scenario that is organized by capital, but this dominant social relation also expresses within its own internal dynamics the gaps and openings for political interventions.

In this sense, what is truly uncanny for our contemporary moment of the dominance of “capitalo-parliamentarism” is not simply the eternal idea of communism, but also the very concrete and immediate experience of the actual process of “socialist construction.” It is this term “socialist construction” that Badiou associates with the full “saturation” of the historical sequences he examines, and his argument is precisely that this “saturation” indicates we must instead take our point of departure at a distance from the state, from governing, and from capital. But if our moment is indeed in a recursive parallax with that of the 1840s, when the global victory of capitalism was by no means assured, then is it not the case that the most threatening response to the smooth and total logical complicity between the reproduction of the aggregate capital on a world-scale and the parliamentary form of politics is not the withdrawal or separation from the party and state, but rather rethinking precisely the importance of the immense accumulation of small and steady tasks that go into the “construction of socialism” out of the existing situation?4

The precious experience of the history of every concrete construction of socialism – whether “failed” or not, since we should grasp these “failures” as experiments – contains not only “great” aesthetic innovations and grand mobilizations, but also the more prosaic creation of transitional institutions for the systematic redistribution of land, means of subsistence, access to medical care, education, etc., outside of exchange relations mediated by the form of the commodity. In other words, what is crucial for us today in rethinking the history of the workers’ movement is not only the strategic orientation of the “idea” of communism, but also the tactical and immediate orientation of the slow, methodical, and systematic building of socialism from within the situation in which we find ourselves.We need to rethink in theoretical terms not just the grand demonstration, the perfect slogan, or the beautiful strategic pamphlet: we must also uphold, for example, the essential “greatness” of the creation of an irrigation system, a local school, or an equation developed to balance the distribution of means of livelihood outside of a capitalist commodity economy. All these should be thought also as theoretical moments, as “ideas” that are as “great” in their tactical immediacy and direct life-content as the “great Idea” that informs them.

Perhaps the emphasis in The Communist Hypothesis solely on the “greatness” of the idea runs the risk of avoiding something centrally important to Marxist theoretical inquiry, in which all aspects of social relations are treated for their expressions both microscopically, in the commodity-form, and on a macro-scale as the social totality expressed not in “man” but in the “economically given social period.”5 That is, such seemingly diverse moments as the labor expressed in a product, the historical factors of a given situation, the most minute political tasks and the most grand projects, can all be located in the dense and systematic nature of theory itself, which shows us a crystallization of all these moments in motion. Badiou’s reminder of the greatness of the overall and generic “idea” is crucial, but we must also incessantly remind ourselves that this “greatness” is also present in the immense mass of microscopic tasks that revolutionary politics requires.

In summation and on the second “opening” I see here, Badiou’s text is not only an injunction to revisit the “great idea” of communism. It is also an attempt to give us a newly narrated history, or new arrangement of the historical record of the victories and defeats of the struggles for world socialism. It is this latter point that furnishes both the potential of his ambitious “hypothesis” as well as certain formal limitations. By insisting on the centrality of his personal political formation in the complex and intricate history of French Maoism (for example, his baffling insistence that “the Maoist current” was “the only true political creation of the sixties and seventies” (101), a statement that is historically absurd even if limited to the French scenario, and surprising in such an open and otherwise generous text), Badiou’s analysis runs the risk of being somewhat unrecognizable to those who do not share the same political trajectory and genealogy. Part of this problem stems from the fact that many of Badiou’s historical reflections are written under a set of political presumptions and modalities of analysis that are still dependent on the Sino-Soviet split, now abstracted and generalized as generic prescriptions, for theoretical work and a politics to come. But if anything in the history of the mainstream communist movement is comprehensively dead and buried today, it is the logic of “revisionism” and “anti-revisionism” that produced the bizarre justifications and self-destructive interventions that characterized both sides of this split – Hungary, Prague, Afghanistan, Democratic Kampuchea, the Angolan national liberation struggle, and so on.

In addition to a return to the “hypothesis” of communism, we need an accompanying historical reckoning with the history of Marxism, new readings and writings of this history – all of which must be ours today, beyond the old “lines of demarcation,” if a revitalization of the world communist movement is to be truly one that reorients us from the ground up, from the roots. Without question this cursory appeal to history is one of the main weaknesses of The Communist Hypothesis – yet I do not believe it invalidates this important work. Rather, it shows us the extent to which our own political histories cannot be denied, and Badiou cannot be faulted for departing from the experiences and openings of his own political trajectory. His “hypothesis” notifies us of the necessity to forge a new conception of “what has happened,” a new understanding of the continuity of revolutionary politics that is not merely a consoling and melancholy narrative of defeat, but an affirmative grasp of this fact of failure. But rather than excoriate him for the inherently incomplete nature of these formulations, we ought to instead develop them ourselves, push them forward, broaden and deepen them towards new revolutionary possibilities today for politics and thought.

I believe we ought to read this work in a spirit of recomposition, in a productive and allied “division of labor” with Badiou’s dense and powerful thinking of the generic potential that remains within this word “communism,” taking from his text an orientation or directionality rather than a full and saturated program or complete historical reckoning. Because Badiou’s text does not attempt to produce a truly new grasp of the revolutionary Marxist project, what he defends above all else is a certain sense of dignity, the dignity of not giving up, the dignity of not “converting” to the side of reaction, the dignity of refusing the sadly-typical course by which the so-called “ex-radicals,” and particularly the former “ultra-leftists,” comfort themselves with a safe narrative of failure as the pretense for “conversion.” The affirmative grasp of failure that Badiou teaches us is a means to retain our dignity – and I believe we should use this supposedly “excessive” or “naïve” term – to not give up on what is essential under the force of what is convenient and safe. A failure means that the limits of a situation have been tested, and a new arrangement of strategy and tactics is required; in this sense, failure is the dynamism of our power.

What Badiou in The Communist Hypothesis successfully and productively undertakes is a recalibration of our own sense of continuity – the affirmative grasp of failure – and it is this moment that can reopen possibilities for all of us to develop and deepen a new communist recombination of tendencies, trends, and histories. If Badiou’s text is less than it could be, it is still a call for our own work to come to a true “encounter” with our own political history and simultaneously to unapologetically insist that “the communist hypothesis” remains the singular horizon of any revolutionary politics to come. This work holds for us the uncanny realization that communism is not only the political trajectory in which we can locate the continuity of our historical experiences, but is also an unaccomplished project that is always necessarily departing from the beginning, always in need of reminders and refoundations of its operative core: the essential dignity of the project of communism.

1. See Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Cantor, Lacan, Mao, Beckett, même combat: The Philosophy of Alain Badiou,” Radical Philosophy, no. 93 (Jan.-Feb. 1999).

2. Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique? (Paris: Seuil, 1985), 105. My emphasis.

3. In a series of important analyses, Bruno Bosteels has extensively discussed Badiou’s relation to the politics of the Marxist tradition, both in his forthcoming Badiou and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) – see particularly chapter 7, “From Potentiality to Inexistence,” and the conclusion, “The Speculative Left” – as well as in his The Actuality of Communism (London: Verso, 2011). The question of the relation between Badiou’s thought and the Marxian critique of political economy, which I have tried to analyze elsewhere, largely remains undertheorized and a point on which Badiou himself has been relatively silent, but by no means does this indicate an “absence” of the economic moment in Badiou’s work. Rather, I would argue that it is a constantly present “underground current” running throughout his texts that we ourselves must creatively expand.

4. I would like to push this further and also say that in this sense, by relegating the experiences of socialist construction to the side with the admonishment that these experiences show us simply the “dead end” of the suture of party and state, Badiou complicates the attempt to effectively reconcile his hypothesis of communism with the dense historicity of the Marxist revolutionary project. This point also appears as an important underlying element of Bosteels’ discussion, in The Actuality of Communism, of the situation in Bolivia and, specifically, the theoretical work of the vice-president, Álvaro García Linera.

5. “ökonomisch gegebnen Gesellschaftsperiode.” Karl Marx, “Marginal Notes on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie” in Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989), 547, translation modified; “Randglossen zu Adolph Wagners Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie” in Marx-Engels Werke, Bd. 19 (Berlin: Dietz, 1962), 371.

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