Reading Badiou

Alain Badiou.  The Communist Hypothesis.  Verso, 2010.

Alain Badiou: Key Concepts.  Eds. A.J. Bartlett & Justin Clemens.  Acumen Publishing, 2010.

Christopher Norris.  Badiou’s Being and Event.  Continuum, 2009.

Alain Badiou could be the most important philosopher alive today — time will tell — and his work is gradually reaching English-speaking readers.  His magnum opus, Being and Event, took 17 years to appear in English but its follow-up Logics of Worlds only three and his The Meaning of Sarkozy (see the ILR review here) has hit the mark in the UK as well as in France.  Badiou’s term Communist Hypothesis has been circulating since The Meaning of Sarkozy appeared, first in a piece he wrote for the New Left Review early in 2008 and then at the On The Idea of Communism conference in London last year.

Along with Žižek and other important voices opposing the pop-politics of postmodernism — the age of ideology is over, its us versus Islamic fascism, the big society, we’re all in this together, save the planet — the conference asked what meaning communism can now have for us.  Is it not a discredited term, already in the dustbin of history and waiting for the lid to be firmly closed before being taken off and recycled as pap for academics and dumbed-down scare stories for our grandchildren?

We seem to be at a point of impossibility when it comes to radical change and fidelity to emancipatory politics.  In The Communist Hypothesis Badiou traces two historical sequences: the first from the French Revolution to the 1871 Paris Commune, the second from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the Cultural Revolution in China.  We are now in a limbo, like that between 1871 and 1917, an ‘interval phase dominated by the enemy’ and the challenge is to break through to a third sequence — hence the communist hypothesis.  What there cannot be is a belief in some ‘objective’ agent written into the social order and destined to subvert it; nor the concomitant belief in a party organizing this agent of change.  What there must be is the belief in, a commitment to, a world not run for private profit.  Without holding on to this, Badiou argues, if post-modern capitalism and parliamentary politics is accepted as the only game in town, then the other possibilities are simply not seen even though they are inherent in the situation.

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. . . .  Too many people now think that there is no alternative to living for oneself, for one’s own interests.  Let us have the courage to cut ourselves off from such people.  (p. 67)

The hypothesis has to be a communist one because otherwise we will find ourselves being persuaded by listening to something very similar coming from the mouths of a Cameron or Obama.  It is not that difficult to imagine one of them using a similar form of words to those just quoted in their next election campaign.  Communism means not buying into some fatuous ‘vision thing’, subtracting out instead and thinking a new kind of politics based on the dispossessed, not aligned with existing parties and institutions.

Of course the word ‘communist’ . . . has been cheapened and prostituted.  But if we allow it to disappear, we surrender to the supporters of order, to the febrile actors in the disaster movie. . . .  [A] politics reinvented at the grassroots level of the popular real, and the sovereignty of the idea . . . it will distract us from the disaster movie and remind us of our uprising.  (P. 100)

What, though, prevents communism from being unrealizable, visionary, intrinsically unsafe given Stalin, the show trials, the gulags?  Badiou’s transformative philosophy, a metapolitics that seems quite improbable given its basis in the mathematics of set theory, is the short answer to this.  His central claim that ‘mathematics is ontology’ does not mean that being is mathematical but that mathematics expresses the ontological truth that there is no ‘one’, no ultimate harmony or consistency to being.  There is no God, not totality, only what Badiou calls the ‘multiple’.  So while a set presents a unified grouping it only does so because multiplicity is counted, as a ‘one’.  What this means in practice is that the seemingly impossible, that which is not counted, is possible.

The realm of politics is concerned with the contingencies of every situation, the forms of subjectivity that can arise, and the unpredictability of the new.  Revolutionary change is the bringing into the count what was previously excluded, the undoing of the rules, insurrection by the uncounted, and the challenge to the State which operates to stabilize the multiple, to limit the possibilities.  Most of The Communist Hypothesis is about how this happened in May 1968 in France, in China’s Cultural Revolution and in the Paris Commune of 1871 and how a truth, a term of special meaning for Badiou, emerges from the consequences of these ‘events’.  A term that also has a special significance in Badiou, an event is a rupture in the normal order of things that inaugurates possibilities from the seemingly impossible.  This abstruse territory is the concern of the last section of The Communist Hypothesis but it is rooted in real life and one realises how the philosophy does give substance to the political.  In practice and as consciousness, a blending of ‘facts’ with possibilities is always there, an elusive dimension that connects an ordinary individual with the idea that surprises happen, things could be very different.  This is the idea of communism and the name is worth keeping because it connects us with all those who struggled in the past and keeps the possibility of change in the foreground.  ‘We can, so we must’ Badiou concludes.

The Communist Hypothesis, like The Meaning of Sarkozy, can be read unaided but when it comes to most of his other works readers are likely to banjaxed without some assistance.  Alain Badiou: Key Concepts can be recommended as a sound introduction to the range of Badiou’s thought.  Its virtue, especially for a collection by different writers, is an unpretentious style that carries the reader along despite some fairly difficult ideas.  The essays on Ontology and Politics relate most directly to The Communist Hypothesis but there is plenty more to whet your appetite and point the way forward to a reading of the formidable Being and Event.  There is a title in the Reader’s Guides series from Continuum that sets about explicating the text.  The style is off-putting at times, overloading itself with academese, but it provides useful pointers and before you know it you’ll be googling set theory and back at school poring over mathematical symbols.

This review was first published in Irish Left Review on 12 August 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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