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Laurent Joffrin and Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou debates reformist Laurent Joffrin

Originally published: Verso (December 20, 2017; first published in French by Libération)

Alain Badiou is former chair of philosophy at École normale supérleure and author of In Praise of Politics. Laurent Joffrin is editor of Libération newspaper—and a reformist who defends existing social democracy.

Alain Badiou recently announced that he would stop running his seminar. He also announced that he would soon be publishing The Immanence of Truths, completing a trilogy that also includes Being and Event and Logics of Worlds. This sprightly octogenarian has not stopped publishing: he has recently brought out Je vous sais si nombreux… (with publisher Fayard), la Tradition allemande dans la philosophie (Lignes) and Eloge de la politique [In Praise of Politics] (Flammarion). All this, after having already put his name to Eloge de l’amour[In Praise of Love] in 2009, Eloge du théâtre in 2013, and Eloge des mathématiques two years later. Since 1968 he has never participated in any elections, for he looks scornfully on bourgeois democracies. He remains loyal to the ideal proclaimed to the Maoist groupuscule to which he belonged at that time: the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste, whose papers and leaflets bore the images of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

While Libération [which published this debate] must doubtless be classed among the “renegades,” Alain Badiou agreed to a dialogue with [its editor] Laurent Joffrin. For his part, Joffrin takes up a position at the heart of the political game as a commentator and defender of social democracy and reformism. Their exchanges over Eloge de la politique were lively and hard-fought. They exposed the gulf that separates the man who holds firm to the “communist hypothesis” founded on popular insurrection — even if he admits not knowing how it would develop — and the man who is sure to advance step by step.

The ways and means — that is what separates the two men. For Badiou, whenever we count the dead of the Gulag or the Cultural Revolution we also have to count the dead of capitalism (from colonialism to the world wars). For Joffrin, this comparison is a fallacy.

Alain Badiou, how do you define politics?

Alain Badiou: Perhaps I should have called my book Eloge d’une politique [i.e. “In praise of a politics”]. Indeed, I see there as being two possible definitions of politics. The first centres the question on the conquest and exercise of state power. Politics is here defined as a realistic management of the demands of power. The second definition — one that arose very early on, especially in Plato — considers that the key problem is the question of justice. I commit to this second definition, and define politics as the whole set of procedures that lead to the organisation of a just society. And that means a society that is freed from the power relations and the inequalities that constitute the collective reality. This debate was already taking place between Aristotle and Plato. The former had a very pragmatic conception. He analysed the economic and financial conditions of societies’ existence, and was concerned that there should exist a middle class. Plato, conversely, first of all tried to define a just society, and only subsequently concerned himself with the means that would be required to get there.

Laurent Joffrin: That distinction is fine by me. But in Eloge de la politique you go a lot further than that. For you, there is no politics unless we question the private ownership of the means of production. So, politics only begins when there is a confrontation between two radically different proposals for how society should be organised, with one based on private property and the other on collective appropriation. I do not think that that is right. There is politics within market systems: the question of whether we should go to war in Iraq or not is politics; the question of whether to get rid of ISF [“Solidarity tax on wealth”] or not is politics; voting for Fillon or Hamon is politics. The property question is just one among others. It has now passed onto a secondary level on account of the failure of communism.

AB: But that is the central point. The political societies that arose at the moment that states were created around sedentary agriculture, and new techniques of production, communication and warfare, were entirely linked to the division of society into classes. And this division is itself based on the private appropriation of goods that ought to have been considered common. Politics is then a matter of settling the dispute between those who possess and those who do not. Today we are in the last, most perfected form — especially at the technical level — of this millennia-long construction which I call the “neolithic of politics.” Capitalism presents itself as the ultimate outcome of this very long history of organising society around the private appropriation of goods, whose natural destination concerns the collectivity. It results from this that politics today — in the sense of the most elementary justice — supposes a complete change, a systematic transformation.

LJ: I do not believe is that it is necessary to question the rules of private property and the rules of the market in order to be able to talk about politics. There are plenty of other important questions. This is a narrowly economistic view of things.

AB: We disagree completely. A politics that does not pose the property question is a politics in the first sense I mentioned, in the sense of administering state power, which itself relies on “bourgeois” property — that property concerning finance, shareholders, industry, the media…Without doubt there are are nuances between a free-marketeer administration and social-liberalism.

LJ: They are not nuances…

AB: Of course they are…

LJ: Let me explain my reasoning. I will take another example: the place of religion in society. The choice between theocracy and a secular regime is decisive for the everyday life of millions of people; it is not linked to the question of private property. Reforming the labour code in a liberalised direction is a political decision that will have consequences for the fate of millions of French workers.

These are not just nuances. I would call them profound disagreements over how society is organised. The question of whether or not we should combat global warming, which threatens the future of all humanity, is not a matter of nuance.

AB: Indeed it is not, but the question of the devastation of the planet is linked to the property question. Private property is a predatory system that destroys the common good. The ecological question supposes a challenge to capitalism itself.

LJ: When private property was abolished, we saw an even more violent destruction of natural resources.

AB: That is a different question. After millennia of administration centred on private property, we had an experience of collectivisation that lasted for seventy years! How can anyone be surprised that this very brief experience, which was conducted for the first time in history in Russia and China, did not immediately find its stable form, and temporarily failed? This was an assault against a millennia-long taboo; everything had to be invented from scratch without any pre-existing model to go on.

LJ: You defend the “communist hypothesis.” You make a lot of interventions and you publish books. Why does this “hypothesis” have so little echo? It is because no one wants it. No one wants to repeat the communist experience, which ended up in a historical disaster.

AB: No one wants to commit to pursuing what has already failed! But you see, abandoning a hypothesis because the very first attempts to confirm it were inconclusive is hardly a rational method. Lucky that physicists and artists do not follow you in this type of argument!

Alain Badiou, why set yourself up as defender of the Russian and Chinese experiences, if they were failures?

AB: I am not an advocate of theirs. Quite the contrary, I say that if in order to save the hypothesis of a just, collective appropriation of wealth, we must recognise the failures — failures which are inevitable in the first decades of an experience of such vast significance — and invent new solutions. But for Laurent Joffrin and the dominant pro-capitalist opinion, everything is settled already, and this form of justice is criminal.

LJ: But communism failed in its very essence, not just in its ways and means. You say that these experiences failed because they were not pushed far enough. But it was precisely when they went furthest that the failure was the clearest. I will take the example of the Great Leap Forward in China at the end of the 1950s. There, collective appropriation went as far as it could possibly have done. They collectivised not only the land but also the tools, the fertiliser, the peasants’ everyday lives — they had their meals in collective canteens and had to hand in their own tools. The result: within a year, agricultural production had collapsed. And since the Chinese countryside had even beforehand been at the threshold of subsistence, this extreme communism created an appalling famine. It is recognised that this collectivisation resulted in a catastrophe, between 10 and 30 million dead. And we saw this same process everywhere.

AB: That is absolutely not the case.

LJ: Give me examples of that.

AB: In the 1970s, the USSR was considered the world’s second power, and East Germany was seventh placed among the industrialised powers.

LJ: But the numbers were false, as we found out with the fall of the Berlin Wall!  We need only compare West Germany and East Germany to recognise that the former was more economically successful than the latter, and notably for workers. And that is not to mention civil liberties!

AB: When the numbers cause you problems, they are false! But that is not the heart of the matter. We are talking about an emancipatory hypothesis on which humanity’s future depends; a hypothesis that proposes an all-encompassing organisation without precedent in the past millennia. We can and should consider, categorise, and rectify everything that explains why the first attempts to realise it went through very important crises. It would be more odd if we didn’t do that! It is like when we are dealing with some difficult mathematical problem. Even very great minds will make errors, but that does not invalidate the need to find the solution.

LJ: There you are using a metaphor without the slightest demonstrative power. What happens in the domain of mathematics does not apply ipso facto to society. We have all sorts of experiments on people, like experiments on guinea pigs. But at a certain point human beings have had enough of experiments! All the more so when they have led to massacres on a huge scale.

AB: They have just as much had enough of liberalism. If we are counting the dead, let’s count all of the dead.

LJ: In your book, you bring up colonialism, which is capitalism’s most negative aspect…

AB: And you — in infinitely less serious fashion — pick up on the most negative aspect of communism.

LJ: You tell us that when it comes to massacres, communism is no worse than capitalism. Even that is very doubtful. But even if we admit that you are right: if that is the case, then where do we look for progress? And in what sense do the dead of colonialism balance out the dead of communism? In principle communism is an emancipatory force. It ought to be clearly less murderous than capitalism. But the opposite happened.

AB: I will simply remark that the capitalist road is massively criminal. And not only colonialism! Even within the last century there was the incredible slaughter of two world wars. When I assert the need for a new communism, I also bear the consequences that must come from a balance sheet of the past. Yet you happily go along continuing under the yoke of capital.

LJ: Not at all! Historically, democratic socialism has reformed capitalism while maintaining a constitutional order that guarantees individual freedoms. It has claimed infinitely fewer victims than the yoke of the single party, which you are making such an implausible bid to defend.

AB: I have seen this “socialism” myself: it was my political education, at the moment of the Algerian War, when under the [French Socialist Party] government they were torturing prisoners in the police stations of Paris!

LJ: Let me finish. Socialism and social-democracy have regulated the market economy and allowed immense social progress. The socialist programme at the beginning of the twentieth century — legalising trade unions, public pensions, social security, the healthcare system, the limiting of the working day, the labour code — all these advances have changed the lives of millions of workers. The history of socialism, as combined with freedom, shows that we can secure considerable progress even if we keep the system of private property, which has established its efficiency on the economic plane. During this same period the collectivist economy collapsed amidst inefficiency, shortages, stagnation, lies, and mass repression.

AB: But the world to which all that leads is totally unjust, if you consider how things ought to be: i.e. when we look at the global level, and not just your little protected reserves. Today, 364 individuals own assets equivalent to what 3 billion others do! In the world, there are 2 billion people who count for precisely nothing and roam in search of the very possibility of living.

LJ: In your book you once again defend the Chinese Cultural Revolution launched by Mao in 1966. I will tell you, I am deeply shocked by what you have to say about it. The Cultural Revolution saw hordes of — mostly uneducated — youth who descended upon the universities, companies and ministries in order to seize hold of intellectuals and officials and parade them in the streets, insulting them and putting placards around their necks describing them as renegades, traitors, or revisionists. They were tried in public squares, beaten to death or dispatched to the Gobi Desert and elsewhere. This was a terrible experience of terror, and you describe it as a necessary, useful episode, bringing the future closer! One example: Song Binbin, a “red princess,” daughter to one of the founders of the People’s Army, took part in lynching the head of her school — even though this latter was also a communist — who died in the early morning after a night of tortures. Song Binbin apologised for this in 1994. It is her who we see in the photos of Mao receiving the Red Guards on Tiananmen Square. The Great Helmsman provided her as an example.

AB: Let me just say, you are telling the history of the Cultural Revolution like some little provincial viscount would have told the history of the French Revolution!

LJ: I am neither a viscount nor a provincial… What did I say that was false?

AB: What you said is not false. It is so much worse than that. For when you reduce the Cultural Revolution to this type of episode, this is the stuff of the black legend, a reactionary and ridiculous legend. You are like Dumas fils, who saw nothing in the Paris Commune but petroleuses [arsonist women] in rags. Why not mention, among a thousand other truly astonishing episodes, the case of the port of Shanghai, paralysed by previous struggles, which got set running again when it was taken over by an absolutely novel, practical alliance between the students and workers? You choose what is, indeed, a horrible anecdote, in order to sum up the greatest student and worker mass movement — like May ’68 — of the second half of the last century.

LJ: It is not anecdotal, it is the symbol of the Cultural Revolution, which claimed around a million dead…

AB: By that measure, the symbol of the French Revolution should always and forever be the drownings at Nantes. Come on!

LJ: But no one today defends the Terror. The drownings at Nantes are a terrible stain on the Convention’s admirable work.

AB: What are you calling the ‘Terror’? If you mean the years 1792-94, immediately following the overthrow of the monarchy; if you mean the magnificent Constitution of 1793, which remains without equal up to this day; and if you mean the mobilisation against the foreign invasion, then yes, I say “yes, I defend the Terror.” The Robespierrian sequence was a key period which made the French Revolution something more than a simple constitutional reduction of the King’s powers, like took place in England.

LJ: The Revolution itself put an end to the Terror, and it did so against Robespierre, once the external threat had been lifted. The Robespierrians wanted to continue the experiment to bring about the emergence of a “new man,” which is madness. But we can still defend this period by maintaining that in the last analysis, despite everything, it allowed the establishment of a freer society. The society that the Maoist Red Guards advocated was based on terror and oppression. The Chinese today are horrified by it, while for their part the French have adopted the democratic republic.

AB: You speak of the Red Guards like you do the rest of the Cultural Revolution, i.e. without knowing anything about it. That much is clear. You speak of a free society, but the category “freedom,” taken in isolation, means nothing. What does the freedom of a man with a business empire have to do with the freedom of those who have nothing? Freedom, in a context of enormous inequalities, is a fallacious concept.

LJ: Freedom is a precious asset in all circumstances. It is the condition of the struggle itself. It is important for the poor as for the rich. The freedom of the poor allows them to limit the power of the rich, for instance by organising a welfare state, as has indeed been done. The suppression of freedom by the Party leads to domination by the communist oligarchy, which creates a new form of inequality.

AB: Well, for decades, all over the world, we have experience enough to tell us that this much-vaunted “difference” is but an avatar for the conservation of the system. People are starting to find out as much: not many of them voted in the recent farce that enthroned Macron.

LJ: That is a fundamental point of disagreement between us. You sacrifice freedom to equality. You will end up with neither.

Alain Badiou, what are the principles of communist society, such as you conceive it?

AB: The task is to bring up to date the four fundamental principles of communist society: the abolition of private property over the means of production; to put an end to the division of labour between the tasks of direction and execution, between intellectual labour and manual labour; to put an end to the obsession with national identities; and to do all this by diluting the state in favour of collective deliberation.

You condemn the means that were employed in the communist experience. So what is the path to realising it?

AB: The existence of a militarised organisation, the single Party, able to seize power and then exercise it alone, is by no means the guarantee that the principles of communism which I have just mentioned will indeed organise the real. We have to reinvent politics: there has to be an entirely new dialectic between mass or movement democracy, our organisations and the state. In what form? We do not know, for there are periods of doubt, moments in history when the question of what means are necessary remains obscure. Before we rush to address the question of the means, we have to begin by re-establishing the legitimacy of the problem, the relevance of the hypothesis. And there we need intellectuals. There are not enough of them today, seeing the ravages left by the 1980s counter-revolution, with its emblematic “Nouveaux Philosophes.” Fortunately, a new youth is now appearing.

LJ: But as for the means, do you think that we need to maintain civil liberties, the freedom to vote, the consumer’s freedom of choice, the freedom to come and go, and freedom and expression? Do we need to maintain the separation of powers and a judiciary independent of the political authorities?

AB: There should be much more extensive freedom of individual expression than currently exists. For at the moment, given the absolute rigidity of the structures of ownership, freedom is narrowly limited. I won’t be teaching you anything when I say that when it comes to freedom of expression, the main media companies almost all belong to the stars of the CAC 40 [biggest corporations on the French stock exchange].

LJ: So if the majority of “folks” oppose the communist hypothesis, it will not see the light of day?

AB: Mao said it repeatedly: we cannot advance a politics without thoroughgoing work on the masses’ ideas.

LJ: So you do get back round to the democratic process, after all. It is necessary to win a majority. We will not head toward the communist hypothesis on the basis of an active minority or a vanguard.

AB: The numerical concept of a “majority” has no political meaning, it corresponds to the emptiness of surveys. But, equally, I have myself long criticised vanguardist notions. The existence of mass movements and a vast favourable public opinion is a necessary condition for the possibility of a new communist political vision securing victories.

LJ: Are you a democrat, then?

AB: I am more of a democrat than you are. The ABC of democracy is that we do not tolerate financial and media oligarchies and the fatal distortions that inequalities based on property impose on any real idea of liberty. In my eyes, you are not at all a democrat.

LJ: Once again, the experience of the democratic Left shows that we can reform the system. As for the rest, I will rely on the decisions of the majority.

AB: But what is it that the people “decides”? Etymologically, democracy is the “power of the people.” Yet it is moreover necessary that this power should not be materially appropriated by an oligarchy. And that is the case in capitalism, which you defend.

LJ: I do not defend capitalism, I am for a market economy regulated by the state, which is not the same thing.

AB: Here we go! Whoever speaks of the “market economy” is just trying not to have to use that dirty word “capitalism.”

What do you think is the pressing task in 2017? You scoff at La France insoumise and its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as well as Nuit debout and the Invisible Committee…

AB: My intention is not at all to consider Mélenchon an enemy. My experience is that when there has been some phase of crisis in social democracy, with the emergence of a more ideologised, more active fringe, this has always been a matrix for the resurgence of the communist hypothesis. Even Lenin came from splits in social democracy. That said, Mélenchon, a man who identifies with François Mitterrand, is not my cup of tea.

LJ: That would make me like him more…

AB: That doesn’t surprise me, coming from you. I know that Mélenchon’s appearance as an activist force has brought together a part of the youth and also interested a certain number of workers. I will wait and see. I will not cast the first stone. I will wait and see if it brings real fruits, and whether that contributes to regenerating the communist hypothesis and making it once again possible for this hypothesis to have its own independent organisation, its own popular force.

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