‘The Communist Hypothesis’ reviewed by David Morgan

The Communist Hypothesis

Translated by David Macey and Steve Corcoran, Verso, London, 2010. 279 pp., £12.99 hb
ISBN 9781844676002

Reviewed by David Morgan

About the reviewer

David Morgan is a freelance writer. He completed a PhD on Post-Sixties Maoism at Newcastle …


Nietzsche’s adage that philosophy is disguised biography is not a neat fit with Badiou, only because there is very little of disguise in Badiou’s philosophy. The core of his philosophical project (and of his political activism) has been an attempt to understand what it means to be faithful to the great revolutionary events of the previous two centuries, particularly May ’68 in Paris and the Cultural Revolution in China, which was, in his view, both the high point of the revolutionary sequence and the site of its final failure.

At least since the demise of Louis Althusser, defense of the Cultural Revolution in any form has generally been a one-way ticket to academic obscurity, but Badiou’s Being and Event (1988) – a creative and rigorous use of set theory as discourse about being, cataclysmic change and the nature of truth – catapulted him into a leading position in continental philosophy. Logics of Worlds (Being and Event Part 2), which used algebra to examine the link between being and appearance, further consolidated that position. Badiou’s unique mixture of Platonic Idealism and materialist dialectics has appealed particularly to a growing reaction against the relativist and defeatist aspects of postmodernism.

The Communist Hypothesis is a collection of articles that have appeared elsewhere. They are sandwiched between a Preamble and an Appendix addressed to Slavoj Žižek. In the Preamble, Badiou states that the book argues, ‘via a detailed discussion of three examples (May ’68, the Cultural Revolution and the Paris Commune), that the apparent, and sometimes bloody, failures of events closely bound up with the communist hypothesis were and are stages in its history’ (7-8). However, Badiou insists that the book ‘does not deal directly with either politics … or political philosophy’ (37). Rather, it is ‘an attempt to define the generic form taken by all truth processes when they come up against obstacles that are inherent in the world in which they operate’ (38).

Badiou defines failure in terms of his theory of points as ‘a moment within a truth procedure (such as a sequence of emancipatory politics) when a binary choice (do this or that) decides the future of the entire process’ (38). Emancipatory politics can fail in a number of ways. First the struggle can be defeated, often with great violence and bloodshed as in the Paris Commune. Even here, the failure is not all negative, because the lessons learned can ‘be incorporated into the positive universality of the construction of a truth’ (38). But failure can also come with victory, when revolutionaries succumb to the seductions of state power. This can take either a rightist form or an ‘ultra-left’ form, ‘where every contradiction … is handled with brutality and death’ (18). Badiou refers to a fictional exploration of this dilemma in his play, L’Incident d’Antioche, which ‘describes a victorious and terribly destructive revolution whose leaders finally … take the unheard-of decision to renounce the power they have won’ (20).

The chapter on May ’68 is made up of three essays, one, a pamphlet written at the time, and two more recent. Badiou argues that there were in fact four different May ’68s. The first three were comprised of 1) a youth and student revolt, 2) a general strike driven largely by young workers operating, at first, outside the big union organizations, and 3) a libertarian May that brought forward issues of morality, women’s rights, gay rights and culture. The fourth May ’68 was the process of reappraisal and exploration that began then and that functioned as a diagonal cutting across the other three May ’68s.

The essence of this fourth May ’68 was a halting attempt to break away from ‘the dominant idea (shared by activists of all kinds and in that sense universally accepted inside the “revolutionary” camp) that there is such a thing as a historical agent offering a possibility of emancipation’ (52). According to this dominant idea, ‘There is an “objective” agent inscribed in social reality’, and this objective agent must be ‘transformed into a subjective power…. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party’ (53). Badiou here puts his finger on the essential element of the Marxist concept of revolutionary agency. His rejection of this concept achieved its first full and systematic development in Being and Event.

In the pamphlet written back at the time, Badiou describes the ‘revolutionary storm’ of May ’68 as ‘a cyclone that violently swirled around the empty Point, the central void where communist organization was lacking’ (89), but in the later essays he comes to the conclusion that the concept of the Leninist Party itself was fundamentally flawed, or as he puts it following the terminology of Sylvain Lazarus, that the form has become saturated, that its creativity and usefulness in solving new problems has been exhausted. The concept of the Party was grounded in an attempt to build on the lessons of the Paris Commune – the first truly proletarian revolution – and the ‘unprecedented massacre’ that ended it. The problem was not just to seize power, but also to preserve and extend it. Lenin’s solution, according to Badiou, was to create ‘a military machine … that could replace the bourgeois State with a new kind of State exercising a popular despotism without historical precedent: the State of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is in fact a State that merges with the insurrectional Party and which, to a large extent, militarizes the whole of society’ (274). Badiou argues that although the party/state form was historically justified, now that it has failed, it is time to return ‘to what was alive but defeated in the [Paris] Commune’ prior to the Leninist synthesis (228).

Badiou defends the Cultural Revolution as ‘the last significant political sequence that is still internal to the party-state’ (103). It represented a rejection of Stalinism and an attempt to mobilize the masses to defend the revolution in China against the capitalist bureaucracy that was growing up inside the Party itself. The Cultural Revolution unleashed a revolutionary storm whose creativity inspired revolutionary struggle around the world. But the ‘capitalist roaders’ inside the Party fought back and did not hesitate to use those elements of state power that they controlled to crush the insurgent masses – while at the same time organizing their own bands of Red Guards to oppose the revolutionary Red Guards. At this point, according to Badiou, Mao backed off from the threat of civil war. He was unwilling to accept the destruction of the Communist Party that was the logical next step after the Shanghai Commune. The revolution stalled, and when Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, who had been one of the main targets of the Cultural Revolution, was able to gain control of the Party and restore capitalism.

I’ve given a summation of Badiou’s political arguments in this book with little reference (so far) to his mathematical formalism, because it seems to me that despite his insistence, The Communist Hypothesis is mainly a political analysis of the last two centuries of revolution, and that the formalism runs in parallel to the argument rather than being either a necessary tool of analysis or a necessary conclusion. However, it is not possible to take Badiou’s mathematical formalization of ‘the truth process’ separately from his (critical) loyalty to the experience of the Cultural Revolution. The fundamental principal of Badiou’s ontology – that ‘the one is not’ – is profoundly influenced by what was summed up in the Cultural Revolution as the main struggle on the philosophical front: the struggle between the revolutionary line that ‘one divides into two’ vs the reactionary line of ‘two combines into one’.

Set theory, as a presentation of presence, is a powerful metaphor for thinking the reconciliation of materialist monism with the dialectical principle that one divides into two. It states in a formal way that there is nothing that cannot be ‘digested’ into a collection with anything else. Therefore, all things are one. But a set of all sets cannot be conceived without contradiction (Russell’s paradox). Therefore, the one is not.

However, for Badiou set theory is not used as a metaphor or an analytical tool, but as an exact analogue of the real. Deductions in set theory apply equally and necessarily to the real. Consequently, for example, Russell’s paradox does more than prove that it is not possible to think ‘the set of all sets’ without logical contradiction; for Badiou it proves that there is and can be no set of all sets that encompasses the real; it is Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God reversed.

When Badiou applies set theory to the question of political change, he conflates at least three different meanings of the word ‘state’. The first meaning is the state of a set, i.e. the set of all subsets, that which is included in a set, not just presented but represented. The second meaning (the traditional Marxist definition) is the state as an instrument of class rule, whereby one class dominates all the others in a class society. The third meaning refers not just to the instrument of class rule, but to class society as a whole, including the capitalist economy (243). All political and economic forms of social organization are incorporated into Badiou’s ‘state of the situation’ as simply the status quo, ‘the system of constraints that limit the possibility of possibilities’ (243).

This flattening out of different types and levels of social organization makes it impossible to account for radical change other than as an aleatory event. A new political truth that, in Marxist terms, may have been driven into existence by the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production can only appear to the political subject in flatland as springing up out of the void. Political agency, in this conceptualization, is reduced to organizing the consequences of an aleatory event (224). There is no concept of agency as both caused by and causing events.

Without this causative conception of agency, the dictatorship of the proletariat makes no sense, because it is based on the idea that a political subject can and must transform society through understanding and manipulating causality. In Marxist theory, the withering away of the state is a product of this type of agency. The state does not spontaneously disappear; it withers away because its basis in class society disappears. But class society doesn’t wither away; it must be systematically dismantled – hence Mao’s statement in On Contradiction that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be strengthened in order to lay the conditions for its abolition. The real ideological roots of the Cultural Revolution lie in Lenin’s critique of spontaneity in What Is To Be Done.

Given these two fundamentally different conceptions of agency, conflicting summations of the goal of the Cultural Revolution – whether to replace the Party with a mass movement as Badiou argues, or to strengthen it by a test of fire as stated by Mao – were inevitable. The great truth of the Cultural Revolution – in the Maoist account – was that the elimination of class divisions in society would be long and tortuous, and would be characterized by many ruptures requiring both mass mobilization and Party leadership. And further, the point of most intense class struggle and greatest danger of reversal would be where power was concentrated: inside the Party itself. In this account, the Party must lead the revolution against itself – a paradox, but one that Badiou himself subscribes to, if only on the level of the individual: ‘They [the Chinese] taught that in political practice, we must be both “the arrow and the bull’s eye”, because the old worldview is also present within us’ (102).

Although it may be debatable whether Badiou’s ‘Communist Hypothesis’ is a step forward into a new form of communism or a step backward into the old form of anarchism (despite his protest to the contrary), the great strength of this book, and of Badiou’s work in general, is in its commitment to defending and carrying forward the achievements and lessons of the last two centuries of revolution – and in his stubborn and controversial insistence on including the Cultural Revolution as an essential part of that heritage:

The Cultural Revolution is the Commune of the age of Communist Parties and Socialist States: a terrible failure that teaches us some essential lessons. (278)

7 February 2011


  1. The revewer first refers to Badiou’s use of set theory as a “metaphor” and then corrects this to its being “an exact analogue of the real. Deductions in set theory apply equally and necessarily to the real.” Therefore, set theory can be applied “to the question of political change”. This needs to be challenged.

    With his thesis that “being, qua being [sic], is […] pure multiplicity” (Being and Event p. xiii) and that therefore axiomatic, set-theoretical mathematics could serve as the ontological foundation of a critical social theory, Alain Badiou is faced with the futile task of showing how such a basis could generate an ontology of movement. He could have learned from Hegel: “One could even further conceive the thought of aphilosophical mathematics which knew from concepts that which the usual mathematical science derived from presupposed determinations according to the method of understanding. However, since mathematics is for one the science of finite determinations of magnitude that are valid and remain fixed in their finitude, are not supposed to change, it is essentially a science of the understanding.” (Enz. II § 259 Anm.) Mathematics, whose subject matter is magnitude and number in their relations as simply present and static, cannot properly conceive transition, becoming, movement. It is therefore also entirely unsuitable as an ontological basis for conceiving social movement. For an alternative ontology of social movement as power play, see my Social Ontology.and, on time and movement, The Digital Cast of Being § 2.9.

  2. I agree with what I take to be your main point, that the use of set theory as ontology is unsatisfactory because it treats being as absolute presence abstracted from movement; consequently, it leaves no basis for describing change as anything other than a leap from one fixed state to another. This is also, in my view, the reason for what I describe in the review as a flattening out of different types and levels of social organization. In Being and Event relationship and movement between different sets can be accounted for only in terms of belonging, inclusion and the aleatory leap described by the operation of forcing. Logics of Worlds changes this, but only somewhat. Badiou links set theory as ontology to algebraic operations that govern appearance. But for Badiou there is a difference in principle between the being of objects and their appearance in a given world. The laws of appearance only govern change as modification. “The event” is still defined in terms of set theory. This leaves no scope for what appears to be an aleatory event on one level of organization being driven by developments on another level, as for example, a political revolution driven by economic contradiction.

    At the same time, I believe it’s important to keep hold of what Badiou gets right. Change is not always smooth and continuous. Change erupts. “A single spark can start a prairie fire” – or a desert storm. Badiou’s starting point is that of revolution, not reform. His philosophy is an attempt to account for the radical eruption that is a conjunctural event. But I would argue that his account does not go far enough, because it doesn’t account for the interweaving of causality and discontinuity in everyday life. “The event” for Badiou is something completely other than the world of everyday change, which in Badiou’s eyes, is not real change at all, but merely modification of what is already there, already present in “the count as one”. For Badiou, real change springs out of the void. Hence the strange affinity between Badiou’s atheism and the theology departments of many universities.

    I do feel the need to make one point clear about my review. Nowhere do I attribute to Badiou a use of set theory as metaphor. On the contrary, I state clearly that “for Badiou set theory is not used as a metaphor or an analytical tool, but as an exact analogue of the real.” In my view, set theory is a useful metaphor for thinking dialectics in terms of overlapping totalities, as opposed to Hegelian Totality. I believe this shows the connection between Badiou’s use of set theory and Maoist dialectics, which is conceived in terms of interlocking contradictions. But metaphor is useful as an analytic tool only to the extent that one keeps the limits of the metaphor firmly in hand – the limit in this case being the static nature of set theory, which entails a conception of being as different in principle from becoming, as the presence of objects, rather than as a process of struggle between opposites. Consequently, although Badiou’s use of set theory is at least partly driven by his appreciation of the philosophical aspects of the Cultural Revolution, it differs fundamentally from Maoist dialectics.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *