‘Philosophy and the Idea of Communism: Alain Badiou in Conversation with Peter Engelmann’ reviewed by Robert Boncardo

Reviewed by Robert Boncardo

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Robert Boncardo recently completed a PhD at Aix-Marseille University and the University of Sydney …

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In this transcription of two interviews held on the 23rd and 24th March, 2012, contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou dialogues on philosophy and the Idea of communism with Peter Engelmann, German philosopher and founder of Passagen Verlag, a publishing house specializing in translations of works of modern French philosophy. From his militancy in the Parti Socialiste Unifié during the Algerian War, to his membership of the Maoist groupuscule the UCFML in the fifteen years following May ’68, then of L’Organisation Politique from 1985 until 2007, Badiou has long marched under the banner of some form of communist politics. In more recent times, his philosophical efforts to revive the notion of communism have attracted widespread attention, particularly since the publication of The Communist Hypothesis in 2009. Drawing on his novel articulation of truth, being and the subject, Badiou is well-known today for his attempt to give a philosophical account of political practices that have an egalitarian address. As he once remarked with regard to his magnum opus, Being and Event, his philosophy can in fact be read as an extended meditation on L’Internationale.

In Philosophy and the Idea of Communism – a short work that takes its place alongside other recent publications including Philosophy for Militants (2012), The Rebirth of History (2012) and a recent re-issue of The Communist Hypothesis (2015) – Badiou responds to the questions of Peter Engelmann, a former East German dissident imprisoned by the Stasi for two years in the early 1970s. In addition to dealing with the catastrophic history of the socialist states and the shadow they cast over any contemporary discourse on communism, Badiou and Engelmann range widely over modern French and German philosophy, democracy, capitalism, Stalinism and current political experiments. While inevitably limited in scope and depth by the interview format, Philosophy and the Idea of Communism sees Badiou give a lively – indeed frequently surprising – presentation of his views. Most notably, it has the virtue of opening up a number of novel lines of inquiry into Badiou’s relationship to Marx and Marxism. I will focus on these in what follows.

Responsible for the publication of Derrida’s most important works in German, Engelmann begins by inquiring into Badiou’s singular position with respect to the problematic of the death of the subject in French philosophy. This line of questioning provides Badiou with an opportunity to present not only his revision of the category of the subject, but also the link he establishes between the subject and truth – another category that had seemingly disappeared from the modern French philosophical lexicon. Passing from Hegel through to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Badiou offers an overview of his account of truth as infinite and absolute that is at once rigorous and atheistic. The subject, for its part, is always a subject of a singular truth whose contingent origin lies in an event (13-19).

Following this brief overview of his philosophy, ideal for readers new to his work, Badiou devotes his most extensive series of comments to Marx, whose thought, he argues, tied together at least three distinct strands.

The first Marx, according to Badiou, was a philosopher of history. Rather than decisively breaking with Hegel, this Marx deployed a dialectical logic to articulate the necessary relation between historical periods. Crucially, this first Marx is to be distinguished from the second Marx, the “great nineteenth-century scientist” (30), whose aim was to construct a science of society in the spirit of 19th century positivism. Building on the work of Smith and Ricardo, this Marx engaged in “extremely analytical scientific research” (28) concerning the extraction of surplus value and its distribution. In these researches, dialectical logic played only a minor role, being subordinate to a deterministic “logic of function” (29). With respect to English political economy, then, Marx’s key innovations lay in the diagnostic and normative conclusions he drew from the centrality of surplus value.

Finally, in a gesture that at first glance might seem to contradict the very core of Marxism – its refusal to separate the spheres of politics and the economy – Badiou claims that these first two Marxes are not to be confused with the third, properly political, Marx. This last Marx was the one who founded the International, engaged in the cut and thrust of polemic, and closely analyzed the mass movements of his time.

By teasing apart these three threads of Marx’s work, Badiou raises the pressing problem of what, precisely, the relation between the historical, the economic and the political consists in. Badiou frames this problem in terms that echo the original impulse of his own philosophical project, which grew out of the context of French structuralism. As he puts it, what was at stake for Marx was to “produce a theory of the revolutionary subject in a context dominated by a structural dialectic” (31-2). In other words, the relation between history, economics and politics can be restated in terms of a core philosophical problem shared by Marx and Badiou: the relation between structure and subject.

What becomes clear from Badiou’s discussion of Marx in Philosophy and the Idea of Communism is the degree to which he takes his own philosophical project not only to be continuous with Marxism, but as capable of reframing and resolving some of its most intractable problems. Despite the lack of an explicit account of capital in his work, Badiou insists that it is less a matter of what specific forms of knowledge are at stake in Marxism, whether historical or economic, and more a matter of formalizing the possibility of transforming a given structure with the resources thrown up by an event (35-6).

Indeed, this is the crux of the Idea of communism itself. As Badiou has it, “the communist Idea is the very example of an idea whose use is that of formalizing the real movement” (41). At the philosophical level, it is intrinsically linked to that which, in politics, has universal value, or rather is radically egalitarian, being “everything in politics that has to do with the emancipation of humanity as a whole” (45). To deploy the Idea of communism as a conceptual operation, then, is to orient oneself in concrete political situations in terms of an overarching egalitarian, emancipatory project – just as Marx did, Badiou argues, in his writings on the Paris Commune.

It is with this conception of the Idea of communism in mind that Badiou responds to Engelmann’s most pressing series of questions. Referencing human rights abuses in contemporary China, Engelmann alludes for the first and only time in the interview to his own experiences as a political prisoner in the GDR:

I, for example, have lived in a country where I’ve experienced what it’s like to have no legal means to protect myself as a free citizen. Because of that, I can appreciate when there’s a difference and some progress. Everything I do now, I’m able to do thanks to the fact that I broke out of prison and escaped from that non-capitalist political system (57).

In his response to these remarks, Badiou does not deny the clear, measurable difference between liberal democracies and authoritarian states with respect to the protection of some human rights. Rather, he questions what ultimate norm is at work when this difference is measured: is this norm liberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy, or is it the Idea of communism? Significantly, Badiou believes that the passage from authoritarian to liberal forms of capitalism is internal to capitalism itself. Just as the Second Empire was superseded by the Third Republic in France, so, Badiou predicts, will authoritarian forms of government in contemporary China eventually give rise to more liberal modes of power: “Once China has an imperialist productive capacity”, he argues, “it will treat itself to a parliament”. Such liberal luxuries will then serve to “buy off a portion of public opinion” (54-5) in a country that will nevertheless remain rampantly exploitative abroad. Local instances of “progress” made within this liberal capitalist framework cannot, therefore, be a measure of justice: for Badiou, only the Idea of communism is adequate to this task.

Yet Badiou must still respond to the problem posed by the existence of states in the 20th century that explicitly took up a communist program. In his view, the problem of Stalinism can be grasped philosophically in terms of the category of representation. Firstly, Badiou argues that Marx’s original account of the proletariat was ontological and not sociological, the proletariat being that which is stripped of all of the predicates recognized in a given situation. Next, he claims that the proletariat cannot, therefore, be a social substance that is presented in a situation and then re-presented in the form of its Party. Rather, the proletariat is an “immanent exception” (79) to the status quo, not a particular that has a designated place in this status quo. Philosophically, the idea of the Party of the proletariat qua the representation of that which does not take the form of a particular, presented substance, is nothing less than a logical aberration. Indeed, the dialectical reversal by which a particular Party, indeed a particular person – Stalin himself – can stand in for the universal, finds its origin here.

Historically, this logical aberration first took on an effective form, Badiou believes, in the social-democratic parties of late-19th century Europe. Insofar as these parties placed the problematic of representation at the centre of their political activity, they laid the groundwork for the organizational forms favoured later by Lenin and Stalin. The significance Badiou accords to the Paris Commune is striking here: according to him, the main lesson drawn from its bloody repression was that a disciplined, representative party was necessary. As Badiou poignantly puts it, “defeats are tragic, even more so in terms of their consequences than in terms of the actual event itself” (85), with the military model of the Leninist party eventually being extended to socialist society as a whole.

For Engelmann, the question then becomes what directives follow from this jointly philosophical and historical diagnosis. Can the logic of representation, he asks, ever be avoided? And are there any elements of the political party that should be preserved, such as discipline and leadership? With respect to the question of organization, Badiou makes the following paradoxical suggestion: an organization should involve nothing more than the ensemble of voluntary, collective efforts to resist the tendency of an immanent exception to devolve into something that is represented (98-100). Next, Badiou is very clear on the question of centralizing egalitarian political movements: “I think that, for a long period of time, political experiments must accept to be decentralized, undisciplined, and non-violent, in a sense, or in any case as little violent as possible” (88).

Moreover, he argues that the discipline necessary for actions such as strikes should be subordinated to what could be termed the discipline of thought:

I think that if the idea of going on strike is right, we should be able to talk it over with people […] Everything that was connected with obligation, constraint, and violence needs to be replaced patiently, point by point, with something else, which is ultimately the Socratic dialogue, after all (90).

Tactically, then, a concern for rational thought and the capacity everybody has for it must take precedence over an iron discipline imposed from outside.

In conclusion, it might be argued that this directive concerning the discipline of thought is already at work in Badiou’s own efforts towards a contemporary “resurrection” (101) of the Idea of Communism. As he underscores throughout his dialogue with Engelmann, the possibility of an egalitarian politics is indissociable from a demonstration of the existence of truths that are universal. This demonstration, while constituting the proper, patient work of the philosopher, must ultimately become the concern and conviction of all. As Badiou puts it in a different, yet no less applicable, context: “If it’s right and if it’s true, we should be able to convince the other person. We’ve got to start from this major philosophical idea” (90). It is therefore to be hoped that Philosophy and the Idea of Communism will provide multiple suggestive points of entry into Badiou’s philosophical project, in particular from the Marxist tradition.

6 February 2016

One comment

  1. The reviewer writes;

    It is with this conception of the Idea of communism in mind that Badiou responds to Engelmann’s most pressing series of questions. Referencing human rights abuses in contemporary China, Engelmann alludes for the first and only time in the interview to his own experiences as a political prisoner in the GDR:

    I, for example, have lived in a country where I’ve experienced what it’s like to have no legal means to protect myself as a free citizen. Because of that, I can appreciate when there’s a difference and some progress. Everything I do now, I’m able to do thanks to the fact that I broke out of prison and escaped from that non-capitalist political system (57).

    In his response to these remarks, Badiou does not deny the clear, measurable difference between liberal democracies and authoritarian states with respect to the protection of some human rights.

    I have had the same experience as Engelmann in a capitalist state, when I publicly argued for universal franchise.

    Capitalist states are not and never have been ‘liberal democratic states’. It depends on what you say and when you say something. An Irish scientist famously summarised it thus:

    In a ‘liberal democracy’ you can say whatever you like as long as it does not matter!

    Whether something matters is determined by the current ruling class, irrespective of whether it is capitalist or socialist. One can hope that in the future the ruling class in a socialist state would do better than they did in Eastern Europe. The faults are specific to those states and times, to their specific history and not to a ‘socialist state’ in general.

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