badiou on the communist hypothesis
Here on the Old Mole we try to be uplifting; we like to focus not just on political critique, but also on the ways that ordinary folks can make a difference, the ways that even when the gardens of Versailles seem undisturbed, the mole of revolution is digging away underground. Sometimes this feels harder than others, and just lately there’s been what Jaques-Alain Miller calls a “surge on depression” –emotional, economic, and heavily medicated.
Joe Bageant diagnoses pandemic “rage fatigue” as the root of what he calls “the audacity of depression.”
We all know things are bad; we all know things are likely to get worse. But French philosopher Alain Badiou offers hope and a call for courage by looking to history. Badiou reminds us that between the failure of the Paris Commune and the success of the Russian Revolution there was a period of imperialism triumphant, when the possibility of progressive change looked bleak. Suggesting that we are in another such period, Badiou affirms the need to take a long view, in order to recover the possibility of what he calls the communist hypothesis.
Writing in New Left Review, Badiou asks, (quote),
What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth. . . . The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.
‘Communism’ as such denotes only this very general set of intellectual representations. It is . . . an Idea, . . . rather than a programme. It is foolish to call such communist principles utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion. As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear.
Badiou sees two great sequences in the development of the Communist hypothesis, with a forty-year gap between them:
The first is that of the setting in place of the communist hypothesis; the second, of preliminary attempts at its realization. The first sequence runs from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune; let us say, 1792 to 1871. It links the popular mass movement to the seizure of power, through the insurrectional overthrow of the existing order; this revolution will abolish the old forms of society and install ‘the community of equals’. …The sequence culminated in the striking novelty—and radical defeat—of the Paris Commune. For the Commune demonstrated both the extraordinary energy of this combination of popular movement, working-class leadership and armed insurrection, and its limits: the communards could neither establish the revolution on a national footing nor defend it against the foreign-backed forces of the counter-revolution.
The second sequence of the communist hypothesis runs from 1917 to 1976: from the Bolshevik Revolution to the end of the Cultural Revolution and the militant upsurge throughout the world during the years 1966–75. It was dominated by the question: how to win? How to hold out—unlike the Paris Commune—against the armed reaction of the possessing classes; how to organize the new power so as to protect it against the onslaught of its enemies? It was no longer a question of formulating and testing the communist hypothesis, but of realizing it: what the 19th century had dreamt, the 20th would accomplish. The obsession with victory, centred around questions of organization, found its principal expression in the ‘iron discipline’ of the communist party—the characteristic construction of the second sequence of the hypothesis. The party effectively solved the question inherited from the first sequence: the revolution prevailed. . .
But the second sequence in turn created a further problem, which it could not solve using the methods it had developed in response to the problems of the first. The party had been an appropriate tool for the overthrow of weakened reactionary regimes, but it proved ill-adapted for the construction of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the sense that Marx had intended—that is, a temporary state, organizing the transition to the non-state: its dialectical ‘withering away’. Instead, the party-state developed into a new form of authoritarianism. Some of these regimes made real strides in education, public health, the valorization of labour, and so on; and they provided an international constraint on the arrogance of the imperialist powers. However, the statist principle in itself proved corrupt and, in the long run, ineffective. . . .
Between the end of the first sequence and the beginning of the second there was a forty-year interval during which the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable: the decades from 1871 to 1914 saw imperialism triumphant across the globe. Since the second sequence came to an end in the 1970s we have been in another such interval, with the adversary in the ascendant once more. What is at stake in these circumstances is the eventual opening of a new sequence of the communist hypothesis. But it is clear that this will not be—cannot be—the continuation of the second one.
The (19th-century) movement and the (20th-century) party were specific modes of the communist hypothesis; it is no longer possible to return to them. Instead . . . our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode, to help it emerge within new forms of political experience. . . . We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere.
Courage, [Badiou suggests], is the principal virtue in face of the disorientation of our own times. [He emphasizes that courage is] a virtue—that is, not an innate disposition, but something that constructs itself, and which one constructs, in practice. Courage, then, is the virtue which manifests itself through endurance in the impossible. This is not simply a matter of a momentary encounter with the impossible: that would be heroism, not courage. Heroism has always been represented not as a virtue but as a posture: as the moment when one turns to meet the impossible face to face. The virtue of courage constructs itself through endurance within the impossible; time is its raw material. What takes courage is to operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world. The point we are seeking must be one that can connect to another order of time. . . .
In many respects we are closer today to the questions of the 19th century than to the revolutionary history of the 20th. A wide variety of 19th-century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening inequalities, politics dissolved into the ‘service of wealth’. . . Which is no doubt why, as in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence. This is our task, during the reactionary interlude that now prevails: through the combination of thought processes—always global, or universal, in character—and political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible, to renew the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and on the ground.
For the Old Mole Variety Hour April 14, 2008