Today’s radical political (or metapolitical) theory is the offspring of a contorted dialectic of defeat and reinvention.1 Though it is common to take contemporary ideas on emancipation and political subjectivity at face value, many of the defining characteristics of these recent writings are obscured if we fail to address how they emerged out of a reckoning with the failure or distortion of Marxist politics, and, moreover, if we disregard the extent to which they maintain an underlying commitment to the Marxist impulse whence they arose.
The mode of separation, as it were, from the organisational and theoretical tenets of Marxism (in whichever guise) can tell us a lot about the present resources and limitations of theoretical contributions to the contemporary thinking of politics which drew initial sustenance from that tradition, even if they are now allegedly “beyond” Marx and Marxism. This is certainly the case with the work of Alain Badiou, whose knotty relationship to his own Marxist-Leninist militancy and to Marxist theory has recently become the object of rich and detailed investigation, above all in several essays by Bruno Bosteels. Bosteels’ characterisation of Badiou’s metapolitical trajectory in terms of “post-Maoism’2 already suggests that what makes Badiou’s theoretical biography distinctive is at a considerable remove from the entire “post-Marxist” tendency, chiefly encapsulated in Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and persuasively dismantled in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat from Class.3 Having said that, the echoes of a common “post-structuralist” theoretical conjuncture, and a critique of (or separation from) “thick” Hegelian-Marxist versions of dialectics and social ontology, might make one suspect that “the theoretical edifices of Laclau and Badiou are united by a deep homology”.4 This “deep homology”, which Zizek identifies in the notion of a contingent, subjective rupture of ontological closure, is nevertheless offset, still according to Zizek, by a fundamental divergence, inasmuch as, in the last instance, Badiou’s “post-Marxism” has nothing whatsoever to do with the fashionable deconstructionist dismissal of the alleged Marxist “essentialism”; on the contrary, he is unique in radically rejecting the deconstructionist doxa as a new form of pseudo-thought, as a contemporary version of sophism”.5 Rather than either homology, or frontal opposition, it might be more precise to argue that Badiou’s post-Maoism and the post-Marxism of Laclau et al. intersect in manners that generate, from the peculiar perspective of contemporary radical thought, a kind of “family resemblance” effect, but that, when push comes to shove, they are really indifferent to one another, born of divergent assessments of the end or crisis of Marxism. To a certain extent, they connect the same dots but the resulting pictures differ radically. In order better to delineate the specific difference of Badiou’s project, and of the problems that generated it, it is of considerable interest to examine the period between the highest speculative product of Badiou’s heterodox Maoism, Théorie du sujet (1982), and L’être et l’événement (1988), in particular the book Peut-on penser la politique?, published in 1985, which is to say contemporaneously with Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony.
Like many post-Marxists, and indeed anticommunists, Badiou attacks the “metaphysics” that contaminate Marxist politics. In a Heideggerian pastiche, he even describes Marxism-Leninism as the “metaphysical epoch of Marxist political ontology”.6 Most “deconstructions” of the Marxist canon have looked for this metaphysics in Marx’s supposed reductionist “economism” or in what they take to be an imaginary constitution of the social, and of class structure in particular, whose correlate is the putative transparency of the post-revolutionary social bond. While some of these points may be registered in Badiou’s texts from the mid-eighties, the emphasis is firmly on a conceptual dyad that persists even in more recent works like Metapolitics. This is the distinction between politics and the political. The thesis that lies at the core of Badiou’s call to counter the supposed “crisis” of Marxism through its “destruction” and “recomposition”, is that Marxism has succumbed to the homogenising political fiction that imagines the possibility of measuring, anticipating and representing political action. According to this framework, “the political has never been anything but the fiction which politics punctures through the hole of the event”.7 One’s first impression is of a substantial overlap with Laclau in terms of the notions of working class, proletariat or people as fictions of the social bond, signifying fictions in which political action could find its guarantee. Indeed, the fundamental political fiction for Badiou is that of the “alliance of the social relation and its measure” (where, as the treatment of the concept of “state” in Being and Event suggests, measure is equivalent to representation). However, from the idea whereby the crisis of the political reveals that (in his vocabulary) all sets are inconsistent,8 Badiou does not draw the customary post-Marxist lessons regarding the transcendental horizon of discursively generated identities and the a priori of antagonism as an intractable impediment to social revolution. In other words, he does not espouse the post-Marxist mix of strategic populism, sociological description, discursive ontology and cynical liberalism. Rather, the assault on the fiction of the social, and on Marxism’s foundational commitment to a critique of political economy, is viewed by Badiou as the occasion for a renovation, and a kind of purification, of the politics of emancipation. Marxism, according to Peut-on penser la politique?, is unable to critique its own critique of political economy,9 leaving its original political impetus cloaked and perverted, binding it to the mediations, however antagonistic, of economic and social relations. The maintenance of categories of totality and system within this approach is what imprisons the encounter and creation of a politics in the fiction of the political, which always comes down to “the alliance of the social relation and its measure”.10 Marxism – this is Badiou’s verdict – was destroyed by its history, the subordination of politics to the fiction of a social measure. The political is a kind of metaphorical cloaking of the hiatus between state and civil society, representation and presentation. The aim of an emancipatory politics should not lie in the creation of a new bond; the inconsistency of the social does not open onto ever-renegotiated (and formally identical) disputes over its content, but on the idea of an autonomy and heterogeneity of politics, which occurs at a remove from any relational dialectic: “What is dissipated is the thesis of an essence of the relations internal to the city, an essence representable in the exercise of a sovereignty, be it the dictatorship of the slaves, even if the relation is that of civil war within the class structure”.11
So, while there is a convergence or homology around a certain anti-essentialism, what follows from Badiou’s own attack on essential relations is a link between inconsistency and event, which still maintains an emancipatory, rationalist reference to transmissible decision and a communist reference to the generic (in the axiom of equality) – rather than a generalised undecidability oscillating between a sociologistic account of discursive plurality and a political ontology of fundamental antagonisms. In other words, the “destruction” of the political fiction that Badiou diagnoses within metaphysical Marxism is not an opportunity to affirm the pluralism of political struggles, but rather to argue simultaneously for their singularity and their prescriptive homogeneity. Badiou insists, during this period, in writing of the recomposition of Marxism, in putting his work under the aegis of “Marxist politics” because of the unsurpassable character of the Marxist hypothesis, the hypothesis of a politics of non-domination which is not reducible to the state. Rescinding the fiction of the political, from within Marxism, is presented as a kind of prolegomenon to the emancipation of a (Marxist) politics. In Peut-on penser la politique? we can thus observe, in a quasi-deductive manner, the passage from an internal dislocation of Marxism to a metapolitical thinking of the event: “the determination of the essence of politics, unable to find a guarantee either in structure (inconsistency of sets, unbinding), nor sense (History does not make a whole), has no other benchmark than the event”. Note that it is through this “ultra-one” of the event, that Badiou maintains “the essence of politics’: “The firmness of essentialisation rests on the precariousness of what happens.’12
Keeping this move in mind, we can elucidate a number of supplementary differences with the ideological attitude of post-Marxism, as well as shed some light on the direction taken by Badiou’s further work. A particularly significant issue in this regard involves the difference between an ontology of the multiple and the kind of pluralist notion of hegemony put forward in post-Marxism. Whilst in both instances the undermining of unity (at the level of class identity and of party leadership, for instance, as well as in terms of the category of social totality) is used to articulate a movement beyond the supposedly Hegelian or totalising character of Marxist theory, Badiou’s set theoretical meontology of the multiple is of a wholly different order than the discursive pluralism of Laclau et al. – indeed, the theme of the generic, running (explicitly or otherwise) through the whole of Badiou’s work from the 1980s onwards, can be understood in terms of the need to maintain communism as an intrinsic property of truth and subjective fidelity. This is not an immanent critique of Marxism as a science of capitalism and revolution, but a displacement to a dissimilar practical and theoretical framework (one in which politics and philosophy are de-sutured, as Badiou’s 1989 Manifesto for Philosophy proposes) in order to sustain the retention of a minimal Marxism conjoining the hypothesis of non-domination with the rational identification of the sites of subversion, without trapping politics in a teleological, revolutionary or programmatic framework. We will return to the question of whether maintaining the name Marxism is tenable once these theoretical options have been taken – especially bidding farewell to the concept of revolution. For the time being, it is worth noting that the emphasis on the subjective element in Marxist politics – already a prominent trait in Badiou’s Maoism and still present in the 1980s concern with political “forms of consciousness’13 – is fully at odds with the post-Marxist concern with “subject-positions” and the hegemonic negotiations of “identity”. This anti-essentialist discursive ontology of the (empty) social is absent from Badiou, whose concern, as demonstrated quite consistently even in more recent books like the Ethics, is not with the political interplay between identity and difference. Rather, Badiou’s thought works at the interface between, on the one hand, the fact of identity-and-difference as a feature of the encyclopaedia of knowledges,14 and, on the other hand, the production of the Same.15
Despite the deceptive resonance, this is not to be confused with the two logics of Laclau and Mouffe, differential and equivalential. Why? Because in the latter these two logics remain transitive to one another and map out the transcendental horizon of political dispute, whilst in Badiou the production of sameness in the political field is a real production of truth which does not involve the strategic rearrangement and occupation of the language of the situation, but an organised subtraction from its very terms.
Instead of shifting the terrain from that of (the taking of) political power, of classical revolutionary politics, to the domain of discourse (the post-Marxist strategy whose fundamental “electoralism” is persuasively ferreted out by Wood), the shift made by Badiou and his political comrades is marked by the attempt, in order to maintain the hypothesis of non-domination, to consolidate and purify the subject of politics. In a distinction that would obviously strike the likes of Wood as spurious, inasmuch as it characteristically bypasses the level of class, for Badiou it is not the state but proletarian capacity which lies at the heart of Marxist politics. Regarding the question of class struggle and antagonism as a crucial node in the so-called crisis of Marxism, and the possibility of a “party of a new type”, Paul Sandevince (a.k.a. Sylvain Lazarus) writes in Le Perroquet (the publication of Badiou’s group, the UCFML), that: “For Lenin, the essential is not struggle, but “antagonism against the entirety of the existent political and social order”.” This is read fundamentally as a warning against the logic of the absorption of the party into the state, whilst the “other path” involves assigning “the process of politics to the masses/State contradiction grasped in terms of consciousness [conscience]”.16 This is one of the sources of Badiou’s own insistence on politics viewed not as strategy for power, or a way of ordering the social, but as an organised practice of thought (a “truth procedure”, in the later work). The link between the hypothesis of nondomination, the egalitarian and organised capacity for thought, and a separation from the state thus appears as one of the key tenets of this self-avowed “Marxist politics”. This gives us an inkling as to why the appellations post-Maoism or post-Leninism (the one favoured by the various authors in Le Perroquet17) are more appropriate than post-Marxism. Having already decided that Marxist politics is not the consequence of a critical analysis of capitalism, but is rather the means, within capitalist conditions, for the production of communism (so that the critique of political economy is wholly subsidiary to the project of emancipation), the direction taken in the 1980s by Badiou and his comrades is primarily born out of the crisis of the Marxist political subject (i.e. the party), and not, as with “traditional” post-Marxism, out of a critique of the metaphysical tenets and sociological shortcomings of Marxism as a science of capitalism. If Badiou’s Théorie du sujet had declared that the every subject is political and that subject equals party, what is at stake in this period (1982-88) which oscillates between the option for a “party of a new type” and that of “politics without a party’?
Jameson contends that Marxism qua science of capitalism gives rise to post-Marxism at moments of systemic crisis. Whatever the links between such crises and forms of political organisation, it is clear that for Badiou it is the party qua subject which is the focus of the crisis, not the ability of “Marxism” to cope with social and economic transformations, or the shifts and turns in class composition. Indeed, Badiou is generally rather sanguine about the Marxist understanding of capitalism, and does not seem to think that Marx has really been surpassed in this domain. In any instance, Badiou is immunised against the stance according to which the failure of social ontology or economic analysis would debilitate Marxist politics. Indeed, he mocks this very possibility in a vicious piece caricaturing the “old Marxist”, the one who waits for the proper study of “social formations” before acting, who thinks that “one of these days the “workers” movement” will give us something to talk about”.18 To the contrary:
Marx starts, absolutely, not from the architecture of the social, in which he will, after the fact, deploy his assurance and his guarantee, but from the interpretation-cut of a symptom of social hysteria, uprisings and workers’ parties. (…) For the symptom that hystericises the social to be thus grasped, without pinning it to the fiction of the political, proletarian political capacity – as a radical hypothesis of truth and a reduction to fiction of every foregoing notion of the political – must be excepted from any approach via the communitarian and the social.19
By now, Badiou’s philosophy is renowned as a philosophy of the event. But, in terms of what I referred to above as the dialectic of defeat and reinvention, could we also say that there are events of closure, failure, saturation? Without entering into doctrinal details, Badiou does overtly mark his treatment of the “destruction and recomposition” of Marxism in terms of what he terms “the end of referents”, a position presaged by an article of the same name in Le Perroquet, penned by Sandevince-Lazarus.20 This passage through history is inexorable, inasmuch as “Marxism alone presented itself as a revolutionary political doctrine which, if not historically confirmed, was at least historically active”.21 If Marxist politics, in its Marxist-Leninist phase, was crystallised around the figure of the party as subject, and suffused by an essential historicity, then this figure is seen to suffer from the collapse of its three primary referents: (1) the statist referent: the actual existence of Marxist states, as emblems of the possible victory of a Marxist politics, and of “the domination of non-domination’22; (2) wars of national liberation as an other emblem of actually victorious Marxist politics, and the “fusion of the national principle and the popular principle’23 in the invention of new ways of linking politics and war; (3) the workers’ movement, especially in its incarnation in “working class parties” with an explicit Marxist reference, “mixed figures of a distant revolutionary Idea and the proximity of an oppositional activity”.24
Once again, it is not the analytical force of Marxism qua science of capital that is paramount for Badiou, but the collapse of its singularity as a revolutionary thinking and a politics that was fundamentally “self-referential” (its instances were, to various degrees, homogeneous with its theory) and massively historically inscribed. Though Badiou will always maintain (as he does in D’un désastre obscur) the “eternity of communism”, what is at stake here is the historicity of Marxism and the impossibility, in his view, for Marxism to continue to draw any value from its actual history in the present. As Badiou puts it, “its credit has run out”.25 Note that, contrary to all specimens of post-Marxism, this has nothing to do with the explanatory capacity of Marxism (Badiou treats it strictly as a politics, not a doctrine, and only secondarily and strategically as an analysis of the social).
The “crisis of Marxism” is to be located in the collapse of its real referents: it is an immanent, and thoroughly political crisis, for which the analytical force of the critique of political economy remains of little import. Along with this collapse of referents, this political death, which seems to suggest the separation of a communist hypothesis from moribund Marxist politics, Badiou also points to certain symptoms – larval and obscure political subjects which indicate that if a Marxist politics is to be “recomposed”, it can no longer be so in terms of political processes that take it as an explicit reference-point. Marxism has not only lost its historical foothold, it is no longer an internal referent for nascent forms of emancipatory politics. This is what is meant by the expatriation of Marxism, as the key aspect of the crisis that we must destructively traverse (let us not forget that for the Badiou of Théorie du sujet, the becoming of a subject, and of a proletarian subject especially, is intimately linked to its own destruction, so that the call to be heeded here is for Marxism to truly subjectivise itself, after having gone through the “subjective destitution” of its referents). In a piece from 1983, Badiou declares:
Today, the referents of Marxist politics are not Marxist. There is a fundamental delocalisation of Marxism. Previously, there was a kind of selfreference, because Marxism drew its general credit from States that called themselves Marxist, from wars of national liberation under the direction of Marxist parties, from workers’ movements framed by Marxist unionists. But this referential apparatus is gone. The great mass historical pulsations no longer refer to Marxism, after, at least, the end of the cultural revolution in China: see Poland, or Iran. Therefore, there is an expatriation of Marxism. Its historical territoriality is no longer transitive to it. The era of self-reference is closed. Marxism no longer has a historical home. All the political referents endowed with a worker and popular life are, with regard to Marxism, atypical, delocalised, errant. Any orthodox Marxist today will object that the Polish movement is national and religious, that the Iranian movement is religious and fanatical, that there is nothing there that fundamentally matters for Marxism. And this orthodox Marxism will be nothing but an empty object in the process of the destruction of Marxism.26
This theme of expatriation thus allows Badiou to maintain, albeit in a problematic register, the reference to “worker and popular life”, as well as the crucial (communist) hypothesis of non-domination, in the face of some of the very events that served as grist to the post-Marxist mill. By thinking in terms of the dislocation of Marxist politics and the tentative invention of new forms of consciousness, rather than in terms of the analytic and ideological failure of Marxism, Badiou can turn the political conjuncture of the 1980s – the death throes of historical communism and the birth of heterogeneous political forms – into an opportunity for the recomposition of a politics of emancipation.27 Crucially, this is not done in relation to a return to logics of electoral alliance or the articulation of group demands outside of the working class referent, but in terms of the possibility of a new workers” politics at a distance from the State, a non-classist, non-systemic experience of proletarian capacity. Rather than seeing the “crisis of Marxism” as a chance for singing the praises of political plurality, Badiou seems to grasp in it the possibility of a further singularisation of emancipatory politics. The wager then, is to look for the traits of a new politics of anti-statist emancipation in these mass symptoms, these hysterias of the social. Though it transcends the limits of this paper, it would be fruitful to follow the attempts – ultimately frustrated by the religious and populist sclerosis of the Polish and Iranian situations – made in Le Perroquet to track moments of organisational invention and worker capacity in non-Marxist political scenarios. Contrary to post-Marxism, which sees in the rise of “new social movements” a radical-democratic pluralism beyond universalist28 and communist hypotheses, Badiou’s post-Leninism is committed, from the 1980s onwards, to producing a metapolitical framework for thinking the persistence of communism as a minimal, universalising hypothesis even in political scenarios where the name “communism” is anathema.
The requirement that the destruction and recomposition of Marxist politics be internal – which is to say not dictated by its supposed explanatory shortcomings, its political disasters, or novel sociological facts – is motivated by an appraisal of the subjectivity that dominates the post-revolutionary Restoration of the virtues of liberalism and parliamentary democracy.29 The peculiarity of the reactive (or renegade) subjects that, from the mid-seventies onwards, publicised the return to liberty on the basis of their own failures lies instead in the fact that they perceived the “crisis of Marxism” simply as the subjective discovery of an objective fact (crystallised by Badiou in the typical utterances: “we tried, it was a catastrophe” and “I fail, therefore I am’): the fact of the impossibility of emancipation. But for Badiou all that these failures and disasters prove is that the opposition to existent society is a “difficult” problem. Just like a mathematician who fails in a proof does not thereby declare as inexistent the problem that proof stemmed from, so a political militant does not make failure into either a necessity or a virtue: “So that what is presented to us as a conjoined progress of morality (liberating us from the totalitarian phantasm) and of realism (seeing the objective virtues of the existent state of things) is in fact a confession of incapacity. The essence of reneging is incompetence”.30 Badiou here intervenes directly in the anti-Marxist philosophy of the Restoration, which sees the defence of the “negative liberties” at the heart of parliamentary democracy (or capitalist parliamentarianism, as he will later dub it). He repeats the idea of a termination of the Marxist-Leninist sequence, of its arrangement of certain political factors,31 but, crucially, contends that we cannot disregard the fact that antagonism to the status quo is still at the heart of any politics of emancipation and that a return to the Enlightenment thematic of liberty is simply insufficient, since the question of equality, which determines “a current stage of the political question”, cannot be evaded.
The question, in the legacy and destruction of what he dubs the Marxist/Leninist “montage”, is how to practice, under the conditions of a nondespotic State, a politics whose axiom is equality: a contemporary politics beyond the modern debate between the State of right and law (parliamentary constitutional liberal democracy) and tyranny. We cannot turn away from “contemporary” politics, initially marked by the entrance of the signifier “worker” into the political field, for the sake of a merely “modern” anti-despotic politics of democracy. Following Badiou’s hazardous “de-socialisation” of Marxism, however, equality must not be thought in terms of equality of “material positions” (‘economistically’), but in strictly political terms. The maxim of equality becomes the following: “what must the world be such that an inegalitarian statement is impossible within it?” Badiou here draws a crucial difference between the modern politics of liberty, which, ever since Saint-Just, functions in a symbolic register, as a form of non-prohibition, and a contemporary politics of equality, whose aim is to really make impossible the production of inegalitarian statements (this will remain the chief characteristic of Badiou’s later concept of the generic). What is surprising here, especially in terms of the earlier commitment to a communist dialectic of destruction, is the idea of a complementarity between the politics of liberty and the politics of equality, along with the stipulation of the general problem of equality in “times of peace”, as detached from the revolutionary problematic of power, war and the state: “under the general conditions of a nondespotic State, how can one think and practice a politics whose overarching philosophical category is equality?’32
A politics of equality, in this framework, works within the symbolic politics of prohibition for the sake of real-impossible equality. It is as if, albeit “at a distance”, Badiou sees the project of emancipation as conditioned to some extent by the apolitical horizon of a liberal polity. This bears two interesting, and problematic consequences. The first is that politics cannot be primarily or directly concerned with the betterment of the polity itself, since “politics must be thinkable as a conjoined excess over the State and civil society, even if these are good or excellent”.33
But the second consequence lies in the implicit suggestion that the politics of emancipation, having rescinded the project of power (in short, the dictatorship of the proletariat) is externally conditioned (‘in times of peace’) by a kind of liberal frame. Here lies the entire ambiguity of Badiou’s later problematic of “politics at a distance from the State’34 – which both maintains the antagonism against “existing society” and, to an extent, the problem of how to change it, but (perhaps in a simply provisional way) combines this seemingly stark antagonism with the toleration of the symbolic framework provided by the very same society: “We therefore continue to demand modern freedom (symbolic according to nonprohibition) from within which we work towards contemporary equality (real, according to the impossible)”.35 Is this to say that Marxist politics can only persist from within a liberal envelope? Can we “reformulate from within politics the synthetic vision of the backwards and nefarious character of our society and its representations” and maintain the “difficult” problem of “changing existing society”, if we do not unequivocally pose the problem of the tension between liberty (in the state) and equality (in politics), together with their mediation by issues of power and authority? To put it otherwise, can a post-Leninist radical politics of equality afford to be entirely post-revolutionary?
At times, Badiou’s 1980s “expatriation” of Marxism, which already presupposes a distance between Marxist politics and the Marxist critique of political economy, seems entirely to dissolve any consistency characterising the Marxist project, casting doubt on the very possibility of holding onto the term Marxism. After all, won’t Badiou, in Metapolitics, peremptorily declare that “Marxism doesn’t exist”,36 in the sense that its political instances – its “historical modes” to use Sylvain Lazarus’s terminology – are absolutely inconsistent? And yet, throughout the 1980s, prior to the publication of Being and Event, Badiou seems to maintain the liminal validity of the notion of “Marxist politics”, at least in the sense that it is only by rigorously undergoing its destruction (and not its ironic deconstruction) that a new politics of emancipation will be “recomposed”. What is at stake in this retention, in extremis, of the name of Marxism (or of “Marxist politics’)? If anything, the Anglophone vogue for post-Marxism was driven by a rejection of the articulation between social class and revolutionary politics, which reduced the idea of the proletariat to a mere contested and hegemonically posited identity among others.
Once again, despite surface similarities, the move beyond class operated by Badiou and his cohorts is based on an intra-political and historical judgment, i.e. on the idea of a lost efficacy of the “classist” mode of politics (dominated by the category of contradiction, and the transitivity between society and politics).37 This also why Badiou declares that there are more things in the crisis of Marxism than anti-Marxism can dream of – in the main because anti-Marxism merely registers an objective crisis without being able to think through its primary, subjective aspect.38This means, on the one hand, that an orthodox defence of Marxism comes down to repeating the old refutation of old objections, therefore remaining on the terrain of anti-Marxism, and, on the other, that the crisis must be experienced not as a way of merely pluralising or dissolving Marxism, but as an opportunity to radicalise its emancipatory, egalitarian core.39 This radicalisation or purification of Marxism into a minimal, heterodox Marxist politics (what Badiou has elsewhere referred to as a communism of singularities), is all the more interesting to us inasmuch as it explicitly wards off the possibility of a post-Marxist turn. For whilst Badiou and his comrades appear definite about the end of the working class as a sociopolitical class (making no such claims for the end of social class per se), they are equally definite that no emancipatory politics can bypass workers.
This plea for a minimal Marxism can be observed in two steps. The first involves what Badiou, explicitly harking back to the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason, calls a “refutation of idealism”. If Marxist politics is detached from the social as the “places of bonds” [les lieux des liens], what prevents the kind of idealist pluralism according to which any site and any subject, unbound from the requirements of transitivity with an ordered and ontologically grounded social structure, can be the locus of emancipation? Badiou is very aware that having abandoned a dialectics of social latency and political subjectivation he cannot depend on the “substantial presupposition” of a political privilege of workers. And yet, he knows that a “maximal” interpretation of his political axiomatic could lead to declaring the emergence of a political subject to be possible at any point. To counter this prospect, Badiou engages in a minimal inscription of the egalitarian wager-intervention on an event, in what he calls “prepolitical situations”.40 Whilst this minimal, anticipatory interregnum between the social and politics does not allow a pre-emptive construction of political subjectivity (e.g. the party of the working class), it allows, by analogy with Kant, a merely negative reductio ad absurdum of the maximal claim of political contingency (any subjects, anywhere).
Forbidding himself any substantive resort to social ontology, Badiou nevertheless wants to argue that to elude “worker singularities” in the formation of a political subject would be to suppose that a politics of emancipation could deploy itself without including in its trajectory any of the places or points where the dominated are the majority of the inhabitants. Whence the following “theorem”:
Political intervention under current conditions, i.e. modern politics, cannot strategically avoid being faithful to events, whose site is worker or popular. Let us suppose that it can. Since the axiomatic hypothesis is that of a politics of emancipation, that is, of a non-statist subjective politics under the aegis of non-domination, it would follow that this politics could deploy itself without ever including in its immediate field places where the mass (whatever its number) of the dominated – in modern conditions – materially exists, i.e. in factories, in the estates in the banlieues, in immigrant housing, in the offices of repetitive IT work. Especially if we consider factories, the exception would be radical, since we can easily establish that factories are separated from civil society and from the moderating laws that sustain its social relations. According to this supposition, the politics of non-domination would only exist, for the dominated themselves, in the form of representation, since no event giving rise to an intervention would include them in terms of its site.41
The point is not simply that an emancipatory politics must include the lowest rungs, the excluded, the oppressed, but that they and their “site” must be directly involved – in other words “presented” – by the emergent political subject. Otherwise, we remain at the level of the State, or, in Badiou’s politico-philosophical terms, of representation. So this refutation of idealism does not simply attack (or literally reduce to absurdity) the “new social movements” ideology according to which emancipation may take place anywhere, anytime, by anyone. It also undermines any Left (or even Marxist) notion that the dominated may be represented in a political programme without partaking of political action themselves.42
It is moving from this idea of a pre-political “site”, and warding off both an idealist pluralism and any kind of “speculative leftism”,43 that Badiou will give a metaontological solution to these problems of Marxist politics in Being and Event. Starting from the intuition of a reductio ad absurdum of anti-worker political idealism, Badiou initially develops his theory of the event-site – a crucial component of his mature philosophy – in terms of the factory and of the worker as the subjective figure of politics. This is the second step, as it were, in the argument for a Marxist politics that would be capable of following its own metaphysical destruction. In “The Factory as Event-Site”, a text published in Le Perroquet in 1987 and originally intended for inclusion in Being and Event, we encounter both a potent distillate of Badiou’s overall doctrine and his last explicit attempt to defend, in however minimal a fashion, a notion of Marxist politics.44 That article’s argument is philosophically far more intricate and challenging than the prescriptive and axiomatic positions rehearsed hitherto, showing a speculative daring far greater than the clever repetition of Kant’s refutation. In a sense, what my own presentation has sought to do is to demonstrate the internal theoretical and political necessity leading to this work on the event-site and, in so doing, to show how Badiou’s intimate confrontation with Marxism is at the very foundation (albeit a vanishing one, since he eventually chose to omit this “example’) of the project crystallised in Being and Event. A closer investigation of the links between “The Factory as Event-Site” and Badiou’s further work should of course be carried out, but for the purposes of this paper, I would simply like to indicate the work that the concept of the event-site does in Badiou’s attempt to maintain a minimal, liminal Marxism.
Far more than any of the other texts in Le Perroquet, this excised fragment of Being and Event pleads for a return to Marx (and Engels) that would even seem to bypass the post-Leninist reference. In “The Factory as Event-Site” Badiou puts his metaontological and metapolitical investigation under the aegis of two conceptual inheritances of the Marxian thinking of worker politics, which the attempt to “recompose” a Marxist politics seeks to weave together. These are the void, which in the Marxist apparatus is connected to the peculiarity of the proletarian (having nothing to sell but his labour-power, the proletarian is the bearer of a generic capacity), and the site, which Badiou links to Engels’s inquiries into the localised conditions whereby exploitation is organised and countered. In a pithy declaration, Badiou will define his philosophical undertaking precisely in terms of a different articulation, a different dialectic, of these two terms, one that moves beyond the “fictions” of orthodox Marxism: “at the very heart of the objectivist version of the necessity of a worker reference, we encounter two terms, the void and the site, which as we will see only acquire their full meaning once we decentre toward the subjective the vision of politics”.45 Without entering into the details of Badiou’s exposition, we should note that in asserting that a political event can only take place if it takes into account the factory as event-site, Badiou aims to provide a kind of minimal objectivity (i.e. another refutation of idealism) without making the intervention of politics and of political subjectivation transitive to a socio-economic datum. As he puts it: “The paradoxical statement I am defending is finally that the factory, by which I mean the factory as a workers” place, belongs without doubt to the socio-historical presentation (it is counted-as-one within it), but not the workers, to the extent that they belong to the factory. So that the factory – as a workers” place – is not included in society, and the workers (of a factory) do not form a pertinent “part”, available for State counting.’46This is the sense in which the factory is not the hidden abode of a production that could be reappropriated and disalienated, but a pre-political site “at the edge of the void” (of the unpresented fact of domination), into which politics can intervene. The correlate of this notion is that the (proletarian) void itself is detached from an expressive logic of (dis)alienation and rearticulated to the notion of a production of the Same, a production of communism no longer immanently bound to a communism of production.47It is on the basis of the speculative trajectory laid out in “The Factory as Event-Site” that Badiou can then reassert his (contorted, heterodox, errant) fidelity to Marxism:
Reduced to its bare bones, Marxism is jointly the hypothesis of a politics of non-domination – a politics subtracted from the statist count of the count – and the designation of the most significant event sites of modernity, those whose singularity is maximal, which are worker sites. From this twofold gesture there follows that the intervening and organised experimentation of the hypothesis must ceaselessly prepare itself for the consideration of these sites, and that the worker reference is a feature of politics, without which one has already given up subtracting oneself from the State count. That is the reason why it remains legitimate to call oneself a Marxist, if one maintains that politics is possible.48
To the extent that Badiou’s subsequent work remains more or less wholly consistent with the research programme of this 1987 article, we could consequently hazard to read it as an attempt to think Marxism “reduced to its bare bones”.
Inasmuch as the above has added some intelligibility to the vicissitudes of Badiou’s (meta)political thinking, its leave-taking from Marxism-Leninism and its (re)commencement of Marxism, I hope it has also given rise to certain perplexities which can be made to resonate with the rest of Badiou’s work and its ongoing political interpretations. Simply by way of conclusion, I would like to touch on two problems that are especially acute in this phase of Badiou’s production. The first concerns the manner in which Badiou remains faithful to a certain intuition of Marx’s about proletarian subjectivity and its political dynamics. Badiou, after all, defines the continuity-in-separation between the Marxian legacy and his (re)commencement as follows: “we (re)formulate the hypothesis of a proletarian political capacity”.49 However, the refutation of idealism and maintenance of the “worker reference” in other texts seems to demand the evacuation of any pre-political subjective privilege to workers per se (politics must touch on their sites, but they are not latent political subjects qua workers). Can the void of the situation be equated with a political capacity? And if this capacity is only the retroactive effect of a postevental intervention (the politicisation of the factory axiomatically determines that “workers think’) is the term “capacity” really viable, considering its inescapable links to notions of disposition and potential and to the theory of (dis)alienation? I would suggest that Badiou’s philosophical conceptualisation of the concept of the generic in Being and Event may be read as an attempt to transcend what appear to be tensions in his earlier “Marxist politics” by maintaining the link between the void, equality and the subject without relying on any latency whatsoever.50
The second problem is connected to the sources, as it were, of emancipatory politics. Badiou obviously wishes to purify and politicise the concept of equality, sever its dependence on merely material criteria. But, in his allergy to the socialising fictions of orthodox Marxism, he seems to step back from contemporary criteria of politics to merely modern ones by framing his entire vision of Marxist politics in terms of the politico-philosophical concepts of exclusion, domination and representation. In a manner which is perhaps most obvious in the section on the “ontology of the site” in “The Factory as Event-Site”, Badiou seems to deny the possibility that the concept of exploitation may be an uncircumventable touchstone of any contemporary politics. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the difference between a politics at a distance from the state and a politics against capital might lie in the fact that the latter cannot be encompassed by the question of representation, inasmuch as capitalist power, while reliant on mechanisms of representation, also works “directly” on singularities themselves, in ways that cannot be easily mapped in terms of exclusion, invisibility or domination.51 This is precisely what is at stake in the vicissitudes of the concept of value in the critique of political economy, a concept which I would suggest cannot be easily harnessed by the logic of re/presentation. The resulting (and rather formidable) challenge would be to combine the immediate politicisation of exploitation that characterises Marx’s own work,52with some of the metaontological and metapolitical tools provided by texts such as “The Factory as Event-Site”. A traversal of the logic of exploitation and its effects on our thinking of political subjectivity would also allow us to ward off the possibility of an “aristocratic” solution, distantly reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s republican and councilist advocacy of the autonomy of politics against the disastrous impingements of the “social question”.53 This would of course force us to face head on one of the most arresting questions raised by Badiou’s “expatriation” of Marxism: is contemporary politics (the politics of positive equality) compatible with the continuation of modern, statist politics (the politics of negative freedom)? Or must it risk being “anti-modern”, and work on equality not just at a distance from, but against the State? This is not to suggest that Marx, like a political Odysseus, may soon be repatriated, and that we, faithful Penelopes warding off our post-Marxist suitors, can finally recognise him under unfamiliar garb. More modestly, let us suggest that Badiou’s connection between the expatriation of Marxism and the (re)commencement of a Marxist politics is a salutary alternative to the quarrels between the antiquarians and the renegades, as well as a unique philosophical platform from which to (re)think Marx’s politics.
1 It is worth noting from the outset that Badiou – who does not seem to hold much truck with the term nowadays – put his work in the mid-1980s under the aegis of “radicalism”, often in terms redolent of a certain Kantian atmosphere that suffused the French debate on the retreat of the political and political judgment: “What is a radical politics, which goes to the root, which refuses the administration of the necessary, which reflects on ends, upholding and practicing justice and equality, and which nevertheless assumes the time of peace, and is not like the empty wait for a cataclysm? What is a radicalism that is at the same time an infinite task?” (Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique?, Paris, Seuil, 1985, p. 106). Showing the momentary influence of Lyotard, Badiou even links his notion of an axiomatic politics to Kant’s treatment of aesthetic judgment in terms of “reflective universality” (which, we could hazard, also affects the temporality of the future perfect, which is still at work in the concept of the generic). See Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 76. It should also not be forgotten that Peut-on penser la politique?, like Lyotard’s L’enthousiasme, was occasioned by an invitation from Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s Centre d’étude philosophique du politique, and is in (polemical) dialogue with the problems identified by these philosophers.
2 Bruno Bosteels, “Post-Maoism: Badiou and Politics”, positions: east asia cultures critique vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 575-634. This is arguably the most thorough engagement with Badiou’s politics to date.
3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London, Verso, 1985; Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism, 2nd ed. London: Verso, 1998. As a future task, it would be very interesting indeed to gauge how well Badiou’s own post-Leninist turn would fare under Wood’s criticism – especially insofar as Wood, rather than simply rehashing “orthodox” criticism, is able, in a Marxian spirit, really to bring out the importance of the Marxian critique of political economy to a definition of such crucial concepts as freedom and equality.
4 Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, London: Verso, 1999, p. 172.
5 Slavoj Zizek, “Psychoanalysis in Post-Marxism: The Case of Alain Badiou”, The South Atlantic Quarterly 97, 2, 1998, pp. 235-61.
6 “La figure du (re)commencement”, Le Perroquet 42, 1984, p. 8 or Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 61.
7 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 12.
8 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 13.
9 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 14.
11 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 13. See also the Mallarmé quote that Badiou adduces for this stance: “le rapport social et sa mesure momentanée, qu’on la serre ou l’allonge en vue de gouverner, est une fiction.”
12 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 67. On the event as “ultra-one”, see Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham, London: Continuum, 2006, pp. 178-83.
13 See Paul Sandevince (a.k.a. Sylvain Lazarus), “Les formes de conscience” (Octobre 1980), Le Perroquet 42, 1984.
14 Being and Event, pp. 327-43.
15 Alain Badiou, Ethics, trans. Peter Hallward, London: Verso, 2001, pp. 25-7.
16“Les formes de conscience”, p. 5. UCFML refers to the “Groupe pour la formation d’une Union des communistes de France marxiste-leniniste”. In 1985, the UCFML disbanded and was succeeded by L’Organisation politique, a non-party organisation. See Hallward’s Badiou and Bosteels’s “Post-Maoism” for more detailed information.
17 This is argued in particular in Sandevince’s “La politique sous condition”, Le Perroquet 42, pp. 1-3. According to him, there is no positive meaning of Marxism-Leninism after the termination of the Cultural Revolution, and in the end “one cannot extirpate Marxism-Leninism from its Stalinist matrix”. But the line taken by Le Perroquet is that it is necessary to maintain the Leninist break or division between social being and political consciousness. Thus, while moving beyond Lenin in terms of organisation (and indeed in terms of the link between class and revolution) there is a fidelity to a kind of Leninism of capacities, of thought. Politics under condition, in Sandevince-Lazarus’ definition, is politics separated from the social. Can a certain Leninism be maintained beyond the partyform? Is the party-form a restraint on the virtuosity of political subjectivity? This of course raises the question of how political capacity can be fostered and rendered efficacious outside of the party-form.
18 Georges Peyrol (a.k.a. Alain Badiou), “30 moyens de reconnaître à coup sûr un vieux-marxiste”, Le Perroquet 29-30, 1983, p. 5. in Peut-on penser la politique?, Badiou puts the point as follows: “Communist politics must be wagered: you will never deduce it from Capital” (p. 87). Of course, it could be argued that far from signalling a caesura, this “long wager” (p. 90) is a feature of Marx’s own original thought, which never held to such a chimerical “deduction”. See Stathis Kouvelakis, “Marx et sa critique de la politique. Des révolutions de 1848 à la Commune de Paris, ou le travail de la rectification”, available at: <http://semimarx.free.fr/article.php3?id_article=8>. The idea of Marxism as promoting a “deduction” of politics from the critique of Capital runs the risk of converging with the “straw-Marxism” denounced by Wood. See The Retreat from Class, p. 187.
19 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 20. This rethinking of the notion of capacity, it should be noted, is “eventally” bound to the Polish workers’ movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. See the section of Peut-on penser la politique? precisely entitled “Universal meaning of the Polish workers” movement”, pp. 45-8, as well as Renée Lebovici, “Shangaï et Gdansk”, Le Perroquet 29-30, and many other pieces in the same publication throughout the 1980s.
20 However, Sandevince-Lazarus’ way of posing the crisis is slightly more theoretical than historical. In fact he too designates three referents, but substitutes Marxism-Leninism itself for Badiou’s focus on anti-imperialist wars: “The referents are principally of three orders”, he writes, “the socialist State, the worker capacity to practice and formulate a revolutionary politics, and finally Marxism-Leninism”. Marxism-Leninism is also defined here as a “precarious political amalgam”, and there is a sense in some of the work in Le Perroquet of a political “return to Marx”, a (re)commencement of Marx that would sublate the Leninist experience. Moreover, Sandevince-Lazarus also emphasises that this is a political crisis: “Marxism is in its nature a politics – as Marx himself clearly specifies in his letter to Weydemeyer – communist politics (for communism, the abolition of the wage, the reduction of great differences, the extinction of the State and political parties), a communist politics that is irreducibly antagonistic to bourgeois politics (for capitalism, imperialism, and the State). If there is a crisis of Marxism, it is the crisis of a politics, of a politics for communism, what we call, strictly speaking, Marxist politics.” “La fin des références” (May 1982), Le Perroquet 42, 1984, p. 10. But see especially “Le Marxisme comme politique, Interview, par Le Perroquet, du Sécretariat central de l’U.C.F.”, Le Perroquet 29-30, 1983, pp. 1-3. The whole issue, under the heading “Un Perroquet-Marx”, marking the hundredth anniversary of Marx’s death, is devoted to these questions.
21 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 26.
22 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 27. Post-Leninism is thus defined by the break with “reason of state” in all its forms, a break that draws its sustenance from the founding drive of Marxism itself: “It is not the State which is the principle of universality of Marxist politics, but rather the communist process in the deployment of class struggles and revolutions”. “La fin des références”, p. 10.
23 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 28.
24 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 29.
26 “La figure du (re)commencement”, p. 1. Badiou also refers to this issue in terms of the separation of Marxism from the history of the “marxisation” of the workers’ movement, now that it is no longer “a power of structuration of real history”, meaning that politics may be freed from “the marxed [marxisée] form of the political philosopheme”. Hence the radical caesura vis-à-vis the previous periodisation of Marxist politics, and the proposal of the figure of (re)commencement. See Peut-on penser la politique?, pp. 58-59.
27 Another crucial moment is of course to be registered in the death-knell of the sequence begun in the Cultural Revolution. See Bosteels’s “Post-Maoism” and Badiou’s Le Monde editorial on the trial of the Gang of Four, “The Triumphant Restoration”, trans. Alberto Toscano, positions: east asia cultures critique vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 659-62.
28 See, for instance, this characteristic pronouncement: “The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal; the epistemological niche from which “universal” classes and subjects spoke had been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which constructs its own irreducible discursive identity. This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to “the truth”, which can be reached only by a limited number of subjects.” Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 191.
29 Badiou’s condemnation of the past two decades as a new post-revolutionary “Restoration” is summed up in Le siécle, Paris: Seuil, 2005.
30 Alain Badiou, “À bas la société existante! (1)”, Le Perroquet 69, 1987, p. 2. See also the section in Peut-on penser la politique? entitled “The reactive meaning of contemporary anti-Marxism”, pp. 48-51.
31 “It is certain that [the Marxist] montage is exhausted. There are no longer socio-political subjects, the revolutionary theme is desubjectivated, History has no objective meaning. All of a sudden, the antagonism of two camps is no longer the right projection for global hostility to existing society”. “À bas la société existante! (1)”, p. 3.
33 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 20.
34 Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker, London: Verso, 2005, pp. 150-1. It is worth noting that Badiou does maintain that this thematic of distance is not simply placed “after” historical communism, but is intrinsically post-Leninist. In an interview following the publication of Being and Event, he declares that his “horizon remains that of the withering away of the State” and is driven by the attempt to generate an “intra-popular democratic process”. See Alain Badiou, “L’être, l’événement, la militance” (interview with Nicole-Édith Thévenin), Futur Antérieur 8, 1991, available at: <http://multitudes.samizdat.net/L-etrel-evenement-la-militance.html>. But this withering away is detached from the question of taking power, as the state is transformed into a non-political referent in the field of politics, so that an intrapopular process does not issue into a Leninist notion of proletarian democracy, which would require not a distance from, but the smashing of the State.
35 “À bas la société existante! (1)”, p. 3. In the French revolutionary triad, equality always maintains precedence for Badiou. As “the authority of the Same”, it trumps freedom (which is too close to opinion) and fraternity (which flirts too much with the substance of community). In brief, the virtue of equality lies in its abstraction – the very abstraction that Badiou will describe in terms of a prescriptive axiom of equality. See “Philosophie et politique”, in Conditions, Paris: Seuil, 1991, p. 248.
36 Metapolitics, p. 58.
37 See Sylvain Lazarus, “Dans quel temps de la politique sommes nous? (éditorial)”, Le Journal Politique 2, March 2005, available at: <http://www.orgapoli.net/article.php3?id_article=5 7>. This theme of “classism” is dealt with in numerous interventions in Le Perroquet, its successor publication La Distance politique, and now in Le Journal politique.
38 Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 51.
39 Which is why Badiou declares, paradoxically, that “the contemporary being of what will articulate the new figure of politics, and which will still be able to call itself “Marxism” in being able to continue the emancipatory hypothesis, is nothing other than the complete thinking of its destruction” (ibid.). Badiou can say this to the extent that Marxism has always been for him synonymous with political militancy and not social analysis; it is not a doctrine, but “the life of a hypothesis”, and this life can take the form of a protracted process of destruction and recomposition.
40“I call pre-political situation a complex of facts and statements in which the collective involvement of worker and popular singularities is felt, and in which the failure of the regime of the One is discernable”. Peut-on penser la politique?, p. 76.
41Peut-on penser la politique?, pp. 81-2.
42In this sense, though Wood’s arguments, levied against post-Marxism, regarding the evacuation of power and exploitation from its political horizon might be thrown at Badiou, the latter is certainly immune to the devastating conjunctural charge made by Wood against the post-Marxists, or new “true” socialists, to wit: that their “deconstruction” of Marxist metaphysics is functional to an option for ideological battles and alliances focalised around electoral contests, and “the logic of their argument is an electoralist logic” (The Retreat from Class, p. 190). While post-Marxism, with its open sympathies for Austro-Marxism and the second International, signals a definite, if particularly elliptical, option for reform over revolution, Badiou’s “Marxist politics” of the 1980s – and, we could argue, his current thinking and practice – appears entirely indifferent to this alternative. However, such a stance is founded on a drastic separation from the idea of a political “programme” (as a mediation between subjective will and objective transformation) which would render his position deeply inimical to the likes of Wood.
43See Bruno Bosteels, “The Speculative Left”, South Atlantic Quarterly 104, 4, 2005, pp. 751-67. All of Bosteels’ work, and especially his forthcoming book Badiou and Politics (Duke University Press), should be consulted for further insights into the questions sketched out in this paper. See also, for background and analysis, Peter Hallward’s chapter on politics in Badiou: A Subject to Truth, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, as well as his important article on “The Politics of Prescription” in the same issue of SAQ.
44 “L’usine comme site événementiel”, Le Perroquet 62-63, pp. 1 and 4-6.
47 On these terms, and many of the issues having to do with the shifts in Badiou’s thinking, see my article in Prelom No. 6/7.
48 “L’usine comme site événementiel”.
49 “La figure du (re)commencement”, p. 8.
50 At the same time, I think that Badiou’s farewell to political anthropology may be somewhat premature. For an initial statement of this problem, see Nina Power and Alberto Toscano, “Think, Pig!: An Introduction to Badiou’s Beckett”, in Alain Badiou, On Beckett, Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003. See also Nina Power, “What is Generic Humanity?: Badiou and Feuerbach”, Subject Matters vol. 2, No. 1, 2005, pp. 35-46.
51 See “From the State to the World?: Badiou and Anti-capitalism”, Communication and Cognition vol. 37, No. 3/4, 2004, pp. 199-224, also available at: <http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/csisp/papers/toscano_stateToWorld.pdf>.
52 See Kouvelakis, op. cit., as well as Massimiliano Tomba’s “Differentials of Surplus-Value”, Historical Materialism (forthcoming).
53Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, London: Penguin, 1963, chapter 6: “The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure”.
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