Left Forum NYC 2011: Badiou’s Communism

Badiou’s “communism” — a gerontic disorder

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Nayi Duniya (Demarcations journal), co-author of Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation:” A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World, and Bruno Bosteels (Cornell University) at the Left Forum 2011, Pace University, New York, March 19, 2011; and on the panel “Badiou and post-Maoism: Marxism and communism today,” with Mike Ely, Joseph Ramsey and John Steele at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 30, 2011 (audio recording). (An audio recording of the related April 12, 2011 lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, on “The Idea of Communism: Badiou, Althusser and Lacan,” is available.)

Perhaps the most condemnatory thing that could be said of Badiou’s “communism” was something Badiou himself wrote, when he defined “communism” as a “Kantian regulatory idea,” a norm to be aspired to, rather than a concrete reality to be achieved. This not only besmirched the historical Marxist idea of “communism,” but also Kant! For Kant addressed freedom as something that could and should be, not as a utopia. And Marx remained deeply engaged in practical politics. Leon Trotsky wrote, more than a hundred years ago, after the 1905 Russian Revolution (in the 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects), that “Marxism converted socialism into a science, but this does not prevent some ‘Marxists’ from converting Marxism into a Utopia.” Trotsky also wrote that, “[I]n academies . . . it might be possible artificially to detain the proletariat for fifty, a hundred or five hundred years, but in the course of all-round life in capitalist society, on the basis of unceasing class struggle[,] . . . [t]he growth of the consciousness of the proletariat transforms this class struggle, gives it a deeper and more purposeful character.” Trotsky was not a utopian any more than Kant or Marx were.

However, as we know, such “unceasing class struggle” that Trotsky had in mind, which could “transform” the “consciousness of the proletariat” and potentially “give it a deeper and more purposeful character,” is precisely what the world has been missing, for at least a generation. The Marxist vision for proletarian socialism has passed, almost completely into oblivion. Badiou’s late redefinition of “communism” is a response — an adaptation — to this historical reality. Indeed, Trotsky was writing at the crest of 2nd International Marxism, which developed in the period from 1871 to 1917, whose history Badiou deliberately seeks to bury. Badiou characterizes this period, like our own, as an “interval,” in which “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable,” “with the adversary in the ascendant.” What is the basis of Badiou’s judgment of this period, 1871 to 1917, in which, not only did bourgeois society go through its last great flowering, in the Belle Époque, but Marxism flourished as an international workers’ movement, commanding a dedication to socialist revolution by millions in the core capitalist countries? The period between the Paris Commune and the October Revolution was not in any way like ours; it was not cynical, but optimistic in the sense of historical mission and the real potential of human progress. Badiou shares the skepticism that has developed regarding such historical potential. Indeed, we can say that Badiou is typical of the 1960s-era New Left in this regard. Badiou cannot recognize 2nd Intl. Marxism as an advance. Moreover, Badiou is, in Trotsky’s sense, “academic,” despite his avowed intentions. The last thing Badiou imagines is that he has conceded. Badiou’s entire philosophy was developed out of concern for “fidelity,” resisting the apostasies of the 1968 generation in the decades that followed. — The question is, to what does Badiou claim fidelity? Certainly not Marxism.

What has sanctioned Badiou to bury the admittedly obscure history of the first wave of Marxism in the 2nd Intl., today? And why does Badiou find an affinity in our moment with that of the pre-WWI world, which otherwise seems so unlikely? In certain respects, Badiou is rather optimistic in finding such an affinity, hoping that today we are in a period of preparation for the realization of more radical social transformation — “revolution” — down the road. Badiou thus tries to keep fidelity to “the revolution” in his estimation of the present. But which “revolution?” Badiou is clear that his model for revolution is May 1968 in France and the contemporaneous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Presumably, in the latter case, this means a commitment to Mao and “Marxism-Leninism.” But, beneath this, there is a certain unmistakable pessimism to the characterization of the formative era of Lenin’s Marxism in the 2nd Intl., as being, like ours, one of conservative reaction. — Was the growth of Marxism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries really a retreat, after the defeat of the Paris Commune? Or, has Badiou mistaken one revolution for another? Badiou has maintained fidelity, not to “communism,” in Marx’s sense, but rather to “democracy,” that is, the eternal bourgeois revolution. It is thus significant that Badiou dates modern communism, not to Marx in 1848, but to the Jacobins in 1792. This obscures the history that came between.

The truth is that Badiou’s “communism” is deeply anti-Marxist. Not merely non-Marxist, in the sense of what it tends to leave out, but actually hostile to historical Marxism. Perhaps this is unremarkable. Perhaps it is not a problem in itself. But it may bear some inquiry into the potential consequences that might flow from this. Perhaps Badiou is quietly acknowledging that Marxism may have become an obstacle to the kind of social change that, in his estimation, is possible and desirable — and necessary. That is a real question. Does Marxism speak to the needs of the present? But to consider this — to consider what Badiou may have to offer as an alternative to Marxism — we must address what Badiou means by “communism.”

Badiou defines communism as “radical democratic equality.” The “hypothesis” that motivates communism, according to Badiou, is 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. . . . [A] different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. . . . 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.


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. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.

However, the potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognized in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism. Marx’s thought and politics are not continuous with the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome or the teachings of the Apostles — or with the radical egalitarianism of the Protestants or the Jacobins. So what was Marx’s distinct contribution? As Marx put it, “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.” This was because, according to Marx, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property.” Marx was not the preeminent communist of his time but rather its critic, seeking to push it further. The best Marxists who followed, such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, similarly sought to push their respective political movement of “revolutionary social democracy” in the 2nd Intl. further. In so doing, they revealed and grappled with the form of capital of their moment in history, what they called “imperialism,” seeking to make it into capital’s “highest” and last stage, the eve of revolution. Badiou, by contrast, addresses inequality as a timeless, perennial problem. He thus departs fundamentally from Marx and Marxism, and liquidates the revolution of capital.

Badiou conceives of the relation between freedom and equality as an ontological one, in the mathematical terms of set theory, transhistoricizing it. Badiou’s background is in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent New Left-era thinkers — and former students of Louis Althusser — such as Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency. Althusser took great inspiration from Mao in China and Lenin in Russia for advancing the possibility of emancipation against a passive expectancy of automatic evolution in the historical process of capital. For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology. Badiou does not conceive of the transformation of the capitalist mode of production that would allow for overcoming the socially pernicious aspects of specifically capitalist forms of inequality. By contrast, Marx looked forward to the potential for overcoming the conditions of possibility for the reproduction of capitalist class dynamics in the mode of production itself: capital’s overcoming of the need to accumulate the value of surplus labor-time. Marx saw the historical potential to overcome this socially mediating aspect of labor, expressed, for instance, in automated machine production. However, Marx also foresaw that, short of socialism, the drive to accumulate surplus-value results in producing a surplus population, an “industrial reserve army” of potential “workers” who thus remain vulnerable to exploitation. A politics based only in their “democratic” discontents can result, not in the overcoming of the social need for labor, but in the (capitalist) demand for more labor, the demand to be put to work. Or, as Max Horkheimer, director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, put it, machines “have made not work but the workers superfluous.” Marx anticipated this when he warned that realization of the socialist demand to abolish “private property” would (merely) make society as a whole into one giant capitalist dominating its members. Marx even went so far as to analogize this with socialist calls to abolish marriage as a “bourgeois” institution, which he said would result only in universal prostitution — indeed, that capitalism was already bringing this about.

For Marx, elimination of a separate capitalist class would not in itself be emancipatory unless a transformation in the “mode of production” and its social relations came about. Marx did not think that the capitalists were the cause, but the effect of capital, calling them its “character masks.” Nonetheless, Marx endorsed, however critically, the traditional socialist demand to abolish private property and “expropriate the expropriators,” regarding this as a necessary first step: necessary, but not sufficient, to realize a society beyond the mode of production and social relations of capital. As Lenin underscored this, in The State and Revolution, on the eve of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, such social relations of bourgeois society, namely, the mutual exchange of labor as the form of social solidarity in capital, could only be transformed gradually and thus “wither away,” and not be abolished and replaced at a stroke. The proletarian socialist revolution was supposed to open the door to this transformation. But, since then, the history of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions showed another potential, that is, the reconstitution of capital, under the guise of “socialism.” Marx had already foreseen such a possibility in the limited consciousness of his socialist and communist contemporaries of the 19th century, and he criticized them “ruthlessly” for this. Marx and Lenin recognized a problem in “socialism” itself that their supposed followers have neglected or avoided.

All this remains hidden to Badiou. But it was precisely this Marxist approach to capital as a “mode of production,” or form of society, that distinguishes Marx from other socialists or communists, and motivated revolutionaries who followed Marx, such as Lenin, maintaining that Marxism pursued the possibility of overcoming capital “on the basis of capitalism” itself. Badiou situates emancipatory possibilities rather atavistically, in a pre-historical ontology, to which the philosophy of mathematics — for instance, the question of “number and numbers” (the title of one of his books) — can be an adequate guide. For Badiou, in a procedure that recalls a self-criticism session or assembly at a “reeducation” camp, matter itself, in its open-ended recombinations, poses the solution to what Marx called “communism,” the “riddle of history.” Each element must be broken down to its radical potentiality for permutation — for instance, in the Maoist “revolutionary people,” for emancipatory change to take place. It is not for nothing that Badiou conceives of revolution not as a process but an event, or, that his conception of “process” is founded on a conception of the “event.” On the other hand, Badiou finds Marxists such as Lenin (and Marx himself) conceding to the existing social hierarchies and thus betraying the “idea of communism,” for instance in the party-state, which Badiou regards in retrospect as a “failed experiment.” Thus, Badiou.

What of Marx and Marxism? Marx distinguished capitalist inequality from that of the traditional caste system that had characterized civilization for millennia before the emergence of bourgeois society in the post-Renaissance world. As Adorno pointed out, to call all of history the “history of class struggles” was to indict all of (“recorded”) history, and to thus consign it to the mere “pre-history” of authentic humanity. But this humanity was itself historically specific, and emergent — to the era of capital. Just as traditional inequality was not the cause of the form of community that the ancients regarded as being divine in origin, capitalist inequality was not the cause but the effect, the product of the cosmos of capital. Marx’s magnum opus, Capital, explored how the post-Industrial Revolution society of capital produced a new form of inequality, between capitalist and worker, but one liable to be cast and responded to in the form of the original Revolt of the Third Estate that had ushered in modern bourgeois society in the 17th and 18th centuries. Marx found an important disparity — a self-contradiction — to have developed between the political aspirations of the subjects of capital, for “social democracy,” and the potential of capital to go beyond bourgeois society and its forms of politics — liberalism and democracy. This did not make Marx and those who followed him illiberal or anti-democratic, but they did regard liberalism and democracy — the combined libertarian and social-egalitarian impulses in modern politics — as means and not ends in and of themselves. This is because they regarded capitalism itself as a process and not merely a state of being. Marx and his best followers, such as Lenin, looked forward not merely to more liberalism and more democracy, but to the potential transcendence of the need for both liberalism and democracy, an “end” to politics as presently practiced. But not all at once, and not by denying them in the present. Capital is not an eternal event of inequality that needs to be met with the event of revolution. Badiou does not deny liberalism and democracy, but rather unconsciously reaffirms their present, bourgeois forms, at a deeper and more obscure level. Badiou’s ontology of “radical egalitarian democracy,” provides not a critical recognition, but a philosophical affirmation of the way bourgeois society already proceeds, however contradictorily. Badiou mystifies.

The challenge is to recognize the symptomatic character of liberalism and democracy in the crisis of capital, as it had developed in the 19th century, setting the stage for the history that came later. But such symptomology was not to be “cured” in the sense of elimination, but rather undergone and worked through — as Nietzsche put it, modernity is an “illness, but the way pregnancy is an illness,” bringing forth new life. The problem, as Marx recognized it, was that, by the mid-19th century, when bourgeois society entered into crisis, after the Industrial Revolution, and became “proletarianized,” humanity faced a situation in which, as Engels later described it, the capitalists were no longer and the workers not yet able to master the society of capital. Marx regarded this as the source of the authoritarianism of the modern, capitalist (nation-)state, despite the promises of classical bourgeois liberalism for a minimal state and a free, cosmopolitan civil society that would, for instance, reduce legislatures to, at most, sites of public debate and political recognition of social facts already accomplished on the ground — what Kant, for one, expected. But the bourgeoisie could no longer and the proletariat not yet rule modern society. The genie of capital had been let loose. The historical task of emancipating humanity had thus fallen from the bourgeois to the proletarian members of society. Marxists have recognized that this is the situation in which the world has remained stuck ever since then — ever since the failed “social democratic” Revolutions of 1848, on the eve of which Marx and Engels had published their inaugural Manifesto. For Marx, the demand for “social democracy” was part of the history of capital, to be worked through “immanently” and transcended. But none of this registers for Badiou. Marx marked a potential turning point for humanity; he was not merely one in a chain of prophets reaching back for thousands of years. He was thinker and political actor for our, modern time.

The cost of liquidating the specific history of capital — its peculiar constraint on society and its potential beyond itself — is Badiou’s reduction of “communism” to the perennial complaint of the subaltern, the millennial dream of social equality, as a specter haunting the world that has more in common with eschatological “justice,” posed by religion at the end of time, than with the pathology of the modern, bourgeois world of capital, in which humanity actually suffers today. We must awaken from this nightmare — the vain wish that things be otherwise — of the oppressed. For we are not only oppressed, but tasked by capital.

Nevertheless, the failure of historical Marxism has made Badiou an evidently adequate symptomatic expression of our time — its confusion and diminished expectations, well shy of the epochal transformation that had motivated Marx and the best Marxists, historically. We must remember Marxism, so we can forget Badiou: forget the time that made such ideology — such naturalization, indeed ontologization — of defeat so appealing, and finally consign it, where it belongs, to pre-history. | §

7 Responses to “Left Forum NYC 2011: Badiou’s Communism”

  1. Matthew Cole says:

    I would contend that we should rather forget marxism, so we can have a truly revolutionary politics that is relevant to the present situation and not clouded by a failed post-marxism. The whole point of Badiou’s project is to break with past Marxisms. You are right to point out all the differences between Marx and his philosophy of communism –and I’m sure he would agree with you. However, I think Badiou is one of the best thinkers of the communist project today and his work — in both the concrete via L’Organisation politique as well as his academic treatises — is more pertinent to the “modern, bourgeois world of capital” than any of the outdated [though extremely important] thinkers of the Frankfurt School or Badiou’s teacher own Althusser. I think we must think the future of communism [as a movement forward from past marxisms], rather than getting lost in all the experiments of the 19th and 20th century.

    Wish I could have attended this conference. The panel is stacked with thinkers. I’ll check out the audio. I’m interested in Bosteel’s response. Not so much the RCP though. Bob Avakin avowed Maoism is tired.


  2. Unfortunately, Matthew, we don’t have an audio recording of the Left Forum panel, but only from the Platypus convention, with speakers from Kasama — I wish we did have the Left Forum recording, precisely for the exchange with Bosteels. Bosteels’s point was that the earlier Badiou (of Theory of the Subject) is more interesting, politically as well as intellectually, than the later, and therefore it was a mistake (for me) to reduce Badiou to his later work. — The other audio recording is from a lecture I gave on Badiou, Lacan and Althusser, which you may find helpful for my critique of what I think is a fundamentally mistaken (and anti-Marxist) trajectory leading to Badiou.

  3. […] Project did an fascinating panel dealing with Post-Maoism and Badiou.  It primarily dealt with Chris Cutrone’s critique of Badiou. Three Kasama Project comrades then commented.  It’s an excellent panel that is very much […]

  4. […] brings me to Badiou: thinkers that I quite like such as Chris Cutrone and thinkers I don’t respect at all, such as RCP, have called Badiou out on his Post-Maoism […]

  5. […] Write-up of first part of the presentation, “Badiou’s ‘communism’ — a … […]

  6. mistake says:

    You don’t reduce Badiou to his latest work. You reduce him to an equivocal passage of “The Idea of Communism” which touches upon themes he doesn’t have a stable line on (on The Communist Hypothesis, for example, he takes back communism being a regulative idea and puts forth ideology being that which has to do with an Idea, which he subsequently took back.) I have to say that the relationship between Badiou and Marxism is a strange one. In “Peut-on penser la politique?” he seems to abandon Marxism. But later he seems to take Marx up again. He is not clear on this and has shifted positions many times. But something is clear: on his “later work”, meaning “Being and Event”, there is plenty of evidence against Badiou being an ahistorical structuralist.

    I agree that on fidelity we need some Maoist anti-hermeneutics (paradoxically of the kind Badiou himself developed in Theory of the Subject): fidelity needs to be split into a left-wing fidelity and a right-wing fidelity. To read communism as an eternal structural position which has been filled by different things in different times is a right-wing reading. Now, by talking of eternal invariants Badiou seems to be making a right-wing use of his own theories, but he doesn’t do this, for example, in “The Factory as Event-Site” nor on “Being and Event” itself – events appear in sites, sites are particular to every historical situation and an intervention (a concrete, historically situated intervention) is needed to produce new meaning. Interventions are always authorised by previous interventions BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN that they are a single structure – instead it means that you’re weaving a subjective history. It is foolish to claim that the intervention of communism in 1848 is not authorised by the Jacobins, what with Marx writing letters to people he addresed as “citizen” and not as “mister”, and in this sense we can speak of continuity – however, the extent and relevance of this continuity should not be elevated to eternal forms which, I claim, is incompatible with the triad of event-site-intervention (but not with the negligent reading for whom only event exists – the absence of any mention of site and intervention or Part V of Being and Event while denouncing Badiou as an ahistorical, platonising structuralist, is quite negligent.)

    How, besides, the clearly avant-guardist notions of fidelity and intervention (the same ones through which a continuity is artificially and historically, very important point you seem to miss completely, established between the Jacobins and the workers of the Commune) are compatible at all with bourgeois forms of equality and liberalism is beyond me.

    From the fact that subordination has lasted for millenia it does not follw that subordination is eternal: not for you and not for Badiou, I think.

    Actually I think any talk of the unattainable or the unsurpassable is actually proof of Badiou’s fidelity to Marxism, of the Maoist brand, and quite determined by Zizek’s critique of Mao, where he mobilises the theme of bad infinity. The problem goes as follows: Badiou is trying to conceptualise revolutions as permanent, struggle as perpetual, against a teleological vision of history where a moment without contradiction would be possible (remember Mao’s centrist solution: “under communism there is contradiction but no antagonism”.) You sort of need a structure which entails the withering away of the state, but somehow you need to think how through all the changes, including the final jump into communism, a communist fidelity can go on (whether this is under different, historical, forms is beside the point.) Any Marxist revolution, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, has explored this theme.

  7. Like many others, I came to Badiou late, very late, starting with Being and Event and Logics of Worlds, before finally arriving at the latest, The Communist Hypothesis. Only after reading Being and Event etc. did I get around to reading Theory of the Subject, and I agree it is more interesting — but also more simply Lacanian!

    Is my reading thus “negligent?” I don’t think so. I wasn’t trying to address Badiou comprehensively but rather in his articulation of post-Maoist post-Marxist neo-communism. And polemically. Badiou doesn’t require and is not improved by either Zizek’s explanation or critique.

    I was not trying to condemn Badiou for expressing fidelity not to the Marxist historical self-consciousness of communism but to the bourgeois revolution. Rather, I was trying to demonstrate something unconscious that could be redeemed by making it conscious.

    As I have written elsewhere, in “Chinoiserie,” the issue is the historical transformation of the bourgeois revolution after the crisis of bourgeois emancipation, with its social solidarity of labor, in the Industrial Revolution, which Badiou, among many, many others, neglects.

    In the 20th century, ostensibly “Marxist” Communism — Stalinism — expressed what Marx called “reactionary attempts to hold back bourgeois development” and “the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.” So does Badiou.

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