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Monday, July 01, 2013

Alain Badiou: Friend or fad?


One of the rising stars of the French philosophical left is Alain Badiou, the communist philosopher and professor of the European Graduate School, whose works have been incorporated into Auckland University's sociology courses for undergraduates and postgraduates, primarily by Associate Professor Campbell Jones, a leading figure in the campus left who was also a spokesperson for Occupy Auckland during the spring of 2011.

Yet for those left militants outside the sociology and politics departments of the academy, the work of Badiou, is almost unheard of. His concepts, his philosophy and his methods remain little understood despite one reviewers high praise, 'Badiou has a rare talent among philosophers for making accessible political interventions in wider society.' Therefore his growing popularity within academic and campus Marxist currents forces us to grapple with the question; is Alain Badiou a friend of the revolutionary socialist tradition or just the latest in a line of intellectual fads that periodically washes through the lecture halls and tutorial rooms of the university? This article first critically reviews Badiou's idea of the Event and secondly examines the Maoist/Situationist praxis of Badiou and his followers.

What is an Event?
Key to the thought of Alain Badiou is the Event, which is succinctly detailed by the critical theory scholar Colin Wright in an interview for the New Left Project website,
The connection between ‘subject’ and ‘event’ is probably the most complex but original aspects of Badiou’s philosophy, and it’s very difficult to go in to it without talking about his ontology (which there’s no question of doing here). However, it boils down to something like this. An event is something that happens for which there is no precedent, which is completely unpredictable, and which can’t be explained using the given forms of knowledge. In particular, an event is something the State can’t make sense of. However, this also means that it’s very easy for an event to pass more or less un-noticed. What the event needs is to be given a name, and this helps it to at least be visible in the world, to leave some kind of trace. It is already the subject who gives this anomalous event a name, because even though the subject, like everyone else, has no way of knowing what the event has been or rather could be, the subject is the one that wagers on the idea that it can have some far-reaching consequences which it commits to realising. So the storming of the Bastille, for example, could of course be seen as a riotous mob merely attacking a symbol of authority, but because that incident and the ones leading up to it took on the name ‘revolution’, militants were able to gather around that name, and commit themselves to egalitarian principles (open to all) which had an enormous impact on France and beyond. By Badiou’s criteria then, we can call the French Revolution an event. Its subjects were those who tried to pursue as far as possible the implications of the idea that all men are created equal. One of the most important aspects of Badiou’s theory of the subject, however, is the ease with which subjects lapse back into being individuals, hijacking such movements by turning them into vehicles for their own interests (the bourgeoisie for example).
But for anyone with the most basic historical understanding, the French Revolution fails to meet every single criteria for the event. There was a precedent for the French Revolution, namely the American Revolution. The French Revolution was predicted, by amongst others Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the influential Genevan philosopher who wrote, 'I hold it to be impossible that the great monarchies of Europe still have long to last. All have shined. and every state which shines is on the decline. I have reasons more particular than this maxim for my opinion. but it is unseasonable to tell them and everyone sees them only too well.' And regarding the idea that 'an event is something the State can’t make sense of', one can only say that states are institutions and not people, in themselves institutions cannot make sense of anything. Of course if the rulers of European states and the French artistocracy didn't understand the Revolution then they probably wouldn't have gone to war to attempt to defeat it...

So what has one of Badiou's biggest fans explaining his key concept actually added to our understanding of the French Revolution? In a word, obfuscation. As Socialist Workers Party activist Alex Callinicos told the magazine Philosophy Now in 2002,
In his major philosophical work L’Etre et l’evenement (1988) [Badiou] distinguishes between situations, which exist at the level of being (whose structure in turn is analysed by means of various results in set theory), and events, which do not. The event emerges from a void in the situation, which I take to mean that it cannot be explained through an analysis of the constitutive structures of the situation. The effect is to mystify events – to make them inexplicable. The underlying opposition between structure and event is a long-standing syndrome in contemporary French thought that can be traced back (at least) to Braudel and Levi-Strauss. Classical Marxism offers in my view a superior perspective on change, through the notion of structural contradiction, which traces events back to tensions inherent in the structures themselves – particularly when this concept is supplemented by a theory of individual and collective agency, as I sought to do in Making History (1987).
What Callinicos is saying is basically that events occur and the future unfolds in a way explainable through an understanding of the social, political, economic and environmental structures constraining the historical actors at any given point. Understand the wider context around an Event and one can understand why and how history occurs.

However Badiou himself in a recent book wrote a much simpler definition of an Event,
Definition of the event as what makes possible the restitution of the inexistent is an abstract but incontestable definition, quite simply because the restitution is proclaimed: it is what people are saying in the here and now.
For Badiou the inexistent are those people 'who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future'. Thus the Event appears here to be synonymous with the words uprising, rebellion and insurrection.

In another definition Badiou says,
'I name ‘event’, a rupture in the normal disposition of bodies and normal ways of a particular situation. Or if you want, I name ‘event’ a rupture of the laws of the situation. So, in its very importance, an event is not the realization/variation of a possibility that resides inside the situation. An event is the creation of a new possibility. An event changes not only the real, but also the possible. An event is at the level not of simple possibility, but at the level of possibility of possibility.' 
And if one were to say that everything we do changes the possibility of possibilities, so as to make the concept of Event meaningless, then we may better served looking at what Badiou has characterised as an Event,
Some examples of Events in the political sphere are, for Badiou, the French and Russian Revolutions, and the Cultural Revolution in China. He also cites, among other examples, “the appearance, with Aeschylus, of theatrical Tragedy; the irruption, with Galileo, of mathematical physics; an amorous encounter which changes a whole life,” [2] as well as “the creation of the Topos theory by the mathematician Grothendieck, the creation of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg....” [3]
Here then we find Badiou's Event merely to be a synonym for the word revolution whether we mean scientific, political or artistic.

Praxis - Maoism meets Situationism
What then of Badiou's praxis? How has he sought to not just understand the world but to change it? Firstly Badiou is a prolific writer who has defended important ideas that have been under attack by post-modernists in the university for decades. Badiou's philosophic writings have boldly defended the idea of communism and the idea of truth... 'unlike postmodernists, he defends the notion of "truth". Everyone can have a view of the world, but some opinions are still false.'

Yet in his work The Communist Hypothesis it becomes clear the Badiou's two major political reference points are the May 1968 rebellion which shook France and the Chinese cultural revolution, 1965-76. Of the cultural revolution Badiou says,
It is part of our political history and the basis for the existence of the Maoist current, the only true political creation of the sixties and seventies. I can say 'our', for I was part of it, and in a certain sense, to quote Rimbaud, 'I am there, I am still there.'
Indeed Badiou's main political contribution was as a leading figure in the French L'Organisation Politique (OP) between 1985 and 2007. The OP can be seen as a sort of intellectual halfway house between Maoism and Situationism - it's inteventions in France around the rights of migrant workers, against evictions and for workers' rights characterised by a joy in not having set leaders, central decision making or formal party organisation. Ultra-militancy of rhetoric and action were two other principles of the OP.

Badiou's contemporary activist influence can be seen primarily on the North Atlantic anarcho-autonomist milieu, among whose leading lights has been the French group known now as the Tarnac 9 or Invisible Committee. These folks, heavily influenced by Badiou, are the authors of the super-radical tract The Coming Insurrection and are currently awaiting trial for the sabotage of French high speed train lines.

Yes, Badiou's praxis may incubate the growth of some dedicated insurgents prepared to intervene within political struggles in order to aid them but his theory neglects or rather refutes the key political lesson communists had to learn in the twentieth century - mastery of the united front tactic. Whether or not you define your radical organisation as a party or not, revolutionaries in order to defeat the state or the bosses must work with political forces to their right. As Nick Hewlitt wrote in his book Rethinking Emancipation, 
In an attempt to maintain a sort of revolutionary purity and perhaps out of fear of being tainted with capitulation to either reformist Stalinism or social democracy, Badiou and Ranciere shun virtually all aspects of what might be seen as mainstream political groups, including trade unions which are seen as part of the problem and bound to lead to massive concessions to the status quo. I would suggest that Trotsky's theory of the united front might serve as inspiration for a way out of this dilemma of capitulation versus marginalism.
What is the united front? Put simply it is unity in action,
The united front strategy enables revolutionaries to work alongside and influence the ideas of those who do not fully agree with them. It is not a trick used by revolutionaries to convert reformists to their ideas. It is a vital tactic in struggle, and every victory is a real move forward for the working class.
Without a united front strategy revolutionaries will always be marginalised for the simple fact that the majority of people are not revolutionaries. An expectation that revolutionaries must make a revolution on their own cuts us off from our most important ally in a revolution - the organised working-class whose power is needed to shut down the system and upon whose democracy any socialist society must be built.

Friend or fad?
It is difficult to reconcile the ideas of Alain Badiou with the revolutionary socialist tradition which stretches through Badiou's own Events from the Enrages of the French Revolution to the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution and the Revolutionary Socialists in the Egyptian Revolution. If we are seriously committed to understanding how and why revolutions succeed or fail then we must reject Badiou's idea of the Event and his praxis of revolutionary theory without a united front strategy. Badiou's ideas will no doubt continue to have followers amongst university-based militants but whether these ideas can do more good than harm in the struggles of workers and students, remains to be seen.

-Omar, SA

1 comment:

Dave said...

Lol, he pretty much rejects historic materialism and communism as a science in the bargain. This allows his position of spontaneous action, rather than concrete argument and interaction with the working class and their allies.