Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Communist Invariant

by Alain Badiou, New Left Review, January 2008

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, 'communist' means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.

'Communism' as such denotes only this very general set of intellectual representations. It is what Kant called an Idea, with a regulatory function, rather than a programme. It is foolish to call such communist principles utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion. As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. 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.

What remains is to determine the point at which we now find ourselves in the history of the communist hypothesis. A fresco of the modern period would show two great sequences in its development, with a forty-year gap between them. The first is that of the setting in place of the communist hypothesis; the second, of preliminary attempts at its realization. The first sequence runs from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune; let us say, 1792 to 1871. It links the popular mass movement to the seizure of power, through the insurrectional overthrow of the existing order; this revolution will abolish the old forms of society and install 'the community of equals'. In the course of the century, the formless popular movement made up of townsfolk, artisans and students came increasingly under the leadership of the working class. The sequence culminated in the striking novelty—and radical defeat—of the Paris Commune. For the Commune demonstrated both the extraordinary energy of this combination of popular movement, working-class leadership and armed insurrection, and its limits: the communards could neither establish the revolution on a national footing nor defend it against the foreign-backed forces of the counter-revolution.

The second sequence of the communist hypothesis runs from 1917 to 1976: from the Bolshevik Revolution to the end of the Cultural Revolution and the militant upsurge throughout the world during the years 1966–75. It was dominated by the question: how to win? How to hold out—unlike the Paris Commune—against the armed reaction of the possessing classes; how to organize the new power so as to protect it against the onslaught of its enemies? It was no longer a question of formulating and testing the communist hypothesis, but of realizing it: what the 19th century had dreamt, the 20th would accomplish. The obsession with victory, centred around questions of organization, found its principal expression in the 'iron discipline' of the communist party—the characteristic construction of the second sequence of the hypothesis. The party effectively solved the question inherited from the first sequence: the revolution prevailed, either through insurrection or prolonged popular war, in Russia, China, Czechoslovakia, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and succeeded in establishing a new order.

But the second sequence in turn created a further problem, which it could not solve using the methods it had developed in response to the problems of the first. The party had been an appropriate tool for the overthrow of weakened reactionary regimes, but it proved ill-adapted for the construction of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in the sense that Marx had intended—that is, a temporary state, organizing the transition to the non-state: its dialectical 'withering away'. Instead, the party-state developed into a new form of authoritarianism. Some of these regimes made real strides in education, public health, the valorization of labour, and so on; and they provided an international constraint on the arrogance of the imperialist powers. However, the statist principle in itself proved corrupt and, in the long run, ineffective. Police coercion could not save the 'socialist' state from internal bureaucratic inertia; and within fifty years it was clear that it would never prevail in the ferocious competition imposed by its capitalist adversaries. The last great convulsions of the second sequence—the Cultural Revolution and May 68, in its broadest sense—can be understood as attempts to deal with the inadequacy of the party.


Between the end of the first sequence and the beginning of the second there was a forty-year interval during which the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable: the decades from 1871 to 1914 saw imperialism triumphant across the globe. Since the second sequence came to an end in the 1970s we have been in another such interval, with the adversary in the ascendant once more. What is at stake in these circumstances is the eventual opening of a new sequence of the communist hypothesis. But it is clear that this will not be—cannot be—the continuation of the second one. Marxism, the workers' movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state—all the inventions of the 20th century—are not really useful to us any more. At the theoretical level they certainly deserve further study and consideration; but at the level of practical politics they have become unworkable. The second sequence is over and it is pointless to try to restore it.

At this point, during an interval dominated by the enemy, when new experiments are tightly circumscribed, it is not possible to say with certainty what the character of the third sequence will be. But the general direction seems discernible: it will involve a new relation between the political movement and the level of the ideological—one that was prefigured in the expression 'cultural revolution' or in the May 68 notion of a 'revolution of the mind'. We will still retain the theoretical and historical lessons that issued from the first sequence, and the centrality of victory that issued from the second. But the solution will be neither the formless, or multi-form, popular movement inspired by the intelligence of the multitude—as Negri and the alter-globalists believe—nor the renewed and democratized mass communist party, as some of the Trotskyists and Maoists hope. The (19th-century) movement and the (20th-century) party were specific modes of the communist hypothesis; it is no longer possible to return to them. Instead, after the negative experiences of the 'socialist' states and the ambiguous lessons of the Cultural Revolution and May 68, our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode, to help it emerge within new forms of political experience. This is why our work is so complicated, so experimental. We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere.

What might this involve? Experimentally, we might conceive of finding a point that would stand outside the temporality of the dominant order and what Lacan once called 'the service of wealth'. Any point, so long as it is in formal opposition to such service, and offers the discipline of a universal truth. One such might be the declaration: 'There is only one world'. What would this imply? Contemporary capitalism boasts, of course, that it has created a global order; its opponents too speak of 'alter-globalization'. Essentially, they propose a definition of politics as a practical means of moving from the world as it is to the world as we would wish it to be. But does a single world of human subjects exist? The 'one world' of globalization is solely one of things—objects for sale—and monetary signs: the world market as foreseen by Marx. The overwhelming majority of the population have at best restricted access to this world. They are locked out, often literally so.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signal the advent of the single world of freedom and democracy. Twenty years later, it is clear that the world's wall has simply shifted: instead of separating East and West it now divides the rich capitalist North from the poor and devastated South. New walls are being constructed all over the world: between Palestinians and Israelis, between Mexico and the United States, between Africa and the Spanish enclaves, between the pleasures of wealth and the desires of the poor, whether they be peasants in villages or urban dwellers in favelas, banlieues, estates, hostels, squats and shantytowns. The price of the supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human existence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. The 'problem of immigration' is, in reality, the fact that the conditions faced by workers from other countries provide living proof that—in human terms—the 'unified world' of globalization is a sham.

A performative unity

The political problem, then, has to be reversed. We cannot start from an analytic agreement on the existence of the world and proceed to normative action with regard to its characteristics. The disagreement is not over qualities but over existence. Confronted with the artificial and murderous division of the world into two—a disjunction named by the very term, 'the West'—we must affirm the existence of the single world right from the start, as axiom and principle. The simple phrase, 'there is only one world', is not an objective conclusion. It is performative: we are deciding that this is how it is for us. Faithful to this point, it is then a question of elucidating the consequences that follow from this simple declaration.

A first consequence is the recognition that all belong to the same world as myself: the African worker I see in the restaurant kitchen, the Moroccan I see digging a hole in the road, the veiled woman looking after children in a park. That is where we reverse the dominant idea of the world united by objects and signs, to make a unity in terms of living, acting beings, here and now. These people, different from me in terms of language, clothes, religion, food, education, exist exactly as I do myself; since they exist like me, I can discuss with them—and, as with anyone else, we can agree and disagree about things. But on the precondition that they and I exist in the same world.

At this point, the objection about cultural difference will be raised: 'our' world is made up of those who accept 'our' values—democracy, respect for women, human rights. Those whose culture is contrary to this are not really part of the same world; if they want to join it they have to share our values, to 'integrate'. As Sarkozy put it: 'If foreigners want to remain in France, they have to love France; otherwise, they should leave.' But to place conditions is already to have abandoned the principle, 'there is only one world of living men and women'. It may be said that we need to take the laws of each country into account. Indeed; but a law does not set a precondition for belonging to the world. It is simply a provisional rule that exists in a particular region of the single world. And no one is asked to love a law, simply to obey it. The single world of living women and men may well have laws; what it cannot have is subjective or 'cultural' preconditions for existence within it—to demand that you have to be like everyone else. The single world is precisely the place where an unlimited set of differences exist. Philosophically, far from casting doubt on the unity of the world, these differences are its principle of existence.

The question then arises whether anything governs these unlimited differences. There may well be only one world, but does that mean that being French, or a Moroccan living in France, or Muslim in a country of Christian traditions, is nothing? Or should we see the persistence of such identities as an obstacle? The simplest definition of 'identity' is the series of characteristics and properties by which an individual or a group recognizes itself as its 'self'. But what is this 'self'? It is that which, across all the characteristic properties of identity, remains more or less invariant. It is possible, then, to say that an identity is the ensemble of properties that support an invariance. For example, the identity of an artist is that by which the invariance of his or her style can be recognized; homosexual identity is composed of everything bound up with the invariance of the possible object of desire; the identity of a foreign community in a country is that by which membership of this community can be recognized: language, gestures, dress, dietary habits, etc.

Defined in this way, by invariants, identity is doubly related to difference: on the one hand, identity is that which is different from the rest; on the other, it is that which does not become different, which is invariant. The affirmation of identity has two further aspects. The first form is negative. It consists of desperately maintaining that I am not the other. This is often indispensable, in the face of authoritarian demands for integration, for example. The Moroccan worker will forcefully affirm that his traditions and customs are not those of the petty-bourgeois European; he will even reinforce the characteristics of his religious or customary identity. The second involves the immanent development of identity within a new situation—rather like Nietzsche's famous maxim, 'become what you are'. The Moroccan worker does not abandon that which constitutes his individual identity, whether socially or in the family; but he will gradually adapt all this, in a creative fashion, to the place in which he finds himself. He will thus invent what he is—a Moroccan worker in Paris—not through any internal rupture, but by an expansion of identity.

The political consequences of the axiom, 'there is only one world', will work to consolidate what is universal in identities. An example—a local experiment—would be a meeting held recently in Paris, where undocumented workers and French nationals came together to demand the abolition of persecutory laws, police raids and expulsions; to demand that foreign workers be recognized simply in terms of their presence: that no one is illegal; all demands that are very natural for people who are basically in the same existential situation—people of the same world.

Time and courage

'In such great misfortune, what remains to you?' Corneille's Medea is asked by her confidante. 'Myself! Myself, I say, and it is enough', comes the reply. What Medea retains is the courage to decide her own fate; and courage, I would suggest, is the principal virtue in face of the disorientation of our own times. Lacan also raises the issue in discussing the analytical cure for depressive debility: should this not end in grand dialectical discussions on courage and justice, on the model of Plato's dialogues? In the famous 'Dialogue on Courage', General Laches, questioned by Socrates, replies: 'Courage is when I see the enemy and run towards him to engage him in a fight.' Socrates is not particularly satisfied with this, of course, and gently takes the General to task: 'It's a good example of courage, but an example is not a definition.' Running the same risks as General Laches, I will give my definition.

First, I would retain the status of courage as a virtue—that is, not an innate disposition, but something that constructs itself, and which one constructs, in practice. Courage, then, is the virtue which manifests itself through endurance in the impossible. This is not simply a matter of a momentary encounter with the impossible: that would be heroism, not courage. Heroism has always been represented not as a virtue but as a posture: as the moment when one turns to meet the impossible face to face. The virtue of courage constructs itself through endurance within the impossible; time is its raw material. What takes courage is to operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world. The point we are seeking must be one that can connect to another order of time. Those imprisoned within the temporality assigned us by the dominant order will always be prone to exclaim, as so many Socialist Party henchmen have done, 'Twelve years of Chirac, and now we have to wait for another round of elections. Seventeen years; perhaps twenty-two; a whole lifetime!' At best, they will become depressed and disorientated; at worst, rats.

In many respects we are closer today to the questions of the 19th century than to the revolutionary history of the 20th. A wide variety of 19th-century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening inequalities, politics dissolved into the 'service of wealth', the nihilism of large sections of the young, the servility of much of the intelligentsia; the cramped, besieged experimentalism of a few groups seeking ways to express the communist hypothesis . . . Which is no doubt why, as in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence. This is our task, during the reactionary interlude that now prevails: through the combination of thought processes—always global, or universal, in character—and political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible, to renew the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and on the ground.