Doing politics with Alain Badiou

For my sins I know nothing about Badiou other than he did a hatchet job on Gilles Deleuze after the latter’s death and that he has a very long list of titles on the a.aaaarg site. Earlier this month Badiou penned an  article for Le Monde which Nina Power then posted on her infinite thought blog. It’s called “the courage of the present” and one or two things caught my eye. I’m always on the look-out for ideas as to how we on the radical left should continue the struggle in these difficult times so I was hoping for a few pointers.

Badiou starts by making the point that revolutionary movements are often obliterated or denigrated by the regimes that succeed them and that we should not allow this to happen with state socialism. He says- “let us note in passing that our critics want to scrap the word ‘communism’ under the pretext that an experience with state communism, which lasted seventy years, failed tragically. What a joke! When it’s a question of overthrowing the domination of the rich and the inheritance of power, which have lasted millennia, their objections rest on stumbling steps, violence and impasses!”

This needs some unpacking, the notion that the Soviet Union was a tragic failure is not a joke, it is possible to point to a whole list of failures that were tragic purely in terms of the body count. Collectivisation, which was implemented with the soundest ideological intentions, actually killed millions. The gulags can hardly be described as successful social policy and the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan can’t really be called stumbles. Now we come to the question of state violence which is a serious issue and must be exposed and struggled against wherever it occurs whether that be in the UK today or in the Soviet Union in 1937. My primary objection to the Soviet Union is none of the above but the fact that it didn’t work. In the early days of Glasnost, Gorbachev gave a speech where he pointed out that the capitalist system was more effective than state socialism in raising the living standards of ordinary people. It’s interesting to note that the same point was made in an FT editorial at the height of the recent economic fiasco. I’m more than happy to argue with the FT but reluctant to take on Gorbachev on the subject of state socialism.

Instead of flippantly caricaturing state socialism we need to work out, with a fairly open mind, what exactly went wrong in Russia and China in order to try and find models that are effective in raising living standards without murdering the opposition. My own gut feeling is that we will find that states are ill-equipped to impose a socialist utopia from above and that theory doesn’t always work as it should.

Badiou also urges to hold on to three basic principles- equality, that the existence of a separate coercive state is not necessary and that the organisation of work does not imply its division.

I can’t argue with equality but find it ironic that the second tenet should appropriate the position that Bakunin took when he split from Marx. As for the third, any student of British labour history will point out that getting skilled members of the working class to accept that unskilled workers should get the same money is an impossible task- to apply this principle across the entire workforce would require a very coercive state.

I am therefore disappointed by this piece in that it says nothing original and is dishonest in its attempts to shrug off the failures of state socialism. I was going to read Badiou on Deleuze but now I don’t think I’ll bother.

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