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The Courage of the Present

By Alain Badiou

We reproduce this recent essay by the French radical philosopher Alain Badiou because of its thoughts about the times in which we’re living and about the “communist hypothesis,” which are not just relevant to people in France. As always, signed articles on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or publisher (in particular, New Socialist does not share Badiou’s belief that the USSR, Mao’s China and similar societies were socialist) -NS

For almost thirty years, the present, in our country, has been a disoriented time. I mean a time that does not offer its youth, especially the youth of the popular classes, any principle to orient existence. What is the precise character of this disorientation? One of its foremost operations consists in always making illegible the previous sequence, that sequence which was well and truly oriented. This operation is characteristic of all reactive, counter-revolutionary periods, like the one we’ve been living through ever since the end of the seventies. We can for example note that the key feature of the Thermidorean reaction, after the plot of 9 Thermidor and the execution without trial of the Jacobin leaders, was to make illegible the previous Robespierrean sequence: its reduction to the pathology of some blood-thirsty criminals impeded any political understanding. This view of things lasted for decades, and it aimed lastingly to disorient the people, which was considered to be, as it always is, potentially revolutionary.

To make a period illegible is much more than to simply condemn it. One of the effects of illegibility is to make it impossible to find in the period in question the very principles capable of remedying its impasses. If the period is declared to be pathological, nothing can be extracted from it for the sake of orientation, and the conclusion, whose pernicious effects confront us every day, is that one must resign oneself to disorientation as a lesser evil. Let us therefore pose, with regard to a previous and visibly closed sequence of the politics of emancipation, that it must remain legible for us, independently of the final judgment about it.

In the debate concerning the rationality of the French Revolution during the Third Republic, Clemenceau produced a famous formula: ‘The French Revolution forms a bloc’. This formula is noteworthy because it declares the integral legibility of the process, whatever the tragic vicissitudes of its unfolding may have been. Today, it is clear that it is with reference to communism that the ambient discourse transforms the previous sequence into an opaque pathology. I take it upon myself therefore to say that the communist sequence, including all of its nuances, in power as well as in opposition, which lay claim to the same idea, also forms a bloc.

So what can the principle and the name of a genuine orientation be today? I propose that we call it, faithfully to the history of the politics of emancipation, the communist hypothesis. 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 seventy years of stumbling steps, violence and impasses! Truth be told, the communist idea has only traversed an infinitesimal portion of the time of its verification, of its effectuation. What is this hypothesis? It can be summed up in three axioms.

First, the idea of equality. The prevalent pessimistic idea, which once again dominates our time, is that human nature is destined to inequality; that it’s of course a shame that this is so, but that once we’ve shed a few tears about this, it is crucial to grasp this and accept it. To this view, the communist idea responds not exactly with the proposal of equality as a programme – let us realize the deep-seated equality immanent to human nature – but by declaring that the egalitarian principle allows us to distinguish, in every collective action, that which is in keeping with the communist hypothesis, and therefore possesses a real value, from that which contradicts it, and thus throws us back to an animal vision of humanity.

Then we have the conviction that the existence of a separate coercive state is not necessary. This is the thesis, shared by anarchists and communists, of the withering-away of the state. There have existed societies without the state, and it is rational to postulate that there may be others in the future. But above all, it is possible to organize popular political action without subordinating it to the idea of power, representation within the state, elections, etc. The liberating constraint of organized action can be exercised outside the state. There are many examples of this, including recent ones: the unexpected power of the movement of December 1995 delayed by several years anti-popular measures on pensions. The militant action of undocumented workers did not stop a host of despicable laws, but it has made it possible for these workers to be recognized as a part of our collective and political life.

A final axiom: the organization of work does not imply its division, the specialization of tasks, and in particular the oppressive differentiation between intellectual and manual labour. It is necessary and possible to aim for the essential polymorphousness of human labour. This is the material basis of the disappearance of classes and social hierarchies. These three principles do not constitute a programme; they are maxims of orientation, which anyone can use as a yardstick to evaluate what he or she says and does, personally or collectively, in its relation to the communist hypothesis.

The communist hypothesis has known two great stages, and I propose that we’re entering into a third phase of its existence. The communist hypothesis established itself on a vast scale between the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune (1871). The dominant themes then were those of the workers’ movement and insurrection. Then there was a long interval, lasting almost forty years (from 1871 to 1905), which corresponds to the apex of European imperialism and the systematic plunder of numerous regions of the planet. The sequence that goes from 1905 to 1976 (Cultural Revolution in China) is the second sequence of the effectuation of the communist hypothesis. Its dominant theme is the theme of the party, accompanied by its main (and unquestionable) slogan: discipline is the only weapon of those who have nothing. From 1976 to today, there is a second period of reactive stabilization, a period in which we still live, during which we have witnessed the collapse of the single-party socialist dictatorships created in the second sequence.

I am convinced that a third historical sequence of the communist hypothesis will inevitably open up, different from the two previous ones, but paradoxically closer to the first than the second. This sequence will share with the sequence that prevailed in the nineteenth century that fact that what is at stake in it is the very existence of the communist hypothesis, which today is almost universally denied. It is possible to define what, along with others, I am attempting as preliminary efforts aimed at the reestablishment of the communist hypothesis and the deployment of its third epoch.

What we need, in these early days of the third sequence of existence of the communist hypothesis, is a provisional morality for a disoriented time. It’s a matter of minimally maintaining a consistent subjective figure, without being able to rely on the communist hypothesis, which has yet to be re-established on a grand scale. It is necessary to find a real point to hold, whatever the cost, an ‘impossible’ point that cannot be inscribed in the law of the situation. We must hold a real point of this type and organize its consequences.

The living proof that our societies are obviously in-human is today the foreign undocumented worker: he is the sign, immanent to our situation, that there is only one world. To treat the foreign proletarian as though he came from another world, that is indeed the specific task of the ‘home office’ (ministère de l’identité nationale), which has its own police force (the ‘border police’). To affirm, against this apparatus of the state, that any undocumented worker belongs to the same world as us, and to draw the practical, egalitarian and militant consequences of this – that is an example of a type of provisional morality, a local orientation in keeping with the communist hypothesis, amid the global disorientation which only its reestablishment will be able to counter.

The principal virtue that we need is courage. This is not always the case: in other circumstances, other virtues may have priority. For instance, during the revolutionary war in China, Mao promoted patience as the cardinal virtue. But today, it is undeniably courage. Courage is the virtue that manifests itself, without regard for the laws of the world, by the endurance of the impossible. It’s a question of holding the impossible point without needing to account for the whole of the situation: courage, to the extent that it’s a matter of treating the point as such, is a local virtue. It partakes of a morality of the place, and its horizon is the slow reestablishment of the communist hypothesis.

Originally published in Le Monde, 13 February 2010. Translated by Alberto Toscano. Reproduced here from Infinite Thought


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