Interview with Alain Badiou
Alain Badiou gave this interview when he attended the "Is a History of the Cultural Revolution Possible?" conference at University of Washington, in February, 2006.
*Note: The interview was commissioned by a Seattle newspaper; the first few answers address readers who might not know Badiou's work. Most of the following questions were prepared by Nicolas Veroli, who could not be present. Diana George conducted the interview.
Q: I'd like to ask you about your political and intellectual trajectory from the mid 60s until today. How have your views about revolutionary politics, Marxism, and Maoism changed since then?
Badiou: During the first years of my political activity, there were two fundamental events. The first was the fight against the colonial war in Algeria at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. I learned during this fight that political conviction is not a question of numbers, of majority. Because at the beginning of the Algerian war, we were really very few against the war. It was a lesson for me; you have to do something when you think it's a necessity, when it's right, without caring about the numbers.
The second event was May 68. During May 68, I learned that we have to organize direct relations between intellectuals and workers. We cannot do that only by the mediation of parties, associations, and so on. We have to directly experience the relation with the political. My interest in Maoism and the Cultural Revolution during the end of 60s and the beginning of the 70s, was this: a political conviction that organizes something like direct relations between intellectuals and workers.
I'll recapitulate, if you like. There were two great lessons: It's my conviction today that political action has to be a process which is a process of principles, convictions, and not of a majority. So there is a practical dimension. And secondly, there is the necessity of direct relations between intellectuals and workers.
That was the beginning, the subjective beginning. In the political field, the correlation with ideologies --Marxism, Cultural Revolution, Maoism and so on -- is subordinate to the subjective conviction that you have to do politics directly, to organize, to be with others, to find a way for principles to exist practically.
Q: What is your idea of fidelity?
Badiou: That's already contained in the first answer. For me, fidelity is fidelity to great events which are constitutive of my political subjectivity. And perhaps there is also something much older, because during the war my father was in the Resistance against the Nazis. Naturally, during the war, he did not say anything about it to me; it was a matter of life and death. But just after the war, I learned that he had been a resistant, that he was really in that experience of resistance against the Nazis. So my fidelity is also a fidelity to my father. At the beginning of that war, very few were in the resistance; after two or three years, there were more. It is the same lesson, if you like, this lesson from my father.
Generally speaking, my fidelity is to two great events: the engagement against the colonial war, and to May 68 and its consequences. Not only the event of May 68 as such, but also its consequences. Fidelity is a practical matter; you have to organize something, to do something. This is the reality of fidelity.
Q: You've said that there has been a rupture, that the entire question of politics is currently in great obscurity. Also, you have written that we must think a politics without party. After the saturation of the class-party experiment, what next?
Badiou: I think a fidelity does not really finish, but sometimes it is saturated; that is my term for it. There is a saturation; you cannot find anything new in the field of your first fidelity. Many people, when this is the case, just say, "It's finished." And really, a political sequence has a beginning and an end, too, an end in the form of saturation. Saturation is not a brutal rupture, but it becomes progressively more difficult to find something new in the field of the fidelity.
Since the mid-80s, more and more, there has been something like a saturation of revolutionary politics in its conventional framework: class struggle, party, dictatorship of the proletariat, and so on. So we have to find something like a fidelity to the fidelity. Not a simple fidelity.
For my generation, it's a choice between saying, on the one hand, "Nothing is possible today in the political field; the reactionary tendency is too strong." That's the position of many people in France today; it's the negative interpretation of saturation.
When the fidelity is saturated, you have a choice. The first possibility is to say it's finished. The second possibility is this: With the help of certain events-- like the events in South America today-- you find what I name a fidelity to the fidelity. Fidelity to the fidelity is not a continuation, strictly speaking, and not a pure rupture, either. We have to find something new. When I was saying yesterday that "from outside, you can see something you don't see from inside," that's merely a rule by which to find something new.
Q: If I can press you further about the something new: After the saturation of party politics, what now?
Badiou: If the answer to that were clear, the discussion would be finished, too. You have to find that out; it's not so clear. Today we have an experimental sequence from the point of view of political practice. We have to accept the multiplicity of experiences. We lack a unified field -- not only in something like the Third International, but also in concepts there is no unified field. So you have to accept something like local experiments; we have to do collective work about all that. We have to find -- with help of philosophical concepts, economic concepts, historical concepts -- the new synthesis.
I think our situation is much more similar to that of the 19th century than to that of the 20th. Nearer Marx than Lenin, if you like, metaphorically speaking. Lenin was really the thinker of the new concept of revolutionary politics, with the idea that we could be victorious, that the revolution was a possibility. That's not exactly the situation today; the idea of revolution is obscure in itself today. But we can do as Marx did--it's a metaphor, an image. You have to think the multiplicity of popular experiences, philosophical directions, new studies, and so on. You must do these things as Marx himself did.
The situation today is also similar to 19th century in the brutality of capitalism today. It's not absolutely new; capitalism was of a terrible brutality in the 19th century in England, with the laws against the poor and so on. Today, there's something violent and cynical in capitalism, very much like the capitalism of the 19th century. In the 20th century, capitalism was limited by revolutionary action.
Today, the capitalists have no fear of anything. They are in the stage of primitive accumulation, and there is a real brutality to the situation. That's why I think the work today is to find a new synthesis, a new form of organization, like our predecessors of the 19th century. Our grandfathers, if you will, rather than our fathers in the political field.
Q: I'd like to ask about the current global situation and of the relationship of the US to that situation. Is the US simply a privileged node in a network of global sovereignty (as Hardt and Negri argue) or is the US playing the role of a traditional imperialist power in Lenin's sense?
Badiou: I don't completely agree with Negri. It's a very complex theoretical discussion, but, in a few words, I think Negri's perception is too systemic. Empire is a system, finally. Negri's conviction is always that within the system there are also resources for something new on the side of revolutionary politics, or politics of emancipation. There is always in Negri the conviction that the strength of capitalism is also the creativity of the multitude. Two faces of the same phenomenon: the oppressive face and, on the other side, the emancipatory, in something like a unity. Not exactly a dialectical unity in the Hegelian sense, but still a unity. So there is no necessity of an event in Negri, because there's something structural in the movement of emancipation.
I don't see the situation that way; it's not my conviction. It's not possible to discuss this precisely here and now, because it's too technical. But one consequence for Negri is that the great question in the political field is the question of the movement. Movements are certainly of great importance. But the real question today is not the relation between the movement and the state. The real question is, what is the new form of organization after the party? More generally, what is a new political discipline?
People who have nothing--no power, no money, no media--have only their discipline as a possibility of strength. Marxism and Leninism defined a first form of popular discipline, which was trade unions and party. There were many differences, but finally that was the form of popular discipline, and the possibility of real action. And today we cannot hope that this form will continue. The real situation is that we have no discipline in the popular camp, and so we have a great weakness. In fact the best situations today are ones where the state is not really in the hands of the reactionaries, for example, the situation of Chavez in Venezuela. But that's not a complete change of the situation; it's a chance, a local chance, nothing more. It's something, but it's not the solution. The solution of the problem in the long term will be the invention of a new form of immanent discipline in the popular camp. That will be the end of the long weakness of the popular camp after the success-- but also the failure-- of the form of the party.
Q: Philosophy has a long history of alternately including and then excluding mathematics. You, almost alone among your contemporaries, include it. You have also stated that your aim is a new articulation of politics and mathematics. Apart from any biographical, contingent factors that might explain your own relationship to mathematics, what's mathematics got to do with politics today? Why do you see a hope today for, as you've said, "a new articulation of politics and mathematics"?
Badiou: The political question of the new discipline is also, philosophically, the question of a new logic. The question of a new logic is always also the question of the relationship between philosophy and mathematics. Because mathematics is the paradigm of deduction, of formal rationality; not of empirical rationality, not of concrete rationality, but the paradigm of formal rationality. During the phase of party politics, the logical paradigm was the Hegelian dialectic; it was the theory of contradiction. During the entire development of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism, the theory of contradiction was the heart of the logical framework. In my conviction, that is also finished. For the same reason as for the party, dialectical logic in the Hegelian sense is saturated today. We can no longer simply use the paradigm of contradiction. Naturally, there are contradictions; it's not a question of fact. But for the definition of a new discipline, we cannot directly use the logic of contradiction; we have to find another paradigm.
Mathematics is not the paradigm itself for me, but it's the possibility of finding a new logical paradigm in the political field, and finally in all fields of new human experiences.
(As you may know, Marx himself was very interested in mathematics. There are long manuscripts by Marx about the differential calculus and so on; it was something he studied for himself.)
In the search for the new logical paradigm, we have something to learn from mathematics. So my use of mathematics is not only a family obligation or a Platonist imitation; it's a real necessity.
Q: In a recent issue of the journal Positions, in an essay on your post-Maoism, Bruno Bosteels quotes you as having written, "Maoism, in the end, has been the proof for me that in the actual space of effective politics, and not just in political philosophy, a close knot could be tied between the most uncompromising formalism and the most radical subjectivism." But in your own philosophy, this knot seems to be looser. It is the uncompromising formalism that comes through in your philosophy.
Badiou: I think the discussion with Bruno Bosteels is about the distinction between philosophy and politics. Radical subjectivity is a matter of politics; when I speak of Maoism, I speak of politics. Philosophy is not politics, which may not be clear to Bosteels, or to some others. Naturally, philosophical formalism--to use that word-- can help to open some possibilities in the political field. But it is not the political solution; the political solution is never found inside the philosophical framework. So I agree, in the philosophical field, we can find a formalism adequate to radical subjectivity. But we cannot find radical subjectivity itself there, because radical subjectivity is a matter of action, of engagement; it's a matter of politics, finally.
The question of Maoism, of radicality, is a political one. In the philosophical field, we have to find the conceptual framework--the formalism, if you like--which is a disposition of thinking that is adequate to the possibility of a radical subjectivity. So philosophy is more or less in the situation of compatibility with politics, but it is never a substitute for politics. There is no unity between philosophy and politics; instead, there is something like compatibility between philosophical formalism and radical subjectivity. I think that in Bosteels' interpretation there is something like a circulation between politics and philosophy, which is not exactly my vision of the correlation of the two.
A word on the expression "post-Maoism": My interpretation of post-Maoism is that Maoism is the name of the last experience within the framework of classical Leninism. Maoism is not the same as Leninism; it's a creative development, but it's the last form of revolutionary politics, the last attempt in the field of revolutionary politics. After that, the framework itself is saturated. If we have something like post-Maoism, it's because Maoism itself is the saturation of the field. We can interpret the work of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, that's all very interesting, but we cannot forget that it's also the end of something, much more than a beginning. But an end is also something new. It's the beginning of the end, the newness of the end. After that, though, the field is saturated. And so post-Maoism is something very important. We are in something like post-Marxism, post-Leninism.
Q: Some people on the left argue for direct democracy as a response to global neoliberalism, sometimes under the heading of a Spinozist concept of 'multitude' and sometimes under the heading of anarchism. But you seem quite critical of democracy. Can you explain your critique of democracy?
Badiou: The question of democracy has two parts. The first one is the question of the form of the state. That's the classical, contemporary definition. There are governments, and you have to say which ones are democratic, which ones despotic, and so on. That is the common definition, the definition of Bush, and also of the majority today, finally. Democracy in this first sense is a form of the state, with elections and so on.
The second possible definition of democracy is what is really democracy within politics, in action. Hardt and Negri's concept on this point is that democracy is the creativity of the movement. It's a vitalist concept: democracy is the spontaneity and the creative capacity of the movement. Ultimately, Negri's concept remains inside the classical opposition of movement and state.
We have on the one side the definition of democracy as a form of the state, and on the other, democracy as an immanent determination of the collective movement. But I think the classical opposition of state and movement is saturated. We cannot simply oppose state oppression or the oppressive system, with, on the other side, the creativity of the movement. That's an old concept, not a new one. We have to find a new concept of democracy, one that is outside the opposition of formal democracy (which is democracy as form of state) and concrete democracy (which is the democracy of the popular movement). Negri remains inside this classical opposition, while using other names: Empire for state, multitude for movement. But new names are not new things.
Q: I'd like to ask about the politics of identity, which can be summed up in the thesis that for every oppression there must be a resistance by the group which is being oppressed--otherwise the oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc...) will remain unaddressed--this politics of identity is something you are quite critical of.
Badiou: The question of the political process is always a question that goes beyond identities. It's the question of finding something that is, paradoxically, a generic identity, the identity of no-identity, the identity which is beyond all identities. For Marx, "proletariat" was the name of something like that. In the Manuscripts of 1844, Marx writes that the very nature of the proletariat is to be generic. It's not an identity. It's something like an identity which is non-identity; it's humanity as such. That's why for Marx the liberation of the working class is liberation of humanity as such, because the working class is something generic and not a pure identity. Probably that function of the working class is saturated. We cannot substitute a mere collection of identities for the saturated generic identity of the working class. I think we have to find the political determination that integrates the identities, the principles of which are beyond identity. The great difficulty is to do that without something like the working class. Without something that was a connection between particularity and universality, because that's what the working class was. The particularity of the working class was its location in a singular place; the working class was generic. The solution of the problem for Marxism was the human group which is not really an identity, which is beyond identity.
We have to do the same thing, but probably without that sort of solution. We cannot say that today this group is the generic group and that the emancipation of this group is also the emancipation of us all. So we have to find something more formal. Why formal? Because it's less inscribed in the singularity of a group. It's a relation between principles, between the formalism of the new discipline and all identities in the social field. It's a problem now for which we don't yet have the solution.
Marx's solution a sort of miracle: you find the group which is also the generic group. It was an extraordinary invention. The history of this Marxist invention, in its concrete political determination, was not so much the history of the generic group, of the working class as such, but rather history of the representation of this generic group in a political organization: it was the history of the party. The crisis now is the crisis of representation, and also the crisis of the idea of the generic group.
When you see that a sequence of politics of emancipation is finished, you have a choice: you can continue in the same political field, or you can find the fidelity to the fidelity. It's the same thing here: If the idea of the working class as a generic group is saturated, you have the choice of saying that there are only identities, and that the best hope is the revolt of some particular identity. Or you can say that we have to find something much more universal, much more generic. But probably without the representative generic group.