by Alain Badiou
Badiou’s “The Courage of the Present/Contemporary Obscurantism” is an article from Le Monde, February 15/2010.
The present time, in a country like ours, has been, for almost thirty years now, a disoriented time. I mean: a time which presents its own youth, and particularly working-class youth, with no principles by which to orientate their existence.
What does disorientation exactly consist in? One of its main operations consists in rendering the previous period unreadable – the period which was itself rather well oriented. This maneuver is characteristic of all backlashes and counter-revolutionary periods, such as the one we have been experiencing since the end of the 70s.
We might, for instance, remark that what characterized the Thermidorian reaction, after the plot of 9th Thermidor and the execution with no trial of the main Jacobins, was to make the previous period unreadable: its reduction to the pathology of some bloodthirsty criminals precluded all political understanding. This view of things persisted for decades, seeking to permanently disorient the people, who are seen – who are always seen – as practically revolutionary.
Making a period unreadable is something else, it’s much more than simply condemning it. For one of the effects of unreadability is to preclude finding in the period in question the same principles that might provide a way out of its dead ends. If the period is declared to be pathological, then there is nothing in it that the orientation can extract for itself, and the conclusion – whose harmful effects we can see on a daily basis – is that we must become resigned to disorientation as a lesser evil.
Let us thus posit, concerning a previous period, visibly close to the politics of emancipation, that it must remain readable for us, and this independently of the final judgment passed on it.
In the debate on the rationality of the French Revolution which took place in the Third Republic, Clemenceau provided a famous formula: “The French Revolution constitutes a unitary block”. This formula is remarkable in that it declares the integral unreadability of the process, whatever the tragic twists in its development might have been.
Nowadays, it is clear that the prevailing discourse on communism turns the previous period into an opaque pathology. Thus I daresay that the communist period, including all nuances within the idea, both in power and in the opposition, also constitutes a unitary block.
What can the principle and the name of a true orientation be today then? In any case, I propose calling it – out of faithfulness to the history of emancipation politics – the communist hypothesis.
Let us note that our critics try to discard the term “communism” under the pretext that an experience of State communism, which lasted seventy years, tragically failed. What a joke! When it comes to upturning the domination by the rich and the hereditary nature of power, which have lasted for millennia, we are reproached for seventy years of groping, of violence and dead ends! Truth be said, the communist idea has only had a minuscule time for its verification, its implementation.
What is this hypothesis? It consists of three axioms.
Firstly, the egalitarian idea. The common pessimistic idea, which once more dominates these times, is that human nature is doomed to inequality, that it is a shame, but after shedding a few tears over this, it is essential to persuade oneself of its truth and accept it. To this, the communist idea replies not exactly by means of the proposition of equality as a program – let us bring about the fundamental equality that is immanent to human nature – but by declaring that the egalitarian principle makes it possible to distinguish, in any collective action, what is homogeneous to the communist hypothesis, and thus to a real value, and that which contradicts it, and thus brings us back to an animal view of mankind.
Next comes the conviction that the existence of a coercive, detached State is not necessary. This is the thesis, common to anarchists and communists, of the decline of the State. There have been Stateless societies, and it is rational to posit that there can be other ones. But above all, popular political action can be organized without its being subject to the idea of power, of representation in the State, of elections, etc.
The liberating constraint of organized action can be exerted from outside the State. There are many examples of this, including some recent ones: the unexpected power of the December 1995 movement delayed by several years the unpopular measures concerning pensions. Militant action on behalf of illegal workers did not prevent a number of villainous laws, but it made it possible for them to be largely acknowledged as an element of our collective and political life.
Final axiom: the organization of labor does not involve its division, the specialization of tasks, and particularly the oppressive distinction between intellectual and manual labor. We must and can envisage an essential polymorph nature of human labor. This is the material basis for the disappearance of classes and social hierarchies.
These three principles do not constitute a program, but rather orient mottos, which anyone can invest as an operator in order to assess what he is saying and doing, personally or collectively, in his relation to the communist hypothesis.
The communist hypothesis has had two main stages, and I would like to state that we are entering the third stage of its existence.
The communist hypothesis was installed on a grand scale between the 1848 revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune. Its dominant themes are those of the workers’ movement and insurrection. There followed a long interval of almost forty years (between 1871 and 1905), which corresponds to the apogee of European imperialism and the distribution of many regions of the world. The period between 1905 and 1976 (Cultural Revolution in China) is the second period in the effecting of the communist hypothesis.
Its dominant theme is the theme of the Party and its main (and unquestionable) slogan: discipline is the only weapon of those who have nothing. In 1976 starts a second period of reactive stabilization which lasts until our day – a period in which we still find ourselves, during which we have witnessed the collapse of the single-party Socialist dictatorships created in the second period.
My belief is that a third historical period of the communist hypothesis will inevitably take place – a period different from the two previous ones, but paradoxically closer to the former than to the latter. This period shared with the prevailing period in the 19th century the fact that what was at stake was the very existence of the communist hypothesis, which is nowadays massively denied. We can define what I, together with others, am trying to do, as a preliminary work towards the reinstallation of this hypothesis and the unfolding of its third period.
We are in need, in this new start of the third period in the existence of the communist hypothesis, of a provisional morality for a disoriented time. The point is to minimally maintain a consistent subjective figure, without thereby having the support of the communist hypothesis which has not yet been reinstalled on a large scale. What is important is to find a real point on which to stand -whatever the cost may be – an “impossible” point which cannot be inscribed within the law of the situation. We must have a real point of this kind and organize its consequences.
The key witness to the fact that our societies are obviously in-humane is nowadays the illegal proletarian alien: he is the mark, immanent to our situation, of the fact that there is only one world. Treating the proletarian alien as if he came from another world is the specific task of the “Ministry for the National Identity”, which has its own police force (the “Border Police”). Stating, against such a State device, that any illegal worker comes from the same world as me, and drawing the practical, egalitarian and militant consequences of this, is an example of provisional morality, a local orientation which is homogeneous to the communist hypothesis, within the global disorientation which only its reinstallation can ward off.
The main virtue which we are in need of is courage. This is not the case universally: in other circumstances, other virtues may be required as a priority. Thus, at the time of the revolutionary war in China, Mao promoted patience as a cardinal virtue. But nowadays it is courage. Courage is the virtue that manifests itself, regardless of the laws of the world, through the endurance of the impossible. The thing to do is to maintain the impossible point without accounting for the situation as a whole: courage, inasmuch as it is a question of treating the point as such, is a local virtue. It arises from a local morality, and its horizon is the slow reinstallation of the communist hypothesis.
Le Monde, Point de vue, “Le courage du présent,” 13.02.10
On Contemporary Obscurantism
What should we call the extraordinary intellectual constructions that are the works of Darwin, Marx, and Freud? They are not strictly sciences, even if biology – including contemporary biology – is thought within the Darwinian framework. They are certainly not philosophies either, even if dialectics, that old Platonic name for philosophy, was given new momentum by Marx. They cannot be reduced to the practices which they throw light upon, even if experimentation proves Darwin right, even if revolutionary politics tries to verify Marx’s communist hypothesis, and even if the psychoanalytic cure places Freud on the ever-shifting borders of psychiatry.
Let us call “the 19th century” the time that goes from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution. I propose calling these three attempts of genius thought devices, and claiming that, in a certain sense, these devices identify what the 19th century brought, as a new power, to the history of mankind’s emancipation. After Darwin, the movements of human life and existence, irrevocably detached from all religious transcendence, were left to the immanence of their own laws.
After Marx, the history of human groups was removed both from the opacity of providence and from the almighty, oppressive inertias of private property, the family, and the State. It was left to the free play of contradictions within which an egalitarian future might be written – even if it was with effort and uncertainty. After Freud, it was understood that there is no soul, whose training would always be a moralizing one, opposing the primordial desires through which childhood brings about what will be. On the contrary, it is in the core of these desires, particularly sexual desires, that the subject’s possible freedom is at stake – the freedom of the subject inasmuch as he or she falls prey to language, that summary of the symbolic order.
For a long time, all sorts of conservatisms attacked these three great devices. It’s only natural. It is a well-known fact that in the United States, even today, educational institutions are often forced to oppose Biblical Creationism to evolution in the Darwinian sense. The history of anti-Communism practically overlaps with that of the dominant ideology in all the large countries in which Capitalo-Parliamentarism reigns under the label of “democracy”. Normalizing psychiatric positivism, which sees deviances and anomalies everywhere that must be counteracted by means of chemical brutality, desperately tries to “prove” that psychoanalysis is an imposture.
For a long time, particularly in France, it was nonetheless the huge emancipating effects, in thought and action, of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, which prevailed, of course in the midst of ferocious arguments, agonizing revisions, and creative critiques. The movement of these devices dominated the intellectual arena. Conservatisms were on the defensive.
After the vast normalization process on a global scale which started in the 80s, any sort of emancipating or even merely critical thought is inconvenient. Thus we have seen the attempts follow each other, trying to remove all trace of the great thought devices which have been termed “ideologies”, whereas they are exactly the rational critique of ideological serfdom. France, according to Marx “the classic land of class struggle”, has found itself under the action of small groups of renegades of the “red decade”(1965-1975), who are at the front line of this backlash. We have witnessed the mushrooming of the “black books” of communism, of psychoanalysis, of progressiveness, and of everything that does not equal the contemporary stupidity: consume, work, vote, and shut up.
Among these attempts, which, under cover of “modernity”, recycle obsolete liberal nonsense from the 1820s, the least detestable are not those that are derived from a materialism of enjoyment in order to act as a sort of watchman, particularly with regard to psychoanalysis. Far from being related to any kind of emancipation, the imperative “Enjoy!” is the one which so-called Western societies command us to obey. And this in order for us to prevent ourselves from organising what counts: the process by which some available truths are freed which the great though devices used to guard.
Thus we shall refer by “contemporary obscurantism” to all forms, without exception, of undermining and eradication of the power contained, for the benefit of all mankind, in Darwin, Marx, and Freud.