Alain Badiou Defends the Cultural Revolution

In the context of a debate with Marcel Gauchet on the theme ‘communism and democracy’ I invoked certain characteristics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in service of a complex argument. This proved sufficient for Laurent Joffrin to abandon instantly the toil that doubtless occupies all of his time – the soft laying-off of almost a hundred employees from the Libération newspaper – to give his verdict: Badiou is just a frozen dinosaur.

Joffrin’s method of showing my frozenness is a simple and speedy one: the very expression ‘Cultural Revolution’ alone provokes in him the numerical ejaculation of ‘seven hundred thousand dead’, along with horrific – true – details regarding the abuse of a well-known intellectual at the hands of the Red Guards.

Perhaps Joffrin did not spend long enough thinking about the formulation that I used in the supposedly guilty text, since counting the death toll stands for nothing in terms of political analysis. Let’s imagine that in the course of a political discussion on democracy someone advanced arguments referring to some of the important episodes of the French Revolution. I suppose that Joffrin would have to cut them short, saying ‘The French Revolution? Really? 200,000 dead and the barbaric decapitation of the great poet André Chenier!’…? No, he wouldn’t, because he knows a little something about the French Revolution and its fundamental role in the development of modern democracies. So the point is that he knows nothing, and does not want to know anything, about the Cultural Revolution, and its no less fundamental role in the development of modern communism. He does not even know who killed whom, in what context and for what reason. Well, the question of political communism is far more modern than the question of liberal democracy, which was exhausted in its 1840s origins (1), and the lessons of the Cultural Revolution, including the lessons of its failure, are far more appropriate to addressing contemporary problems – capitalism going wild, inequalities returning to pre-World War I levels, the brutalising development of the division of labour, the dismantling and/or privatisation of everything meant to serve the general interest, not to forget the striking stagnation in political inventiveness – than the lessons of the French Revolution could ever be, whatever their lasting importance. In this regard, Joffrin is certainly more outdated, old-fashioned and out of touch than I am.

Alain Badiou

2 thoughts on “Alain Badiou Defends the Cultural Revolution

  1. Hi Karlo! Can I ask you — my gues is that you appreciate Badiou more than Zizek — what do you think of Badiou in general, and more particularly, his philosophical thoughtsand the way he articulate these? Didn’t you ever consider him as being of Zizek’s ilk din? (There is this book, ‘Philo at the Present’ yata where the two of them just exchanged ideas abous issues in philosophy, tapos there were more agreements or complementations than frictions which made me think, maybe their lines of thinking e sort of di naman nalalayo sa isa’t-isa. Although in the face nga ng exposures at readings ke zizek bilang apologist lang din
    naman ng sistema masquerading to espouse the socialist alternative, I was not very inclined to put badiou beside him. Also, I was fancifully entertaining the idea that badiou’s experiences in the paris commune of ’68 were quite different from zizek’s experiences under tito in yugoslavia which can reinforce my wish that perhaps the former is more’faithful’ to the possibility of the ‘event’ than the latter.)

    • Hi, Ivan!

      Not having read on Badiou as much as I have read on Žižek, I cannot really pre-judge Badiou’s entire oeuvre.

      While I can read a form of idealism in his proposition of a “Communist Hypothesis” and disagree with his prognosis that the Party form has exhausted itself as a vehicle of revolutionary struggle, I actually agree with many of his statements on the Cultural Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, and a host of other issues . . .

      In the same way: while I consider many of Žižek’s arguments to be generally dismissive of really-existing revolutionary experiences and movements, I do not discount his contribution in putting the “idea of Communism” back in the agenda of the academe. I generally appreciate Badiou in the same way.

      But yes, I do find Badiou’s statements on these questions sounder and sharper than Žižek’s most of the time. What I do find inappropriate, however, is the way they are represented as some sort of postmodern Lenins who we can look up to as a guide to radical practice today when they are simply philosophers in the traditional sense that can help (when properly contextualized) enrich our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture.

      However, not being an ideologue, a revolutionary theorist, or even a bourgeois philosopher, I guess I’m not the proper authority to make these kinds of distinction with absolute certainty. Kudos!

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