Alain Badiou: Another Take on Revolutionary Theory

Badiou’s Event SketchBy John Steele

What about Alain Badiou, the contemporary philosopher? Like Zizek, he has attracted much attention among people looking for new avenues both intellectually and politically. A friend in Latin American studies has told me his name is everywhere in Latin American intellectual circles.

Badiou’s background is within Marxism and Maoism. He was a student of the French communist philosopher Louis Althusser in the early sixties, an activist within the French uprisings of May 1968, and a Maoist activist and theorist in the 1970s. He has concluded, beginning in the 1980s and for a nest of reasons both political and philosophical, that this tradition of political practice (that is, basically, the international communist movement as it had emerged that far), has reached a point of “saturation,” as he terms it, and that a new beginning – a new truth-process, as he calls it – is necessary. He has gone on since then to outline a new approach in some very basic fields of philosophy.

In a February 2006 interview at University of Washington, he summed up:

Paul is generally viewed as a deeply reactionary character by Marxists and even by many progressive Christians. One could say that Paul took an early egalitarian Jewish sect, and played a pivotal role in transforming it into an established Church with a novel, codified doctrine, and the ability to “take over” the Roman empire, Europe and beyond.

So why does a revolutionary like Badiou write about Paul? Well – we don’t need to just examine an historical figure like this from the point of view of “was his doctrine correct?” or “do we see him as reactionary?”

Badiou is examining Paul as an archetype of militancy – as a person with “fidelity” to a world historic “event” and the “truth-process” emerging from it (in this case, a resurrection [undocumented to be sure] and a certain universal set of messages that were unprecedented for their times.)

On the second page of this book, Badiou characterizes Paul as someone who “practices and states the invariant features of what can be called the militant figure.”

Badiou goes on to say, “there is currently a widespread search for a new militant figure¼called upon to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the century, which can be said to have been that of the party militant.”

He thinks that now, when such a step forward is needed, a look back at the distant and apparently very dissimilar case of Paul is highly illuminating.

Badiou says he wants to trace the connection, embodied in Paul, “between the general idea of a rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-process which is this rupture’s subjective materiality.” It’s the connection, in other words, between an event and the truth-process and the subject which are both born out of it. The “militant figure” is the militant of a truth-process and part of a new subjectivity. (Subjectivity in this philosophical sense does not mean, as in Maoist usage, being un-objective or anti-scientific. It means in this case, being a new subject (or part of a new social subject), a newly defined and awakened actor on the social stage and within the new process of truth-formation.)

To rephrase slightly, Badiou’s quest is for a new way to be a revolutionary in our present circumstances. He approaches Paul in this light, for those reasons, and interprets Paul’s life and practice in terms of his own (Badiou’s) philosophy of event, subject, truth-process, and fidelity. A “new militant figure” would be the militant of a new truth process.

That’s the background of his concern with Paul. He goes on to say that what he’s going to focus on in Paul’s work is “a singular connection, which it is formally possible to disjoin from the fable [that is, Christianity] and of which Paul is...the inventor: the connection that establishes a passage between a proposition concerning a subject and an interrogation concerning the law.”

What Paul contributed, Badiou believes, is the insight and practice of separating truths (and truth-processes) from their particular historical context. Badiou opposes this to the contemporary practices of dissolving truths into forms of cultural, linguistic or historical relativisms.

A Universal Singularity

In the world today, Badiou says, on the one hand there is a vast “extension of the automatisms of capital,” which imposes “the rule of an abstract homogenization,” while “on the other side there is a process of fragmentation into closed identities, and the culturalist and relativist ideology that accompanies this fragmentation.” Both of these processes, and their ideological expressions, are inimical and deadly to the creation of new truth today. Moreover, the two processes are complementary: , page 99] What to think? Well, let’s take a more familiar political example. Suppose you are a revolutionary militant or cadre. You have been grasped in your life and activated by a great eruption in the world, and the experience has completely up-ended the conventional system of facts and categories and hierarchies – all that you thought you knew. You have entered into a process of synthesizing and recognizing and establishing new truths in the world, a process which is not just yours, but yours along with many others. I am sure many of us on this site have experienced this, and have entered into such processes, and have had this shape our lives.

Let’s say that these new truths are universal (in the sense of being “addressed to all” as Badiou often puts it). These truths demand to be made real in the world, which means changing the world. Wrong ways of approaching this demand: either preaching to people (“here’s the truth; accept it, believe it”), or enforcing it as truth, if you have the power to do that (“here’s the truth; you must accept it or else”). Rather, the truth has to be made real in the world, not by opposing itself abstractly to the differences and particularities of people and groups, but through them. This would be what the mass line is about, as Badiou is interpreting it here. “From the masses, to the masses” – taking “the ideas of the masses,” synthesizing them through the universal truth in a way that does not dissolve their particularity, and bringing them “back to the masses.”

And this is what Badiou sees in this text of Paul: an expression of how a truth, universal in character and sweep, can come to “seize the masses” in a way which does not obliterate or abolish “the differences that allow them to recognize themselves in the world.”

Mao’s “mass line” has often been understood as addressing questions of methods of leadership (“learning while leading, leading while learning”) or political work (concentrating and sifting out correct from incorrect in the ideas of the masses, then “returning” them in the form of line and policy). As such, it remains on the level of means and policy. Badiou, however, is seeing it as a way in which the universal becomes particular, and how a new truth becomes materially expressive within and through individual people and groups. It is a profound philosophical question, as well as profoundly political.

There’s much more to his thinking, which is very rich and variegated. There’s a lot in Badiou that one can argue with, and I am still grappling with his thought. But he’s one of the very few really original, deep, and path-breaking philosophers of the present – and someone who’s seriously trying to think or rethink the questions of revolution (or of a truly emancipatory politics, as he prefers to say). These ideas are not repackagings of our own familiar Marxisms… they are often strange to us, as if the same world and problems are suddenly seen from a new angle with fresh eyes. It is provocative and thought-provoking. And for those reasons alone, there’s a lot of value in his work (we need it, in fact) and he needs to be seriously engaged -- irrespective of whether we adopt his philosophical system as a whole, or any particular aspects of it.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Pavel

    Thanks John Steele for the post on Badiou. This site has become so rich in ideas; just wish my schedule allowed me more time to read methodically.

    Without having read the book on Paul (I will soon) I find it exciting that a Maoist philosopher would examine him as an example of an organizer who helped spark a world movement. I don't think for a moment that the version of Christianity he promoted represents "universal truth" or that his interpretation of it represents anything like "mass line." But Paul's career is an indication of how a marginal movement or sect can spread like prairie fire if its leaders recognize the best ways to promote it.

    I read that Abimael Guzman on the eve of the declaration of the People's War in Peru gave an inspirational talk about the rapidity of the rise of Islam. I'm sure the point was not to praise Islam (altho I think it had some progressive features initially) but to suggest the possibility of rapid historical change led by initially meager forces.

    The Buddhist movement, probably coalescing in northeast India and Nepal during the late 5th century BCE, spread rapidly from the 3rd century BCE, ultimately points west as far as eastern Persia and the Maldive islands with Japan and Java. This is something the Nepali comrades are aware and proud of (partly because there are aspects of Buddhism, such as the rejection of the caste system and a kind of primitive philosophical materialism, and insistence upon the inevitablity of change in all phenomena, that seem advances on other schools of thought in south Asia at the time of Buddhism's emergence).

    But back to Paul. The Book of Acts, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, tells a version of his story that is partly corroborated by Paul's letters that make up a big section of the New Testament. Initially a persecutor of Christians, he has a life-changing experience on the road to Damascus and thereafter places himself at the head of efforts to take this new belief system (actually already fracturing into sects) to the non-Jews.

    There are lots of questions here. Roman Judaea was under Roman authority, and the Jewish Sanhedrin probably didn't have legal authority to act against Christians, and one man riding off to Damascus, a Syrian city that had many Jewish residents, probably couldn't have "persecuted" anybody effectively. And what happened to Paul? He supposedly was hit by a bolt of light and fell from his horse to the ground, and heard the voice of Jesus. Some have suggested he had an epileptic seizure but I think such speculation is pointless. Thereafter anyway he becomes a huge advocate of Christianity, emphasizing his view that Jesus wasn't simply or mainly a moral exemplar, teacher of wisdom, or Messiah in the sense that Jews had traditionally expected, but a manifestation of the universal god no longer narrowly interested in the Jews as his people but offering salvation to anyone, anywhere, who sincerely repented of sin and sought grace.

    This decisive split with the Judaism of the disciples, with Peter at their head, caused the latter to bitterly dispute with Paul (Acts chapter 15). As John mentions, the ritual of circumcision was a key issue. So were dietary rules and other laws in the "Books of Moses." Paul pronounced them superseded by the "New Covenant." He also declared that in Christ there was no Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free. (He could do that, mind you, while urging slaves to obey their masters, women to obey their husbands and fathers, and subjects to obey their rulers. But Badiou is right to see him as boldly breaking new ground. It's in part due to his work that while less than one percent of the world's population professes the religion out of which Christianity evolved--one based upon a concept of the relationship between the creator of the cosmos and a specific people--its Christian and Muslim spin-offs receive the allegiance of about half the world's population.

    Obviously Bob Avakian thinks the examination of religion is important, and wants to promote himself as a scholar with some competence in the field of religious studies. I look forward to comparing his observations on Paul to those of Badiou.

  • Guest - Anon

    In regards to the discussion of the Christian figure, Paul:
    Doesn't a lot of the appeal given to him point to his pragmatic stances on how to spread his cult as far and wide as possible?

    How is this useful to revolutionaries that strive to promote a materialist view of reality? What can be learned?

    Also, what does it mean for materialists to study the tactics of a religious (non-materialist) evangelist?

  • Guest - d

    John,
    could you elaborate on what Badiou thinks makes May of 68 an example of a "truth process and its subject?" namely, what were the "breaks with the boundaries and categories of the situation out of which it erupt[ed]. ... and how did it "mark the beginning of a truth-process, which is a process of creating universal truths"?

    also, how is it that the mass line "remains on the level of means and policy" when it is founded in a whole philosophical/ideological understanding (dialectical materialism) that says knowledge comes about in certain ways- the most correct coming from synthesizing practice we develop theory, and, as best we can, apply theory to practice and synthesize it again into theory, in a never ending process. . . the implementation of this in applying the mass line to me should not suggest that this understanding be simply a means for leadership nor policy making determinates.
    I was recently talking with a friend about democratic centralism and its basis (or claim of basis) in epistemology . . . arguing that it is based in an understanding that the collective summation and participation and unified application of decisions, being derived from an understanding of how we come to know what we know. I think of this because I was under the assumption that mass line is also founded epistemologically and how would this be different than Badiou's philosophical interpretation/analysis. perhaps I'm missing the point- I suppose I could see a new emphasis being put on the philosophical aspect of the universality of a new idea or system of ideas and how it comes to be embraced by particular situations/ persons, etc., but this is where I fail to see the difference of this concept as previously conceived (by Maoists).

  • Guest - tellnolies

    A couple comments here suggest a need to get more deeply into the significance of Christianity in the ancient world. I haven't read Badiou's book on St. Paul (yet) but I think it is a mistake to just treat Christianity simply as a cult or as any old set of wrong ideas. I would suggest that in its message of a new covenant between God and the whole of humanity (and not just one people) and in other aspects as well that early Christianity represented a radical challenge to the oppressive social relations of the ancient world. That it was ultimately absorbed and transformed into the official state religion of the (dying) Roman Empire should not cause us to lose sight of this and therefore the value in studying Paul.

  • Guest - Pavel

    "A religion that brought the Roman world empire into subjection, and dominated by far the larger part of civilized humanity for 1,800 years, cannot be disposed of merely by declaring it to be nonsense gleaned together by frauds. One cannot dispose of it before one succeeds in explaining its origin and its development from the historical conditions under which it arose and reached its dominating position." Engels, 1882

    The whole article is worth reading:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/05/bauer.htm

  • Guest - Paul

    It's important not to make Kautsky's mistake in imagining an early "proletarian" Christianity.
    Consider Erastus, Lydia, Prisca and Aquila, and Stephanos in Acts. The scholarly consensus
    is better represented by Abraham Malherbe's Social Aspects of Early Christianity.

    A popular account, unsympathetic to Christianity, is in Michael Parenti's History as Mystery.

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SOR/is_2_60/ai_55208516/pg_1
    http://books.google.com/books?id=7bXtGrn1xT4C

  • Guest - Linda D.

    Hola John...while the following isn't exactly speaking directly to your article about Badiou (Paul, etc.), I just posted, under the 9 Letters (Christian fascism, etc.), the following anecdote and wanted to share it with you as well...for what it's worth.
    Linda D. Says:
    April 3, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Sorry friends of Kasama. Am not going to lend anything near de profundis to all the more profound “wrangling” –(like Jimmy Higgins, I bristle when I hear that phrase–I would include “grappling” in the mix) around religion, Christian fascism, etc.

    But I do want to relate something, that while seemingly simplistic, for me was a profound moment in understanding how we, as revolutionary communist atheists, etc. deal with this huge contradiction–i.e., religion.

    Think it was around 1971 when a delegation from the RU went to revolutionary China. One of the delegates and former leaders of the RU was telling tale about how he had encountered a woman in the countryside who had been a devout Catholic. So the RU member asked, “Well why are you no longer religious or a Catholic?” and she answered, “Because I don’t NEED to be anymore.”

  • Guest - Badiou On Negri and the Unique

    [...] directly on political issues. We post this to encourage exploration and debate. Kasama includes earlier discussion of Badiou’s [...]

  • Guest - pipila

    The full title of the book dealing with St. Paul is "St. Paul: The Foundations of Universalism". The point for Badiou is neither that the set of myths surrounding Christianity have any particular material validity, nor that they set a pragmatic basis upon which to gain adherents.

    The point is that the founding of the Christian Church by Paul outlines a model of a truth process relating subjective militancy (the revolutionary) to a retrospective event (the resurrection) through fidelity.

    Moreover it comes forward in the form of a universalism, which is also crucial to Badiou, as opposed to nationalisms, communitarianism, sectarianism, etc. That is, Paul´s insistance on the universal truth of Christianity, which cared not for Jew or Gentile, Man or Woman, rather than being a simple pragmatism was in fact a crucial and difficult fidelity.

    Overall Badiou uses the STORY of Paul to explain his own unique take on truth, events, revolutions, and revolutionaries. In other words he does not read Paul literally, but as a piece of literature, for the purpose of explaining his philosophy.

  • Guest - anonymous

    Perhaps this Badiou fellow (who I must learn more of) is also criticizing the onset of some codes of conduct more than the "mystery" of the Resurrection. Paul's work in codifying the conduct of early Christian converts seemed more directed at the more paganistic and less the jewish - since in many views of that time the morals and dogmas eroded the monotheistic fidelities of the pre-existing nature-centered "hedonists" with any number of gods existing.

    Badiou is certainly new to me and really interesting to think about after reading these excerpts. I do agree that he is not reading Paul literally, although using the circumsizing of gentile penis is rather literal ... if you get my drift.

    Wasn't it Paul who wrote all those coded letters to the Corinthians which have been used by today's "end-timers" to hoodwink and fleece the faithful today?

    Damn now I have to go back and re-read all that jibberish?

    Jesus! Pun intended.

  • Guest - pipila

    No, you don´t have to read any of Paul´s epistles to understand what Badiou is talking about. The exigencies of Paul´s cause are not really the point for Badiou. It is simply the form which interests him.

    Badiou compares Paul favorably to Lenin, and his interest is in explaining the form of subjective militancy as a relation to what he calls a truth procedure, which is different from an empirical truth.

    Basically, whatever you "know" about Paul is of little use in understanding what Badiou has to say about the issue, and it might get in the way. He spends his first several pages of the book setting the terms of the discussion, part of which includes separating his discussion of Paul from all the prior discussions of Paul.

  • Guest - AROKIA DASS VICTOR

    I find this comments very interesting. I think that methods of organising are very important at this point in time, we should learn from every source. I am a retired catholic who does not see any relevance in the catholic faith. However the basic concepts of a better world on earth is of importance.

    On Buddhism the question of suffering addesed by the Buddha and how to overcome suffereng is the basic tenent in his teaching. We use this in Thailand to help form Trade Unions, hopefully to elevate suffering.

  • Guest - RCP vs. RCP on Intellectuals:

    [...] of unnamed theoretical writers in the world today. We can speculate that it targets people like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Bill Martin (among others) — all those intellectuals who are not [...]

  • Guest - stefandav

    Well, either your struck by lightning or not or not yet. If knocked off your horse and find its a bigger box your in, then nothing to do now but open the smaller box.. a division was not created between the two, and what was inside expands.. so goes the egalitarian maxim of the communist hypothesis, not a fresh creation of an elite, rather the preservation of a mass line, <i>and</i> the preservation of identity whatever flavor you are!

  • Guest - John Steele: Revolutionary Fai

    [...] to really enter into Badiou’s philosophical concepts here. (I’ve written a bit earlier – here and here – and I intend to write more in future.) But I do want to say something pointing to why [...]

  • Guest - singular

    "I would suggest that in its message of a new covenant between God and the whole of humanity (and not just one people) and in other aspects as well that early Christianity represented a radical challenge to the oppressive social relations of the ancient world."

    But what if God and Humanity are errors in judgement to begin with.

  • Guest - John Steele: Revolutionary Fai

    [...] Comments singular on Alain Badiou: Another Take on &hellip;Mike E on Video: John Rich&#8217;s “Shut&hellip;Zack on Video: John Rich&#8217;s [...]

  • Guest - John Steele: Revolutionary Fai

    [...] to really enter into Badiou’s philosophical concepts here. (I’ve written a bit earlier – here and here – and I intend to write more in future.) But I do want to say something pointing to why [...]

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