Can Politics be Thought?

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I have long been wary of approaching the work of celebrity philosopher Alain Badiou. When even admirers of his work describe his prose as “turgid”, alarm bells ring instantly. But down the rabbit hole I ventured, and what a long, strange adventure — or event, as Badiou might put it — it was.

Can Politics Be Thought?, published in French in 1985 and here for the first time in English, contains summaries of two talks Badiou gave at the Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political, housed within the École Normale Supérieure in Paris at the behest of followers of the philosophers Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida.

The historical context of this philosophical exchange is skilfully laid out in translator Bruno Bosteel’s introduction: the deadening politics of the French left during the early years of Francois Mitterand’s “socialist” government and the long demise of the French Communist Party (PCF).

The arguments that Badiou put forward at that time will not be new to long time readers of Socialist Review. I’m sure the magazine must have reverberated with them on a regular basis during the 1980s.

Badiou asserts Marxism as an emancipatory politics as opposed to a “Marxism” used to defend state socialism or totalitarianism in the then still existing Eastern Bloc. So far so good.

What is so frustrating is the draining academic language, the endless formulations that are at best opaque and at worst downright crude — “Marxism began once, between 1840 and 1850” is one such example. Admirably, Badiou wishes to recalibrate Marxism away from those who would use it as an intellectual cudgel, but he stays within an elitist environment where deconstruction and “scientific” Marxism hold sway.

Other currents of socialist theory are simply not addressed or recognised. The only reference Badiou makes to Trotskyism is via the Russian writer Varlam Shalamov’s book, Kolyma Tales, and even then it’s only to note the penal code article under which Trotsky’s supporters were prosecuted. The history of Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist thought simply does not exist within the parameters of the book.

Badiou’s aim is to create a new “referent” for Marxism, away from the slurs of “real existing socialism”, but he still plays their game by describing books by Lenin and Marx as “canonical”, a Stalinist referent if ever I heard one. And a long investigation into a strike by workers at a Talbot car factory that went down to defeat gives no sense of the living history of those events. I badly wanted to hear from the workers themselves about what happened.

His constant referencing of Hegel, Kant, Lacan, Spinoza, and even to the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme becomes as wearing as Slavoj Zizek’s gadfly allusions to popular culture.

However, Badiou’s unwavering commitment to the politics of liberation comes to the fore in his 1998 essay included here, “Of an Obscure Disaster: On the End of the Truth of the State.” Pithy and pugnacious, he tears through the “end of history” thesis that dominated the post-Cold War era in a much more incisive and decisive use of language.

For this alone the book is recommended.