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Communism or Marxism?
on 11 December 2010
Badiou's book is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Zizek's work for the last few years, "the communist hypothesis." This is also the title of the Badiou's 2008 essay in New Left Review on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency. Badiou establishes "communism" as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history.
Badiou divides what he calls the modern history of the "communist hypothesis" into two broad periods, or "sequences," from 1792-1871 and from 1917-76. The first, from Year One of the revolutionary French Republic through the defeat of the Paris Commune, Badiou describes as the "setting in place of the communist hypothesis." The second, from the October 1917 Revolution in Russia to Mao's death and the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, Badiou calls the sequence of "preliminary attempts at . . . [the] realization [of the communist hypothesis]."
The two periods remaining in this historical trajectory sketched by Badiou, 1871-1917 and 1976 to the present, Badiou describes as "intervals" in which "the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable," "with the adversary in the ascendant."
But the period from 1871-1917 saw the massive growth and development of Marxism (alongside and indeed bound up with the last great flowering of bourgeois society and culture in the Belle Époque), and culminated in the crisis of war and revolution, which Badiou's account avoids -- or, more precisely, evades. That is, this period raises the question of Marxism as such, and its significance in history.
Counter to Badiou's "communist hypothesis," which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a "Marxist hypothesis" would seek to grasp the history of the specifically modern society of capital, the different historical phases of capital as characterized by Marx's and other Marxists' accounts, beginning in the mid-19th century.
For most Marxists in the 20th century (and hence also for Badiou), the period of Marxism from 1871-1917, which saw the foundation and growth of the parties of the Second International, was the era of "revisionism," in which Marxist revolutionary politics was swamped by reformism. But this was also the period of the struggle against the reformist revision of Marxism. The greatest achievement of the struggle against reformism in the Second International was the Bolshevik leadership of the October Revolution, followed by the (however abortive) revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Italy, and the establishment of the Third "Communist" International.
The world crisis of war and revolution 1914-19 should be regarded properly as the Götterdämmerung of Marxism, which raised the crisis of capital to the realm of politics, in a way not seen before or since. The crisis of Marxism 1914-19 was a civil war among Marxists.
The younger generation of radicals that had risen in and ultimately split the Second International and established the Third International, most prominently Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, led the greatest attempt to change the world in history. They regarded their division in Marxism as expressing the necessity of human emancipation. That their attempt must be judged today a failure does not alter its profound -- and profoundly enigmatic -- character.
The stakes of the Revolution attempted by the Second International radicals, inspired by Marx, cannot be overestimated. For Marx and his followers, the epoch of capital was both the culmination of history and marked the potential end of pre-history and the true beginning of human history, in communism. As Walter Benjamin put it, "humanity is preparing to outlive culture, if need be" -- that is, to survive civilization, as it has been lived for an eon.
While Marx and Engels had written of the "specter" of communism, today it is the memory of Marx that haunts the world. This difference is important to register: Marx and Engels could count on a political movement -- communism -- that they sought to clarify and raise to self-consciousness of its historical significance. Today, by contrast, we need to remember not the historical political movement so much as the form of critical consciousness given expression in Marxism. This must be traced back to the thought and political action of Marx himself.
If Marx is mistaken for an affirmer and promulgator of "communism" as opposed to what he actually was, its most incisive critic (from within), we risk forgetting the most important if fragile achievement of history: the consciousness of potential in capital. As Marx wrote early on, in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge that called for the "ruthless criticism of everything existing," "Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property."
The potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognized in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism. Marx's thought and politics are not continuous with the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome or the teachings of the Apostles -- or with the radical egalitarianism of the Protestants or the Jacobins. As Marx put it, "Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society." Communism, as a form of discontent in capital, thus demanded critical clarification of its own meaning, and not one-sided endorsement. For Marx thought that communism was a means and not an end in itself.
So what does it mean that, today, we continue, politically, to have "communism" -- in Badiou's sense of demands for "radical democratic equality" -- but not "Marxism?" For Marx sought, in his own thought and politics, to comprehend and transcend the specifically modern phenomenon of communism, that is, the modern social-democratic workers' movement emerging in the 19th century, as a constituent of capital, as a historically specific form of humanity. So, what would it mean, today, to view the history of the modern society of capital through the figure of Marx? The possibility of such a project is the Marxist hypothesis, by contrast with Badiou's "communist hypothesis." Anyone interested in the problem of capitalism and communism should read Marx, not Badiou.