Rational kernel, real movement: Badiou and Théorie Communiste in the age of riots

Rational kernel, real movement: Badiou and Théorie Communiste in the age of riots

An article by Nathan Brown, first published in 'Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion', issue #5 (published in November 2012), comparing/contrasting Badiou and Théorie Communiste's theorisation of riots.

In the first chapter of Le Réveil de l’Histoire, Alain Badiou takes up a question often posed about his work: its relation to Marxism. He relates an exchange with Antonio Negri at the 2009 conference on “The Idea of Communism,” in which Negri took him as an example of those who claim to be communists without even being Marxists— to which Badiou replied that this was better than being Marxist without even being communist. What is at stake in this exchange is not so much the relation of Badiou to Marxism, nor of Negri to communism, as the present relation between Marxism and communism. This is what I want to address at the prompting of Badiou’s invigorating book.

For Badiou, “genuine Marxism” is “the organized knowledge of the political means required to undo existing society and finally realize an egalitarian, rational figure of collective organization for which the name is communism.” He proposes this definition against a Marxism that consists in assigning a determinate role to the economy and the social contradictions that derive from it. This is an economistic or vulgar Marxism at which, Badiou argues, stock brokers and the advisors of politicians are at least as adept as the theoreticians who espouse it.

But Marxism is not political economy of the sort practiced by Tim Geithner or Milton Friedman, but a critique of political economy, which links the historical analysis of capitalism as a mode of production and system of social relations to the theory and praxis of class struggle within and against it. Understood as a partisan critique of political economy and as a rational analysis of class struggle, the real contemporary bearers of the Marxist tradition are not Antonio Negri or Christian Marazzi, nor academic Marxologists recording courses on Capital, but groups like Endnotes (in the UK and US), Blaumachen (in Greece), Riff-Raff (in Sweden), Kosmoprolet (in Germany), and, most importantly, Théorie Communiste (in France). With respect to the relation between Marxism and communism, it is the work of this last group that I want to consider alongside Badiou’s analysis of the present moment, which he calls the Age of Riots.

To be brief, Théorie Communiste (or TC) is the name of a group formed in 1975 and of a journal whose first issue was published in 1977. The members of this group, based in Marseille, emerged from the milieu of French council communism in the wake of May '68. Tracing their primary influences back to the Dutch and German left communism of the 1920s, TC seeks to move beyond the tradition of the ultra left, from Anton Pannekoek to Paul Mattick to Guy Debord, which relies upon workers councils as a solution to the problem of organization. For TC, councilism was in its prime at the height of the workers' movement; it subsequently underwent a historical eclipse with the counter-revolutionary restructuring of the economy in the 1970s and 1980s, and the concomitant waning of the workers' movement as a primary figure of revolutionary struggle. TC distinguishes two phases of the workers' movement, from 1830 to 1900 and from 1900 to the 1960s, during which struggles were organized by workers’ parties, trade unions, or work places; were structured by demands over wages or working conditions; and, in the case of revolutionary struggles, unfolded through a seizure of state power followed by a transitional period of programmatic transformation that affirmed proletarian power and class belonging. Thus periodizing what they call cycles of struggle correlated to structural transformations of the contradiction between capital and labor, T. C. have tried to formulate and think through the impasses of programmatism stemming from the historical eclipse of the workers' movement. In part this entails a different understanding of revolution. TC holds that, following the restructuring of the 70s and 80s, communist revolution will no longer take the form of a seizure of power and a transitional period of class power and proletarian selfaffirmation. Rather, they claim, capital and the class relation are now confronted with a crisis of reproduction, such that the proletariat is directly faced with the prospect of its self-dissolution.

Under these conditions, TC posits that the horizon of revolutionary struggle is what they term communization: not a struggle for state power leading to a transitional period of class affirmation, but rather the direct abolition of the state, of the wage relation, of property and of value as communist measures that will have to be taken for the process of the revolution to continue. They argue that during the current cycle of struggles communist measures present themselves as a condition of possibility for the unfolding of the revolution—or better, as the revolution itself—rather than its result, and that revolution itself will take the form of communization. TC are thus the primary theorists of an international constellation of groups that is sometimes referred to as “the communization current.” For our purposes, what is most significant about their work is the clarity with which it makes evident the difference between political economy and the critique of political economy. TC analyze the objective conditions of the economy in order to understand the changing structure of the contradiction between capital and labor, and it is on this basis that they periodize transformations of the communist movement as cycles of struggle.

Badiou and Théorie Communiste have much in common. Both have devoted important texts to the riot as a crucial aspect of the present political conjuncture: Badiou in Le Réveil de l’Histoire and TC in their analysis of the 2008 Greek riots, "The Glass Floor." More broadly, both affirm the properly communist vocation of any Marxism worthy of the name. Both have tended the fires of this communist vocation for forty years in France, against the waves of reactionary apostasy following May '68 and the Red Years. Both have remained faithful, to use Badiou’s terminology, to the real exigencies of that event, to the task of thinking transformations of the communist movement in our time. Each has persisted in their different efforts to understand the terms of what Badiou calls a politics without a party. For Badiou, this effort responds to the impasse or “saturation” of the figure of the party demarcated by the Chinese Cultural Revolution; for Théorie Communiste, it emerges from the tradition and the impasses of councilism. Finally, Badiou and Théorie Communiste are also, in different and complex ways, the bearers of another tradition emerging from Paris in the 1960s: that of Althusserian Marxism, and particularly its constitutive anti-humanism. So we can say that in the midst of the double reaction of the past forty years (liberal and postmodern)—a reaction against the partisanship of the communist movement and against the rationalism of theoretical practice—Badiou and Théorie Communiste have carried on the real movement under the sign of the rational kernel.1 They have sustained the post-Althusserian vocation of French communist theory: a rational inquiry into the conditions of possibility for the becoming of communism, without recourse, for example, to the workerist humanism of Jacques Rancière, the deconstructive theoreticism of Jean-Luc Nancy, or the essentialist revisionism of Jean Barrot.

But at this point common ground between Badiou and Théorie Communiste gives way to differences that might at first seem unreconcilable. If we say that both carry on the real movement under the sign of the rational kernel we should also note that Badiou emphasizes the rationality of what he calls “the Idea of communism,” while Théorie Communiste stress the real movement of history, the immanent unfolding of its contradictions regardless of any such “idea.” To grasp the stakes of this difference, we have only to recall the famous passage in The German Ideology from which the phrase “the real movement” derives. “Communism is for us,” write Marx and Engels, “not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” So, at least according to this definition, communism is not, for Marx and Engels, a regulative ideal necessary to guide praxis, nor an aspiration toward an egalitarian, rational figure of collective organization, but a historical process that unfolds through the moving contradiction between capital and labor.

I cite this passage not in order to judge whether Badiou’s understanding of communism accords with one or another canonical passage in Marx, but to measure his approach to the relation between Marxism and communism vis-à-vis the structural critique of political economy carried out by Théorie Communiste. And here we can return to Althusser in order to reformulate, more precisely, the important differend between their theoretical constructions. We can say that Théorie Communiste’s analysis of class struggle in relation to the contradictory dynamics of capital is predicated upon an understanding of history as a process without a subject, and in this respect their work is true to Althusser’s structural Marxism. On the other hand, we can say that what Badiou calls the Idea of communism holds a place for the figure of the Subject as a mediation among the process of history, the interruption of the event, and the construction of its consequences. Thinking through Althusser’s work, Badiou thus reverses his formulation: we can only properly speak of history when a subject intervenes upon an interruption of its process. The problem of the relation between Marxism and communism, thought through the differend between Théorie Communiste and Badiou, is, then, that of the relation between process and subject. Ultimately, it is this relation that we will have to consider with respect to the problem of organization and its relation to revolution. Three problems then: Marxism and Communism, process and subject, revolution and organization. As they have done in different ways since the publication of the Communist Manifesto, these problems agitate radical theory and radical praxis in the present moment.

We can begin to sift through them by turning to Badiou and TC's views of contemporary riots. In “The Glass Floor,” Théorie Communiste analyzes the Greek riots of 2008 as exemplary of the cycle of struggle during which the crisis of the class relation has come to be situated at the level of the reproduction of capitalist social relations. TC emphasizes the prominent role in the Greek riots of so-called “entrants” to the labor market: of students, but more notably of unemployed youth and precarious immigrant labor. What the riots brought to the fore was the lack of future confronting these groups: not only the certainty of a future of exploitation, but also the looming incapacity of capital even to reproduce conditions of possibility for the exploitation of labor. Within capital, we can define surplus populations as those without access to exploitation by the wage. Under the conditions of a crisis of reproduction, what we see are not workers struggling against the exploitation of their labor, nor the unemployed struggling for access to exploitation by wage labor, but rather a revolt without demands of those for whom the impossibility of the reproduction of the wage relation has become manifest. To quote from TC:

The capitalist mode of production has itself run out of future.... It is the crisis of reproduction as such that annihilates the future and constructs the youth as the subject of social protest in this instance. The future, in the capitalist mode of production, is the constantly renewed reproduction of the fundamental capitalist social relation between labor-power and means of the production as the principal result of capitalist production itself. The crisis of financialized capital is not simply the setting, the canvas, the circumstance underlying the riots in Greece: it is the specific form of the capitalist mode of production running out of future, and by definition it immediately places the crisis at the level of reproduction.

What it is crucial to understand about this situation, according to TC, is that within it the dynamic of struggle is not primarily constructed by class belonging or the affirmation of class power. Rather, the proletariat struggles within the crisis of the capitalist class relation, against the capitalist class relation. This means that class belonging comes to be something experienced purely as an external constraint: to be put in the position of a class that has no future. Again, the paradox of this cycle, which TC analyzes as both its dynamic and its limit, is that the proletariat must struggle as a class, within a crisis of its reproduction as a class, against its reproduction as a class. The proletariat is immediately confronted with the task of abolishing itself as a class by acting as a class, at once within, through, and against the crisis of its reproduction as a class.

In Le Réveil de l’Histoire, however, Badiou offers a typology of riots that allows him to differentiate between an uprising like (for example) the Greek riots of 2008 and the Arab revolts of 2011. The Greek riots of 2008 or the London riots of 2011 exemplify what Badiou terms “the immediate riot,” which is characterized by a spontaneous and violent uprising, usually in response to a state murder (as was the case in both Greece and London). The immediate riot is dominated by youth—a feature that Badiou regards as a transhistorical constant—and marked by a direct rejection of the current state of affairs as unacceptable. Most importantly, the immediate riot remains primarily restricted to the site where its participants live, and thus displays what Badiou terms a weak localization. Though it spreads by imitation, the immediate riot is unable to displace itself beyond the sites where it erupts by finding a common place in which to sustain itself. Thus it achieves only a limited extension, and fades after several days or several weeks at most.

What Badiou calls “the latent riot” occupies a middle position in his typology. Though he does not use these terms, perhaps the major element of the latent riot is that it strikes at the means of production (rather than the site of consumption or ideological reproduction, as in the case of the immediate riot). He offers the example of the strikes and blockades emerging from mobilizations against Sarkozy’s pension reform in the autumn of 2010. While trade union leaders made reformist demands and tried to control the masses, petrol workers blockaded refineries, and “proxy strikes” across the country shut down factories whose workers had not officially declared a work stoppage, thus halting production without requiring the official consent or participation of workers. This tactic thus links wage-earners and non-workers while also linking the tactics of strike and occupation.

The difference between the immediate riot and the latent riot corresponds to TC’s demarcation of the limit confronted by the Greek revolt in 2008: in their terms, the latter was unable to break through the glass floor separating the space of reproduction and consumption from that of production. For the most part the Greek riots did not challenge the functioning of the productive economy. By contrast, the latent riot exhibited by the French manifestations of 2010 or the West Coast port blockades of 2011 begins to address the problem of the glass floor by linking students, youth, and other unwaged proletarians in blockades at the site of production, thus connecting the crisis of reproduction with the capacity to stop production, at least temporarily.

Finally, Badiou analyzes the Arab revolts of 2011 as examples of what he calls “the historical riot.” In this case, rioters install themselves in an occupation of a central and symbolic location, enabling a temporal extension of the riot. They also achieve what Badiou terms a “qualitative extension,” concentrating the diversity of the populace within a condensed site that comes to constitute the collective will of the people as a whole. And, crucially, those assembled arrive at the articulation of a unified collective slogan that decides the stakes of the riot: for example, in Egypt, “The People Want the Regime to Fall.” Thus, the movement can persist in the anticipation that the satisfaction of a singular demand will constitute victory.

But the historical riot is, in the end, what Badiou calls a “pre-political riot.” It broaches the problem of organization, but does not solve it. And the problem of organization, according to Badiou, imposes the necessity of the Idea: in order for a new politics to organize itself amid the historical riot—and in order for that new politics to draw the consequences of the historical riot by taking power—the energy of the historical riot must give rise to a political Idea capable of carrying its consequences and organizing fidelity to their unfolding. To quote from Badiou’s text:

That the historical value of the Idea is first of all attested by the riot is certain. That the political value of the riot is attested by the organization which is faithful to it, and faithful to it because the riot affirms the Idea, is no less certain.

The Idea is thus, for Badiou, a “historical projection of what the historical becoming of a politics is going to be—a becoming originally validated by the riot.” In other words, the Idea is that which organizes the political potential of the riot around the future of its consequences.

My question—likely to please no one—is to what extent and in what sense we can understand “communization” as the name of such an idea. Badiou himself refers to “the Idea of Communism.” But he also acknowledges that, for a century, the Party has been the organizational bearer and the practical organon of this Idea— and he acknowledges that, as he puts it “the party form has had its day.” If we acknowledge, also, that the workers’ movement has had its day, and that that day is over, then the full scope of the problem of organization comes to the fore: the question not only of politics without a party, but of politics without the ready-made organizational forms characterizing the history of the workers' movement. The term “communization” poses the question of revolution in a new way. So then: how does the term communization orient us toward the future of the problem of organization and revolution, process and subject, Marxist and communism?

Communization is a theoretical thesis, to be sure. We might speak of it in terms of what Badiou calls a “statement.” And it is a thesis or statement that orients us toward the future becoming of communism precisely in the sense articulated by Marx: not as a state of affairs to be achieved nor as an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself, but as the name of the real movement that destroys the present state of things. It differs from the role of the Idea as articulated by Badiou, in that it does not, for example, orient the consequences of the riot toward the seizure of power and the imposition of a revolutionary program for the rational establishment of an egalitarian society. Communization, rather, is precisely the name of the process that will displace this program: the immediate taking of communist measures, on the basis of real necessity, as the very condition for the possibility of sustaining a revolutionary movement without centralized organization. As a historical horizon (the manner in which the revolutionary becoming of communism presents itself during this cycle of struggle), communization is not an idea that unifies the organization of a collective subject, but rather the name, in theory, of a process without a subject.

But Théorie Communiste recognize the continual exigencies of collective action within this historical horizon—the manner in which we determine our engagement within struggles on a daily basis. In “The Glass Floor,” they write:

We have to consider seriously the fact that we are engaged in a class struggle which is a large historical movement with its deep tendencies, its restructurings, its necessities, but we are engaged in it each day as it comes. It is in the incessant interaction between all these levels, between the specific and the general, that we make our way, that we have to weigh our actions and those of our adversaries.

Now, the space and the time of this “we,” engaged in struggle each day as it comes, within the incessant interaction between specific and general exigencies of political combat, is precisely that which Badiou reserves for the subject. The subject, again, is the temporal mediator between the historical rupture of the riot and the political becoming of its consequences. We might say that, situated in struggle, the subject is the name of the problem of organization itself, the problem of the composition of the “we” that sustains its action over time. The subject, says Badiou in Being in Event and Logics of Worlds, is that which “treats points” of a political sequence, that which decides day by day, at this point, yes or no. “Each day as it comes,” says TC, we mediate between the specific and the general, we make our way, we weigh our actions and those of our adversaries. For TC, the real movement of history does not displace the subject insofar as they make room for this mediating process of daily engagement and the decisions it demands, point by point. Nor is it the case, for Badiou, that the subject eclipses the process of history in which it intervenes. From the perspective of both TC and Badiou we can recognize, to speak like Lacan, that there are some subjects (il y a des sujets).

Perhaps—returning to the rational kernel, and specifically to the Spinozist rationalism of Althusserian Marxism—we could formulate the relation between process and subject from a Spinozist perspective. History is a matter of determination. And we can conceive historical determination under either one of two attributes, each of which is expressive of its essence: as process or subject. But it seems we cannot conceive of both of these at once: the determinate necessity of process and the determinate action of the subject do not seem to be conceptually compatible. We can, however—and this is the tremendous effort of the Marxist tradition—conceive of the manner in which both are in history, and the manner in which both are equally expressive of its being, or of the essence of its becoming. History is a process without a subject, but there are some subjects, and this exception situates the rational action of the subject in history. History is determination, conceived now in terms of process, now in terms of subject. Both terms exclude the category of “the human.” And both engage the anti-humanism of the Marxist understanding of historical determination.

Communization, then, can be the Idea of some Subject—the manner in which historical determination is thought, or conceived, in the present cycle of struggle. And this idea can orient the daily engagement of the we, within a large historical movement with its deep tendencies, its restructurings, its necessities. Indeed: what else could be the practical pertinence of the theoretical usage of this term?

The thesis of communization, however, is neither normative nor prescriptive: this is precisely its dialectical power to formulate the double valence of historical determination as both process and subject. And we have to register the different problem of organization that the communization thesis imposes. For Badiou, immediate, latent, and historical riots propose the problem of a political organization that the Idea will draw together. I want to submit, on the contrary, that these figures of the riot already propose the only figures of organization we will find after the eclipse of the workers’ movement. Let me suggest that rather than immediate riot, latent riot, and historical riot, we simply refer to these three types in terms of their primary tactical content: riot, blockade, and commune. We now struggle within a time during which the formal organization of struggles is inseparable from the content of their tactics, such that riot, blockade, and commune are the only figures of organization we will find. Or, if we can elaborate a category that draws these three together, it would be that of the occupation. In Oakland, for example, we have seen the manner in which the compound time and space of an “occupation” expands to include all three of these tactics, at once drawing them onto a common ground and dispersing itself into their differences.

My claim, then, is that what we call “communization” is at once the name of a necessity and an imperative: the necessity and the imperative for occupations to spread and to multiply, expanding from city squares to foreclosed homes to neighborhoods and public buildings, as the precariousness of a class that is no longer working acts against its proletarian destitution. The twenty-first century will be the time of this contagion, during which the concatenated co-articulation of riot, blockade, and commune will displace the problem of organization as we know it. What this displacement means is

that what we know as communism may not entail, finally, the rational organization of an egalitarian state of affairs (as Badiou has it), but rather the processual undoing of capitalist modernity attended by uneven and persistent constellations of communist existence. If this is the case, what it will require is not so much an Idea that organizes a unified collective Subject as a practice of struggle capable of exhibiting a more complex fidelity to disorganization. It is the global spread of riot, blockade, and commune that will displace the bourgeois antinomies of spontaneity and organization, process and subject, freedom and necessity, even as it destroys the present state of things.

  • 1. The “rational kernel” is Marx’s characterization of the dialectical method that must be extracted from the “mystical shell” of Hegelian idealism. Louis Althusser’s interpretation of this phrase is crucial to his reconstruction of a Marxist dialectic that is both rationalist and materialist.