Interview with Alain Badiou
Mansur Tayfuri: First of all, I would like to start from a word so often repeated enough to become the slogan of power today: the crisis. And after we are promised after the crisis, everything depends on this crisis, but apparently it knows no end. But I would ask it is the crisis of which, although in demonstrations, everywhere, one hears saying: it is not our crisis.
Alain Badiou: I think that it is perhaps not quite right to speak of crisis, without specifying immediately: crisis of whom, of what? First, there is the idea that this crisis would be a serious crisis of capitalism, since 2008, let's say. Personally, I think yes there was a crisis of capitalism, but we know that crises are part of capitalism itself, that there are periodic systemic crises in the entire history of capitalism and that this crisis as strictly financial crisis may be in the process of ending. So, in truth, this first interpretation of crisis does not seem to me to be well founded. The second thing is that there would rather be a political crisis. The political crisis, we can take it in two ways: we can say, first there is a crisis of the historical left, including the historic communist parties. This I think is right. There is a crisis of the historical left and there is probably a collapse of social democracy in Europe. There is obviously the disappearance of the socialist states in the 80s. Very often one interprets this crisis of the historical left as a pure and simple death, and I think it’s very dangerous, because if really there is a crisis of the historical left and in particular of communism, our task is to overcome this crisis, it is to take stock of it, it is to commit ourselves to get out of this situation of crisis, while often the conclusion is that, in reality, this crisis is interpreted as a death. So there is a whole work to do to explain that there is indeed a historic crisis of this orientation, but that it does not mean that it is dead, but rather that we must enter a new stage, rebuild a new stage of this orientation. In this sense I think we need to look at the crisis not just in its negativity, but rather as a system of new tasks that are ours, and these tasks consist in renewing, but also reinforcing, repeating the great ideas, the great directions inherited from historical communism, even in crisis, to go beyond and rebuild something. To finish on the word crisis, I would say that it is very important to consider that our tasks in thinking and action are essentially affirmative and not all negative. From this point of view, the word crisis is a bit dangerous because it carries negativity, whereas it is not the real situation for those who, in the end, want to continue and transform the communist orientation in the world.
MT: You insist on an affirmative task of thought and you oppose in your philosophy the negative thought and the affirmative thought, in which historical context fits this opposition between these two kinds of thought, although what we know nowadays rather insists on a negation?
Alain Badiou: I think that there was in France a great tradition of interpreting the tasks of thought as being first and foremost critical tasks. This has furthermore favored this character, who is neither a philosopher nor an activist, but who is a critical essayist, character of a very characteristic French intellectual. I think we have to go beyond this tradition, this domination. At the bottom, by affirmative sharing, I mean very simple things: we have to produce an analysis of the situation which, of course, in a certain sense is a critical analysis, since we will not conclude that this situation is very good. So we have an analytical element, I would rather call it that, which naturally contains an essential critique, but the conclusions that we must draw from this analysis consist in proposing affirmatively a certain number of principles, conclusions and orientations. What I call an affirmative thought is a thought which, admittedly, contains a critique of the existant world, but which, in the main connects this criticism to a proposition of a new orientation. The word orientation seems to me today the best, because the word line is perhaps a little too precise, too organizational. An orientation it is a new subjective figure, articulated to the critique that we must propose. It is in this sense that I speak of affirmation.
MT: What would be according to your philosophy a contemporary figure of the sophist compared to the philosopher?
Alain Badiou: I would call a sophist today the one that, in reality, considers that firstly we can not really transform the real world, but that we can constantly criticize. This mixture of criticism that presents itself as a radical critic, but at the bottom of which you find the opposite of the criticism, ie an acceptance, this I think that it is a very important figure with us. It is the modern sophistry, which has a critical virtuosity but which thinks that the conclusion can not be a proposition, an orientation towards a new organization. It is very important to see that in France this sophistic orientation has been unleashed against communism, and that the main enemy of this orientation in the 80's was communism itself. Thus, on the pretext of critique, in reality these modern sophists have rallied for the most part, at the level of negation, with the established order, the dominant order. This is why I think that for a long time it took the philosopher to fight this current as our ancestors fought the sophists.
MT: I would like to read you one of the first sentences I read from you, in fact in a context that goes from Derrida to postmodernism, a context in which I wondered what was my relationship with these texts. In this context we are faced with a philosopher who said: yes, of course, there are bodies, languages, but there are also truths. I would sure like you to comment us on this sentence.
Alain Badiou: I believe that it is required to start from an essential remark which is that the current, the dominant philosophical orientation today is relativistic. Relativist what does it mean? It means that there are no universal truths, that there are only statements appropriate to particular situations or subjects. And so, if we want to understand something, we need to know who is speaking and from what body goes out what is being said, and in what language and in what culture it is pronounced. As long as everything is relative to a specific cultural system, the question is to respect the cultural context of all that, to admit the possible plurality. What I meant by this sentence is: I naturally recognize that there are bodies, there are languages and there are cultures, I even recognize that it is in the element of this particularity that are taking place creations. But I think that some of these creations are ultimately intelligible, appropriables and set directions for the whole of humanity and therefore that they are universal. I called it truths, it's the most banal philosophical word, and so I said that the existence of truths this was not at all the negation of the fact there are bodies and differentiated cultures, it is in the element of bodies and of differentiated cultures that truths are created historically, that they happen, that they occur, but that does not prevent them from being, from having a range, a universal value.
MT: In your book True Life, you speak of a triangle of corruption: sex, power, money. There is a triangle in Charles Baudelaire in the Spleen of Paris under the title "Temptations or Eros, Plutus and Glory". But I would like to ask you what is the figure of evil in your philosophy? Is there one or more evil figures nowadays?
Alain Badiou: It's in my little book Ethics that I was most concerned about the issue of evil. I think that evil is always a particular modality of hostility to truths. It does not consist simply in saying: there are no truths. It is fighting really the very possibility that there are truths and everything of that would testify to what there is ones. That means, every time we engage in a fight that kind, to oppose cultural, bodily, biological identities to truths in a fought and hostile way. One is then in a figure whose consequences will be disastrous, catastrophic, and will be explicitly figures of evil. That's how I would define them. If we search well in the obviously bad procedures, that's what we can observe, we will always see that basically, in their essence, there is an hostility to everything that claims to have universal value and therefore to truths. That's why I think we can define different species of evil according to the different kinds of truth. One can say for example: if it is about art, the reactionary, academic positions, which freeze art at a moment of its existence, are the evil in aesthetics. In politics, finally, today the force of evil is all that unfolds in the element of contemporary anticommunism. There was an anti-communism in the 1920s, of the 30s, and there is a contemporary anticommunism that is particular, because its assertion is that communism is dead. One could say: since it is dead, why do you care? But it is quite interesting that there are anticommunists who, while claiming that communism is dead, are not completely sure that it is dead, and who continue to be very vigilant, very attentive, so to prevent anything like it, including extraordinarily bad actions that are obviously part of the evil. I think that the coalition, the encirclement of Afrin that we talked about, it means the encirclement of a political proposal that brings a certain original, non-identical and anti-capitalist communism, the one we were talking about at first, a proposal that was in fact carried by some form of struggle of the Kurdish people, but which has universal value. Me, I interpret it as so. There are other things that are called Kurdish, the Kurdish word is not a magic word by itself, but if we take this orientation, indeed which happens to be, from the point of view of bodies and languages, largely carried by Kurds, as anything is carried by someone, I think that the encirclement of that, the will to destroy it, is a figure of political evil in the actual world conjuncture and that is why I support the permanence, the duration of this orientation. It is striking to see that in political matters the evil is often represented by coalitions, it is not new, there were colonial coalitions, I think for example the atrocious episode was the destruction of Beijing by the international coalition in the 19th century, and today this famous coalition is also on the verge of producing extremely negative facts with, as always, an ideology that cements the coalition and which, at the end of the ends, becomes at a given moment a strictly negative ideology including against people with whom one worked for a while. In science, Evil is represented by different forms of obscurantism, totally irrational beliefs. A good example is the hard work of the American right against Darwin's theory of evolution, which is the foundation of modern biology. And finally, in love, there are two opposite forms of Evil. The first is to attribute to love the unique destiny of the family, to crush the creative freedom of love under the social and often religious weight of the family. The second, at the opposite, is to affirm that love does not really exist, and that only sexual libertinage exists. In both cases, one denies the truth of love, which resides in an exceptional relation to the existence of another human subject, and therefore in a positive, extraordinary experience of otherness.
MT: One of the first sentences I learned in your seminars at ENS in 2012 was the one about discipline as the only capital of the oppressed, although your thinking had always as stake to make a difference between the organization and the movement as the historical moment of politics.
Alain Badiou: I come back to this statement that I often repeated. The popular masses in concrete situations, this is people who have no money, who do not have available armed forces at the outset. They are often an ideological unit, but not necessarily strong. They are often poorly educated intellectually, it is part of the oppression of not educating people, and so what do they have? Everyone knows that they have their unity, it is the only possibility for a mass to have a real strength in a situation and this unity requires discipline. It is a practical unity so it has to be understood as the fact that people know collectively what to do, and that implies an organization. It is ann evidence, there is no example of an unorganized uprising that has been able to last in the long run. So whatever we say, the question of discipline and organization is inevitable, including and especially temporally. One can imagine that an assault is victorious somewhere, but the discipline of the enemy will break it. A typical historical example, it is the Paris Commune on which Lenin and others have not stopped thinking as I still do today. It is a fine example of an unorganized uprising, winner at first, seizing the city of Paris, but in the last it ends after two months by an horrific massacre, thirty thousand deads on the cobblestones of Paris... From this time on including Marx and his friends saw that the lack of discipline and organization led to disaster. I think this is a very basic reflection, but we must continue to maintain that there must be a dialectic between movement and organization. It is a dialectical relationship, not an outright identity relationship. We do know that not everyone is organized, that discipline must be taught, practiced, contested, discussed, but in the end it must be agreed upon. In the history between the force of movement that is a subjective force, collective, and organization, there is a dialectical relation, and who says dialectical relation says that, in certain circumstances, there may be contradictions. It may be necessary to rectify some things on the discipline or organization side. All this is what the classics have called the mass line of the organization of which I am a warm supporter, the ability for the organization to listen to what is said and to incorporate discipline into the movement. I like alot this sentence given to Mao: "It is a question of returning to the popular masses in a stylized form, what they gave us in a confused form.” This is the organization, it is nothing else than the only force that the masses can have in time, in duration, and if we do not have that, one can do no better than having momentary successes, paid afterwards by terrible defeats.
MT: I would like to conclude the interview with another question, that of the end of the Neolithic era of which you speak, and the entry in another historical time. I wonder if this is also a profound change of a certain human nature? For there are people who say that capitalism took the form of a nature, or that capitalism is installed as the nature of our world. How important is it to take up this old concept, that is human nature? How does this approach translate into politics, is it not a naturalization of the world as it is?
Alain Badiou: There is nothing "natural" in capitalism, nor as well in fact in feudalism or communism. The neolithic revolution, with sedentary agriculture, the storage of food, the decisive progress of tools, the invention of writing, monumental architecture, steel weapons, etc. brought humanity out of submission from immediate natural constraints. The movement of History perfects this antinatural progress, but it remains limited as long as unequal and violent social constraints divide humanity into antagonistic groups and forms of power based on private property. Capitalism is the last form of these pathological divisions. Communism has the task of putting an end to them while retaining and deploying the antinatural power of science and technology. In fact, it is inequality that is natural, as we see in the existence of chieftaincies, incessant rivalries, and warlike dominations, in animal groups. Communism brings to its ultimate form the antinatural effort that organizes the whole of humanity around an idea of egalitarian justice. This equality does not negate differences at all. On the contrary, it keeps the differences, physical, cultural, sexual, as potential richness of humanity. But it forbids these identity differences to be captive to inequality. Equality of the creative differences of which humanity is composed, such is the final ideal, that of communism, which will bring humanity out of 300,000 years of paleolithic and neolithic ages, and will ensure the triumph of thought and Idea on the inequality constraints originally imposed by nature.
Paris, March 2018.
With Xazalnus and Nawext Review.