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Synthesis/Regeneration 54   (Winter 2011)

The Little Red Book

Review by Richard Burke

The Communist Hypothesis, by Alain Badiou, Verso 2010, ISBN-13:978-1-84467-600-2, 279 pages, $19.95.

The cover design of Alain Badiou’s newest book The Communist Hypothesis gives a clue to his political orientation: It is taken from the iconic Quotations From Chairman Mao Zedong, also known as the “little red book.” In The Communist Hypothesis Badiou provides a surprising and unorthodox interpretation of Maoism relevant to the dilemmas of the contemporary world-left.

A professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, Badiou has been concerned with a revitalization of Marxist political theory and action in an era in which the very idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism seems to have failed. Amazingly, he seeks to do so by examining events frequently held up as an example of that failure: May ’68 in France and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Marxist-Leninism had created an instrument, the party-state, which was a perfect tool for
attaining…political power, but which was unsuited for the building of socialism.

One of Badiou’s basic insights is his concept of a series of sequences in the evolution of the communist movement, each followed by a roughly 40-year period in which the idea seems to have failed and been discredited. The first sequence began with the French Revolution and involved the creation of the workers’ movement and the work of Marx and Engels. This sequence came to an end with the failure of the Paris Commune in 1871. The second sequence opens in 1918 with the Bolshevik Revolution, and its major innovation, the vanguard party. Lenin, it seems, was haunted by the failure of the Paris Commune — it is said that he danced in the snow when the Bolsheviks remained in power one day longer than the Commune did —and sought to find a way to solve the problem of that failure.

Thus Lenin’s creation of the disciplined, centralized vanguard party that sought to take and hold state power while concentrating political and economic control in the party-state’s hands. Lenin even believed that such a party could substitute itself for the working class in situations, such as early 20th century Russia, where the proletariat was a minority of the population. Marxist-Leninism had created an instrument, the party-state, which was a perfect tool for attaining and maintaining political power, but which was completely unsuited for the building of socialism. According to Badiou this sequence ended in 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong, and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

For Badiou the Cultural Revolution was the “last revolution.” His work is far from simplistic Maoist propaganda, however. He recognizes the excessive and unnecessary violence, judging that in the end the Cultural Revolution proved to be a failure. While not disputing the facts as found in standard histories of the era, he views them from a different perspective and comes to different conclusions about that event.

The Cultural Revolution was the result of a power struggle in the Chinese Communist Party in the mid 60s. At that time the influence of Mao was in decline while that of those he termed the “capitalist roaders,” such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, was ascending. Mao and his supporters in the party appealed to the masses, denouncing the “capitalist roaders” and proclaiming that the bourgeoisie was within the Communist Party itself. A “cultural revolution” against these elements was proclaimed in the name of the communist idea.

…the central problem of the Cultural Revolution was the inability of
the party-state to create a communist society…

Young people in particular were appealed to, with disastrous results. The truth is that, armed only with the slogan “the fight of the new against the old,” many Red Guards gave in to a well-known (negative) tendency in revolutions: iconoclasm, the persecution of people for futile motives, a sort of assumed barbarism. This is also the inclination of youth left to its own devices. From this we will draw the conclusion that every political organization must be transgenerational, and that it is a bad idea to organize the political separation of the youth. For Badiou the Cultural Revolution is different in kind from the purges of Stalin, and he notes that only two of Mao’s rivals in the party, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, were actually killed. Deng Xiaoping, considered the second-worst of all the “capitalist roaders,” actually succeeded Mao as leader of the People’s Republic of China!

According to Badiou the central problem of the Cultural Revolution was precisely the inability of the party-state to create a truly Communist society, which would involve a radical decentralization of power to the masses. While Mao was sincere in his attempt to create such a society, he himself was a man of the party who proclaimed the Cultural Revolution as a means of revitalizing it. The process quickly slipped out of control, leading to chaos and disruption of the country.

For Badiou the turning point was the proclamation of the Shanghai Commune in 1967, where Red Guards and Maoist workers overthrew the party committee, took power in the city and attempted to run it without the party, along the lines of the Paris Commune. It was of course at this time that the army was called out. The failure of the Cultural Revolution in Badiou’s perspective was precisely that such experiments as the Shanghai Commune did not receive the support of the party-state.

During the period of the Cultural Revolution, the May ’68 revolt exploded in France, where students’ protests and workers’ wildcat strikes converged, and ideas of self-management and rejection of bureaucracy — similar to those raised in the Shanghai Commune — were emphasized. During May ’68 the organizations of the official left, particularly the French Communist Party, played the role of collaborators with the capitalist state, attempting to subdue the revolt.

Previously marginal currents on the French left — Anarchist, Left-Marxist, Maoist and Trotskyist — played an active role in the revolution. Badiou claims that we remain the contemporaries of May ’68, and that despite all the attempts by the establishment to banish it as a never-to-be-repeated episode, the themes raised then remain relevant.

Thus for Badiou, we are now in another 40-year interval between the second era of the communist movement and a coming third one. In his view, previous sequences in the movement leave problems which the succeeding ones must solve. Badiou comes to the conclusion that the central problem left by both May ’68 and the Cultural Revolution is this: the creation of effective forms of political organization outside of the Leninist party-state which bypass electoral politics and seek to realize the idea of communism. A return, so to speak, of the forms of organization embodied in the Paris Commune. “The Party-form, like that of the Socialist State, is no longer suitable for providing real support for the Idea.”

…we are now in another 40-year interval between the second era
of the communist movement and a coming third one.

Important questions of course remain, which Badiou has yet to answer. Exactly what such an organization would look like, and how it would function and be structured, are not addressed. An involvement in efforts to reform the system is necessary if any movement is to gain the trust and support of the masses in periods of revolt. That Badiou recognizes the need for such efforts is clear from his involvement in the Organisation Politique in France with its particular emphasis on the concerns of migrant workers.

Exactly how the type of political organization he proposes can perform these tasks more efficiently than a party is not yet clear. There is great irony in the fact that a Maoist has advocated forms of organization which seem indistinguishable from those of Anarchists. Perhaps Badiou is on to something, and the time has come to break out of all our ideological boxes, both Marxist and Anarchist.

If Badiou is right, then the present time is comparable to that in which Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done, and we are coming to the end of the interval between the second sequence of the communist movement and a coming third era. The recent economic crisis is a stark reminder that capitalism is neither immortal nor invulnerable. As Badiou himself puts it, “we can give new life to the communist hypothesis, or rather to the Idea of communism, in individual consciousnesses. We can usher in the third era of this Idea’s existence. We can, so we must.”

R. Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[14 dec 11]

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