The following is an excerpt from Philosophy for Militants, Badiou’s latest book published in English and translated by Bruno Bosteels as part of Verso’s ‘Pocket Communism’ series.
As with some of Badiou’s other smaller published works there is an marked absence of that difficult idiosyncratic theoretical style—a mixture of Lacanianism, Post-Maoist ontology, and axiomatic set theory—which makes some of his more theoretical work so forbidding for a wider audience. In this work we find Badiou showing some sensitivity towards our present political milieu, aware of the battle-lines being drawn by revanchist governments against the people, and a willingness for his thought to be conditioned by, while still exceeding, this history. The author dwells on the ambiguity of democracy in the relationship between politics and philosophy, arguing that a democratic politics is necessary for the emergence of philosophy, while philosophy itself is in the curious position of having no necessary democratic mission yet (ideally) takes a ‘mathematically’ pure democratic form in that, via philosophy, anyone can speak, anyone can have an argument. The philosophical argument is, for Badiou, independent of the position of enunciation, and he finds in this a pretext for a philosophical argument—communism, if you like—which would have as its goal the maintenance of its own conditions of possibility, which is to say, a truly democratic politics. We are explicitly returned to the figure of Socrates made to die for a role perceived as influential in shaping young minds; implicitly we are asked to think the question: would Socrates likewise have to ‘disappear’ today, and what sort of configuration of the political-philosophical relationship would be necessary to obviate his disappearance?
Arguing towards the freeing of the role of Plato’s aristocratic ‘guardians’ for the generic human, Badiou draws from Jacobin and Maoist sources to place before us a decision that will determine everything: either we fall in with a conservatism (however ‘liberal’) pledged to the corruption of parliamentary politics under capitalist conditions or we face the struggle of founding the polis for ourselves in terms of a democratic philosophical-political nexus in which equality and justice for all overcomes the incessant ideology and pseudo-democracy of individualistic liberties and personal freedoms. Citing his ‘friend-enemy’ Rancière, Badiou advances the position that the firmest commitment to such a relationship (again, communism), eschewing the false freedom of opinions for a conviction towards durable philosophical Truth, alone guarantees an equality of participation and thus the proper freedom of universality: a city-state in which it doesn’t matter who you are, your voice has its own independent weight, the weight of ‘the same’ being a perennial principle of the people.
Naturally we will not be without some criticisms for this vision, and more particularly the problematic of the precise details of how we materially arrive at it, but given the accessibility of the work and its motivation towards the only real freedom of our moment, the broad laying out of alternative axiomatic choices that will determine our future—the repetition of capital or the labour of a new human society—this chapter of Philosophy for Militants is probably one of the better places to start reading for anyone new to Badiou.
Before broaching the paradoxical relationship between philosophy and politics, I would like to raise a few simple questions about the future of philosophy itself.
I will begin with a reference to one of my masters, Louis Althusser. For Althusser, the birth of Marxism is not a simple matter. It depends on two revolutions, on two major intellectual events. first, a scientific event, namely, the creation by Marx of a science of history, the name of which is ‘historical materialism’. The second event is philosophical in nature and concerns the creation, by Marx and some others, of a new tendency in philosophy, the name of which is ‘dialectical materialism’. We can say that a new philosophy is called for to clarify and help with the birth of a new science. Thus, Plato’s philosophy was summoned by the beginning of mathematics, or Kant’s philosophy by Newtonian physics. There is nothing particularly difficult in all this. But in this context it becomes possible to make a few small remarks about the future of philosophy.
We can begin by considering the fact that this future does not depend principally on philosophy and on its history, but on new facts in certain domains, which are not immediately philosophical in nature. In particular, it depends on facts that belong to the domain of science: for example, mathematics for Plato, Descartes or Leibniz; physics for Kant, Whitehead or Popper; history for Hegel or Marx; biology for Nietzsche, Bergson or Deleuze.
I am perfectly in agreement with the statement that philosophy depends on certain nonphilosophical domains, which I have proposed to call the ‘conditions’ of philosophy. I merely want to recall that I do not limit the conditions of philosophy to the comings and goings of science. I propose a much vaster ensemble of conditions, pertaining to four different types: science, to be sure, but also politics, art and love. Thus, my work depends, for instance, on a new concept of the infinite, but also on new forms of revolutionary politics, on the great poems by Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Mandelstam or Wallace Stevens, on the prose of Samuel Beckett, and on the new figures of love that have emerged in the context of psychoanalysis, as well as on the complete transformation of all questions concerning sexuation and gender.
We could thus say that the future of philosophy depends on its capacity for progressive adaptation to the changing of its conditions. And, if this is indeed the case, we could say that philosophy always comes in the second place; it always arrives aprés coup, or in the aftermath, of nonphilosophical innovations. It is true that this is also Hegel’s conclusion. For him philosophy is the bird of wisdom, and the bird of wisdom is the owl. But the owl takes flight only towards the end of the day. Philosophy is the discipline that comes after the day of knowledge, after the day of real-life experiments?when night falls. Apparently, our problem concerning the future of philosophy is thereby solved.
We can imagine two cases. first case: a new dawn of creative experiments in matters of science, politics, art or love is on the verge of breaking and we will have the experience of a new evening for philosophy. Second case: our civilisation is exhausted, and the future that we are capable of imagining is a sombre one, a future of perpetual obscurity. The future of philosophy will thus lie in dying its slow death at night. Philosophy will be reduced to what we can read at the beginning of that splendid text by Samuel Beckett, Company: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark’ A voice with neither meaning nor destination. And, in fact, from Hegel to Auguste Comte, all the way to Nietzsche, Heidegger or Derrida, without forgetting Wittgenstein and Carnap, we find time and again the philosophical idea of a probable death of philosophy?in any case the death of philosophy in its classical or metaphysical form. Will I, as someone who is well-known for his contempt for the dominant form of our time and his staunch criticism of capitalo-parliamentarianism, preach the necessary end and overcoming of philosophy? You know that such is not my position. Quite the contrary, I am attached to the possibility that philosophy, as I already wrote in my first Manifesto for Philosophy, must take ‘one more step’
This is because the widespread thesis about the death of metaphysics, the postmodern thesis of an overcoming of the philosophical element as such by way of novel, more hybridised, and more mixed, “less dogmatic intellectualities?this thesis runs into a whole series of difficulties. The first difficulty, which is perhaps overly formal, is the following: for a long time now the idea of the end of philosophy has been a typically philosophical idea. Moreover, it is often a positive idea. For Hegel, philosophy has reached its end because it is capable of grasping what is absolute knowledge. For Marx, philosophy, as interpretation of the world, may be replaced by a concrete transformation of this same world. For Nietzsche, negative abstraction represented by the old philosophy must be destroyed to liberate the genuine vital affirmation, the great ‘Yes!’ to all that exists. And the analytical tendency, the metaphysical phrases, which are pure nonsense, must be deconstructed in favour of clear propositions and statements, under the paradigm of modern logic. In all these cases we see how the great declarations about the death of philosophy in general, or of metaphysics in particular, are most likely the rhetorical means to introduce a new path, a new aim, within philosophy itself. The best way to say ‘I am a new philosopher’ is probably to say with great emphasis: ‘Philosophy is over, philosophy is dead! Therefore, I propose that with me there begins something entirely new. Not philosophy, but thinking! Not philosophy, but the force of life! Not philosophy, but a new rational language! In fact, not the old philosophy, but the new philosophy, which by some amazing chance happens to be mine.’
It is not impossible that the future of philosophy always takes the form of a resurrection. The old philosophy, like the old man, is dead; but this death is in fact the birth of the new man, of the new philosopher. However, there exists a close relationship between resurrection and immortality, between the greatest imaginable change, the passage from death to life, and the most complete absence of change imaginable, when we place ourselves in the joy of salvation. Perhaps the repetition of the motif of the end of philosophy joined with the repeated motif of a new beginning of thought is the sign of a fundamental immobility of philosophy as such. It is possible that philosophy must always place its continuity, its repetitive nature, under the rubric of the dramatic pair of birth and death. At this point, we can come back to the work of Althusser. It is Althusser who argues that philosophy depends on science, all the while making an extremely strange argument, namely, that philosophy has no history at all, that philosophy is always the same thing. In this case, the problem of the future of philosophy in fact becomes a simple one: the future of philosophy is its past. lt boggles the mind to see Althusser, the great Marxist, become the last defender of the old scholastic notion of a philosophia perennis, of a philosophy as the pure repetition of the same, a philosophy in the Nietzschean style as eternal return of the same.
But what does this ‘same’ really mean? What is this sameness of the same that is equivalent to the ahistorical destiny of philosophy? This question obviously brings us back to the old discussion on the true nature of philosophy. Roughly, we can distinguish two tendencies in this debate. For the first tendency, philosophy is essentially a reflexive mode of knowledge: the knowledge of truth in the theoretical domain, the knowledge of values in the practical domain. And we must organise the process whereby these two fundamental forms of knowledge are acquired and transmitted. Thus, the form that is appropriate for philosophy is that of the school. The philosopher then is a professor, like Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and so many others, myself included. The philosopher organises the reasoned transmission and discussion of questions concerning truth and values. Indeed, it belongs to philosophy to have invented the form of the school, since at least the Greeks. The second possibility holds that philosophy is not really a form of knowledge, whether theoretical or practical. Rather, it consists in the direct transformation of a subject, being a radical conversion of sorts?a complete upheaval of existence. Consequently, philosophy comes very close to religion, even though its means are exclusively rational; it comes very close to love, but without the violent support of desire; very close to political commitment, but without the constraint of a centralised organisation; very close to artistic creation, but without the sensible means of art; very close to scientific knowledge, but without the formalism of mathematics or the empirical and technical means of physics. For this second tendency, philosophy is not necessarily a subject?matter belonging to the school, to pedagogy, to professors and the problem of transmission. It is a free address of someone to someone else. Like Socrates addressing the youth in the streets of Athens, like Descartes writing letters to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing his Confessions; or like the poems of Nietzsche, the novels and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre; or, if you allow me this touch of narcissism, like my own theatrical or novelistic works, as well as the affirmative and combative style that infuses, I believe, even the most complex of my philosophical writings.
In other words, we can conceive of philosophy, to speak like Lacan, as a form of the discourse of the University, an affair for philosophers and students in reasonable institutions. This is the perennially scholastic vision of Aristotle. Or else we can conceive of philosophy as the most radical form of the discourse of the Master, an affair of personal commitment in which the combative affirmation comes first (above all against the sophists and against the doubts of the sages who honour the University).
In this second view of things, philosophy is no more knowledge than it is knowledge of knowledge. It is an action. We could say that what identifies philosophy are not the rules of a discourse but the singularity of an act. It is this act that the enemies of Socrates designated as ‘corrupting the youth’. And, as you know, this is the reason why Socrates was condemned to death. ‘To corrupt the youth’ is, after all, a very apt name to designate the philosophical act, provided that we understand the meaning of ‘corruption’. To corrupt here means to teach the possibility of refusing all blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt means to give the youth certain means to change their opinion with regard to social norms, to substitute debate and rational critique for imitation and approval, and even, if the question is a matter of principle, to substitute revolt for obedience. But this revolt is neither spontaneous nor aggressive, to the extent that it is the consequence of principles and of a critique offered for the discussion of all.
In Rimbaud’s poetry we find the strange expression; ‘logical revolts’. This is probably a good definition of the philosophical act. It is not by chance that my old friend-enemy, the remarkable antiphilosopher Jacques Ranciére, created in the 1970s a very important journal, which carried precisely the title Les Révoltes logiques.
But if the true essence of philosophy consists in being an act, we understand better why, in the eyes of Louis Althusser, there exists no real history of philosophy In his own work Althusser proposes that the active function of philosophy consists in introducing a division among opinions. To be more precise, a division among the opinions about scientific knowledge?or, more generally, among theoretical activities. What kind of division? It is ultimately the division between materialism and idealism. As a Marxist, Althusser thought that materialism was the revolutionary framework for theoretical activities and that idealism was the conservative framework. Thus, his final definition was the following: philosophy is like a political struggle in the theoretical field.
But, independently of this Marxist conclusion, we can make two remarks:
- The philosophical act always takes the form of a decision, a separation, a clear distinction. Between knowledge and opinion, between correct and false opinions, between truth and falsity, between Good and Evil, between wisdom and madness, between the affirmative position and the purely critical position, and so on.
- The philosophical act always has a normative dimension. The division is also a hierarchy. In the case of Marxism, the good term is materialism and the bad one, idealism. But, more generally, we see that the division introduced among the concepts or experiences is in fact a way of imposing a new hierarchy, especially for the youth. And, from a negative standpoint, the result is the intellectual overturning of an established order” and an old hierarchy.
So, in philosophy, we have something invariant, something of the order of a compulsion to repeat, or like the eternal return of the same. But this invariance is of the order of the act, and not of knowledge. It is a subjectivity, for which knowing in all its forms is only one means among others.
Philosophy is the act of reorganising all theoretical and practical experiments by proposing a great new normative division, which inverts an established intellectual order and promotes new values beyond the commonly accepted ones. The form all this takes is of a more or less free address to each and everyone, but first and foremost to the youth, because a philosopher knows perfectly well that young people are the ones who must make decisions about their lives and who are most often ready to accept the risks of a logical revolt.
All this explains why philosophy is to some extent always the same thing. Of course, all philosophers think that their work is absolutely new. This is only human. A number of historians of philosophy have introduced absolute breaks. For example, after Descartes, it is evident that metaphysics must take modern science as the paradigm of its rational construction. After Kant, classical metaphysics is declared impossible. Or, after Wittgenstein, it is forbidden to forget that the study of language constitutes the very core of philosophy. We thus have a rationalist turn, a critical turn, a linguistic turn. But, in fact, nothing in philosophy is irreversible. There is no absolute tum. Numerous philosophers today are capable of finding in Plato or Leibniz far more interesting and stimulating points than the points of seemingly comparable intensity found in Heidegger or in Wittgenstein. This is because their matrix is by and large identical to that of Plato or Leibniz. The immanent affinities that exist among philosophers can be explained only by the fact that philosophy is a repetition of its act. Deleuze with Leibniz and Spinoza; Sartre with Descartes and Hegel; Merleau-Ponty with Bergson and Aristotle; myself with Plato and Hegel; Slavoj Zizek with Kant and Schelling. And, possibly, for almost 3,000 years, everyone with everyone else.
But if the philosophical act is formally the same, and the return of the same, we will have to account for the change in historical context. For the act takes place under certain conditions. When a philosopher proposes a new division and a new hierarchy for the experiments of his or her time, it is because a new intellectual creation, a new truth, has just made its appearance. It is in fact because, in his or her eyes, we have to assume the consequences of a new event within the actual conditions of philosophy.
Some examples. Plato proposed a division between the sensible and the intelligible under the conditions of the geometry of Eudoxus and of a post-Pythagorean concept of number and measure. Hegel introduced history and becoming into the absolute Idea, on the account of the striking novelty of the French Revolution. Nietzsche developed a dialectical relation between Greek tragedy and the birth of philosophy in the context of the tumultuous feelings that the discovery of Wagner’s musical drama awoke in him. And Derrida transformed the classical approach of rigid metaphysical oppositions, largely on account of the growing and unavoidable importance, for our experiences, of the feminine dimension.
This is why we can finally speak of a creative repetition. There is something invariant, which takes the form of a gesture, a gesture of division. And there is, under the pressure of certain events and their consequences, the need to transform certain aspects of the philosophical gesture. We thus have a form, and we have the variable form of the unique form. This explains why we can clearly recognise philosophy and the philosophers, in spite of their enormous differences and their violent conflicts. Kant said that the history of philosophy was a battlefield. He was absolutely right. But it is also the repetition of the same battle, in the same field. A musical image may be helpful here. The becoming of philosophy has the classical form of the theme and its variations. The repetition provides the theme, and the constant novelty, the variations.
And all this takes place after certain events in politics, in art, in science, in love: events that have given rise to the need for a new variation on the same theme. Thus, there is some truth to Hegel’s statement. It is indeed the case that we philosophers work at night, after the day of the true becoming of a new truth. I am reminded of a splendid poem by Wallace Stevens, whose title, ‘Man Carrying Thing’, resembles that of a painting in which Stevens writes: ‘We must endure our thoughts all night’. Alas, such is the fate of philosophers and of philosophy. And Stevens continues: ‘until the bright obvious stands motionless in cold.’ Yes, we hope, we believe that one day the ‘bright obvious’ will rise up motionless, in the stellar coldness of its ultimate form. It will be the last stage of philosophy, the absolute Idea, the complete revelation. But this does not come to pass. To the contrary, when something happens during the day of living truths, we have to repeal the philosophical act and create a new variation.
In this way, the future of philosophy, like its past, is a creative repetition. It will forever be the case that we must endure our thoughts for as long as the night lasts.
Among such nocturnal thoughts, none is probably more worrying for us today than those that are tied to the political condition. And the reason for this is simple: politics itself stands by and large in a kind of night of thought. But the philosopher cannot resign himself so as to let this nocturnal position be the result of a night of concrete truths. The philosopher must try to discern far into the distance, towards the horizon, whatever the glowing lights announce. This time the philosopher is rather like the watchman from the beginning of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. You know this unsurpassed passage:
Now as this bed stricken with night and drenched with dew I keep, I lie awake, without respite, like a watchdog to mark the grand processionals of all the stars of night burdened with winter and again with heat for men. Of these dynasties in their shining blazoned on the air, l have come to know the science of these stars upon their wane and when the rest arise.
The philosopher is the subject of this kind of science; when night falls he is the loyal watchdog of the Outside. But his joy is made of the announcement of dawn. Still Aeschylus: ‘Now let there be again redemption from distress, the flare burning from the blackness in good augury.’
These last weeks, precisely, our country once more has seen proof that there exists a popular disposition to invent at night a few new forms of dawn. Perhaps we possess at least the flames of the possible fire of joy. The philosopher, naturally, lying down on his bed drenched in dew, opens one eye. And he enumerates the lights.
You know that there exist four great ensembles in our population from which, if we limit ourselves to the last two decades, we can expect that they may escape the gloomy discipline of the current state of affairs. We know this, since each of these collectives, in the politically limited but historically assured form of the mass movement, has given proof of a form of existence that is irreducible to the games of the economy and the State.
Let us name the schooled youth who, worried about their future, not so long ago were victorious on the question of the CPE. This is a lively and self-assured movement?a victory that is no doubt equivocal, but a promising subjectivity nonetheless.
Let us name the popular youth, harassed by the police and stigmatised by society, whose riots periodically fire up the masses in the impoverished neighbourhoods or cités, and whose obscure rebellious obstinacy, rising up from times immemorial and governed only by the imperative ‘it is just to revolt’, has at least the merit of making the well-to-do people tremble with fear.
Let us name the mass of ordinary wage labourers, capable of holding steady for days in the midst of winter, under the sole watchword of ‘together, all together’, gathering in immense assemblies and mobilising up to one-third of the total population all the way into certain small towns in the provinces.
Let us finally name the newly arrived proletarians from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, situated as always since the nineteenth century at the strategic centre of genuine politics, with or without legal papers, knowing how to organise, protest, occupy, in the long war of resistance for their rights.
We know that the smallest linkage among these ensembles, anything that may produce their inseparation, will open a new sequence of political invention. The State has no other major task except to prohibit, by all possible means, including violent ones, any connection, even limited, between the popular youth of the ‘cities’ and the students, between the students and the mass of ordinary salaried workers, among the latter and the newly arrived proletarians, and even, despite its apparent naturalness, any connection between the popular youth and the proletarian newcomers, between sons and fathers. Besides, this was the point of the ideology of ‘Touche pas à mon pote’, [‘Hands off my mate’] made up of ‘youth-ism’ and contempt for the working condition to which the fathers had been assigned and in which they had been able to show their strength, during a few major strikes in the 1970s and the early 1980s.
The only connection that has been able to last is the one that gathers militant intellectuals and proletarian newcomers. Here there are experiments going on that take the form of a restricted action, offering the resources for a political long march that would owe nothing to the parliamentary and syndicalist sham.
The most recent shimmer of light that the philosopher’s eye can perceive is that attempts are being made to experiment precisely with connections of this kind?connections that the united front of State, unions and party leadership, with the ‘Left’ ahead of the pack, are trying hard to proscribe. Certain composite groups are forming and assigning themselves a set of precise tasks: occupy this or that, create a vengeful banner, breathe life into the trail of syndicalist inertia? So, then, perhaps today, or tomorrow?
Let us in any case greet what is happening, this determination of sorts in doing away with the emblem of state corruption, about which I may at least be credited for having said very early on to what extent it is harmful and of what, in this sense, it is the name.
In light of all this, I come back to reflect anew on the strange connection, which I have experienced at a deeply personal level, between politics and philosophy.
I will begin by noting a striking contradiction. On the one hand, philosophy is clearly and necessarily a democratic activity. I will explain why. On the other hand, the political conceptions of the majority of philosophers, from Plato to myself, including Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Deleuze, have nothing democratic about them in the usual sense of the word. In other words: philosophers in general do not recognise the unanimously celebrated virtues of the parliamentary State and freedom of opinion.
We thus have a contradiction between the true nature of philosophy, which is certainly a democratic conception of intellectual argument and free thinking, and the explicit conceptions of philosophy in the field of politics, which accept very often the existence of an authoritarian framing for the collective destiny of humanity, and in any case feel no kind of fascination for the type of political regime that today dominates the West.
There is something like a paradoxical relationship between three terms: democracy, politics and philosophy. We must pass from democracy to philosophy. In fact, such is the road followed in the creation of philosophy among the ancient Creeks. The birth of philosophy is evidently dependent on the invention by the Greeks of the first form of democratic power. But we must also pass from philosophy to politics. In fact, politics most certainly has always been one of the principal preoccupations of philosophers throughout the entire history of the becoming of philosophy. But, even as politics constitutes an object of reflection for philosophy, it is in general very difficult to pass from this kind of politics to democracy.
Democracy, one might say, is a necessity at the source of philosophy and a difficulty at its far end.
Our question thus becomes: What is it in politics that is modified by the philosophical act in such a way that democracy begins by being a necessity, only to become something impossible or obscure in the end?
Our answer will be that the difficulty is situated in the relation between the democratic notion of freedom or liberty and the philosophical concept of truth. In short, if there exists something like a political truth, this truth is an obligation for any rational spirit. As a result, freedom is absolutely limited. Conversely, if there exists no limitation of this order, there exists no political truth. But in that case there is no positive relationship between philosophy and politics.
The three terms?politics, democracy and philosophy?are, finally, linked by the question of truth. The obscure knot is in fact determined by the obscurity that is proper to the category of truth. The problem then becomes: What is a democratic conception of truth? What is, in opposition to relativism and scepticism, the democratic universality? What is a political rule that applies to all, but without the constraint of transcendence?
But let us begin at the beginning, with the following two points:
- Why is democracy a condition for the existence of philosophy?
- Why is philosophy so often ill-suited for a democratic vision of politics?
Philosophy has two fundamental characteristics. On the one hand, it is a discourse independent of the place occupied by the one who speaks. If you prefer: philosophy is the discourse of neither king nor priest, of neither prophet nor god. There is no guarantee for the philosophical discourse on the side of transcendence, power or sacred function. Philosophy assumes that the search for truth is open to all. The philosopher can be anyone. What the philosopher says is validated (or not) not by the speaker’s position, but solely by the spoken content. Or, more technically, the philosophical evaluation is not concerned with the subjective enunciation, but solely with the objectively enunciated. Philosophy is a discourse whose legitimacy stems only from itself.
Therein lies a clearly democratic feature. Philosophy is completely indifferent to the social, cultural or religious position of the one who speaks or thinks. It accepts that it can come from anyone. And philosophy is exposed to approval or critique, without any prior selection of those who approve or object. It consents to be for anyone whatsoever.
We can thus conclude that it belongs to the essence of philosophy to be democratic. But we ought not to forget that philosophy, which consents to be totally universal in its origin as well as in its address, could not consent to be democratic in the same sense as far as its objectives, or its destination, are concerned. Anyone can be a philosopher, or the interlocutor of a philosopher. But it is not true that any opinion is worth as much as any other opinion. The axiom of the equality of intelligences is far from constituting an axiom of the equality of opinions. Since the beginning of philosophy, we must follow Plato in distinguishing, first, between correct and mistaken opinions, and, secondly, between opinion and truth. To the extent that the ultimate aim of philosophy is thoroughly to clarify the distinction between truth and opinion, evidently there can be no genuine philosophical interpretation of the great democratic principle of the freedom of opinion. Philosophy opposes the unity and universality of truth to the plurality and relativity of opinions.
There is another factor that limits the democratic tendency of philosophy. Philosophy is certainly exposed to critical judgement. But this exposure implies the acceptance of a common rule for discussion. We must recognise the validity of the arguments. And finally we must accept the existence of a universal logic as the formal condition of the axiom of the equality of intelligences. Metaphorically speaking, this is the ‘mathematical’ dimension of philosophy: there exists a freedom of address, but there is also the need for a strict rule for discussion.
Exactly like mathematics, philosophy is valid from all and for all, and knows no specific language. But there is a strict rule that applies to the consequences.
Thus, when philosophy examines politics it cannot do so according to a line of pure liberty or freedom, much less according to the principle of the freedom of opinion; it treats of the question of what a political truth can be. Or again: it treats of the question of what politics is when it obeys the following two principles:
- Compatibility with the philosophical principle of the equality of intelligences.
- Compatibility with the philosophical principle of the subordination of the variety of opinions to the universality of truth.
We can say simply that equality and universality are the characteristics of a valid politics in the field of philosophy. The classical name for this is justice. Justice means examining any situation from the point of view of an egalitarian norm vindicated as universal.
One will note that, in the idea of justice, equality is far more important than liberty, and universality far more important than particularity, identity or individuality. This is because there is a problem with the current definition of democracy as representative of individual liberties.
Richard Rorty has declared: ‘Democracy is more important than philosophy.’ With this political principle, Rorty in fact prepares the dissolution of philosophy into cultural relativism. But Plato, at the start of philosophy, says the exact opposite: philosophy is far more important than democracy. And if justice is the philosophical name of politics as truth of the collective, then justice is more important than freedom.
The great critique of democratic politics that we find in Plato is slightly ambiguous. On the one hand, it is certainly an aristocratic personal opinion. But, on the other hand, it presents a genuine problem?that of a kind of contradiction, which can become antagonistic, between justice and liberty.
To acquire some insight into this, we can read the deliberations among the French revolutionaries between 1792 and 1794. The daunting notion of ‘terror’ intervenes exactly at the point where the universality that is supposed to be at work behind the political truth enters into a violent conflict with the particularity of interests. Subjectively, the great revolutionaries of the period translate this conflict by saying that where virtue fails, terror is inevitable. But what is virtue? It is the political will, or what Saint-Just calls ‘public consciousness’, which unflinchingly puts equality above purely individual liberty, and the universality of principles above the interests of particulars.
This debate is by no means outdated. What, indeed, is our situation today?I mean, the situation of the people who are comfortable enough to call themselves ‘Westerners’? The price to be paid for our cherished liberty, here in the Western world, is that of a monstrous inequality, first within our own countries but then, above all, abroad. From a philosophical point of view, there exists no justice whatsoever in the contemporary world. From this point of view, we are entirely without virtue in the sense given to this word by our great ancestors the Jacobins. But we also flatter ourselves for not being terrorists either. Now, again, Saint-Just also asked: ‘What do the people want who want neither virtue nor terror?’ And his answer to this question was: they want corruption. There is indeed a desire for us to wallow in corruption without looking any further. Here, what I call ‘corruption’ refers not so much to the shameful trafficking, the exchanges between banditry and ‘decent society’, the embezzlements of all kinds, for which we know that the capitalist economy serves as the support. By ‘corruption’ l mean, above all, the mental corruption which leads to a world that, while being so evidently devoid of any principle, presents itself as, and is assumed by the majority of those who benefit from it to be, the best of all possible worlds. This reaches the point where, in the name of this corrupt world, people tolerate the waging of wars against those who would revolt against such disgusting self-satisfaction?and, within our borders, our persecution of those who are badly ‘integrated’, all those who, having arrived from elsewhere, do not unconditionally profess the self-proclaimed superiority of capitalo-parliamentarianism.
Brought up in a world whose thinking is corrupt, and in which injustice is a principle both secret and supremely sacred, rising up against this corruption with all the means available, philosophers should not be surprised to sec that they have to live in a paradoxical situation. Democracy is a condition for philosophy, but philosophy has no direct relation to justice. Justice rather presents itself, at the farthest remove from the democratic and corrupt delights of individual liberty, as the contingent alliance between virtue and terror. Now, justice is the philosophical name of truth in the domain of politics. Thus, the knot of the three terms–philosophy, democracy and politics–remains an obscure one.
I will now make a classical detour through mathematics. Mathematics is probably the best paradigm of justice that one can find, as Plato was able to show very early on. In mathematics we have first of all a kind of primitive liberty, which is the liberty of the choice of axioms. But after that, we have a total determination, based on the rules of logic. We must therefore accept all the consequences of our first choice. And this acceptance does not amount to a form of liberty; it is a constraint, a necessity: finding the correct proof is a very hard intellectual labour. In the end, all this strictly forms a universal equality in a precise sense: a proof is a proof for anyone whatsoever, without exception, who accepts the primitive choice and the logical rules. Thus, we obtain the notions of choice, consequences, equality and universality.
What we have here is in fact the paradigm of classical revolutionary politics, whose goal is justice. One must begin by accepting a fundamental choice. In the historical sequence which goes from the great Jacobins of 1792, executed in throngs in 1794 after the 9th Thermidor, to the last storms of the Cultural Revolution in China and the ‘leftism’ everywhere else in the world–that is, the end of the 1970s–the choice is between what the Chinese revolutionaries call the two ‘roads’ or the two ‘classes’: the revolutionary road or the conservative road; the working class or the bourgeoisie; private life or collective action. Then, one must accept the consequences of one’s choice?namely, the organisation, the harsh struggles, the sacrifices: this is no freedom of opinion and lifestyles, but discipline and prolonged work to find the strategic means for victory. And the result is not a democratic State in the usual sense of the term, but the dictatorship of the proletariat, aiming to annihilate the resistance of the enemy. At the same time, all this is presented as being entirely universal, because the objective is not the power of a particular class or group, but the end of all classes and all inequalities, and, in the final instance, the end of the State as such.
In this conception, democracy is in fact the name of two completely different things. It is first of all, as Lenin said, the name of a form of the State–the democratic State with its elections, its representatives, its constitutional government and so on. And secondly it is a form of mass action: a popular or active democracy, with large meetings, marches, riots, insurrections and so on. In the first sense, democracy bears no direct relation whatsoever to revolutionary politics or to justice. In the second sense, democracy is neither a norm nor an objective; it is simply a means of promoting an active popular presence in the political field. Democracy is not the political truth itself, but one of the means for finding the political truth.
And yet, philosophy is also democratic, as we saw; it is the condition for a new apprenticeship, a new status of discourse?a status which has no sacred place, no sacred book, which has neither king nor priest, neither prophet nor god as the guarantee of its legitimacy.
We can thus propose a new hypothesis in order for us to grasp this obscure knot in its entirety. From the point of view of philosophy, democracy is neither a norm nor a law nor an objective. Democracy is only one of the possible means of popular emancipation, exactly in the way the mathematical constraints are also a condition of philosophy.
This is why we cannot pass in any self-evident way from philosophy to democracy, and yet democracy is a condition of philosophy. This surely means that the word ‘democracy’ can take on two different meanings, both at the source and at the endpoint of philosophy. At the source, as formal condition, it designates in fact the submission of all validations of statements to a free protocol of argumentation, independent of the position of the person who speaks and open to be discussed by anyone whatsoever. At the endpoint, as real democratic movement, it designates one of the means of popular emancipatory politics.
I propose to call ‘communism’, philosophically speaking, the subjective existence of the unity of these two meanings, the formal and the real. That is to say, it is the hypothesis of a place of thought where the formal condition of philosophy would itself be sustained by the real condition of the existence of a democratic politics wholly different from the actual democratic State. That is, again, the hypothesis of a place where the rule of submission to a free protocol of argumentation, open to be debated by anyone, would have as its source the real existence of emancipatory politics. ‘Communism’ would be the subjective state in which the liberatory projection of collective action would be somehow indiscernible from the protocols of thinking that philosophy requires in order to exist.
Of course, you will recognise in this a Platonic desire, though expanded from the aristocracy of the guardians to the popular collective in its entirety. This wish could be expressed as follows: wherever a human collective is working in the direction of equality, the conditions are met for everyone to be a philosopher. This is clearly why, in the nineteenth century, there were so many worker-philosophers, whose existence and will have been so eloquently described by Rancière. It is also why, during the Cultural Revolution in China, one saw the appearance in the factories of workers’ circles of dialectical philosophy. We may also quote Bertolt Brecht, for whom the theatre was a possible place, though also an ephemeral one, for emancipation, and who thought of creating a Society of Friends of the Dialectic.
The key to understanding the obscure knot between politics, democracy and philosophy thus lies in the fact that the independence of politics creates the place in which the democratic condition of philosophy undergoes a metamorphosis. In this sense, all emancipatory politics contains for philosophy, whether visible or invisible, the watchword that brings about the actuality of universality?namely: if all are together, then all are communists! And if all are communists, then all are philosophers!
As you know, Plato’s fundamental intuition on this point went no farther than to confide the leadership of things to an aristocracy of philosophers who would live an egalitarian, sober, virtuous, communist life. Borrowing a metaphor from Einstein, this is what we could call a restricted communism. The point is to pass in philosophy to a generalised communism. Our city-polis, if this name is still appropriate for the political place constituted by the thought-practice of contemporary politics, will ignore the social differentiation which to Plato seemed inevitable?just as our democratic contemporaries, in the name of ‘realism’ and terrorised by the idea of Terror, consider it inevitable for there to be property, inheritance, extreme concentration of wealth, division of labour, financial banditry, neocolonial wars, persecution of the poor, and corruption. And, as a result, this city-polis will also ignore the distinction, as far as the universality of philosophy is concerned, between the source and the address. Coming from all as well as the destiny of all: that will define the existence of philosophy insofar as, under the condition of politics, it will be democratic, in the communist sense of the term, both at the source and at the endpoint of its actual existence.
—Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels (trans.), ‘The Enigmatic Relationship between Philosophy and Politics’, Philosophy for Militants, Verso 2012, pp. 1-39