Book Reviews Political Theory Reviews

Alain Badiou’s Hypothesis and the Arab Left as Contemporaries of May 68

by Dabya
“What united them was not the vocabulary of classes or proletarian leadership, but the vocabulary of revolution and change in the broadest sense. For those who incorporated their bodies, thoughts, affects, and potentialities into a certain political truth procedure, and who became ‘militant[s] of this truth,’ the change had to look a certain way..”

In a characteristically sarcastic manner, Badiou begins his Communist Hypothesis ridiculing the capitalist logic that followed the failure of communism in the 20th century. He writes:

“That failure of the Idea[1] leaves us with no choice, given the complex of the capitalist organization of production and the state parliamentary system. Like it or not, we have to consent to it for lack of choice. And that is why we now have to save the banks rather than confiscate them, hand out billions to the rich and give nothing to the poor, set nationals against workers of foreign origin whenever possible, and in a word, keep tight controls on all forms of poverty in order to ensure the survival of the powerful. No choice, I tell you!”[2]

Badiou’s sarcasm seems lost on some Arab leftists of the 1950s-1960s and those who came after them during the Arab uprisings of 2011. After championing the call for workers to unite and fight against colonialism back then, and later their corrupt governments in 2011, it seems that some members of the Arab left decided time and again that there was no choice but to become effective members of the state’s ideological apparatus instead. No choice but to become parliamentarians. No choice but to partner with the same class of global capitalists who exploit the very people they once defended. No choice but to break the spirit of younger generations and tell them that communism has failed.

In Lebanon, we saw al-Hariri and his Nouhad al-Mashnouq denounce the left-leaning Arab nationalism they embraced in their younger days and become patrons of state capitalism. In Egypt, we saw communists absorbed into Nasser’s co-optive Vanguard Organization[1]  after years of imprisonment and oppression they faced by the state. In Bahrain, we saw members of the leftist al-Minbar society become government apologists. After 2011, we saw some leftists protest their oppressive governments only to concede to a new, equally oppressive government, while others defended the existing political establishment because there is no other choice since revolution has failed, and communism has failed!

In many ways, there seems to be no choice but to give up in the post-2011 Arab world. The possibilities for revolutionary thought and action are virtually nonexistent. The 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were met with the most circumscribed form of failure: “the failure of an attempt in which revolutionaries who have briefly taken power over a country or a zone and tried to establish new laws are crushed by an armed counter-revolution.”[3] Like the French workers after their defeat following the Paris Commune, many Arab revolutionaries will likely be incapable of acting again for a long time. Similarly where revolutions did not succeed, such as the Gulf, Jordan, and Morocco, the heavy state response to the 2011 protests has left the opposition  traumatized, paralyzed, and desensitized.

After all, what means of organizing remain feasible after the state suffocated public and digital spaces, flooding them with informants and bots? What means of developing political thought remain accessible when education in social sciences and humanities is severely underdeveloped and the only career paths for intellectual laborers who studied abroad are state-sponsored think tanks and imperialist consultancies? What moral career path can a revolutionary in the Arab world pursue when state-sanctioned western NGOs are the only platforms allowed to address social, economic, and political issues? The defeated Arab revolutionary has no choice. They tried, but revolution has failed. Communism has failed!

Of course the Arab Spring could hardly be called a communist moment, but it was a moment in which, under the broad umbrella of change and for a multitude of contradictory reasons, the idea of the people as agents of emancipation came to life. It was a moment in which the Arab left saw itself as an agent inscribed in social reality and offering, once again, the possibility of emancipation. But does that matter anymore, if the revolution has failed?

In setting the stage for his central thesis, Badiou wonders: “What exactly do we mean by ‘failure’ when we refer to a historical sequence that experimented with one or another form of the communist hypothesis? What exactly do we mean when we say that all the socialist experiments that took place under the sign of that hypothesis ended in ‘failure’?”[4] Whatever the failure may be, it surely is not one that requires we abandon the hypothesis itself. The failure of communism, as Badiou explains in this book, is not absolute. It is a relative failure concerning the forms and paths tried so far to achieve communism. We must relate the failure to the politics of emancipation and its historicity, as opposed to the pure interiority of emancipatory politics, because failure only emerges “at the point when a politics appears before the court of History, and when it sees itself there.”[5] When it appears before history, the politics of emancipation finds itself caught up in a network of difficulties. Badiou, through revisiting the Paris Commune, the May ‘68 protest movement, and the Cultural Revolution, attempts to identify, approach, and examine what surrounds the space of possible failures because it is within this space “that a failure invites us to seek and to theorize the point at which we are now forbidden to fail.”[6]

Other than the most common form of failure which the Paris Commune and the Arab Spring met with, Badiou identifies two other forms of failure. One is bringing a newly formed socialist state in line with the Marxist idea of free association, as was the case with the Cultural Revolution. And the other is the creation of a movement large enough to force capitalists to go on the defensive but whose goal is not the seizure of power, as was the May ‘68 protest movement in France. In his chapter about May ‘68, Badiou foregrounds our contemporaneity with that moment, not only because we still share its inherent problem but because it is “a potential source of inspiration, a sort of historical poem that gives us new courage and that allows us really to react now that we are in the depths of despair.”[7]

Badiou describes four heterogeneous May ‘68s, which together make it the grand event with which we remain contemporaries more than 50 years later. First, May ‘68 was a student uprising that was part of a worldwide revolt. Second, although cut off from the broad masses of proletarian youth, the movement displayed “extraordinary strength of the ideology and the symbols,”[8] and it remarkably accepted violence. It was the largest general strike in France’s history, and yet its organization occurred outside of official working class institutions. Third, May ‘68 concerned the changing moral climate, including notions of sexuality and the emancipation of women and the LGBTQ community. The fourth May ‘68, however, was the most important because this May “still prescribes what the future will bring.”[9] It was a May which helped create a vision of politics “that was trying to wrench itself away from the old vision.”[10] It sought “to find that which might exist beyond the confines of classic revolutionism. It [sought] it blindly because it [used] the same language that dominated the conception it was trying to get away from.”[11] For Badiou, we are contemporaries of this fourth process of May ‘68 in the strongest sense of the word because we still have its same central problem. The classical figure of the politics of emancipation proved to be ineffective, therefore we must ask the question: “what new forms of political organization are needed to handle political antagonisms?” [12]

If the protesters of May ‘68 all united under the red flag whether they were Leninists, Trotsykists or Maoists, many of the protesters in the Arab Spring wholeheartedly rejected or felt indifferent towards the Idea. What united them was not the vocabulary of classes or proletarian leadership, but the vocabulary of revolution and change in the broadest sense. For those who incorporated their bodies, thoughts, affects, and potentialities into a certain political truth procedure, and who became “militant[s] of this truth,” the change had to look a certain way: it had to be Islamic, liberal, secular or socialist. But for many others the idea of change was not conceptualized—the goal was simply change. The Arab left in 2011 had to handle not just political antagonism from Islamists or liberals but also political indifference of many revolutionaries themselves. The disillusion with political parties that either became co-opted or abandoned class struggle did not help the Arab left organize themselves or mobilize those who agreed with but never conceptualized the Idea. The Arab left in 2011 saw no real possibility to seize political power because they were far too outnumbered. Poverty and exploitation were the primary catalysts for the protests of 2011. Hunger and economic desperation inspired large masses to risk their lives and go out in the streets, and yet the Idea concerned most with material conditions and the organization of capital remained at the margins of the revolution. One has to ask how.

As the experience of May ‘68 taught Badiou and his contemporaries, the Arab left may have realized too late that the language of the red flag had died out everywhere. Even worse in the Arab world, this language has been demonized since the 1960s by state and American-backed religious rhetors who frame communism as synonymous with atheism. Being as such, the language alienated rather than inspired the working class to inscribe themselves in the political truth procedure of the Idea. In his reflection on this lesson, Badiou writes: “What we failed to see at the time was that it was the language itself that had to be transformed, but this time in an affirmative sense.”[13] As contemporaries of May ‘68, the Arab left must think about what it means to affirmatively transform the language of the Idea, what sociolinguistic barriers it has to overcome, and how to organize in the absence of party systems and amid a region-wide crackdown on political organization. What the Arab left must not do is abandon the hypothesis just because the forms of the hypothesis which the Arab Spring experimented with have failed.

“The decisive issue is the need to cling to the historical hypothesis of a world that has been freed from the law of profit and private interest – even while we are, at the level of intellectual representations, still prisoners of the conviction that we cannot do away with it, that is the way of the world and that no politics of emancipation is possible.”[14]

Like a complex mathematical equation, the hypothesis of communism is not invalidated, Badiou tells us, simply because we are yet to find a solution. Against and beyond the many failures of the politics of emancipation every time it had appeared before the court of History, we must constantly remind ourselves that the world we currently exist in is not necessary. And because it is not necessary, we must ask: “how, in political terms, can we move from non-necessity to possibility?”

Second, we must be able to retain our communist language, criticize it, and give it new meanings without being considered has-beens or considering ourselves to be has-beens. Third, we must reformulate the emancipation hypothesis in contemporary terms. This last process, Badiou tells us, is the defining feature of our times. This era, he insists, is “the era of the reformulation of the communist hypothesis.”[15]

If we critically examine the elements necessary for the operation of the ‘Idea of communism’, we can see how the Idea cannot fail, and it cannot die. More importantly, such examination can serve as an inspiration for the Arab left to hold on to the Idea, not because they are gullible optimists but because the operation of the Idea makes its conceptual failure impossible and its practical failures merely stages of its history.

Those elements for Badiou are political, historical, and subjective ones. The political element concerns a political truth, which he describes as a “concrete, time-specific sequence in which a new thought and a new practice of collective emancipation arise, exist, and eventually disappear.”[16] All truths have historical dimensions which are spatial, temporal, and anthropological. As such, the historical element is an inscription which “encompasses an interplay between types of truth that are different from another and are therefore situated at different points in human time in general.”[17] Borrowing Lacanian analogies, Badiou insists that while politics are real, in the sense that they empirically occur, history represents empty symbolism of its procedure since history “has no world that locates it in actual existence. It is a narrative constructed after the fact.”[18] Communism cannot be reduced to politics, or history, or an ideology because the Idea operates between politics and history through subjectivation. The subjective element, which involves us as humans, is the possibility for one of us to decide to become part of a political truth procedure. Those who decided to participate in the protest movements of 2011, in effect became elements of another body, “the body-of-truth, the material existence of a truth in the making of a given world.”[19] Through incorporating oneself into this body-of-truth, an individual becomes an active part of a new subject. It is this choice of incorporation that Badiou calls subjectivation, whereas he calls the abstract totalization of those three elements an ‘Idea’: “an Idea is the subjectivation of an interplay between the singularity of a truth procedure and a representation of History.”[20] The individual, by inscribing themselves into a political truth procedure therefore realizes how they belong to the movement of History:

“In the context of the Idea of communism, subjectivation constituted the link between the local belonging to a political procedure and the huge symbolic domain of Humanity’s forward march towards its collective emancipation. To give out a leaflet in a market place was also to mount the stage of History.”[21]

The aftermath of the Arab Spring was met with brutal advancement of surveillance and suffocating intolerance of dissent but where there is little space to negotiate power, in every retreat or absence by the state there emerges the potential for revolutionaries to cultivate power. There always exists a power void and wherever the state takes control, it re-emerges and takes on new forms. If giving out a leaflet in support of the hypothesis makes one mount the stage of History, then surely we belong to the movement of History when we tweet about and argue for the hypothesis. When we post articles, memes, and blogs in support of the hypothesis. When we expand the circle of public discourse to make the hypothesis part of the conversation. Today none of this might amount to anything, but as long as we live and think with the Idea, we can give a new life to communism. In providing a “vigorous subjective existence to the communist hypothesis”[22] through this work, Badiou offers a wonderful refutation of the claim that communism has failed, and he gives hope to those among us who sometimes wonder if emancipation remains possible at all.

About the Reviewer: Dabya is an MA graduate from the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Austin at Texas, a Fulbright scholar, and a Churchill scholar. She researches contemporary public discourse, rhetoric, and social movements in the Arab Gulf states.

[1] Badiou defines the communist Idea as the imaginary operation whereby an individual subjectivation projects a fragment of the political real into the symbolic narrative of a History. (Communist Hypothesis, Page 180)

[2] Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London & New York: 2015), Page 4.

[3] Badiou, Page 24.

[4] Badiou, Page 5.

[5] Ibid, Page 12.

[6] Badiou, Page 29.

[7] Ibid, 34.

[8] Ibid, 35.

[9] Badiou, Page 39.

[10] Ibid, Page 43.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, Page 47.

[13] Badiou, Page 43.

[14] Badiou, Page 48.

[15] Ibid, Page 50.

[16] Badiou, Page 173.

[17] Ibid, Page 175.

[18] Ibid, Page 179.

[19] Badiou, Page 175.

[20] Ibid, Page 176.

[21] Ibid, 177.

[22] Badiou, Page 195.

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