The Communist hypothesis

Posted on March 28, 2008


Alan Badiou has written an essay in the New Left Review this month called ‘After Sarkozy’, which slots into the current glut of TV programmes, radio shows and newspaper journalism examining the events and legacy of the political and cultural movements that came to the fore in 1968. 

The aim of this essay appears to be to rebut the neo-liberal assertion that there is now no alternative to market capitalism and small government and that to suggest any more socialist alternatives is tantamount to inviting new Stalins and Maos to wreck havoc with society.  To do this, Badiou presents the theory that the realisation of the socialist / communist alternative can be split into historical stages, all of which have seen attempts to apply the ‘communist hypothesis’ as a political principle.

“What is the communist hypothesis?  In its generic sense, given its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means first, that the logic of class – the fundamental subordination of labour to the dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since antiquity – is not inevitable; it can be overcome.  The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organisation is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour.  The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear.  The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganisation based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.” (p.34-35) 

The first historical period that Badiou identifies of importance to understanding the development of the communist alternative is from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune, 1792-1871.  This period saw the sucessful emergence of mass movements inspired by the hypothesis, which ultimately failed as they struggled with how to hold onto power and suppress counter-revolution.

The second period runs from 1917 (the Bolshevik Revolution) t0 1976 (the end of the Cultural Revolution) and is brought to a close in the period of liberal revolutions from 1968-1979).  In this period, Communism successfully gained power and held onto it, but only through the panoptic dominance of the party machine and with violent and repressive (ultimately non-socialist) means.  Baidou sees the events of 1968 as the violent upsurge of the left as it tried to preserve the communist hypothesis in a way that opposed the ‘real existing socialism’ of the party and the state.

In between these two periods, Badiou identifies an interval, a period in which the hypothesis was declared untenable and the forces of market capitalism became ‘triumphant across the globe’.  Badiou moves on to declare that we are in another of these intervals and that the task of the left now is to ‘re-install the communist hypothesis…within the ideological sphere’.  The methods for doing this are more vague – ‘courage’, ‘performative unity’.   Is this essay a call to arms or a call to wait and see?  I’m not sure that Badiou himself is clear on this.  Bearing in mind that the actors involved in the first and second periods of the hypothesis would struggle to agree on much beyond the hypothesis itself, how likely is it that the current Left will recognise the emergence of the new Left politics and be able to contribute to it?  Are we to wait to be rescued by a revitalised Communism, whilst keeping a candle burning for Marx as we despair of our own post-ideological governments?

Posted in: politics, Theory