The ancient Alain Badiou responds to the dashing Laurent Joffrin

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Alain Badiou, whose most recent book The Age of the Poets has just been published, has written the below response to Laurent Joffrin, Editorial Director of Libération, who has written an article in Libération criticising Badiou for his use of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in a recent debate:

In the context of a debate with Marcel Gauchet on the theme ‘communism and democracy’ I invoked certain characteristics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in service of a complex argument. This proved sufficient for Laurent Joffrin to abandon instantly the toil that doubtless occupies all of his time – the soft laying-off of almost a hundred employees from the Libération newspaper – to give his verdict: Badiou is just a frozen dinosaur.

Joffrin’s method of showing my frozenness is a simple and speedy one: the very expression ‘Cultural Revolution’ alone provokes in him the numerical ejaculation of ‘seven hundred thousand dead’, along with horrific – true – details regarding the abuse of a well-known intellectual at the hands of the Red Guards.

Perhaps Joffrin did not spend long enough thinking about the formulation that I used in the supposedly guilty text, since counting the death toll stands for nothing in terms of political analysis. Let’s imagine that in the course of a political discussion on democracy someone advanced arguments referring to some of the important episodes of the French Revolution. I suppose that Joffrin would have to cut them short, saying ‘The French Revolution? Really? 200,000 dead and the barbaric decapitation of the great poet André Chenier!’…? No, he wouldn’t, because he knows a little something about the French Revolution and its fundamental role in the development of modern democracies. So the point is that he knows nothing, and does not want to know anything, about the Cultural Revolution, and its no less fundamental role in the development of modern communism. He does not even know who killed whom, in what context and for what reason. Well, the question of political communism is far more modern than the question of liberal democracy, which was exhausted in its 1840s origins (1), and the lessons of the Cultural Revolution, including the lessons of its failure, are far more appropriate to addressing contemporary problems – capitalism going wild, inequalities returning to pre-World War I levels, the brutalising development of the division of labour, the dismantling and/or privatisation of everything meant to serve the general interest, not to forget the striking stagnation in political inventiveness – than the lessons of the French Revolution could ever be, whatever their lasting importance. In this regard, Joffrin is certainly more outdated, old-fashioned and out of touch than I am.

That is the reason why he can do nothing but trumpet the numbers so dear to him, raising the inglorious banner bearing the slogan ‘totalitarian madness’ and making sure that his readers remain trapped in the dark gloom of ignorance.

OK, then, since we’re counting… The war of 1914 – that was France, England and Germany, wasn’t it? Western civilised powers already perfectly at home in modern democracy, with free elections, parliaments, trade unions, parties, and even substantial social-democratic parties, no? And a free press. A fair bit freer than Joffrin is free of his redoubtable shareholders, in any case… So, nothing totalitarian about them. Besides, everyone today agrees that this war was futile, fought for absolutely nothing, except a sort of suicidal bloodletting from which Europe has still not entirely recovered. So could Joffrin attribute any profoundly interesting political meaning to the 1914 war? I don’t believe so.

Well, in France this war caused something like one million four hundred thousand dead, a colossal mass of young men thrown into the mud and fire, enduring four years of hell, treated like cannon fodder, dying as dismembered bodies sinking into the earth, and being torn between pig-headed offensives and chaotic retreats. The 1914 war alone (and the West had its Second World War, too, as well as countless fierce colonial expeditions, today continued here and there with the expeditions of troops, planes and drones; murder without discrimination, the destruction of states, without justice or equality being of the slightest importance) saw in France alone, in four years, twice as many deaths as China had in ten years of Cultural Revolution, even according to Joffrin’s own figures. China whose population is twenty times larger than France’s. If (let’s count! let’s count!) the Cultural Revolution had amounted to the same disaster experienced by France, alone, in the 1914 war, alone – a conflict fought among the exemplary democracies that were the Western powers – then it would have to have seen 28 million dead! So let’s agree that in the morbid history of mankind, all states – and it makes no difference in this regard whether they were democratic or ‘totalitarian’ – are up to their ears in blood. But let’s also recognise that the very-democratic-and-not-at-all-totalitarian First World War represented an orgy of death without parallel in the human devastation resulting from the Cultural Revolution. And to venture a subjective note, I will remind you that during my youth, when, seeing the colonial wars, I began to engage in the rigours of politics, the police stations of Paris played host to merciless torture. The freely elected government of the time was even led by a socialist. Isn’t it time that Joffrin tells us about the ‘democratic madness’?

Having got to this point, let’s leave the numbers to one side and remember that the 1914 war had no rational sense, doing nothing – really, nothing – for the peoples concerned and contributing nothing to political thought. Well I for my part am capable – as is anyone happy to inform themselves – of attributing profound significance to the Cultural Revolution. I know that the workers and students who threw themselves into it were nothing like the men mobilised in 1914. They weren’t the prey of the state, sent to die in the trenches. No: they invented new forms of intervention, a new militant life. According to Mao’s formula, they ‘got freely mixed up in the affairs of state’. I know the most important watchwords that these militants exalted. I know that it was a matter of understanding if and how it was possible to overcome the bureaucratic and terroristic inertia of the Party-state, on the path to real communist innovations. If and how they could put forward forms of collectivisation other than mere state ownership. If and how they could invent solutions for overcoming the great contradictions between town and country, manual and intellectual labour, agriculture and industry, engineers and workers. If and how China’s factories could be radically different from capitalist ones. If and how they could implement what Lenin considered the key to the communistic development of the revolution, far beyond simply seizing power: a real control of the state – always tending toward conservatism – by independent popular organisations. We have the texts, the documentation is today accessible – including millions of newspapers, posters, proclamations, decrees, and conversations with officials, as well as the tracts of hundreds of thousands of militant organisations that sprung up in those years. In sum, testimonies to the most memorable democratic mobilisation that the world has ever known, going so far as mass organisations being given the right to enter into all the official buildings and examine the records in the state archives. 

There are plenty of books (2) dealing with the glorious, new and difficult moments, which also of course included violent episodes (‘The revolution is not a dinner party’, as Mao put it), detached from Western anti-communist propaganda as from the propaganda of the most important allies of contemporary reaction – namely, China’s present-day bourgeois masters. These latter emerged victorious from the mêlée at the cost of a merciless repression directed against the Maoist rebels, a repression responsible for the large majority of the number of victims that Joffrin supposes to tally.

What allows the antediluvian liberal Joffrin to speak of the Cultural Revolution in terms of ‘totalitarian madness’ is merely the fact that this revolution bearing the future, on the basis of which the principles of communism’s new sequence must be formulated, failed to realise its own ambitions. Its immediate enemies, the cliques in the Party led by Deng Xiaoping, seized power, and soon enough took China down the ‘capitalist road’ – as the revolutionaries had warned – with unparalleled brutality. But just as the bloody failure of the Paris Commune prepared Lenin’s political inventiveness and the victory of the October Revolution, so, too, will the failure of the Cultural Revolution ultimately serve – carefully considered by way of debates, texts, meetings and militant initiatives – for the restoration and relaunching of the communist idea. Without this, the societies today so terribly passively delivered to the complete return of capitalist barbarism will inevitably enter into the dark night of wars without end.

(1) Considering the fact that the contemporary liberal, or social-liberal, or neo-liberal, or social-democratic, or more generally ‘modern’ or ‘reformist’ or ‘adapted-to-the-extraordinary-transformations-of-the-world-in-recent-decades’ logomachy is made up of nothing more than weak variations on the ideology of capitalism established since the early nineteenth century, which subsists ne varietur, it is worth reading the strikingly impressive documentation gathered by Domenico Losurdo in his Liberalism: A Counter-History. In this book we see who Messrs. Locke, Franklin, Smith and many others really were, with a special place of honour (or do I mean horror) for Tocqueville, that icon of contemporary ‘democratism’.

(2) There are many serious studies of the Cultural Revolution – that is, ones that are not propagandistic libels (whose almost definitional prototype was Simon Leys’s famous Chairman’s New Clothes, a brilliant ideological improvisation that lacked any relation to political reality), many of them being academic works from American universities. Here we will cite three extremely well documented books that are of fundamental importance for understanding what it was about: Hongsheng Jiang’s work on the Shanghai Commune; Hong Yung Lee’s The politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, published by the University of California Press in 1978; and Neale Hunter’s Shanghai Journal: an eyewitness account of the Cultural Revolution, which Frederick A. Praeger published in 1969.

Translated from french by David Broder
See the original here.

See the original article (in french) to which Badiou is responding here.

See all of Alain Badiou's Verso titles here