The Age of the Poets: Poetry and Communism

To celebrate National Poetry Day in the UK, we present an extract from Alain Badiou's illuminating work revisiting the age-old problem of the relation between literature and philosophyThe Age of the Poetslooking at literature's unique position between science and ideology. Badiou proposes the essential link between poetry and communism in the twentieth century, through the common good of language, and gives reason to both the writing and reading of poetry in a time of revolution.

Poetry and Communism

In the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on earth, have been communists. In an explicit or formal way, for example, the following poets were committed to communism: in Turkey, Nâzim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti; in Italy, Edoardo Sanguineti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht. But we could cite a very large number of other names in other languages, throughout the world.

Can we understand this link between poetic commitment and communist commitment as a simple illusion? An error, or an errancy? An ignorance of the ferocity of states ruled by communist parties? I do not believe so. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that there exists an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush res on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world.

Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now, language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seek to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular but all, in the singular.

Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized in the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.

This is why the poets have seen in communism above all a new figure of the destiny of the people. And ‘people’, here, means first and foremost the poor people, the workers, the abandoned women, the landless peasants. Why? Because it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. it is to the proletarians – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.

What is striking is that this should lead all those poets to rediscover a very old poetic form: the epic. The communists’ poem is first the epic of the heroism of the proletarians. The Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet thus distinguishes lyric poems, dedicated to love, from epic poems, dedicated to the action of the popular masses. But even a poet as wise and as hermetic as César Vallejo does not hesitate to write a poem with the title, ‘Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic’. Such a title evidently belongs to the order of the commemoration of war, to epic commitment.

These communist poets rediscover what in France Victor Hugo had already discovered: the duty of the poet is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of creating another world. The fundamental link organized into song by the poet is the one that the new politics is capable of founding between, on the one hand, the misery and extreme hardship of life, the horror of oppression, everything that calls for our pity, and, on the other hand, the levying, the combat, the collective thought, the new world – and, thus, everything that calls for our admiration. It is of this dialectic of compassion and admiration, of this violently poetic opposition between debasement and rising up, of this reversal of resignation into heroism, that the communist poets seek the living metaphor, the nonrealist representation, the symbolic power. They search for the words to express the moment in which the eternal patience of the oppressed of all times changes into a collective force which is indivisibly that of raised bodies and shared thoughts.

That is why one moment – a singular historic moment – has been sung by all the communist poets who wrote between the 1920s and 1940s: the moment of the civil war in Spain, which as you know ran from 1936 to 1939.

By PICASSO, la exposición del Reina-Prado. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid. Source

Let us observe that the Spanish civil war is certainly the historic event that has most intensely mobilized all the artists and intellectuals of the world. On one hand, the personal commitment of writers from all ideological tendencies on the side of the republicans, including therefore the communists, is remarkable: whether we are dealing with organized communists, social democrats, mere liberals, or even fervent Catholics, such as the French writer Georges Bernanos, the list is extraordinary if we gather all those who publicly spoke out, who went to Spain in the midst of the war, or even entered into combat on the side of the republican forces. On the other hand, the number of masterpieces produced on this occasion is no less astonishing. I have already noted as much for poetry. But let us also think of the splendid painting by Pablo Picasso that is titled Guernica; let us think of two of the greatest novels in their genre: Man’s Hope by André Malraux and For Whom the Bell Tolls by the American Ernest Hemingway. The frightening and bloody civil war in Spain has illuminated the art of the world for several years.

I see at least four reasons for this massive and international commitment of intellectuals on the occasion of the war in Spain.

First, in the 1930s the world found itself in a vast ideological and political crisis. Public opinion sensed more and more that this crisis could not have a peaceful ending, no legal or consensual solution. The horizon was a fearsome one of internal and external warfare. Among intellectuals, the tendency was to choose between two absolutely contrary orientations: the fascist and the communist orientations. During the war in Spain, this conflict took the form of civil war pure and simple. Spain had become the violent emblem of the central ideological conflict of the time. This is what we might call the symbolic and therefore universal value of this war.

Second, during the Spanish war, the occasion arose for artists and intellectuals all over the world not only to show their support for the popular camp, but also to participate directly in combat. Thus what had been an opinion changed into action; what had been a form of solidarity became a form of fraternity.

Third, the war in Spain took on a fierceness that hit people over the head. Misery and destruction were present everywhere. The systematic massacre of prisoners, the indiscriminate bombing of villages, the relentlessness of both camps: all this gave people an idea of what could be and what in fact was to be the worldwide conflict to which the war in Spain was the prologue.

Fourth, the Spanish war was the strongest moment, perhaps unique in the history of the world, of the realization of the great Marxist project: that of a truly internationalist revolutionary politics. We should remember what the intervention of the international Brigades meant: they showed that the vast international mobilization of minds was also, and before anything, an international mobilization of peoples. I am thinking of the example of France: thousands of workers, often communists, had gone as volunteers to do battle in Spain. But there were also Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians, people from all countries. this exemplary international dedication, this vital internationalist subjectivity, is perhaps the most striking accomplishment of what Marx had thought, which can be summarized in two phrases: negatively, the proletarians have no fatherland, their political homeland is the whole world of living men and women; positively, international organization is what allows for the confrontation and in the end the real victory over the enemy of all, the capitalist camp, including in its extreme form, which is fascism.

Thus, the communist poets found major subjective reasons in the Spanish war for renewing epic poetry in the direction of a popular epic – one that was both that of the suffering of peoples and that of their internationalist heroism, organized and combative.

Finish the chapter, and read more, in The Age of the Poets

Further reading:
César Vallejo's
'Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic'
Pablo Neruda's 'Arrival in Madrid of the International Brigade'
Works by Nâzim Hikmet and Bertolt Brecht