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Alain Badiou: “Tunisie, Egypte : quand un vent d'est balaie l'arrogance de l'Occident”

Sarah Shin25 February 2011

Read an English translation of Alain Badiou's recent article for Le Monde. Translation kindly provided by Cristiana Petru-Stefanescu.

The Eastern wind is getting the better of the Western one. How much longer will the poor and dark West, the "international community" of those who still think of themselves as masters of the world, continue to give lessons of good management and behaviour to the whole planet? Isn't it laughable to see certain intellectuals on duty, disconcerted soldiers of the capital-parliamentarism that stands as a shabby paradise for us, offering themselves to the magnificent Tunisian and Egyptian peoples in order to teach these savage populations the basics of "democracy"? What a distressing persistence of colonial arrogance! Given the miserable political situation that we are experiencing, isn't it obvious that it is us who have everything to learn from the current popular uprisings? Shouldn't we, in all urgency, closely study what has made possible the overthrow through collective action of governments that are oligarchic, corrupt and—possibly, above all—humiliatingly the vassals of Western states?

Yes, we should be the pupils of such movements, and not their stupid teachers. That is because, through the genius of their own inventions, they give life to some political principles that some have been trying for so long to convince us that they are outdated. And especially the principle that Marat never stopped reminding us of: when it comes to freedom, equality, emancipation, we owe everything to popular uprisings.

We are right to be revolted. Just as with politics, our states and those who take advantage of it (political parties, unions and servile intellectuals) prefer management to revolt, they prefer claims, and "orderly transition" to any kind of rupture. What the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples remind us is that the only kind of action that equals a shared feeling about scandalous occupation by state power is mass uprising. And that, in such a case, the only watchword that can federate the disparate groups of the masses is: "you out there, go away". The extraordinary importance of the revolt in this case, its critical power, is that repeating the watchword by millions of people will show the worth of what will undoubtedly and irreversibly be the first victory: the man thus designated will flee. And no matter what happens afterwards, this triumph of the popular action, illegal by nature, will be forever victorious. That a revolt against state power can be absolutely victorious is a lesson universally available. This victory always indicates the horizon where all collective action, subtracted from the authority of the law, stands out, the horizon that Marx called "the failing of the state".

That is, one day, freely associated in the spreading of their own creative power, peoples could do without the gloomy coercion of the state. And it is for this reason, for this ultimate idea, that a revolt overthrowing an established authority can determine unlimited enthusiasm throughout the world.

A spark can set a field on fire. It all starts with the suicide through burning of a man who has been made redundant, whose miserable commerce that allows him to survive is threatened to be banned, and with a woman-officer slapping him to make him understand what is real in this world. This gesture expands within days, weeks, until millions of people cry their joy in a far-away square and the powerful rulers flee. Where does this fabulous expansion come from? The propagation of an epidemic of freedom? No. As Jean-Marie Gleize poetically puts it: "a revolutionary movement does not expand by contamination. But by resonance. Something emerging here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something emerging out there". This resonance, let's name it "event". The event is the sudden creation, not of a new reality, but of a myriad of new possibilities.

Neither of them is the reiteration of something we already know. This is why it is to say "this movement is demanding democracy" (implying the one we enjoy in the West), or "this movement is demanding social improvements" (implying the median prosperity of the small-bourgeois in our countries). Born from almost nothing, resonating everywhere, the popular uprising creates unknown possibilities for the whole world. The word "democracy" is practically never mentioned in Egypt. There's talk of a "new Egypt", of "the real Egyptian people", of constituent assembly, of an absolute change of existence, of unprecedented possibilities. This is about the new field that will be there where the previous one, set on fire by the spark of uprising, will no longer be. It stands, this new field to come, between the declaration of overthrowing forces and the one of assuming new tasks. Between what a young Tunisian has said: "We, the sons of workers and farmers, are stronger than the criminals"; and what a young Egyptian has said: "Starting today, 25th January, I take charge of the affairs of my country".

The people, and only the people, are the creators of universal history. It is very surprising that, in our West, governments and the media consider that the revolts in a square in Cairo are "the Egyptian people". How come? Isn't it that, for these men, the people, the only reasonable and legal people, is usually reduced to either the majority in a poll or in an election? How is it possible that all of a sudden hundreds of thousands of revolted people have become representative of a population of eighty million? It's a lesson to remember, and we will remember it.

Once a certain threshold of determination, obstinacy and courage has been passed, a people can indeed concentrate its existence in one square, one avenue, a few factories, a university ... The whole world will be witness to this courage, and especially to the amazing creations that accompany it. These creations will stand as proof that a people is represented there. As one Egyptian protester has put it, "before, I used to watch television, now it's the television who is watching me".

In the midst of an event, the people is made up of those who know how to solve the problems that the event imposes on them. It goes the same for the occupation of a square: food, sleeping arrangements, protection, banderols, prayers, defence fight, all so that the place where everything is happening, the place that has become a symbol, may stay with its people at all costs. These problems, at a scale of hundreds of thousands of people who have come from all over the place, may seem impossible to solve, especially since the state has disappeared in that square. Solving unsolvable problems without the help of the state, that is the destiny of an event. And it is what determines a people, all of a sudden and for an indeterminate period, to exist, there where it has decided to gather.

There can be no communism without communist movements. The popular uprising we are talking about is manifestly without a party, without any hegemonic organisation, without a recognised leader. It should always be determined whether this characteristic is a strength or a weakness. It is in any case what makes it have, in a pure form, without a doubt the purest since the Commune of Paris, all the necessary traits for us to talk about a communism as movement. "Communism" here means: common creation of a collective destiny. This "common" has two distinctive traits. First, it is generic, representing in one place humanity in its entirety. In this place there are people of all the kinds a population is usually made up of, all words are heard, all propositions examined, all difficulty taken for what it is. Second, it overcomes the great contradictions that the state pretends to be the only one capable of surmounting: between intellectuals and manual workers, between men and women, between rich and poor, between Muslims and Copts, between people living in the province and those living in the capital ...

Millions of new possibilities for these contradictions spring with every moment, possibilities that the state—any state—is completely blind to. We see young female doctors, who have come from the province to treat the wounded, sleep in the middle of a circle of fierce young men, and they are more at ease than they've ever been, knowing that no one will touch a hair on their heads. We can equally see an organisation of young engineers addressing youngsters from the suburbs to ask them to hold on, to protect the movement with their energy for combat. We also see a row of Christians standing in order to keep watch over the Muslims bent in prayer. We see vendors feeding the unemployed and the poor. We see each person talking to their unknown neighbour. We can read thousands of banners where each and everyone's life is mingled to the grand History of all. All these situations, inventions, constitute the communism as movement. It's been two centuries since the unique problem is the following: how can we establish in the long run the inventions of the communism as movement? And the unique reactionary statement is: "that would be impossible, even detrimental. Let's put our trust in the state". Glorious be the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples who remind us the true and unique political duty: faced with the state, the organised fidelity to the communism as movement.

We do not want war, but we are not afraid of it. The pacifist calm of gigantic movements has been talked about everywhere, and it has been linked to the ideal of elective democracy that we bestowed upon the movement. We should, however, note that there have been hundreds of dead, and their number increases each day. In many instances, these dead have been combatants and martyrs of the initiative, then of the protection of the movement itself. The political and symbolical places of uprising had to be kept by paying the price of fierce combat against the militia and the police of the threatened regimes. And who has paid with their own lives if not the youth from the poorest classes? The "middle classes", of whom our inspired Michèle Alliot-Marie has said that the democratic outcome of the movement depended on, and on them alone, should always remember that during the crucial moment, the duration of the movement has only been guaranteed by the unrestricted commitment of the people's militia. Defensive violence is inevitable. It still goes on, in difficult conditions, in Tunisia, after the young provincial activists have been sent to their destitution.

Can we seriously think that all these innumerable initiatives and cruel sacrifices' fundamental goal is to make the people "choose" between Souleiman and El Baradei, just as we here resign to arbitrate between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Strauss-Kahn? Will that be the only lesson of this splendid episode?

No, a thousand times no! The Egyptian and Tunisian peoples tell us this: to rebel, to construct the public space of the communism as movement, defending it by all means and making up its successive steps of action, that is the reality of the popular politics of emancipation. It is not just the Arab states that are anti-popular, of course, and, fundamentally, with or without elections, illegitimate. Whatever their future, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have a universal significance. They prescribe new possibilities whose value is international.

Visit Le Monde to read the article in French. For an alternative translation, please visit

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