Through a glass darkly: Alain Badiou's critique of anarchism.

Author:Noys, Benjamin

It has become a commonplace to argue that we have witnessed the resurgence or renaissance of anarchism in recent years, particularly with the emergence of the 'movement of movements' after the Seattle uprising of 1999 or the earlier Chiapas uprising of 1994. David Graeber has poetically summarised the case: 'Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of what's most new and hopeful about it' (2002: 62). This new attention to anarchist practice has been accompanied by a renewed interest in anarchist theory. In this, important parallels have been noted between the work of leading thinkers and philosophers, including Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere, and anarchist themes and approaches. What is striking in both cases, especially the second, is the general absence of anarchism as an explicit reference point. It seems as if anarchism is the politics that dare not speak its name. One of the results of this absence has been the significant effort by anarchists or those sympathetic to anarchism to re-establish the anarchist credentials of the present. As Saul Newman, one of those responsible for this effort has put it: 'perhaps anarchism can be seen as the hidden referent for contemporary radical politics' (2007: 12). In fact, as Newman himself stresses, this is one way to define postanarchism: as the production of a synthesis that will establish that both contemporary radical political practice and political theory constitutes a new form, or new paradigm, for anarchism.

To make good on this argument postanarchist thinkers have typically made a double move. First they have argued that many contemporary theories, which are usually identified as post-structuralist or post-Marxist, are better understood through the lens of a revised anarchism. While these theories often remain attached to a residual Marxism or are vague about their political implications, integrated into anarchism they can become truly radical. The ways in which these theories challenge the primacy of class explanation, attack the dominance of the state and attend to the micro-politics of power, converge with anarchist thought and practice. The second move is to argue that these theories allow us to purge 'traditional' anarchism of its humanist, naturalist, and positivist residues. Post-structuralist or post-Marxist thought allows us to shift anarchism away from its supposed reliance on a set of 'essential' human qualities or norms that would then dictate a natural, or true, politics. In this way, it is argued, these theories open anarchism up to a new thinking 'that embraces contingency and indeterminacy and rejects essentialist identities and firm ontological foundations'(Newman 2007: 16). The postanarchist synthesis is then often linked to the new forms of decentered and dispersed practice in the movement of movements, to this new political and social inventiveness that remains unconstrained by the limits of traditional anarchism. In this way a narrative has been constructed in which the 'hidden referent' of anarchism is explicit: our moment is anarchist in theory and practice if we fundamentally revise what we mean by anarchism to become postanarchist.

Critics rightly argue that this seemingly persuasive narrative tends to flatten the depth of traditional anarchism into the cliche of 'essentialism' (Cohn 2002). Yet my concern is the way in which postanarchism operates with a smooth and trouble free narrative of its emergence as a new paradigm, while claiming to inject into politics conflict and antagonism. I want to suggest that the making of postanarchism is considerably more problematic by focusing on the case of one thinker who has started to be assimilated within postanarchism, the French philosopher and political militant Alain Badiou. My reason for selecting Badiou is that despite having much in common with anarchism and postanarchism he is also highly critical of anarchism, claiming that it is unable to deal with the complexities and practicalities of power. In this way Badiou raises crucial issues for both anarchist theory and anarchist practice, questions which remain unsettled.

First I will consider the reason why Badiou has been considered attractive to postanarchism. This will involve a discussion of Badiou's own political and theoretical evolution. In particular I will focus on his discussion of the Paris Commune of 1871, in which his arguments concerning this workers' uprising converge with anarchist arguments. Secondly, I will consider in more detail Badiou's criticisms of anarchism. These are not so much directed at anarchism per se but they do take in many of the currents of thought that have influenced postanarchism. Finally I want to examine how Badiou's criticisms have found an echo in recent discussions within the anarchist and anti-capitalist milieu. Here we can see emerging a new debate concerning the practical means by which we might achieve and sustain egalitarian and anarchist social forms. My approach then is not to confront directly postanarchism, nor is it to answer the question of whether we can really consider Badiou to be a postanarchist. Instead, by taking a detour through Badiou's criticisms of anarchism, I want to return to consider the difficult question of the link, often elided, between postanarchist theory and anarchist practice.


At first glance Alain Badiou appears as an unlikely candidate for assimilation into postanarchism, especially if we consider his intellectual and political formation. (1) In the 1960s he was a student of the leading Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and his early work was concerned with developing theories of aesthetics and of mathematics from a Marxist persepective. Like many others Badiou was radicalised by the events of May 1968, but he did not take up a libertarian or anarchist position. Rather he was one of the founder members of the Maoist organisation Union of Communists of France Marxist-Leninist (UCFML). This group was never slavish in its attitude to the 'official' Maoism of the Chinese Communist Party and it was sceptical about the possibility of building the Party at that time in France, making it an unusual far left formation. Yet it retained a quite typical Marxist attitude to anarchist or anarchist style activity--one of condemnation and unremitting criticism. The group dissolved in 1985 and several of its militants, including Badiou, formed a new group Organisation Politique (OP). This new group continued the path of political militancy, but defined itself more firmly as a post-party formation.

In terms of his theoretical work Badiou published his magnum opus Being and Event in 1988, translated into English in 2005. This dense work defended the modern project of philosophy through the deployment of the mathematics of set-theory. As the title of the book suggests Badiou was not simply concerned to describe matters as they are but also the possibility of events: radical ruptures with the rules and structures of existing situations. In the field of the political--one of the four fields in which events can take place, alongside art, love and science--this means that he retains a fidelity to the event of revolution, signalled for him by 1917. At the same time, in his own political practice and in various books, essays, and interventions, Badiou has both insisted on the need to revise old political models and the need to constantly contest the politics of the present. His short book Ethics (2001), which forms the best introduction to his work, engages in a violent polemic against the ideological abuse of 'ethics' to provide justification for the domination of capitalism and the state. Unusually for a philosopher, Badiou has maintained a dialogue between his theoretical work and political militancy that has persisted through the waning of the political hopes invested in May 1968 and the context of an increasingly reactionary intellectual turn following September 11 and the 'war on terror'. It is this political intransigence which, in part, makes Badiou such an influential and attractive figure for re-thinking...

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