by Nathan Coombs
Nowadays it is hard to find many examples of academic leftism crossing paths with real left wing politics. One could even argue that the former might have a negative effect on the latter – the UK is, after all, home to one of the strongest left wing publishing empires and conference circuits in the world, and yet its organised, political left is drearily weak by all continental comparisons.
There was something a bit edgy, then, about the recent workshop on the philosophy of Alain Badiou taking place in the Venezuelan Embassy’s Bolivar Hall on 20th November. One half expected to be spending the day staring at an enormous portrait of Hugo Chavez hung at the back of the hall during the proceedings. Thankfully, the large hall was graced by a more tasteful/less piece of generic modern art and there was not a trace of Chavez propaganda in sight.
As one of the world’s most famous ‘post-Maoists’ any event on Alain Badiou has the virtue/misfortune of attracting the followers of the Maoist sect the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. They were the only left wing political group who showed up to pamphlet the event. Unlike at the ‘Idea of Communism’ conference held at Birkbeck earlier in the year though they kept a low profile and abstained from grand standing and speech making. Shoehorning a bunch of arts students and academics into their demand to follow the vanguard to glorious victory – from across the Atlantic – has hopefully since struck them as a bit silly. This time they seemed happy just to take their seat in admiring the last remaining vestiges of depoliticised Maoism like everyone else.
As for the event, did it live up to expectations? That would depend on what expectations the one might bring to the proceedings. For those out of the know, Badiou has recently shot to academic stardom on account of his elaborate mathematised metaphysics, which he presents as an alternative to Hegel’s dialectic. He also had a minor-hit with a book on Sarkozy, and was the subject of notorious hand wringing commentaries in the French press for his rejection of the “predicate Jew” as given meaning through the Holocaust.
In a more general sense, Badiou is a timely hit because of his commitment to political universalism, faithfulness to the events of May 1968 and his unwavering loyalty to communism as the only truly politically emancipatory idea of our time. It also doesn’t hurt that his philosophy is fiendishly clever and complex – bordering on insane genius.
The specific focus of the well-attended workshop (perhaps 100 people attended) was two books of Badiou’s recently translated into English: Theory of the Subject (from 1982) and Logics of Worlds (2005). They mark a strong change in register between one another. Theory of the Subject is an absurdly impenetrable book; but also a revolutionary one in intent and tone. In this book Badiou rails against unionism, the exclusion of immigrants, and sets up a theory of deviation – against ‘leftist adventurism’ (anarchism) to the left, and ‘structuralism’ (unionism) on the right. In Logics of Worlds, however, there are traces of Badiou’s political commitments, but by and large it is a totally abstract piece of Platonistic metaphysics.
There were interesting presentations from translators of both works, Bruno Bosteels and Alberto Toscano – and if you are interested in metaphysics the workshop would no doubt have been greatly enjoyable in this regard (as it was for me). Yet the last panel on Badiou and politics showed its limitations.
Alberto Toscano took a stoic interpretation – what Badiou is useful for is keeping the flame alive and waiting for the radical left to regain its strength. Nina Power highlighted the fact that Badiou’s philosophical concerns of late reflect much of the philosophical and political maelstrom of the pre-Marxist 1840s. One audience member (probably RCP USA) noted that Badiou’s writing off of the “tragedy” of the 20th century and seeming demand that we return to the 1840s was not very helpful. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him!
As the daylong conference closed everyone could feel satisfied. It was a rare event where all could claim to be a communist and talk about communism as if it were patently obvious that it was the only politics worth discussing. On the whole this must be a good thing. But still, as the hundred or so shuffled out the door (after some much appreciated free drinks) you couldn’t help wonder with the minuteness of the left, where, between Badiou workshops and ‘Idea of Communism’ conferences, all these people disappear to?