For leftists today, it’s common to regard the idea of communism with skepticism, or to view events like the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Paris Commune as failures. For French philosopher Alain Badiou, however, the fact that these moments of revolutionary upheaval did not absolutely overturn the status quo is no reason to discard them — or, for that matter, the idea of communism.
Badiou likens the communist project to a theory that mathematician Pierre de Fermat first proposed in the seventeenth century. In 1994, after three hundred years of failed attempts, English mathematician Andrew Wiles finally substantiated Fermat’s “Last Theorem.” For Badiou, the example is instructive: the communist hypothesis is true, even if it remains to be proved. “Failure is nothing more than the history of the proof of the hypothesis,” he writes, “provided that the hypothesis is not abandoned.”
It’s this lifelong commitment to radical philosophy that marks Badiou out among intellectuals of his generation. In his youth, he interviewed philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jean Hyppolite, and Georges Canguilhem for a TV show L’Enseignement philosophique. Today, at eighty-five years of age, Badiou continues to interrogate the relationship between politics and philosophy with his monthly seminar series, which begun in 2021, titled “How to live and think in a time of absolute disorientation?”
Nevertheless, the Anglophone left has been slow to engage with Badiou’s thought, perhaps due to the demands he places on readers. But this is to overlook a philosopher who insists on reviving the idea of communism against the many who have “cheapened” it or who would rather communism be “sentenced to death.” Indeed, Badiou offers an example of what it is to live one’s politics in the most radical sense. He thinks and writes in the spirit of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong, and his chief contribution is a philosophy that defends the core tenets of revolutionary Marxism with unrivaled rigor.
Who Is Alain Badiou?
Badiou grew up in Morocco under French colonial occupation, a childhood that left him keenly aware of class inequality. In the 2018 documentary “Badiou,” he recalls noticing that white colonial women occupied the upper rooms of his family’s house, while the Arabic women who largely raised him lived below and worked in the kitchen.
A gifted student, when Badiou was nineteen, he enrolled at the École Normale Supérieure where he was taught by the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. At the time, Althusser criticized Badiou’s approach to philosophy for what he called “Pythagorism,” that is, an overindulgence in mathematics. Readers of Badiou, however, will agree that this is a warning he didn’t heed. As Badiou later reflected, “as so often happens to the Master’s injunctions when the disciple is stubborn, I simply went on to make things worse for myself.”
After graduating, Badiou first became a high school teacher and later a lecturer in Reims, where he took part in the student and worker uprising of May 1968. Reflecting on this period, Badiou explains that it “breaks my life in two parts,” forming the impetus behind much of his later work.
When Badiou’s university in Reims joined the 1968 general strike, he marched alongside his students to the gates of the Chausson automotive factory, the largest local workplace to down tools. However, neither Badiou nor his students had a clear idea of what they would do when they arrived. Later, he reflected on the initial uncertainty that characterized the meeting between radical students and factory workers:
We approached the barricaded factory, which was decked with red flags, with a line of trade unionists standing outside the gates, which had been welded shut. They looked at us with mingled hostility and suspicion. A few young workers came up to us, and then more and more of them. Informal discussions got under way. A sort of local fusion was taking place. We agreed to get together to organize joint meetings in town.
Prior to this uprising, there had been little dialogue in France between working-class people and students because union representatives generally served as mediators between the two. The protests, however, created a newfound possibility for communication and collective action. Indeed, as Badiou recounted, factory-gate discussions like the one he and his students had initiated “would have been completely improbable, even unimaginable, a week earlier.”
Like the Paris Commune and the Cultural Revolution, this moment of resistance ultimately died down. Yet, Badiou insists that we must not consider it a failure. The lesson of 1968 is that there is a common politics that can unite student and working-class radicals and actualize the potential of joint resistance. As he would put it, we are “still contemporaries” of 1968, and indeed, the event had such an impact on Badiou that for the subsequent decade, he entered into a period of “no philosophy,” and instead dedicated himself to political action.
Rather than distance himself from the academic world, Badiou sought to bring political militancy to bear on it. So, he took a teaching position at Paris 8 University Vincennes-Saint-Denis, which was founded in response to May 1968 and counted a number of radicals among its staff, such as philosopher Gilles Deleuze. While at the university, Badiou led several unorthodox protests aimed at countering ideas he regarded as conservative or elitist.
“I myself once led a ‘brigade,’” Badiou recounts, “to intervene in his [Deleuze’s] seminar.” This was not lost on Deleuze’s students, one of whom later recalled Badiou’s pupils “turning up with copies of Nietzsche and asking trick questions to try and catch [Deleuze] out.” Alternately, Badiou invoked the “people’s rule,” calling on students to leave Deleuze’s class in favor of a political protest or meeting. On these occasions, Deleuze would signal his resignation by raising his hat — a white flag of surrender — and placing it back on his head.
As Badiou explains in his monograph Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, he was concerned with the political import of Deleuze’s philosophy. Today, his methods of intervention have changed and he reflects on these youthful protests humorously. However, Badiou’s sentiment remains unchanged: one must be vigilant in thinking through the political implications of any given philosophical system taken to its limits.
In the Name of Truth
Badiou is a prolific writer, and in addition to many philosophical treatises, he has published plays, novels, and translations. He has also remained engaged with live political debates, publishing commentaries on the election of Donald Trump and the Yellow Vests movement, for example. However, the centerpiece of Badiou’s oeuvre is the Being and Event trilogy in which he pursues the main goal of his philosophy: to develop a theory of truths.
As Badiou notes, this project clashes with contemporary academic fashion, which frequently considers it gauche to speak earnestly of “truth.” Against this, Badiou argues that there are such things as truths — and they run contrary to the two dominant characterizations common to our times.
On the one hand, it is conventional to think of truths as relative, that is, as only being true within particular contexts and for certain communities, but not others. On the other, we might favor a notion of truth as singular or legislative. This approach upholds the idea that there is only one truth to which everyone must submit. The former, relative approach to truth, is common coin in undergraduate social or cultural studies programs, and is often associated with the liberal left. The latter, by contrast, is more commonly favored by those working in the hard sciences, or by certain religious or political movements that propose one spiritual truth or one national identity.
Both understandings of truth present problems. If truths are relative, we sacrifice any idea of universal truth, and are therefore forced to deny that we are united by shared ideas. Consequently, we have nothing but our differences. Conversely, if truths are universal, the challenge is to give an account for how they can be true for radically different peoples and contexts. And we must do this without inadvertently legitimating structures of oppression — like colonialism — that historically have used the language of universal truth to justify their violence.
Badiou’s theory of truths attempts to resolve this tension by establishing truths as both universally applicable and particular to the local situation. Truths emerge in historically determinate events while also ringing true in times, geographical locations, and cultures outside the place of their emergence.
Importantly, truths shape and constitute the possibility of philosophy itself. Badiou insists that philosophy does not itself produce truths but must think through truths as they appear in art, science, love, and politics, which he terms the four “conditions.” Here we encounter one particularly valuable feature of Badiou’s schema vis-à-vis politics. By insisting that philosophy does not produce political truths, he ensures that philosophy doesn’t attempt to determine politics. Instead, by arguing that philosophy should be determined by politics, he attempts to maintain the potential for political thought as such.
What’s crucial for Badiou is that we learn to think in ways that do not follow from the existing situation of capitalist oppression. The fact that there is no clear example of a perfectly realized emancipatory politics makes this harder — but it doesn’t mean that the task Badiou sets us is impossible. However, the politics that we begin to construct cannot be based on pure conjecture, otherwise we are bound to fall into abstraction or tend toward fascism.
This is where philosophy can help us develop political alternatives, but only provided we maintain fidelity to a revolutionary sequence — such as 1968 — set in motion by real political events. In short, Badiou suggests that we avoid the twin dangers of relativism and abstraction by insisting that philosophy must follow from politics, as thought in action.
The Mathematics of Resistance
If Althusser was taken aback by Badiou’s emphasis on mathematics, what are we to make of it? Historically, it’s not uncommon for philosophers and theologians to attempt to think through mathematical problems like the nature of the infinite. However, the connection between mathematics and Marxist political action might seem obscure.
While Badiou does offer a philosophical argument that reconciles mathematics and politics, he’s clear that it’s not just a scholarly question. He points out that historically, many mathematicians have upheld fervent political convictions, and that their discipline has drawn them toward political life, not away from it. As an example, he points toward his father Raymond Badiou, a mathematician and enthusiastic member of the resistance against the Nazi occupation of France.
Badiou also writes about the more widely known mathematicians Albert Lautman and Jean Cavaillès, who were both killed for their anti-Nazi activism. For example, in 1942, disguised in nothing more than a boiler suit, Cavaillès broke into a German submarine base in Lorient. Although French police arrested and interned him, Cavaillès escaped later that year. In 1944, German counterintelligence arrested him again before he was eventually shot and buried in a grave marked “Unknown Man No. 5.”
Both Cavaillès and Badiou’s father explained that their choice to resist oppression was a necessary consequence of the mathematical logic to which they were committed. Indeed, it is worth noting that Cavaillès worked in the field of pure mathematics. He advocated for a methodology that divorced mathematical reflection from any notion of the subject and emphasized the potential internal to mathematics itself.
This is important for Badiou who, following Plato, argues that mathematics is the first point where logic demands that we break with opinion. He writes, “the essence of politics is not the plurality of opinions. It is the prescription of a possibility in rupture with what exists.”
This is to say, political truths cut through the proliferation of political debates and identities, offering an alternative to the prevailing social structure. Ruptures like these, in Badiou’s theoretical schema, are understood as “events.” An event is inherently challenging because it produces a new truth that goes beyond the geographic and historic conditions that gave rise to it.
Consequently, the task for radical philosophy is to discern between what is genuinely new and what recapitulates a version of the existing state of affairs under the guise of novelty. For instance, contrast the uprising of 1968 against the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The former created new forms of political action, broadening our horizon of possibility. The latter was a symptom and, ultimately, a repetition of the status quo.
Badiou’s point is that mathematics can provide us with resources for thinking through an event as it ruptures the dominant political order. Reduced to its simplest form, the question of politics is: How can we imagine and actualize a different situation to the one we are currently in? And from this, a further question flows: How can moments of resistance to oppression come to restructure society, beyond the often brief and chaotic moment of revolt?
Because mathematics provides a mode of thinking according to axioms, philosophy informed by mathematics allows us to think at the point of what cannot be determined. This helps us answer the question: What do certain decisions allow? And how, by a series of inquiries into the unknown, might we begin to actualize an alternative to oppressive political realities?
For Badiou, these inquiries help us address all contemporary social and economic threats that result from capitalism by positing a higher, communist truth. Rather than “participate in the festivities of capital or roam aimlessly,” he calls on those with a commitment to philosophy to think the political truth of communism through to its consequences.
The result will be thought in action and the proof of a communist hypothesis that will have been true since its birth.