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Simon Critchley *
For the philosopher, the world has arguably always been a
disappointing place full of dumb people. Heracleitus was traditionally
known as the Weeping Philosopher because his fellow citizens of
Ephesus refused to follow the logos , the law, principle or reason that
governs the universe. Instead, they acted as if they were asleep and had
no awareness of what they are doing, like chaff-munching donkeys.
Heracleitus became such a hater of humanity that he wandered into the
mountains and lived on a diet of grass and herbs before dying
suffocated in cow dung. Empedocles, the great political radical, turned
his back on the people of Agrigentum and threw himself into Mount
Etna in the hope of being transformed into a god (sadly, one of his
bronze slippers was spat out by the volcano in confirmation of his
mortality). Anaxagoras suggested that mind or nous was the moving
principle of the universe and counseled his fellow citizens of Miletus to
study the moon, sun and stars. When someone asked him, “Have you
no concern with your native land?,” he replied, “I am greatly concerned
with my native land” and pointed to the stars. He was banished from
Miletus after a trial where the charge was that he claimed the sun to be a
mass of red-hot metal. In the famous Seventh Letter, Plato writes about
his two visits to Syracuse where he was invited to educate the young
ruler, Dionysius II. There is a story told that such was Dionysius’s
appreciation of Plato’s efforts, that he sold him into slavery and was
only saved by being ransomed by the Cyrenaic philosopher Anniceris.
Everyone knows that Socrates was famously condemned to death for
impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. It is less well known that a
couple of generations later, during the uprisings against Macedonian
rule that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE,
Alexander’s former tutor, Aristotle, escaped Athens saying, “I will not
allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.”
It is therefore something of an understatement to assert that the
relation between philosophy and politics has always been a difficult
one. In the Republic , Socrates wanders out of Athens with Plato’s
* Professor of Philosophy, New School for Social Research, New York.
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brothers and walks down to the port of Piraeus, leaving the city behind
them. After quickly demolishing the prevailing views of justice in
Athenian society, Socrates proceeds to dream of another city in
dialogue, a just city governed by philosophers whose souls would be
orientated towards the Good. This is why the standard objection to
Plato that the ideal of the philosophical city is unrealistic, utopian, or
impossible to realize is so fatuous. Of course, the philosophers’ city is
utopian. That’s the point. Indeed, one might go a little further and
claim that it is the duty of philosophy to build conceptual castles that
allow us to imagine that another city and another world are possible,
however difficult that may be to achieve in practice. As the saying
goes, you are either utopian or a schmuck. Alain Badiou is no schmuck.
Moreover, he is a Platonist, which is something that it is very important
to keep in mind when reading his political writings assembled in
Polemics , 1 or Circonstances in French, which is my focus today .
The source of Badiou’s considerable appeal lies in the
understanding of philosophy that he defends. He writes that,
“Philosophy is something that helps change existence.” 2 Philosophy is
neither technical and largely irrelevant logic-chopping nor is it
deconstructive, melancholic poeticizing, what Badiou calls, “the
delights of the margin.” On the contrary, philosophy is an affirmative,
constructive discipline of thought. Crucially, this is thought “not about
what is, but about what is not.” 3 Philosophy is the construction of the
formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls
the “febrile sterility” of the contemporary world. This is what he calls
an event and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is
something that might be worthy of the name event. If philosophy, with
Heracleitus, is understood as a “seizure of thought of what breaks the
sleep of thought,” 4 then politics is a revolutionary seizure of power
which breaks with the dreamless sleep of an unjust and violently
unequal world. As such, Badiou is not concerned with the banal reality
of existing politics, which he tends to dismiss as “the democratic
fetish,” but with moments of rare and evanescent political invention and
creativity. Like Socrates, Badiou dreams of another city in speech and
therefore to accuse him of being unrealistic is to refuse to undertake the
1 A LAIN B ADIOU , P OLEMICS (Steven Corcoran trans.,Verso 2006) [hereinafter B ADIOU ,
P OLEMICS ]. Polemics is the translation of Circonstances , a series of Badiou’s work which has
been published in the French language in several parts. These parts include: A LAIN B ADIOU ,
2 B ADIOU , P OLEMICS , supra note 1, at 9.
3 Id. at 10.
4 Id.
QUOI S ARKOZY EST - IL LE NOM ? (2007) [hereinafter B ADIOU , C IRCONSTANCES 4].
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experiment in thought that his philosophy represents.
Before turning more closely to what Badiou means by a politics of
the event, let’s consider a little further the world’s febrile sterility. In
Polemics , we find withering critiques and witty demolitions of the so-
called war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the bombardment of Serbia,
and the pantomime of parliamentary democracy, using the example of
the French Presidential elections of 2002. There is a delightfully
Swiftian satire on the Islamic headscarf or foulard affair and a savage
and poignant denunciation of the racism that lead to the riots in the
Parisian banlieues late in 2005: “We have the riots we deserve.” 5 Many
of the political writings are marked by a cool rationalism and a biting
comedy. Badiou sees France as a politically “sick” and
“disproportionately abject country” whose political reality is not located
in the endlessly-invoked republican ideal of the Revolution, but in the
reaction against it. For Badiou—and I think he is right—France is the
country of Thiers’ massacre of the Communards, Petain’s collaboration
with the Nazis, and de Gaulle’s colonial wars. As such, the victory of
Sarkozy is an affirmation of Petainism and Le Penism and a
continuation of the long war against the enemy within. 6
As to what Badiou imagines as an alternative to the febrile sterility
of the world and its increasingly orgiastic celebrations of social
inequality, it is interestingly described as an “Enlightenment, whose
elements we are slowly assembling.” 7 Such an Enlightenment can
neither be understood as what Badiou calls “state democracy,” i.e.
parliamentarism, nor “state bureaucracy,” the socialist party-state.
Political struggle is, “A tooth and nail fight to organize a united popular
force.” 8 This requires, and it is a word oft-repeated in these essays,
“discipline.” It is important to emphasize that this is not party discipline
in the old Leninist sense. Rather, what is at issue here is the invention
of a politics without party and at a distance from the state, a local
politics that is concerned with the construction of a collectivity.
But what might this mean? In order to understand Badiou’s idea of
politics, I think it is necessary to consider his close proximity to another
sometime Platonist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In my view, Badiou’s
understanding of politics is much more Rousseauian than Marxist. Let
me list seven reasons for this claim:
i. Formalism —In The Social Contract, Rousseau, like
Badiou, is trying to establish the formal conditions of a
legitimate politics. The more Marxist or sociological
5 B ADIOU , P OLEMICS , supra note 1, at 114.
6 In this connection, see B ADIOU , C IRCONSTANCES 4, supra note 2.
7 B ADIOU , P OLEMICS , supra note 1, at 56.
8 Id. at 57.
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question of the material conditions for such a politics is
continually avoided.
ii. Voluntarism —In Badiou’s view, Rousseau establishes the
modern concept of politics which is based in the “act by
which a people is a people,” as he puts it in The Social
Contract. 9 For Badiou, the key to Rousseau’s idea of
popular sovereignty consists in the act of collective and
unanimous declaration where a people wills itself into
existence. This act is an event understood as a collective
subjective act of creation whose radicality consists in the
fact that it does not originate in any structure supported
within what Badiou calls “being” or the “situation,” such as
the socio-economic realm or the dialectic of relations and
forces of production in Marx. The event of politics is the
making of something out of nothing through the act of the
subject. Badiou is a political voluntarist.
iii. Equality —Rousseau is the great thinker of what Badiou
calls the “generic,” which is a key concept in Badiou’s
system. Though politically, the generic is not a particular
maxim of action, but a universal norm: equality. For
Badiou, true politics has to be based on the rigorous
equality of all persons and be addressed to all. The means
for the creation of a generic, egalitarian politics is the
general will, conceived as that political subject whose act
of unanimity binds a collectivity together. As Badiou
writes, politics is “about finding new sites for the general
will.” 10
iv. Locality —From this follows a fourth important point of
contact with Rousseau. Although the latter defends a
generic politics understood as the act by which a people
declares itself a people of equals and addresses itself to all,
this can only be realized in a local manner. Badiou insists
that true politics has to be intensely local and he is opposed
to both delocalized capitalist globalization and its inverse
in the so-called anti-globalization movement. But the fact
that all politics is local does not mean that it is particular.
On the contrary, Badiou, like Rousseau, argues for what we
might call a local or situated universalism.
v. Rarity —The issue then becomes one of identifying a locale
for politics. It is well known that Rousseau struggled to
find examples of legitimate politics. For a while, he pinned
10 B ADIOU , P OLEMICS , supra note 1, at 97.
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his hopes on Geneva, until they started burning his books
after the publication of The Social Contract in 1762. He
also held out hopes for Corsica and wrote a fascinating
speculative constitution for Poland, both of which ended in
failure. If true politics is the act by which a people wills
itself into existence as a radical and local break with what
existed beforehand, then such a politics is rare. As we will
see in a moment, the only real example of politics that
Badiou gives is the Paris Commune.
vi. Representation —Badiou’s reflections on the French
elections of 2002 culminate in a rehearsal of Rousseau’s
arguments against representative, electoral government and
majority rule in The Social Contract. For Rousseau and
Badiou, the general or generic will cannot be represented,
certainly not by any form of government. Politics, then, is
not about governmental representation through the
mechanism of the vote, but about the presentation of a
people to itself. Badiou writes, “The essence of politics,
according to Rousseau, affirms presentation over and
against representation.” 11 The general will cannot be
represented. Of course, this leads Rousseau to follow Plato
in his critique of theatrical representation or mimesis and to
argue instead for public festivals where the people would
be the actors in their own political drama. What takes
place in the public festival is the presence to itself of the
people in the process of its enactment.
vii. Dictatorship —However, Badiou goes a step further with
Rousseau, a step that I am not able to take. He does not
just defend popular sovereignty, which is as controversial
as apple pie in the modern era (just as long as no one puts it
into practice, one might quip). Badiou also goes on to
defend Rousseau’s argument for dictatorship sketched
towards the end of Book IV of The Social Contract.
Rousseau argues, thinking as ever of Roman history, that
dictatorship is legitimate when there is a threat to the life of
the body politic. At such moments of crisis, the laws
which issue from the sovereign authority of the people can
be suspended, what the Roman jurists called iusticium .
Badiou’s claim is slightly different and he writes that,
“Dictatorship is the natural form of organization of
political will.” The form of dictatorship that Badiou has in
mind is not tyranny, but what he calls “citizenry
11 Id. at 95.
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discipline.” In other words, what Badiou is defending is
what Marx, Lenin, and Mao called “the dictatorship of the
proletariat.” Let’s just say that I have my doubts about this
final move in the argument.
The deeply Rousseauian character of Badiou’s approach to politics
becomes clear in the two extended and fascinating lectures that
conclude Polemics : on the Paris Commune and the Chinese Cultural
Revolution. In order to grasp Badiou’s argument, it is essential to
understand its precise periodization. What interests Badiou in the Paris
Commune is “the exceptional intensity of its sudden appearing.” 12
Everything turns here on the moment in March 18th, 1871 when a group
of Parisian workers who belonged to the National Guard refused to turn
over their weapons to the government of Versailles. It is this moment
of resistance and the subsequent election of the Commune government
on March 26th that constitute a political event for Badiou. Politics is
the making of something out of nothing through the act of a collective
subject, what he calls the “existence of an inexistent.”
It is this moment that is repeated—and very self-consciously
repeated—in the Shanghai Commune in February 1967. This followed
upon the intense power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party
and Mao’s mobilization of the Red Guards against what he saw as the
“revisionism” and bureaucratism of the regime. Although Badiou is
very well aware that Mao ordered the dissolution of the Shanghai
Commune and its replacement with a Revolutionary Committee
controlled by the Party, it is this brief moment of the self-authorizing
dictatorship of the proletariat that fascinates him.
What takes place in the Paris Commune is a moment of collective
political self-determination. But, crucially, Badiou’s understanding of
the Commune is freed from Lenin’s hugely influential critique in State
and Revolution , 13 where its failure is used to justify the Bolshevik
seizure of state power in 1917. The same political logic is at work in
the Shanghai Commune where, after having attempted to mobilize the
masses politically, Mao criticizes the commune for “extreme
anarchism” and being “most reactionary.” Badiou is acutely aware that
the Cultural Revolution led to widespread barbarism, persecution, and
So, what is politics, then? It is what Badiou calls an “evanescent
event,” the act by which a people declares itself into existence and seeks
to follow through on that declaration. We might say that politics is the
commune and only the commune. Badiou writes, very Platonically, “I
12 Id. at 284.
13 V. I. L ENIN , T HE S TATE AND R EVOLUTION (Robert Service trans., Penguin Books 1992)
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believe this other world resides for us in the Commune.” 14 It is this
sudden transformation of the febrile sterility of the nothing of the world
into a fecund something, this moment of radical rupture that obsesses
Badiou, a seizure by thought in the event that is a seizure of power.
Furthermore, this event doesn’t last. After seventy-two days, the Paris
Commune was crushed by the military forces of the future first
President of the Third Republic, Alphonse Thiers. An estimated 20,000
Parisians were slaughtered.
It is this brief moment of politics without party and state that was
repeated in a slightly different register in May 1968. Understood
biographically, the category of the event is Badiou’s attempt to make
sense of the experience of novelty and rupture that accompanied the
“events” of ’68. At its simplest, Badiou’s general question is: What is
novelty? What is creation? How does newness come into the world?
Understood politically, the event is that moment of novel, brief, local,
communal rupture that breaks with a general situation of social injustice
and inequality.
Compelling as I find Badiou’s understanding of politics, it is his
taste for dictatorship that I find distasteful. Despite the liberal
protestations of Hannah Arendt, I agree that the problem of politics is
the formation of the general or generic will, of a popular front, what
Marx called “an association of free human beings.” But in my view this
should not lead to an apology for dictatorship. Why not embrace the
anarchist politics that Badiou so steadfastly rejects, a politics that is also
without party and at a distance from the state? My problem with
Badiou’s politics is that behind his talk of discipline, even if it is no
longer party discipline, there is an affectionate and, to my mind,
misguided nostalgia for revolutionary violence. Seductive as it is, I find
that Badiou’s conception of politics suffers from a heroism of the
decision, a propaganda of the violent deed in all its deluded romance. It
seems to me that in a world governed by the violence of military neo-
liberalism, resistance must not take the form of a counter-violence—
such is the neo-Leninist logic of al-Qaeda—but should be devoted to the
prosecution and cultivation of peace. But peace is not passivity or a
state of rest. It is a process, an activity, a hugely difficult practice.
For all the apparent optimism and robust affirmativeness of
Badiou’s conception of philosophy, one might suspect that there is
something deeply pessimistic at its heart, which again links Badiou to
Rousseau. The formal conditions that define a true politics are so
stringent and the examples given are so limited, that it is tempting to
conclude that after the Commune and after 1968 any politics of the
event has become impossible. But such a conclusion forgets where this
14 B ADIOU , P OLEMICS , supra note 1, at 288.
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article started, with Socrates wandering out of the unjust city to dream
of another city in speech. Rousseau concludes his Second Discourse 15
by showing that the development of social inequality culminates in a
state of war between persons, tribes, nations and civilizations. It is
difficult to disagree with such a diagnosis at the present time. In the face
of such a state of war, the philosopher’s dream of another city will
always appear unrealistic and hopelessly utopian. To that extent, the
impossibility of Badiou’s politics is its greatest strength.