Alain Badiou | The Four Principles of Marxism

El Lissitzky | Design sketch for a monument to Rosa Luxemburg, 1919-1920




What do you retain as essential of the thought of Marx for thinking the present period politically? What has been and what is today your conception of communism?

For me, communism resides in the final instance in four principles, established and legitimated by both the Marxist theoretical analysis of human societies and by the militant heritage of Marxism throughout the last two centuries. These principles are all concerned with the possibilities of transformation of what constitutes, for at least five thousand years (since the formation of the Neolithic Era), the principle of class in human society.

First, it is possible to organize collective life around something other than private property and profit. We must return to the crucial statement of Marx, who, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, declares suddenly that everything he has said can be compressed into a single point: the abolition of private property. This idea has long been present in history, since we can find it on a certain level already in Plato and it animated, in truth, practically the entirety of the emancipatory thought of the 19th century. It is today largely forgotten, and it must be revived at any cost. To put it another way, capitalism is not, and should not be, the end of History. What comes after, how, with what outcome, and so on, is another story.

Second, it is possible to organize production around something other than specialization and the division of labour. In particular, there is no reason to maintain the separation between intellectual and manual labour or between tasks of direction and execution. There is no rationality that prescribes the impossibility of entering into the era of what we can call with Marx the ‘polymorphic worker’. There is no possible reason to consider as definitively rational that an African should dig a hole in the road, while a white man stands by handing out orders to his lackeys. It is pathological, more profound even than the countable notion of equality. It is in reality the idea that the divisions that organize work itself are deadly, murderous.

Third, it is possible to organize collective life that is not founded on closed, identitary sets, such as nations, languages, religions, and customs. Politics, in particular, can unify humanity as a whole beyond these references. All these differences can and should exist. It is not at all a case of saying that they should disappear, that everyone ought to speak the same language and so on. They can and should flourish, in a generative manner, but on the political scale of the entirety of humanity. From this point of view, the future is one of complete internationalism and we must affirm that politics can and must exist in a fashion that is transversal to national identities. It is not true that human collectives must of necessity collectively organize themselves on the basis of this type of identity. Again, it is not a case of saying that these should not exist; they must coexist without being founded on principles of separation.

Fourth, it is possible to gradually make disappear the state as a separated power, with the monopoly of violence, the police and the army. To put it another way, the free association of human beings and the rationality that they share can and should replace the law and the constraint.

To make a long story short: in one sense, these four principles clearly constitute a programme for an exit from the Neolithic moment, in which we still live, that is, an exit from the structural state of humanity for the last four or five thousand years, namely the whole epoch in which private ownership of the principal means of production and exchange resulted in the division of humanity into classes. This division is today at its apex, wherein an oligarchy of a few hundred people possesses the equivalent of what is owned by more than two billion others, where the inheritance of 1% of humanity equals that of 50% of this same human population.

But on the other hand, these four principles are not exactly a programme in the strong sense. They are principles for the evaluation of what has happened historically, permitting us to respond to the question: “Does what has happened in our world, as movement, as organization, have a relation with one of these four points, which one, and in what conditions?” If none of these points is convoked in any way, well, we will judge in any case that what has happened is not in the general strategic direction necessary so that a new politics could be created and become a new historical development.

The question thus becomes: is the realization of these four possibilities inscribed in history? Or will history simply continue onwards, or even end in catastrophe for humanity, without having been able to achieve this exit from the Neolithic? This question is identical to the following: will a living Marxism reappear and inscribe the possibility of communism in the overall consciousness of humanity?

I cannot for the moment respond to this question. It was formulated at the outset of the Marxist epoch as the watchword ‘communism or barbarism’. This has become simultaneously obvious, urgent, and absent. But the future, as Althusser once said, lasts a long time.

Translated from French by Gavin Walker


First published by positions politics

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