. .Is Communism the Answer to the Crisis?
. . .Alain Badiou

Transcript by Richard James Jermain:

Introduction by Stephen Sackur:
As the world’s richest economies plunge deeper into recession, could there be a whiff of revolution in the air? My guest today, Alain Badiou, has been an intellectual hero of France’s anti-capitalist Left since the Paris street-protests of 1968. His recent attacks on President Sarkozy have caused a storm in France, but does anyone beyond Parisian café society believe communism is the answer to the current crisis?

Sackur: Alain Badiou welcome to HARDtalk. Do you see this economic crisis we are living through as a moment of tremendous opportunity for the anti-capitalist Left?

Badiou: My answer will be cautious. In one sense, naturally, this crisis is the end of a sequence – a sequence where it is explained that the world of capitalism, democratic societies, and so on, is the best world possible. In that sense there is something like a big change. In another sense, it’s not my conviction that the crisis is always the idea of a new figure of the situation. Many crisis have [ended] in the past with terrible consequences, and it is not my conviction that the crisis of capitalism is by itself a new vision of politics and of societies and so on.

Sackur: But do you, to put it bluntly, want to overthrow the system as it currently works in the rich western democracies?

Badiou: We don’t know really today what is the extension of the crisis? Maybe, finally, the rich world, the rich western world will find new means to develop the sequence of capitalism itself. So the crisis is an opportunity, maybe but it’s not a solution, it’s not by itself the beginning of something new.

Sackur: But you see, what I’m wondering is whether for you – as a sort of philosopher, an intellectual, a figure on the far Left of French politics – whether you would be expecting the French people to be more angry than they appear to be. I mean, we’ve had one or two strikes there’s another one planned for the coming days, but frankly French public doesn’t appear to be as angry as one might have expected.

Badiou: Yes, but you know the question of popular movements is not only the question to be angry or to be in difficulties, in big difficulties, or the question of a crisis. You must have some ideas, some great ideas, ideas of emancipation, ideas of the possibility of something else, that is the point. The failure of all socialist and communist experiences in the last century as its consequence is that we have no, today, great and clear idea of another world.

Sackur: But hang on, you are — are you not — a communist?

Badiou: The Idea of Communism was a great Idea of a new possiblity during the 19th century. During the last century, all experiences under this Idea have been a failure. So today we must construct — not immediately — a new solution after the crisis of capitalism, we have to reconstruct a new Idea.

Sackur: But, you know, I’ve been reading your work, and you insist in your writings and recently that “Communism is the right hypothesis,” you say.

Badiou: I think that Communism is the right name for another form of society, certainly. Because Communism signifies, first, the Idea of society which is not under the rule, which is not ruled by, private interests.

Sackur: But see when you say that, and you’ve already alluded to the problem that history presents, French people, British people, people around the world are simply going to say to you, “Alain Badiou, look at the 20th century. Look at our recent history.” How can you say communism is the right hypothesis today, when we know what we know about the authoritarian, tyrannical tendencies of communism in our lifetimes.

Badiou: Yes, but we have to distinguish between the genuine Idea of Communism, for example in the work of Marx himself, and the experiences of the last century, because the experiences of the last century are the first attempt to realize a new society. This attempt is a failure, okay. But after that, is the failure of that sort of experience the failure of the Idea itself? I don’t believe it.

Sackur: But that reduces your communist adherence to nothing more than a faith. Rather than look at its practical impact upon the 20th century, you just say, “Ah, well, that wasn’t pure. It wasn’t true to the idea. But I know that the idea itself remains right.” That’s a form of faith.

Badiou: Maybe, but faith is a great thing sometimes…

Sackur: Well let’s look at the reality of France and of the rich world as a whole today. You wrote a powerful book which caused a storm in your own country, The Meaning of Sarkozy, but you wrote it before the real economic crisis hit France and the wider world. Do you think in your condemnation of what Sarkozy represents you’ve been somewhat overtaken by events?

Badiou: In fact as a crisis has been surprise not only for the governments and the public but also for me — it was a surprise — and I’m not sure that it’s a good surprise. Concerning Sarkozy, Sarkozy was completely inside the idea of a continuity. He promised money for everybody, new, big salaries, and so on. And so Sarkozy today is in front of a new situation, a completely new situation. So we have something like a new Sarkozy too, it’s not the same Sarkozy as before.

Sackur: Well it seems to me that you perhaps misread Sarkozy, because your message in your book seemed to be that here was a man who wanted to radically change the politics of France to get away from the post-war consensus where Left and Right basically bought into the same sort of centrist policies. Sarkozy wanted to adopt a much more Anglo-Saxon, free market, laissez-faire model, and he wanted to be much tougher with France. But actually since the economic crisis hit France Sarkozy showed himself to be a pragmatist, to be a man who’s much more of the French post-war tradition.

Badiou: But he cannot do anything else. We can say that the president of the United States gives money to banks, and so on. So everybody must do something like that. But it’s the time of the crisis. It’s the conviction, the conviction of Sarkozy, certainly a conviction along the line of capitalism, free markets, and so on.

Sackur: But he doesn’t appear to be a conviction politician. Now he looks like a pragmatic, opportunistic politician.

Badiou: Yeah, but it’s the same thing for everybody in the rich western world today. With the crisis they must be pragmatists. They must run the situation, in one sense. They cannot do it under the idea of ideological conviction today; the crisis is too huge, it’s too big. They have to do what they must do, they are obliged to do something like that. They are not free in fact.

Sackur: Do you accept at least . . .

Badiou: But Sarkozy continued to destroy many parts of the old situation, concerning the system of health, and hospitals and so on, the educative system, the functionary, and so on. He destroyed many things.

Sackur: But, of course, he has a mandate for change. He won a very clear majority in the election of [20]07. And in a democracy that gives him a legitimate mandate to pursue policies that he promised the electorate.

Badiou: Certainly, if you are inside the present system you must say that all that is perfectly legitimate.

Sackur: You don’t regard it as legitimate?

Badiou: My vision is a philosophical one. As a philosopher, I never accept the world as it is because it is as it is. Okay? A philosopher is always a critic, from the very beginning, from Socrates. Don’t accept the opinions. If an opinion is dominant, okay. But it’s not the job of the philosopher to accept the opinion because the opinion is dominant. And so I cannot confer, philosophically, legitimacy to Sarkozy.

Sackur: You talk philosophy, you mention Socrates, but a lot of your critique of Sarkozy isn’t very high minded. I mean, French critics have picked up on your language. The fact that you call Sarkozy the Rat Man. You refer to his small stature. You refer to him as nouveau riche, and his lack of culture. It’s very personal, your attack on Sarkozy.

Badiou: Certainly, certainly.

Sackur: Well, where’s the Socratic strength of argument in all that?

Badiou: But I — I want to explain some points: I say that Sarkozy is a Rat Man not at all on the basis of biological or physical aspects, but only because he played like . . .

Sackur: I understand the accusation, the accusation in Le Monde for example, the accusation was that that word has not been used in association with political persons since the 1940s and since it was applied to Jews, and of course Mr. Sarkozy has Jewish origins.

Badiou: Yes, but it was an explanation of the inscription of Sarkozy in the long French tradition. Sarkozy is not completely new. Absolutely not. On many points Sarkozy is in the continuity of an old reactionary tradition in French history. I want to remind everybody that France in one sense is a country of French Revolution of * (12:57) * , of Popular Front and so on, but there is another history of France which is really completely reactionary, with the repression of the Commune de Paris, with the Restoration at the beginning of the 19th century, with Pétain and so on; and it was only to explain to my readers that Sarkozy is inside this second history of France and against the first, and that the history of France is the history of a profound division. You know in France there are two different countries, not one.

Sackur: Well I suppose there are many different Frances if one picks away at it, but it just strikes me there is a problem here. On the one hand you have accused Sarkozy of peddling fear, of winning an election based on fear. On the other hand when you call him the Rat Man, when you liken him to Pétain, the collaborationist French leader during the second World War, surely you are playing on French fears as well. You’re building up a fear, perhaps irrational, unmerited fear of Sarkozy.

Badiou: No I don’t say that the goal of all that is to create a new fear of Sarkozy, it’s to describe Sarkozy. Sarkozy, the victory of Sarkozy, was from a big part of French people a terrible surprise.

Sackur: A terrible surprise? Well, he got 55% of the vote. I doubt that that was a terrible surprise.

Badiou: The existence of a majority, a popular majority for Sarkozy was a surprise, really, because we know what was Sarkozy for a long time. It was the French Ministry of Interior, the chief of police and so on. The practices and the vision of Sarkozy was clear, and so from a big part, not a majority, from a big part of French people it was a surprise. And it was necessary to explain something concerning that sort of surprising fact – the election of Sarkozy.

Sackur: So you have no regrets about the language you used? You have no regrets at all?

Badiou: No, because there has been some misunderstanding of my language. For example, the Rat Man. It was not a name of Sarkozy. It was an allusion to the history of, it’s very difficult for me to explain that in English, but it’s a story of the man who played flute . . .

Sackur: I know, the Pied Piper who led the rats.

Badiou: Yeah, absolutely. So it was a description of the play of Sarkozy with the Left, to come with him, some part of the left.

Sackur: Okay I think I understand your meaning. Well if he has played the part of Pied Piper to some in the French Left, what is going on in the French Left? Nobody could argue that Sarkozy is particularly popular right now given the economic situation – his numbers in the pole are low, but, equally, the numbers for the Left’s leading figures are low too. The Left appears to have very little popular support in France.

Badiou: Absolutely, and my book is also a book concerning the terrible weakness of the Left in France today. A part of the success of Sarkozy is also the result of weakness of the Left not the weakness now but the weakness during many years. And this weakness of the Left in the crisis today is very bad news. Because when we are in a terrible crisis and first we have Sarkozy, which is not really popular today, and on the other side, a Left which is completely weak, we cannot say, we cannot clearly understand where we are going.

Sackur: But you are part of the problem are you not? For example, you I think have lent your support to Olivier Besancenot, the leader of the Anti-Capitalist Party. Now I just want to quote you something that he said in ‘Rouge (Red) Magazine’ just the other day. He said, “If bosses refuse to share the right to property, if they oppose worker control, we demand their expropriation and workers’ self-management of the companies.” I mean this is a philosophy which is never going to win mass support in modern-day France.

Badiou: Certainly, certainly. You know, I think we are at the very beginning of a long walk.

Sackur: ‘A long walk’, like Mao’s ‘Long March’?

Badiou: Absolutely. Something like that.

Sackur: Well, surely you’re not advising the French or Europeans that they ought to be looking to Mao for guidance.

Badiou: Why? Because, precisely, we cannot continue the experiences of the last century. It’s finished. We are in a new sequence, not only the politics in France, the tactical politics in France, Sarkozy, the Left, and so on, but we are at the beginning of the something much more important, much more global, which is: Is it possible to create a new framework in which the Idea of a collective society of a Communist society in the original sense of the word, is possible? Or if we cannot do that…

Sackur: Do you believe it is possible?

Badiou: I think it is. I think it is, and it’s not only a phase, but it’s also to continue something which was really clear during the beginning of the history of Communism. We have to return to the primitive Communism, to the Communism of Marx. We have to go before the tragical experiences of the last century.

Sackur: But you see, I dare say a lot of people around the world will be interested in your ideas but will be saying to themselves: “Here is a man, who is stuck in the sort of romance of 1968,” a time of course when you were on the barricades, “and you want to recreate that sort of romantic idea that young people, the working class can take to the streets and reorganize society. And you sit there — frankly — with your sort of metaphorical Gauloise in your mouth, spouting this French radical revolutionary ideology, but nobody really buys it anymore.”

Badiou: I think the problem is much more complex. For example, today, the word ‘revolution’: we cannot understand this word. I am not a revolutionary in that sense. I don’t know what can be a revolution in France today. It was unclear in 1968. The word ‘revolution’ was here, but the revolution itself was not here, not at all. Nobody knows what is the signification of the word ‘revolution’ today. We have to begin by something else, not ‘revolution’, and so on, but by an abstract Idea first, an abstract conviction concerning the Communism as such that is the possibility of something else than the world as it is. And when we speak of the possibility of something else than the world as it is, we are in the philosophical field.

Sackur: But most people probably aren’t so much interested in philosophy as how to make a better life for themselves and their children. And how politically can people, do you believe, have an influence in the way in which politics is conducted in the future? Is it about a new form of grassroots politics, getting away from party structures or what is it?

Badiou: I think we have to do two different things. On one side we have to build a new conceptual framework, a new philosophical framework in which Communism can signify something today, because – I agree with you – ‘Communism’ today is only the tragical experiences of the last century. But it’s also a great Idea of the 19th century. So we have probably to build, to construct, a new conceptual framework. On the other side, we have to pay attention to the new forms of struggle, the new forms of organization in the concrete situation. But between the two there is a difficulty. There is a difficulty of junction between the conceptual or philosophical framework and the concrete situation. And that is the point which is unclear today: what is the obscurity of the situation?

Sackur: Well we have to leave it with the obscurity, I’m afraid, because we’ve run out of time.

Badiou: Probably, but if we take the situation of the beginning of the 19th century – maybe something like 1840 – it’s exactly the same situation: You have Communism ideology on one side and some experiences of political struggle of workers on the other side. And the junction of the two has been the work of Marx during all the century, practically. And it is the same thing.

Sackur: Well, we’ll have to see how the 21st century unfolds but Alain Badiou, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for being on HARDtalk.

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