Alain Badiou and the idea of communism

Alex Callinicos


There has been an explosion of discussion of the idea of communism. Now this is, when one thinks about it, quite remarkable. ‘Communism’ is a term so closely associated with the Stalinist regimes (where generally parties that called themselves Communist held power) that often Marxists seeking to distance themselves from them have preferred to use the term ‘socialism’ (suitably qualified, as revolutionary socialism, or real socialism, or whatever) to characterize their own alternative.

The most decisive intervention in reawakening discussion of communism came from a surprising quarter. In 2007 the philosopher Alain Badiou wrote what was then the latest in a series of short polemical essays responding to shifts in the current politico-ideological conjuncture called Circonstances. Devoted to making sense of Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as President of the French Republic, the book included a chapter devoted to ‘The Communist Hypothesis’. The attention that this text attracted provided the stimulus for a large, and widely publicized conference devoted to the ‘Idea of Communism’ orchestrated chiefly by Slavoj Zizek in London in 2009. Badiou’s original essay and the one he delivered at the London conference have in turn been the subject of much discussion by Zizek and by many other left philosophers (myself included).

Daniel Bensaid, in his last major intervention, organized a special issue of the journal Contretemps, which he edited, and a conference around the theme: ‘Of what is communism the name?’ The answer, quite simply, is that it is the name of a systemic alternative to capitalism – not a reformed, humanized, better regulated version of capitalism, but a different kind of social order altogether. The significance of the debate about communism is (or, perhaps better, should be) that it puts discussion of this alternative on to the agenda. But how well does Badiou’s formulation of the ‘Communist Hypothesis’ meet the demanding requirements implied by the idea of a systemic alternative to capitalism?

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