This, one might think, is a good time for reading Capital. Perhaps, but it’s also a good time for brushing up on the old Badiou. Which tends to be something you put off normally. Sure, I read Žižek for entertainment – the man really missed his calling as a film critic – but you could never mistake Badiou for a little ray of sunshine.
But this leads me back to an old favourite, the question of why the Brits don’t get modern French thought. On reflection, the practitioners of Analytical Philosophy who dominate Britain’s philosophy departments are far from being the worst – in general, they just aren’t that interested in continental thought, which is why you can get a PhD in philosophy without having read a paragraph of Heidegger. No, what really annoys my brain is that element of the punditocracy that fancies itself intellectually sophisticated – it might be Johann at the classier end of the market, or it might be Nick and Francis at the Beavis and Butt-head end. Fuelled by a potent mix of philistinism and Francophobia, they operate on the basis that modern French thought is a load of pretentious gibberish, while occasionally plucking out quotes from the more facetious French philosophers, taking them literally, and holding them up as examples of how silly the French are. Exhibit A is Baudrillard on the Gulf War, when in fact the simulacrum was one of the few things Baudrillard got right. And yes, Prof Callinicos, I’m looking at you.
Now this may seem a bit cheeky, given that Irish culture is even more anti-intellectual than its British oppo (we only have one serious philosopher, and that’s Cardinal Des Connell), but bear with me. I like to read Badiou because, and this is a major test for me, he’s capable of being wrong in a really interesting way, so I find him stimulating even when, as I often do, I completely disagree with him. On the other hand, put yourself in the shoes of a British pundit who doesn’t know frig all about modern French thought but who has heard of this bloke Badiou. You go into the library, or perhaps Waterstone’s, and crack open a volume of the great man’s musings. The first thing you read is Badiou singing the praises of the Cultural Revolution in China. Your first reaction, understandably, will be “Who is this maniac and how does he get to be so influential?”
To take the political side first, it’s true that Badiou is an ex-Maoist and not very ex at that. Let’s leave aside for the moment that Mao Zedong Thought is itself very poorly understood these days, because that really isn’t the point. The point is that Badiou is a Nietzschean, and his take on Mao is a Nietzschean one. This then layers misunderstanding on misunderstanding.
In France, where philosophy is taken seriously enough to be taught in secondary schools, this isn’t a big problem, because most people with a basic philosophical training will have some grasp of Nietzschean categories. In Britain, on the other hand, it leads me as a Nietzsche aficionado to one of my long-running bugbears. That is that only about half a dozen universities in Britain teach Nietzsche, and historically they haven’t taught him very well. That can sit alongside other glaring gaps in the curriculum such as Schopenhauer not being taught anywhere, Bergson not having been taught anywhere for the last fifty years, and Kierkegaard being relegated to a weird half-life in theology departments.
So, is Badiou saying the Cultural Revolution was the greatest thing since sliced bread? Well, yes he is, but he’s saying something more interesting than that. What he’s saying is that the Cultural Revolution functioned, or had the potential to function, as the Nietzschean Umwertung aller Werte, the revaluation of all values. And this is where his critique of Mao comes in: that Mao in reining back the excesses of the Cultural Revolution after the ultraleft period of 1966-69, instead of allowing events to reach their logical conclusion, not only betrayed that process but also reduced his own status back to that of just a politician, dropping down from the übermenschlich to the allzumenschlich.
And this might just make you think that Badiou is even more of a maniac than he appeared at first sight. It’s certainly not a position I would care to argue in political terms. But philosophically it’s an interesting argument, much more so than columnists harrumphing about “Leninism” would have you believe. And, if we want to rise above the drab little world of Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism, why not?