What the Sasanaigh don’t get about Badiou


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?


  1. sonofstan said,

    January 14, 2008 at 11:58 am

    You’re right of course, about the insularity of the British philosophy dept. – even American philoophers are more likely to read some continental thought since they simply do more, both at undergrad. and post grad level.
    There is a reverse problem though, which is that modern French thought – or,at this stage, slightly old fashioned French thought – (Foucault, Derrida, Levinas) gets pillaged by folk elsewhere in the humanities without any grasp of their philosophical roots; which means the rigour beneath the fancy jargon is ignored – and part of this is because people who might profit from some philosophical education get scared away by the apparent aridity of the analytic tradition; which plays into the hands of the Wheens and the like.

    Have you read Being and Event? its on my list for when I’ve a spare year or so, but I’m scared by the maths.

  2. Tom Griffin said,

    January 14, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    They used to teach Schopenhauer at Essex, albeit maybe that was something of a continental outpost.

    Its ironic that pundits like Nick Cohen have moved into a neo-con orbit whose philosophical roots, via the likes of Strauss and Fukuyama, are very much continental.

  3. sonofstan said,

    January 14, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Its ironic that pundits like Nick Cohen have moved into a neo-con orbit whose philosophical roots, via the likes of Strauss and Fukuyama, are very much continental.

    Roots that include the work of Carl Schmitt – someone who the likes of Agamben, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau (still at Essex, I think), all firmly of the left, are also very fond of. What a lot of English political punditry misses completely is the philosophical roots of both left and right currents in political thought – instead seeing the world as a battleground between Liberalism and whatever its favourite other happens to be at the moment

  4. Rob said,

    January 14, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    I think the role of Mao and Maoists in French left philosophy is pretty interesting. A lot of really important current philosophers were influenced by (or were in fact) French Maoists. The people who immediately spring to mind in this regard are Balibar, Badiou, Ranciere and of course Althusser. There are also some less well known (but very interesting) French Maoists like Bettleheim and Amin. What all of these writers share is a hetereodox Marxism, which is based on many of the key ‘concepts’ of Marxism, whilst also remaining within its theoretical coordinates.

    Another interesting connection in this regard is some of the British Marxists who began life as ‘Marxists’, particularly Sean Sayers, Derek Sayer etc., again these are writers whose Marxism was pretty heterodox. Now one reason for this is that (notwithstanding what some people think) Mao’s Marxism was (is?) quite novel. Particularly, because he remains within Marxism, whilst problematising some of its key concepts. Thus, for example his insight into the ‘reversing’ of classical Marxist categories – the idea that ‘the people’ themselves can become a force of production etc.

    Another important point in this respect is that Mao represented an attempt to break with the Stalinian Marxism of his day, and in doing so was forced to theorise *agency*. This attempt to theorise the political action of subaltern classes, and to note their central importance (particularly the notion of class struggle taking the place of growth in the ‘means of production), marked a break with the technologist ‘Marxism’ prevailing in the day. What Mao seemed to do then, was theorise ‘the political’, which one might say was instantiated in the Cultural Revolution. And in think this is why (ex-)Maoists are increasingly important today. One of the key insights of lots of current philosophers is that we are living in a ‘depoliticised’ age and that one of our key tasks is to reappropriate (regain?) the political, hence the turn to Schmitt. In this respect I can see why (ex-)Maoists have something interesting to say.

  5. January 14, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Speaking of my own passage through higher education, the sociology/cultural studies milieu I learned my sociological ropes in were either Marxist or wedded to some woolly brand of poststructuralism. What this meant for those of us who went into postgrad studies was the analytical traditions in Anglo-American philosophy didn’t get a look in. Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Baudrillard, Irigary, and Bourdieu were the thinkers of choice. Giddens got a look in as well before he went the way of the third.

    When I studied political science a few years ago (I was forced), the theoretical poverty of the discipline did astound me. It was so naively and crudely positivist I couldn’t believe anything like it was being taught in a modern university. I had thought the importing of the natural science model into social science had long been abandoned. But apparently not. It really was as if the interest in Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism that marked the social sciences in the 80s and 90s had never happened.

    Anyway, cutting my mini-memoir short I do agree “fashionable” French thought does get short thrift from professional philosophers and the left alike, sometimes wilfully misunderstanding what they’re about. Your comments about the treatment of Baudrillard are common enough. The thing is plenty of these big hitters have very interesting things to say, yes, even Baudrillard. Their claims do challenge Marxism but through a sustained engagement their insights can enrich it. Unfortunately, where much of the left are concerned there’s no need for new thinkers and new concepts, because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky (plus post-war Trot gurus) have said it all.

    Sorry for rambling a bit.

  6. WorldbyStorm said,

    January 14, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Very interesting post, and while I’d be very cautious of Badiou in the political sense, his thinking beyond seems insightful, and even if wrong at least provides food for thought. Also want to agree with sonofstan. Having been involved in cultural studies and such like to an extent I’d completely agree that:

    “There is a reverse problem though, which is that modern French thought – or,at this stage, slightly old fashioned French thought – (Foucault, Derrida, Levinas) gets pillaged by folk elsewhere in the humanities without any grasp of their philosophical roots; which means the rigour beneath the fancy jargon is ignored – and part of this is because people who might profit from some philosophical education get scared away by the apparent aridity of the analytic tradition; which plays into the hands of the Wheens and the like.”

    The misappropriation of it by ‘critical’ studies, material culture studies, visual culture, etc, is both a wonder and a horror to behold.

  7. Garibaldy said,

    January 14, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    While lots of Americans do read French philosophers, and turn into good postmodernist grad students spouting identikit arguments, I’ve also met people from top quality US universities for whom philosophy is maths and practically nothing else.

    Nietzsche, or small parts of him at least, is taught in quite a few history departments in the UK as part of intellectual history, though with not much of a philosophical perspective. There have been quite a few recent history books on the French left (not that I can remember the name of any of the authors), and at least one phd is currently being written on French Maoism and 1968.

  8. January 15, 2008 at 12:50 am

    All I know is:

    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
    who was very rarely stable.
    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    who could think you under the table.
    David Hume could out consume
    Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
    ’bout the raisin’ of the wrist.
    Socrates himself was permanently pissed.

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
    after half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
    Plato, they say, could stick it away,
    ‘alf a crate of whiskey every day!
    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
    and Hobbes was fond of his Dram.
    And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:
    “I drink, therefore I am.”

    Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed;
    A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he’s pissed.

  9. johng said,

    January 15, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I’ve been led to believe that the French academy is entirely dominated by Rational Choice Theory and the most boneheaded variants of analytical philosophy, with Foucault, Derrida et al being more marginal in France then they are today in Britain or the US. Badiou’s work I’d always understood as being located in this context. Is this wrong?

  10. johng said,

    January 15, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Also on the cultural revolution, the most interesting theory I’ve heard about it recently, is that it, along with earlier forms of voluntarism (great leap foward etc) laid the basis for the contemporary success of China despite being both political and economic disasters of the time.

    The repeated waves of mass mobilisation meant the emergence of disciplined subjects used to responding efficiantly to authority, and internalising it. Contrary to various orientalist theories, such disciplined subjects would have been far to find in the largely feudal society inherited by Mao Tse Tung (charecterised by fragmentation, localism, and discipline as a merely external contraint). Add to this the fact that the state had to be built from scratch at the same time as the population had to be mobilised for production, and, according to such a model, you see the way in which apparently crazy campaigns and events built up the basis of China’s contemporary modernity.

    The only thing odd for me about this theory is the extraordinary way such a program of brutal forced accumulation of modernity could become a symbol in western countries of an alternative to stalinism (which for some obviously it did). This raises quite deep questions really.

  11. Idris said,

    January 15, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Very interesting and plausible point there, johng. Got a reference?

  12. January 15, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    some stuff from the UCFML – Badiou’s group in the 1970ies – can be found here: http://archivescommunistes.chez-alice.fr/ucfml/ucfml.html

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 15, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Well, on Mao, there are interesting questions about how China diverged from the classic Stalinist model and indeed how Mao problematised a lot of Soviet orthodoxy. Just look at the divergence between Mao’s use of the dialectic on the one hand, and post-1938 diamat on the other. I’ll have something up on diamat before long.

    And no, I don’t see how Badiou connects at all to analytical philosophy, which is basically an Anglo-American phenomenon. Your basic divide in the French academy postwar had been between the PCF milieu on the one hand (now very much in terminal decline) and what became known as the postmodernists, whose big starting point was Heidegger’s radicalisation of Nietzsche which they then radicalised still further. More recently you do have the Nouveaux Philosophes, but that’s another story.

  14. Rob said,

    January 15, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    JohnG: Is the explanation you’re thinking of that of Chris Bramall? One thing I would argue about point is that even if it is correct (and I would tend to think that it is to some degree) this functionalist explanation doesn’t adequately capture what the cultural revolution was all about. Firstly, I don’t like the ‘top down’ view that this seems to imply, it seems symptomatic of a certain view of ‘state-socialist’ (or whatever). Secondly, the cultural revolution actually represents an interesting and decisive break with much of the stale ‘Marxism’ of the time. This sort of Marxism characterised ‘development’ of the forces of production as (1) a technicist matter and (2) the motive force of history. This means it seems to have an utter lack of the theory of the political, or the decisiveness of political (or class) action. The Cultural Revolution was an actualisation of Mao’s reversal of ‘dialectical’ orthodoxy – the mobilisation of masses (class struggle) could itself become the ‘principal contradiction’ that could form a cerntral role in the transition to socialism. Whatever the particular characterisation of the cultural revolution, it remains the case that it grants political action a role which Marxism never had. Thirdly, even if you accept the top-down model of the Cultural Revolution it is the case that it went beyond the expectations of its mobilisers on several occasions – the best example being the Shanghai People’s Commune – this led to some Maoist organisations (e.g. the PLP) rejecting Mao’s role (he repudiated the Commune). Fourthly, I would urge you to remember that generally industrial development – particularly when that development is seen as one towards socialism – ‘serves the people’ (to coin a phrase) by improving their material standards of wellbeing etc., so in this sense mass mobilisation so as to facilitate industrialisation can’t just be judged in reference to China today (especially when one considers Mao’s comments on ‘capitalist roaders’). Linked with this is the point that industrialisation has traditionally been seen as (1) being forced upon people (2) a matter for ‘technicians’ and (3) its costs have usually been ‘passed off’ on colonies etc.

    So basically, I can see why the Cultural Revolution became a central experience for theorists in the 60s and 70s and has carried on to this days. These theorists were attempting to grapple with the role of mass political action. ‘Classical’ Marxism was seen as being incapable of grappling with (1) the mass mobilisations in France, the US etc. and (2) anti-colonial resistance and its role in national development. In this respect Mao and the Cultural Revolution represented (or seemed to represent) an attempt to theorise this whilst remaining identifiably Marxist. I think the issue is still relevant today, which is precisely why we have seen the turn to Schmitt.

    So, yeah, I look forward to Splintered’s comment on diamat.

  15. andy newman said,

    January 15, 2008 at 2:38 pm


    “When I studied political science a few years ago (I was forced), the theoretical poverty of the discipline did astound me. It was so naively and crudely positivist I couldn’t believe anything like it was being taught in a modern university. I had thought the importing of the natural science model into social science had long been abandoned. ”

    But would any serious philospoher of the natural sceinces today defend positivism?

    Surely the main preoccupation of the philosophy of science is about how we decide what theories are truth approximate, and which are not.

    While this may be a limited and specialised concern in philosophy, it is one that should be of especial interest to political theorists, esp Marxists.

  16. johng said,

    January 15, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    No, no splintered I was not suggesting that Badiou was an analytical philosopher or that he ‘fitted in’. I was suggesting though that he was reacting against this recent trend (at the same time as being anti-‘post-modernist’). I think your wrong about the French intellectual scene today though. But I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.

    The business on China was me extrapolating from something a colleague who was a china expert said in conversation. On the top down model thing well, again, just political disagreement. I think it was. Thanks for reminding me of the joys of industrial development by the way. I probably needed that.

  17. Starkadder said,

    January 15, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    An interesting post, SS, but a lot of British (right-wing) intellectuals
    would be interested in Continental thought. Eric Voegelin, Hayek and
    Leo Strauss influence Roger Scruton, Michael Burleigh and John
    Gray (who has also,along with Alain de Botton, revived interest
    in Schopenhauer).

    There’s also the liberal Brian Magee, who championed Schopenhauer,
    Bergson, Popper, the existentalists and Wittgenstein.

    And don’t forget the book “Intellectual Impostures” aka “Fashionable
    Nonsense” was co-written by a French-speaking intellectual (the
    Belgian scientist Jean Bricmont) as well as Sokal.

    My own take on the post-modern thinkers such as Derrida & Barthes,
    is that they work fine for analysing literature and art, but
    hit problems when they try analysing science.

  18. johng said,

    January 15, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Oh why argue about philosophy when there is excellent stuff like this about:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d…h? v=d8UL9ZxEcCE

    The East is Red etc…

  19. Starkadder said,

    January 15, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    There’s a cracking instrumental by Holger Czukay called
    “Der Osten ist Rot” (The East is Red),which can be found
    on his album of the same name.

  20. Chris Bertram said,

    January 15, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    Well I realise I’m on a hiding to nothing here, but anyway ….

    I’m struck by how important a certain idea of “analytical philosophy” is here. My impression is of a sort of incoherent mental hybrid of ordinary language philosophy and positivism, as depicted in a copy of Radical Philosophy circa 1978. Needless to say, this construct doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what actually goes on in most philosophy departments in the US or the UK. However, you’re right to think that those British and American philosophers who aren’t actually doing what you imagine them to be doing still aren’t interested in Badiou or Baudrillard. Perhaps that’s because B, B, et al., don’t have anything to say about the questions that preoccupy so-called “analytical” philosophers?

    (fwiw, my department has courses on Sartre, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.)

  21. Phil said,

    January 16, 2008 at 8:16 am

    Is that the track based on the Chinese national anthem? Czukay had a story about that one. He told (the great) Jaki Liebezeit to come up with a drum pattern to go under the Chinese national anthem. OK then, let’s hear it, said Liebezeit, reasonably enough. No no no, said Czukay, you have to play it *before* you hear the anthem. So Liebezeit sat motionless behind the kit with his eyes closed for five minute; then he said, OK, I think I’ve got it. He started drumming, Czukay played the tape… and it fitted perfectly.

  22. sonofstan said,

    January 16, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Saw all the other members of Can apart from Czakay in the Olympia maybe 10 years ago now – all performing separately – Liebezeit was unreal; playing a tiny kit, wearing a cheap suit and looking like something from an ama- dram performance of Death of a Salesman – sounding like max Roach playing drum n’ bass; I was watching him from the side of the stage and I could see everything he did physically, and I still had no idea how he was doing what he did

  23. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 16, 2008 at 9:42 am

    I’m grateful to Chris, and glad to hear that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are being taught somewhere. A special bonus prize to anyone who can name me a British philosophy department that teaches Bergson…

    Probably it’s true that I’m not up to speed in what analytical philosophers are doing these days. But I think we’re agreed that the AP milieu is not really interested in Baudrillard, Badiou etc. I have a feeling that this is related in some way to a culture where the punditocracy can get away with talking nonsense, because the silliness of French philosophy is taken for granted. A lot of it is silly of course, but you have to sort the sheep from the goats.

    To come back on Starkadder, I liked that old quip about Nietzsche that nobody on the left likes him and nobody on the right understands him. He sure hasn’t been fortunate in his friends.

  24. sonofstan said,

    January 16, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Warwick are big on Bergson as part of a sort of alternative to transcendentalism tradition – Spinoza, Schelling, Bergson, Deleuze, rather than Kant, Hegel, Husserl and on to Derrida. And John Mullarkey teaches a post- grad course on Bergson in Dundee. What’s my prize?

  25. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 16, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Aha! It would be Warwick! Now I’ll have to think about a prize… unless you have any suggestions yourself?

  26. January 18, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    […] Mao and Politics January 18, 2008, 4:59 pm Filed under: China, Maoism, Marxism, Theory Over at Splintered Sunrise an interesting conversation was developing on Badiou, one to which I tried to make a contribution. […]

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