What is the Left? by Alain Badiou
An excerpt from The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics in Polemics, Verso, 2006. To read the full essay in pdf click here.
To start with, let’s note that before the Commune there had been a number of more or less armed popular and workers’ movements in France in a dialectic with the question of state power. We can pass over the terrible days of June 1848 when the question of power is thought not to have been posed: the workers, cornered and chased from Paris upon the closing of national workshops, fought silently, without leadership, without perspective. Despair, fury, massacres.
But there were the Trois Glorieues of July 1830 and the fall of Charles V; there was February 1848 and the fall of Louis-Philippe; and, lastly, there was September 4 1870 and the fall of Napoleon III. In the space of forty years, young Republicans and armed workers brought about the downfall of two monarchies and a empire. That is exactly why, considering France to be the ‘classic land of class struggle’, Marx wrote those masterpieces Workers’ Strugles in France, and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and The Civil War in France.
As regards 1830, 1848 and 1870, we must note that they share a fundamental trait, one that is all the more fundamental as it is still of relevance today. The mass political movement is largely proletarian. But there is general acceptance that the final result of the movement will involve the coming to power of cliques of Republican or Orleanist politicians. The gap between politics and state is tangible here: the parliamentary projection of the political movement attests in effect to a political incapacity as to the state. But it is also noticeable that this incapacity is in the medium term experienced as a failing of the moment itself and not as the price of a structural gap between the state and political invention. At bottom, the thesis prevails, subjectively, within the proletarian movement, that there is or ought to be a continuity between a political mass movement and its statist bottom line. Hence the recurrent theme of ‘betrayal’ (i.e. the politicians in power betray the political movement. But did they ever have any other intention, indeed, any other function?). And each time this hopeless motif of betrayal leads to a liquidation of political movement, often for long periods.
That is of utmost interest. Recall that the final result of the popular movement (‘Ensemble!’) of December 1995′ and of the sans-papiers movement of Saint-Bernard was the election of Jospin, against whom the – empirically justified – cries of ‘betrayal’ were not long in coming. On a larger scale, May 1968 and its ‘leftist’ sequence wore themselves out rallying to Mitterrand’s aid already –
well before 1981. Further away still, the radical novelty and political expectancy of the Resistance movements between 1940 and 1945 came to little after the Liberation when the old parties were returned to power under the cover of De Gaulle.
Jospin, Mitterrand and their kind are the Jules Favres, the Jules Simons, the Jules Ferries, the Thiers and the Picards of our conjuncture. And, today, we are still being called upon to ‘rebuild the left’. What a farce!
It is true that the memory of the Commune also testifies to the constant tactics of adjustment that parliamentary swindlers undertake in relation to eruptions of mass politics: the Mur des federes, meagre symbol of martyred workers, does it not lie on the side of the grand avenue Gambetta, that shock parliamentarian and founder of the Third Republic.
But to all this the Commune stands as an exception.
For the Commune is what, for the first and to this day only time, broke with the parliamentary destiny of popular and workers’ political movements. On the evening of the resistance in the workers’ districts, March 18 187 1, when the troops had withdrawn not having been able to take the cannons, there could have been an appeal to return to order, to negotiate with the government, and to have a new clique of opportunists pulled out of history’s hat. This time there would be nothing of the sort.
Everything is concentrated in the declaration by the Central Committee of the National Guard, which was widely distributed on March 19:
The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs.
This time, this unique time, destiny was not put back in the hands of competent politicians. This time, this unique time, betrayal is invoked as a state of things to avoid and not as the simple result of an unfortunate choice. This time, this unique time, the proposal is to deal with the situation solely on the basis of the resources of the proletarian movement.
Herein lies a real political declaration. The task is to think its content.
But first a structural definition is essential: Let’s call ‘the left’ the set of parliamentary political personnel that proclaim that thy are the only ones equipped to bear the general consequences of a singular political movement. Or, in more contemporary terms, that they are the only ones able to provide ‘social movements’ with a ‘political perspective’.
Thus we can describe the declaration of March 19 1871 precisely as a declaration to break with the Left.
That is obviously what the Communards had to pay for with their own blood. Because, since at least 1830, ‘the Left’ has been the established order’s sole recourse during movements of great magnitude.
Again in May 1968, as Pompidou very quickly understood, only the PCF was able to re-establish order in the factories. The Commune is the unique example of a break with the Left on such a scale. This, in passing, is what sheds light on the exceptional virtue, on the paradigmatic contribution – far greater than October 17 – it had for Chinese revolutionaries between 1965 and 1968, and for French Maoists between 1966 and 1976: periods when the task was precisely to break with all subjection to that fundamental emblem, the ‘Left’, an emblem that – whether they were in power or in opposition (but, in a profound way, a ‘great’ Communist party is always in power) – the Communist parties had turned into.
True, after being crushed, leftist ‘memory’ absorbed the Commune. The mediation of that paradoxical incorporation took the form of a parliamentary combat for amnesty for exiled or still imprisoned Communards. Through this combat the Left hoped for a risk-free consolidation of its electoral power. After that came the epoch – about which I’ve said a word – of commemorations.
Today, the Commune’s political visibility must be restored by a process of dis-incorporation: born of rupture with the Left, it must be extracted from the leftist hermeneutics that have overwhelmed it for so long.
Also see Jacques Ranciere’s The Revolution Conjured Away in The Philosopher and His Poor, Duke, 2004. To see unedited video footage of the Abahlali baseMjondolo and Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign protest against the Social Movements’ Indaba, the march of the movements into the university and against the authoritarianism of a faction of the NGO left, click here.