Alain Badiou on Charlie Hebdo, Le Rouge et le Tricolore. A Critical Appraisal.
Badiou: Wave the Red Flag not the Tricolore.
In le Monde (28.1.15) Alain Badiou has called for the “reactivation of the Communist idea” in place of the “totem” of the “République laïque” in order to stand up to “les crimes fascistes des terroristes”.
The philosopher and one-time prominent figure in the ‘post-Leninist’ and ‘post-Maoist’ L’Organisation politique (defunct 2007) begins by sketching a portrait of global capitalism, dominated by the “abstraction” of money, and run by an international oligarchy. He sees within this context a drama, opposing the “civilised” capitalist West to blood thirsty “Islamism”. Murderous gangs, trying, by force of arms, to impose obedience to the corpse of a God, are, in this scenario, opposed by those who, in the name of human rights, have launched savage military expeditions that have destroyed entire states (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan Congo, Mali and Central Africa). Western aggression, in support for these ‘rights’, has resulted in millions of victims. Every state, from the liberal West, to the authoritarian and nationalist Russia and China, and the theocracies of the Emirates, is now part of the same world, predatory capitalism.
Real universalism, Badiou asserts, that is, taking the destiny of humanity in hand, means a new historical and political incarnation of the communist “idea”. This would break with the universe dominated by money and the capitalist oligarchies. It would end the battles between identities and counter-identities, the West and the ‘Rest’.
In this war, France has its own special ‘totem’ the “République démocratique et laïque”. This is the ground of the “republican pact” that seals France’s self-image. Its origins lie in the massacres of the Commune in 1871 (which was supported he asserts by Adolphe Thiers, Jules Ferry, and Jules Favre), which Badiou sees as the origin, the founding crime, of the 3rd republic.
It is impossible not to notice a slight of hand at work here. All of these figures played an ignoble role during the Paris Commune. Thiers, a “monstrous gnome” in Marx’s words, collaborated with the Prussian occupiers, Ferry, the Mayor of Paris during the early days of the City’s siege, slipped away when the Communards took power, and Favre, enemy of the First International, were leading figures in the government that viciously crushed the insurgents. So far so much fidelity to the ‘truth’.
But, their “republican” reign was initially not properly republican at all. It is famously described as “républican d’appelation et monarchiste de vocation” – republican in name but monarchist by calling. (1) Ruled by the Right the Republic soon became the focus of other forces – the left, republican and then ‘radical socialist’, not to mention the first French Marxist party Parti Ouvrier Français, the reformist socialist ‘Possibilistes’, the Fédération des travailleurs socialistes de France, and other groups.
Why, then, in the years that followed, had the French left re-asserted its “republicanism”, a position which has endured to this day? This has a very long history, going back to the French Revolution. Perhaps the most crucial experience for the modern socialist movement was Jaurès and the left’s “Défense Républicaine” during the Dreyfus Affair. Jaurès defined this very clearly, he wanted to defend the Republic not only against nationalists and-Semites, which he called “la réaction royaliste et boulangiste” but also against the bourgeois republicans, who were ready to sacrifice justice out of fear of the Army Establishment. He argued for the “modesties garanties” of the rule of republican law, against an arbitrary legal system – for human rights – as the bedrock of the democratic workers’ movement. (2)
Now one can question Jaurès’ claim that national sovereignty is necessary for socialism, that “que la nation soit souveraine dans l’ordre économique pour briser les privileges du capitalisme osif comme elle est souveraine dans l’ordre politique” (that the nation should be sovereign in the economy as it is politically, to break the privileges of idle capitalism). (3) One can seriously question Jaurès claim that true patriotism leads to internationalism. But the modest defence of the simplest of human rights, the protection of individuals against arbitrary laws and punishments, is very far from being a “totem”. It is not from an admirer of the Chinese Cultural Revolution – something that Badiou had persisted in despite all his “posts” – that anybody is going to take criticisms of these foundations of French republicanism.
Badiou avoids history. He points his finger at the actually existing French republic, its prisons for the ill educated, its past (and present?) pretensions to carry a “mission civilisatrice”(Jules Ferry’s always cited phrase), and the failures of its education system. He speculates that wearing the veil, becoming a pious Muslim may be a sign of the spirit of revolt, faced with police repression and racism. He offers no evidence that Islamism is he result of these causes – which would require a global explanation, covering movements from Boko Harem, Al-Qaeda, ISIS/Islamic State, and countless other groups.
The philosopher strongly reprimands Charlie Hebdo. Run by “ex-leftists”, it is “in a sense” the accomplice of police morality conveyed through doubtful sexual jokes looks strange coming from this author. Comparing Charlie to an “obscene” – and forgotten – piece by Voltaire on Joan of Arc, he tries to remind us of the bad taste of even the most celebrated of the Lumières for all his “authentic” fights for freedom. It’s hard to forget that the author of The Communist Hypothesis (English edition, 2010) defended the “extraordinary uprising” of the Chinese Cultural revolution. Its “freedom” in “the fight of the new against the old” was, he noted, nevertheless joined with “iconoclasm, the persecution of people for futile motives, a sort of assumed barbarism”. (4) Voltaire, as far as one is aware, did not burn religious books or demolish temples, make monks perform forced labour, or force Muslims to eat pork. Nor do Charlie propose to follow in the Red Guards’ footsteps.
And yet…Badiou cannot avert his eyes from the “réal”. Perhaps he is less a “post” than another “ex-leftist”? For him the three killers, young Frenchmen, committed “un crime de type fasciste”. It was first of all targeted, and not random, next the motivation was of a fascist nature, from an identity, in this case anti-Semitic. To impose this it used extreme violence, saying in effect “Viva le meutre!” (the cry of the Falangists in the Spanish Civil War). Finally, by the enormity of the crime itself it aimed to provoke a reaction of repression, which would then justify the act.
Has this fascist act, then, been successful? There were millions in the streets behind the “pacte républicain”, fearful and yet full of pride in the nation’s grandeur. Badiou thinks that the French state created an obligation to demonstrate behind the Tricolor, to the point where not to support the Je Suis Charlie march was itself a crime. Freedom of expression that is to dissent from this “union sacrée” was close to being abolished in the days following the murders. The Police were praised to the skies. Liberty became the right to applaud the Police. The banlieue and its Muslim inhabitants are scorned, closely monitored, and under permanent suspicion.
This may be true. But only 70% of the French public is said to believe that it was an affair of Islamist terrorism. Amongst those casting doubt on the ‘official version’ there are theories that other shadowy force were involved, from Mossad, the US to the French secret services. Jean-Marie Le Pen has expressed opinions in this vein, indicating perhaps complicity between a native and patriotic fascism and a more directly religious one. The problems raised by this rise in irrationalism from many quarters cannot be boiled down to the opposition between the “dangerous” Muslim classes and the French Imperial State.
Badiou concludes by calling for another way, a different future. One that it without country, and that prepares the way for an egalitarian identity for humanity itself. The choice should not be between small bands of fascists based on a sectarian Islamist identify, or for French and Western superiority. This can be found…..behind the Red Flag…..
If people are following the Red Flag today it’s the banner of democratic socialists, like Syriza, not believers in the ‘communist invariant’ displayed in the Cultural Revolution.
Badiou offers no words of defence of Charlie or of freedom of speech, or indeed of democracy, capitalist, socialist, or any other kind. he appears to think that people are mostly dupes of the République démocratique et laïque. Only a savoury remnant – perhaps visible to the keen eyes of those able to see the Event that will bring communism back onto the political horizon – able to “name the indiscernible.”
While we await its coming, the impression that many people have is that the Je suis Charlie movement, and marches, expressed a deep and intimate sadness at the deaths of the cartoonists, at the fate of the Jewish victims, and the policeman – everybody killed in the slaughter. That it remains an open wound. That most do not care at all about union sacrées or flags: many of us are not even French! That we loved the people murdered and continue to mourn them. And that we hold tight to the “modest guarantees” of law and freedom that should be there for all – for the Je ne suis pas Charlies, the Je suis Charlies and for all humanity.
(1) Page 362. Jacques Julliard. Les Gauches Françaises. Flammarion. 2012.
(2) Page 239. Jean Jaurès. Gilles Candar. Vincent Duclert. Fayard. 2014. Also see: Jaurès et le Reformisme Révolutonnaire. Jean-Paul Scot. Seuil. 2014. Notable Chapter 9 “Rattacher le Socialisme à la République.
(3) Page 122. République et Socialisme. Ansi Nous Parle Jean Jaurès. Pluriel 2014.
(4) Page 129 The Communist Hypothesis. Alain Badiou. Verso. 2012.