Simon Critchley

This paper reviews the history of a disagreement.1 In May and June 1990, at the end of my first year’s teaching at Essex, Ernesto Laclau and I taught a course together on ‘Deconstruction and Politics’. I was trying to formulate the argument that eventually found expression in the concluding chapter of my first book, The Ethics of Deconstruction. My interest in Ernesto’s work was less dominated by the way in which the category of hegemony enables a deconstruction of Marxism of the type executed with such power in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I was more preoccupied with how hegemony can be employed as providing both the logic of the political and a theory of political action, because it links to my understanding of deconstruction. Our disagreement turned on the nature of that understanding, the understanding of deconstruction. My claim was, and still is, that deconstruction has an overriding ethical motivation, provided that ethics is understood in the sense given to it in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. At the time, in 1990, Ernesto was somewhat perplexed by my talk of ethics, arguably with good reason, and he would only talk of ethics in the Gramscian locution of the ethical/political. That was ten years ago, and since that time we’ve had numerous conversations as we have the good fortune of working together. At the end of this brief history it may perhaps be concluded that we finally agree, or at least that our positions are much closer than they were a decade or so ago. Perhaps, as Wittgenstein speculated, the solution to the problem is the disappearance of the problem. But perhaps not. We shall see…

What is politics? Politics is the realm of the decision, of action in the social world, of what Laclau, following Gramsci, calls hegemonisation. Hegemonisation is understood as actions that attempt to fix the meaning of social relations. If we can see politics with the category of hegemony, and in my view it is best conceived with that category, then politics is an act of power, force and will that is contingent through and through. Hegemony reveals politics to be the realm of contingent decisions by virtue of which subjects (understood here as persons, parties or social movements) attempt to articulate and propagate meanings of the social. At its deepest level, the category of hegemony discloses the political logic of the social. Civil society is politically constituted through contingent decisions. In my view, the key concept in Laclau’s recent work is hegemonic universality. Hegemonic universality is the idea that political action is action motivated or orientated around the universal term – equality, human rights, justice, individual freedom, etc. – and yet that universality has to be contaminated by a particularity, by the specific social context for which the universal term is destined. (I will come back to this concept of hegemonic universality in an attempt to breech the link between the universal and the particular.) 

With this definition of politics in mind the first thing to note is that many political decisions – say decisions at the level of state administration or those concerned with taking over the state – attempt to deny their political character. That is political decisions attempt to erase their traces of power, force, will and contingency by naturalising or essentialising that context. For example, Kosovo was, is and always will be Serbian; Macedonia was, is and always will be Greek, etc. Much, perhaps most politics tries to render itself and its operations of power invisible by reference to custom or tradition or; worse, by reference to nature or God; or, worse still, by custom and tradition grounded in nature or God – this covers most options. Arguably the main strategy of politics is to make itself invisible in order to claim for itself the status of nature for a priori self-evidence. So there is a tendency to invisibility in politics. In this way politics can claim to restore the fullness of society or bring society into harmony with itself. Now, to understand political action as a hegemonic operation via Ernesto is a priori to understand it as a non-naturalisable, non-essentialistic, contingent articulation that just temporarily fixes the meaning of social relations. For Ernesto, the fullness of society, or the harmonisation of society with itself, is an impossible object of political desire which successive contingent decisions seek to bring about or, to use the term that Ernesto inherits, to ‘suture’. So, if a naturalising or essentialising politics tries to render this contingency invisible by attempting to suture the social into a fantastic wholeness, then hegemony as disclosure of the political logic of the social reveals the impossibility of any such operation. The moment of final suture never arrives and the social field is irreducibly open and plural: hence the slogan, ‘society is impossible’. This leads to a significant conclusion that, although the category of hegemony seems on one level to be a simple description of social and political life, a sort of value-neutral Foucauldian power analytics, it is and, in my view, has to be, a normative critique of much that passes for politics insofar as that politics attempts to deny or render invisible its contingency, operations of power and force. So to anticipate the topic of this intervention the category of hegemony is both descriptive and normative, a characteristic it shares with much social and critical theory. As Laclau would acknowledge, Marxist postulates of society in which the free development of each is the condition of a free development of all is both a descriptive and a normative plan. 

To push this a little further, we might say that only those societies that are self-conscious of their political status, their contingency and their power operations, are democratic. What I mean is ‘self-conscious’ at the level of citizenry, not at the level of the Platonic guardians – the prince or the latter’s philosophical adviser. Machiavelli and Hobbes, it seems to me, were perfectly well aware of the contingency and political constitution of the social but did not exactly want this news broadcast to the people. Therefore if all societies are tacitly hegemonic, arguably the distinguishing feature of a democratic society is that it is explicitly hegemonic. Democracy is thus the name for that political form of society that makes explicit the contingency of its foundations and operations. In democracy political power is secured through operations of competition, persuasion and election based upon the hegemonisation of the ‘empty place’ that is the people, to use Claude Lefort’s expression. So democracy is distinguished by the self-consciousness amongst citizenry of the contingency of its operations of power, in extreme cases by the self-consciousness of the very mechanisms of power. (I think this is the positive lesson of the US presidential elections in November/December 2000. This is not to neglect their overwhelming and negative political outcome! But the very meaning of democracy turned on the self-consciousness of the mechanisms of election, from the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county to the quasi-theological discussion of the nature of the Floridan chad. This self-consciousness of the contingent mechanisms of power infected, it seems to me, every layer of the political and legal apparatus, right up to the Supreme Court, and arguably had the beneficial effect of leading voters to raise the Rousseau-esque question of the legitimacy of their social contract.) In my view, what Laclau’s theory of hegemony can teach us is the ineluctably political logic of the social, the fact that politics is constituted through contingent decisions that can never efface their traces of power in the articulation of the meaning of social relations and the attempt to fix that meaning. But the descriptive gain of Laclau’s work also has a normative dimension, a dimension which until recently he has done his best to deny. It is this area on which I want to focus on for the remainder of these remarks.

Let me go back to the history of our disagreement. In a debate with Rorty, Derrida and Laclau from 1993 I began to formulate a twofold critical claim which I proceeded to sharpen in the years that followed. On the one hand, in relation to Derrida’s introduction of the concepts of justice and a messianic a priori, I argued that deconstruction requires the supplement of the theory of hegemony if the ethical moment in Derrida’s work is to be more than an empty expression of good conscience. In order for the ethical moment in deconstruction to become effective as both political theory and an account of political action, it is necessary to link it to Laclau’s thinking, particularly on the question of the decision. So, one claim is that deconstruction requires hegemony. On the other hand, I advanced the counterbalancing claim that Laclau’s theory of hegemony requires an ethical dimension of infinite responsibility to the other if it is not going to risk collapsing into the arbitrariness of a thoroughgoing decisionism. So for it to escape the threat of decisionism I argue that the theory of hegemony requires a normative presupposition – infinite responsibility to the other. The emphasis upon the irreducibly political constitution of the social in Ernesto’s work could lead to the accusation of voluntarism, where the meanings accorded to social relations depend on the value-free or value-neutral whims of the subject. Let me now focus on this second claim - why the logic of hegemony requires an understanding of ethics. 

My objection to Ernesto could be most succinctly stated in the form of a question; it is a question that has been put by others: What is the difference between hegemony and democratic hegemony? At the level of what we might call a genealogical deconstruction, which is how I would understand the analysis of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the theory of hegemony shows the irreducibly political constitution of the social. In what may be the most important essay by Ernesto, which is the opening chapter in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time - an 80 page essay outlining with beautiful succinctness his position without running it through the genealogy of Marxism, as in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – Ernesto adopts the terminology of the later Husserl. He uses Husserl’s distinction between sedimentation and reactivation. So, the theory of hegemony shows the irreducibly political constitution of the social, social sedimentation. Social and political life, insofar as it overlooks the operation of hegemony, is a forgetfulness of origins. The category of hegemony permits a reactivation of sedimented social strata. So what the genealogical deconstruction shows is that the fixing of the meaning of social relations is a consequence of forgotten decision, and every decision is political. However, Laclau’s work, particularly the part co-authored with Chantal Mouffe, famously and rightly also invokes notions of a democratic revolution and radical democracy as the positive consequence of a genealogical deconstruction of Marxism. That is the recognition of contingency, antagonism and power does not lead to political pessimism à la Adorno or to the collapse of the public/private distinction à la Rorty, but is the source for a new militancy and a new optimism. As such we do not stand at the end of history, Ernesto says, but rather at its beginning. There is a radical anti-Frankfurt School thesis then, an anti-Adornian thesis. 

Yet if all decisions are political then in virtue of what is there a difference between democratising and non-democratising decisions? What does the difference consist in? There are two ways of answering this question, one normative and the other factual, both of which leave Laclau sitting uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, one might say that democratic decisions are more inclusive, participatory, egalitarian, pluralistic etc., but if one grants any version of that thesis then one has admitted some straightforwardly normative claim into the theory of hegemony. On the other hand, if one simply states in a quasi-functionalistic manner that a democratic revolution and radical democracy are descriptions of a fact, then in my view one risks collapsing any critical distance between the theory of hegemony and the social reality which this theory purports to describe. I think that Laclau risks coming close to this position when he claims that a democratic revolution is simply taking place or, more problematically, that freedom is the consequence of existing social dislocations. Ernesto writes in New Reflections: ‘Freedom exists because society does not achieve constitution as a structure of objective order’. What interests me in that quote is the word ‘because’, which seems to be a causal ‘because’. If the theory of hegemony is simply the description of the positively existing state of affairs, then one risks emptying it of any critical function, that is of leaving open any space between things as they are and things as they might otherwise be. If the theory of hegemony is a description of a factual state of affairs, then it risks identification and complicity with a dislocatory logic of contemporary capitalist societies. That is one line of criticism that has been made of Ernesto’s work, that it is complicit with the logic of capitalism, which is the logic of dislocation. So if one wants to maintain a distance from capitalism, then one has to include some normative presuppositions in the theory of hegemony. 

The problem with Ernesto’s work, in my view, is that he makes noises of both sorts, both descriptive and normative, without sufficiently clarifying what it is that he is doing. This is what I mean by suggesting that there is a risk of a kind of normative deficit in the theory of hegemony. In my view the deficit can be made good on the basis of another understanding of the logic of deconstruction. So, to go back to the twofold claim that I outlined above – if what deconstruction lacks in its thinking of the political is the theory of hegemony, which a reading of Laclau provides, then this needs to be balanced by the second claim, that what the theory of hegemony lacks and can indeed learn from deconstruction is the kind of messianic ethical injunction to infinite responsibility described in Derrida’s work in the 1990s. So on the one hand no ethics of deconstruction without the politics of hegemony, on the other hand no politics of hegemony without an ethics of deconstruction. 

Now, that was the state about the mid-1990s. In a review of Derrida’s Specters of Marx from 1995 Ernesto seemed unconvinced of the ethical sense that I attach to the notion of the messianic a priori, arguing that no ethical injunction of a Levinasian kind follows from the logic of undecidability and, furthermore, that democratic politics does not need to be anchored in any such ethical injunction. Needless to say, I do not agree. What is more surprising is that Ernesto also does not appear to agree with himself. It would seem to me on the basis of my reading of Laclau’s contributions to a series of exchanges with Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler published last year that his position has changed significantly. A moot point in the debate. I want to now turn to a few pages from Ernesto’s first contribution to that series of exchanges which deal with the question of ethics. Firstly, Laclau grants that the theory of hegemony cannot be a strictly factual or descriptive affair, both because such a purportedly value-neutral description of the fact is impossible – all facts are discursive, and hence enunciative constructs – and because any apprehension of the facts is governed by normative elements. Strictly factual description, like sensory empiricism, is an illusion based on some version of Wilfrid Sellars’ myth of the given. So going back to the horns of the dilemma discussed above, the theory of hegemony is not descriptive but normative, he says. Well, not quite, because Laclau then wants to introduce a distinction that is novel to his work, that is the distinction between the normative and the ethical. So, he would collapse the distinction between the descriptive and the normative - he accepts that point – but he introduces a second distinction - which is more important now - between the normative and the ethical. Let me just try to explain that. 

Ernesto writes: ‘I would say that hegemony is a theoretical approach which depends upon the essentially ethical decision to accept as the horizon of any possible intelligibility the incommensurability between the ethical and the normative, the latter including the descriptive’. Let us now try to get clear what is being claimed here. The ethical is the moment of universality or reactivation where the sedimented - a particular normative order of a given society - is both invested and placed in question. The emphasis upon both investment and placing in question is important because, if the ethical is the moment when the universal speaks by itself, then the specific normative order of a society is always particular. Ernesto’s claim about the incommensurability of the ethical and the normative entails that there will always be an écart, a gap between investment and calling it in question. Ethical universality has to be incarnated in a normative order, yet that moment of particular incarnation is incommensurable with universality. In language closer to the work of Alain Badiou we might say that any normative order of ethics is a sedimented form of an initial ethical event. And then, as it were, a normative ethics would be a sedimented form of that initial pledge to a notion of being, of an event. Hegemony is the expression of a fidelity to an event, an event, moreover, that is, that has to be, betrayed in any normative incarnation. We can see that the relation between the normative and the ethical is a - perhaps the - privileged expression of the hegemonic universality I spoke of in the introduction to this paper. The paradigm case of how we weld together the universal and the particular is this relationship between the ethical and the normative in Ernesto’s work. Hegemony is in this sense the name for this unstable relation between the ethical and the normative, our way of addressing this infinite process of investment which draws its dignity from its very failure. 

A further key aspect of the distinction between the ethical and the normative is thus echoed in the distinction between form and content. So we have three sets of distinctions: universal/particular, ethical/normative, form/content. The ethical is the moment of pure formality that has to be filled in a particular context with a normative content. The obvious precursor for this ethical formalism is Kant, where the categorical imperative can be understood as an entirely formal procedure for testing the validity of specific moral norms by seeing whether they can stand the test of universalisation. So if one claims a notion of ethical formalism, then one’s precursor is Kant and, as we say in the Philosophy Department at Essex, philosophical problems in a sense are between Kant and Hegel’s critique of Kant. Hegel’s critique of Kant is a critique of formalism. If one comes up with an ethical formalism, how can one protect that formalism from the Hegelian and the Marxist critique that this formalism simply loses sight of the stuff, of detailed everyday social life - what Hegel calls Sittligkeit and what Marx would call Praxis? Doesn’t defending formalism lead you to lose sight of both dimensions? But that’s too easy. I take it that Lacanian and Heideggerian inflections of this Kantian thought have also been influential on Ernesto’s understanding of the ethical. In a Lacanian ethics of the real, the real is a mode of pure formality, a constitutive lack that is filled with normative content when it becomes symbolised in a relation to a specific context. In other language, in Lacan’s terms, ethics is a relationship to the real as a formal relation and that becomes symbolised in the moment of the normative. A third language would be the language of Heidegger that Ernesto uses in terms of the relationship between the ontological and the ontic: here the ethical would be the ontological, the normative would be the ontic. Now it seems that we are obliged to conclude this stage in our argument, that there is indeed no normative deficit in the theory of hegemony. More accurately, at the basis of the theory of hegemony is an irreducible ethical commitment whose scope is universal. This is the revised position, that at the base of the theory of hegemony is an irreducible commitment whose scope is universal. This, in my view, is good news. And it’s the acknowledgement of some conception of ethics that I have been trying to urge on Ernesto since the beginning of our disagreement. That doesn’t mean that I fully agree with the position Ernesto has reached. 

In conclusion, I want to raise just seven quick questions, or seven objections, to this position. 

(1) My initial worry with Ernesto’s new position is that it deconstructs one distinction - the descriptive/normative - only to insist on another distinction – the ethical/normative. Thus for him the question becomes that of the relationship between the ethical and descriptive/normative complexes. But by virtue of what is the second distinction somehow immune from the kind of deconstruction to which the first was submitted? Logically and methodologically, how can one collapse one distinction, only to put in its place another distinction, without expecting it also to collapse? I do not see what argument Ernesto provides that would protect the second distinction from collapsing like the first one. With this in mind, let me now try to deconstruct the ethical/normative distinction a little. 

(2) Let’s look a little closer at the distinction between the ethical and the normative and momentarily grant (I apologise, this is a bit forensic, a bit analytic) Laclau his premise. Let’s imagine that what we have here is an analytic distinction. De jure, one can make the distinction that Laclau is after – between ethical form and normative content, between universal and particular - but de facto it would seem to me that the ethical and the normative always come together. That is in actual normal life the formal moment of universality is always welded to its concrete particularity. Such, it would seem to me, is the ineluctable logic of the concept of hegemony. Thus to my mind, it would make more sense to speak of de facto moral action in terms of ethical/normative complexes even if one grants de jure that an analytic distinction can be made between the ethical and the normative. 

(3) But if that is granted then turning round the question – can one still speak of an equally justified de jure distinction between the normative and the descriptive even if one grants de facto that the two orders are inextricably intertwined? I don’t see why not. So in opposition to Laclau’s distinction between the ethical and the descriptive/normative complexes, I think it makes much more sense to speak of a de facto ethical/normative/descriptive complex within which one is entitled to make a series of de jure distinctions. I think this critical question can be made more concrete by probing the language Laclau uses to make the ethical/normative distinction. As I already said, it runs parallel to Heidegger’s distinction between the ontological and the ontic. For Heidegger the distinction between the ontological and the ontic is a de jure distinction that isolates distinct strata into a phenomenological analysis. For Heidegger, the ontological is the a priori, or transcendental constitutive features, what Heidegger calls existentials, that can be discerned from socially instituted ante- or a-posteriori life. So, for Heidegger, the distinction between the ontological and the ontic is a de jure distinction. De facto, we have to speak, and Heidegger does speak endlessly, of Dasein as a unity of the ontological and the ontic. Dasein has precisely an ontico-ontological privilege. I therefore worry about the seeming ease with which Ernesto distinguishes the ethical-ontological level from the normative-ontic level, as if one could somehow expunge or slough off the ontic from the ontological in the ethical. The ontological and the ontic are welded together, which is what makes moral theory and moral life so difficult. 

(4) I have a separate but related problem with Ernesto’s Heideggerian identification of the ethical with the ontological. The assumption behind his identification would seem to be that we can thematise and grasp conceptually the being of the ethical, and the nature of ethics can be ontologically identified and comprehended. It seems to me that Emmanuel Levinas would have one or two important things to say about this identification of ethics and ontology. The identification of ethics with ontology is for Levinas the defining feature of a philosophical tradition, from Aristotle through to Hegel and Heidegger. So the attempt to comprehend the being of the ethical is the way in which philosophers have understood and misunderstood ethics, for Levinas. Let me translate it into Lacanian and Wittgensteinian terms, which are maybe more familiar to Ernesto. In Lacan, the ethics is experienced in relation to the order of the real insofar as a non-symbolisable thing – what Lacan calls la Chose and Freud calls das Ding – stands in the place of the real. This thing is precisely something irreducible to ontological categorisation, a permanent excess within discursive symbolisation. So for Lacan, just as for Levinas, the ethical is not ontological. In the famous 1929 ‘Lecture on Ethics’ Wittgenstein says that the ethical is revealed ‘by running up against the limits of language’. The ethical is strictly speaking something about which nothing can be said; all propositions in the domain of ethics are nonsense. Ethics is not something that could be ontologically grasped but is rather apprehended in the silence that falls after reading Proposition 7 of the Tractatus. It should be recalled that Wittgenstein acknowledged that the entire effort of the Tractatus had an ethical point, a point which could not be expressed within the book itself because the ethical cannot be articulated. A further example from Kant - at the end of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant says ‘the essential thing I am trying to grab hold of here is the incomprehensibility of the moral law’. Any attempt to comprehend it must comprehend it in its incomprehensibility. So the ethical, practical reason for Kant, the relation to the Thing in Lacan, the relationship to what lies beyond language in Wittgenstein - these are all attempts to show that the ethical and the ontological cannot be collapsed. 

(5) Let me stay with the example of Wittgenstein in order to probe further the ethical/normative distinction. In one of his more cryptic remarks on rule following from the Investigations Wittgenstein says – in an answer to the question he is always asking, ‘What is it to follow a rule?’ – that ‘It would be more correct to say not that an intuition was needed at every stage but that a new decision was needed at every stage’. This quotation would seem to illustrate well the relation between ethics and normativity. There is a rule which possesses universality, for example, the sequence of prime numbers, and yet each expression of that rule demands a decision, an act of continuing the sequence. In this sense the rule would be ethical and the particular decision would be normative. But if that’s granted then what is to be gained by attempting to distinguish rigorously between the ethical and the normative? Shouldn’t we rather conceive of the ethical-normative complex in similar or analogous ways to the relationship between a rule and instantiations that follow the rule? 

(6) To come back in a different way to my earlier question as to the difference between hegemony and democratic hegemony – the point here is very simple: Is Ernesto in his talk of ethics doing meta-ethics, telling us something about the nature of all ethical systems, or is he doing normative ethics? Is the ethical something constitutive of, or identifiable within, all societies, or does it only exist within democratic societies? If it exists within all societies, if all social orders have an ethics – and I think this is what Ernesto does mean – then although this definition would maintain the requirement of strict formality it might also be accused of banality. If Ernesto is making a simple meta-ethical point in his talk of the ethical then one might well ask, what’s the point of making it? If it is the latter, if the ethical is part and parcel of democratic societies alone, then it seems to me that one has admitted some specific normative content of the ethical, that is one has consented to describing the ethical in some way or other and recommending a particular description over another. I would be inclined to say that democratic political forms are simply better than non-democratic ones – more inclusive, more capacious, more just. Now, if there is some specific content of the ethical then the distinction between the ethical and the normative cannot be said to hold. Yet conversely, if there is no content of the ethical at all then one might be entitled to ask, what’s the point? Isn’t such a meta-ethical analysis rather banal? I imagine that Laclau’s critique of my position will be that insofar as it follows Levinas, it admits some specific content of the ethical. My Levinas is an increasingly heterodox Levinas, I keep taking bits out – like God - and putting bits in, but is there a specific content of the ethical for me? Yes, there is. I accept that criticism unreservedly. My position is that on the basis of some meta-ethical picture, which is something I call ethical experience which I trace back to the debates around the notion of the fact of reason in Kant, I recommend a particular normative conception of ethical experience based upon a reading of a number of thinkers. My position is that the fundamental, normative principle of an ethics is that there is a demand that is placed upon you which you cannot meet, there is a fundamental asymmetry of demand, and an approval of that demand, and that gives us experiential motivational basis for some conception of ethics. And it is on the basis of that conception of ethics that I want to link that to the notion of political action, and that’s where I find Ernesto’s work so incredibly valuable. 

(7) So my question back to Laclau is that unless one wants to engage in a purely diagnostic meta-ethical enquiry divorced from any substantive normative content I cannot see why I should so insistently want to emphasise the content-free character of the ethical. In my view formal meta-ethics must be linked to normative ethical claims. One of the great virtues of Ernesto’s work is that it shows us how to hegemonise a specific normative picture into effective and transformative political action. And that for me is how the particular normative picture that I have, which I derive from people like Levinas, can be linked to something like political action, without falling into a politics of monotheism, a politics of nationalism, etc. (Maybe the Achilles’ heel of Levinas’s work is also the question of Israel.) So in many ways I am trying to think about how one can link this normative ethical conception to a notion of politics without falling into that trap. That’s why I find Ernesto’s work enormously instructive. My question back to Ernesto is, well, that requires a specific normative conception of ethics from you, too. Therefore it would seem that there is still a normative deficit in the theory of hegemony, although it is not at all what I first imagined it to be. So, Ernesto and I still disagree after all, which is perhaps a good thing as it means that the history will continue…


We are preparing a book called Laclau: A Critical Reader (Routledge: London and New York, forthcoming), and this is my contribution.

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 Alain Badiou  

Today, Lenin’s political works are being entirely revisited through the canonical opposition between democracy and totalitarian dictatorship. Yet the truth is that this debate has already taken place. For it was equally on the basis of the category of democracy that from 1918 onwards, Western social democrats, lead by Karl Kautsky, attempted to discredit not just the Bolshevik revolution in its historical unfolding, but Lenin’s political thought as such.

What can still be of interest to us here, above all, is Lenin’s theoretical response to this official attack, which was contained in particular in the pamphlet that Kautsky published in Vienna in 1918 under the title The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and to which Lenin responded with his famous text, The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade.

Kautsky, as behoves a declared partisan of the representative and parliamentary political regime, puts almost all the emphasis on the question of the right to vote. What is altogether remarkable is that Lenin regards this procedure as the very essence of Kautsky’s ‘renegation’. Not that Lenin thinks that upholding the right to vote is in any way a theoretical error. On the contrary, Lenin thinks that it can certainly be useful, or even necessary, to participate in elections. He will reiterate this view with violence, against the absolute adversaries of parliamentary vote, in his pamphlet on leftism. What Lenin reproaches Kautsky with is far subtler and more interesting. Had Kautsky said: I oppose the Russian Bolsheviks’ decision to deny the right to vote to reactionaries and exploiters, he would have taken a stance on what Lenin calls an essentially Russian question, and not on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general. He could then have entitled his pamphlet Against the Bolsheviks. Politically, things would have been clear. But this is not what Kautsky did. Kautsky claimed to intervene on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general, and of democracy in general. To do this on the grounds of a tactical and localised decision in Russia is the essence of ‘renegation’. The essence of ‘renegation’ is always to argue from a tactical circumstance in order to renege on principles; to start from a secondary contradiction in order to pronounce a revisionist judgement on that conception of politics which defines it as a matter of principles.

Let us look in greater detail at how Lenin proceeds. I quote:

By invoking the right to vote, Kautsky has revealed himself as a polemicist enemy of the Bolsheviks, one who makes litter out of theory. For theory, that is, the study of general class principles of democracy and dictatorship – not just those particular to one nation – must not bear on a special question such as the one of the right to vote, but instead on a general problem: can democracy be maintained for the rich and the exploiters, in the historical period marked by the overthrow of the exploiters and the substitution of their State with the State of the exploited? It is thus, and only thus, that a theorist can pose the question.
Properly speaking, theory is thus what integrates within thought the moment of a question. The moment of the question of democracy is in no way fixed by a local and tactical decision, such as that of the prohibition of the right to vote for the rich and the exploiters, a decision linked in this instance to the particularity of the Russian revolution. This moment is instead fixed by the general principle of victory: we are, Lenin says, in the moment of victorious revolutions, in the moment of the real overthrow of the exploiters. We are no longer in the moment of the Paris commune, a moment of courage and bloody defeat. A theorist is one who approaches questions – of democracy, for example – from within a moment so determined. A renegade is one who takes no account of the moment. One who hangs his political resentment onto a particular episode.

One clearly sees here in what sense Lenin is the political thinker who opens the century. He is the one who makes victory – what is effectively real in a revolutionary politics – into an internal condition of theory. In this way, Lenin fixes what will constitute the main political subjectivity of the century, at least until its last quarter.

So the century, between 1917 and the end of the seventies, is in no way – as today’s liberals claim – the century of ideology, of the imaginary or of utopia. Its subjective determination is a Leninist one. It is the passion for the real, for what is immediately practicable, here and now.

What does the century have to say about itself? In any case, that it is not the century of promise, but that of realisation. It is the century of the act, of the effective, of the absolute present, and not the century of portent, of the to-come. The century experiences itself as the century of victories, after millennia of attempts and failures. The cult of the vain and sublime attempt, bearer of ideological enslavement, is assigned by the actors of the 20th century to the one preceding, to the unhappy Romanticism of the 19th century. The 20th century declares: no more failures, the time of victories has come! This victorious subjectivity outlasts all apparent defeats, because it is not empirical, but constitutive. Victory is the transcendental theme that commands failure itself. ‘Revolution’ is one of the names of this theme. The October Revolution of 1917, and then the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, as well as the victories of the Algerians and the Vietnamese in their wars of national liberation, all of this counts as empirical proof of the theme, and amounts to the defeat of defeats, redressing the massacres of June ‘48 or of the Paris Commune.

For Lenin, the means of victory is theoretical and practical lucidity with respect to a decisive confrontation, to a total and final war. Only a total war will lead to a victory that is truly victorious. In this regard the century is the century of war. But this statement intertwines several ideas, all of which turn around the question of the Two, or of antagonistic scission. The century declared that its law was the Two, antagonism; in this sense, the end of the cold war (American imperialism against socialist camp), the last total figure of the Two, also signals the end of the century. Nevertheless, the Two can take on three different guises:

1. There is a central antagonism, two subjectivities organised on a global scale in mortal combat. The century is the stage of this combat.

2. There is an equally violent antagonism between two ways of considering and thinking antagonism. This is the very essence of the confrontation between communism and fascism. For the communists, the planetary confrontation is in the last instance that of classes. For the radical fascisms it is that of nations and races. Here, the Two divides in two. We witness the entanglement of an antagonistic thesis, on the one hand, and of antagonistic theses on antagonism, on the other. This second division is essential, perhaps more than the first. All in all, there were more anti-fascists than communists, and it is characteristic that the second world war was fought in accordance with this derivative split, and not on the basis of a unified conception of antagonism, which only gave rise to a cold war, save on the periphery (Korean and Vietnam wars).

3. The century is summoned as the century of the production, through war, of a definitive unity. Antagonism is to be overcome by the victory of one camp over the other. Thus one can also say that, in this sense, the century of the Two is animated by the radical desire of the One. What names the articulation of antagonism with the violence of the One is victory, as attestation of the real.

Let us note that we are not dealing with a dialectical scheme. Nothing allows one to foresee a synthesis, an internal overcoming of contradiction. On the contrary, everything points to the suppression of one of the terms. The century is a figure of the non-dialectical juxtaposition of the Two and the One. The question here is to know what is the century’s assessment of dialectical thought. In the victorious result, is the motor antagonism itself or the desire of the One? This is one of the main philosophical questions of Leninism. It revolves around what one must understand in dialectical thought by the unity of opposites. Without doubt, it is the question that Mao and the Chinese communists worked on most assiduously.

Around 1965 there begins in China what the local press, always inventive when it came to the designation of conflicts, calls a great class struggle in the field of philosophy. This struggle opposes, on the one side, those who think that the essence of dialectics is the synthesis of contradictory terms, and that it is given in the formula one divides into two, and, on the other side, those who think that the essence of dialectics is the synthesis of contradictory terms, and that the right formula is consequently two fuse into one. Apparent scholasticism, essential truth. For this is in fact a question of the identification of revolutionary subjectivity, of its constitutive desire. Is it the desire of division, of war, or is it instead the desire of fusion, of unity, of peace? In any case, in the China of the time those who hold to the maxim ‘one divides into two’ are declared leftists, and rightists those who advocate ‘two fuse into one’. Why?

If the maxim of synthesis (two fuse into one) taken as a subjective formula, as desire of the One, is rightist, it is because in the eyes of the Chinese revolutionaries it is altogether premature. The subject of this maxim is yet to fully traverse the Two to the end, it does not yet know what an integrally victorious class war is. It follows that the One whose desire it harbours is not yet even thinkable, which means that under the cover of synthesis, this desire is calling for the old One. This interpretation of dialectics entails a restoration. In order to not be a conservative, in order to be a revolutionary activist in the present, one must instead desire division. The question of novelty immediately becomes that of the creative scission within the singularity of the situation.

In China the Cultural Revolution opposes, singularly during the years ‘66 and ‘67, and in the midst of unimaginable fury and confusion, the partisans of these two versions of the dialectical schema. There are those who behind Mao, at the time practically in a minority within the direction of the Party, think that the socialist State must not be the policed and police-like end of mass politics, but, on the contrary, that it must act as a stimulus for the outburst of politics, under the sign of the march towards real communism. And there are those who, behind Liu Shaoqi, but especially Deng Xiaoping, think that, economic management being the principal aspect of things, popular mobilisations are more nefarious than necessary. The educated youth will be the spearhead of the Maoist line. The Party cadres and a great number of the intellectuals will undertake more or less overt opposition. The farmers will cautiously bide their time. The workers – the decisive force – will be so torn between rival organisations that in the end, from ‘67-‘68, it will prove necessary, with the State at risk of being carried away by the political flood, for the Army to intervene. There begins a long period of extremely violent and complex bureaucratic confrontations, not without a number of popular irruptions, all the way up to the death of Mao (1976), swiftly followed by the Thermidorian coup that brings Deng to power.

This political hurricane is, as far as its stakes, so novel and at the same time so obscure, that numerous lessons that it doubtless entails for the future of the politics of emancipation have yet to be drawn, in spite of the fact that it provided a decisive inspiration for French Maoism between 1967 and 1975, the only innovative and consequent political current of post-May ‘68. In any case, it is beyond doubt that the Cultural Revolution signals the closure of an entire sequence, whose central object is the Party, and whose main political concept is that of proletariat.

Let it be said in passing that it is fashionable today, among the restorers of imperial and capitalist servility, to qualify this unprecedented episode as a bloody and feral power struggle, in which Mao, a minority in the Chinese Politburo, attempted by any available means to climb his way back to the top. First of all, one will reply that to qualify a political episode of this type with the epithet of power struggle is to attract ridicule by breaking down a wide-open door. The militants of the Cultural Revolution never stopped quoting Lenin’s declaration (perhaps not his best, but that’s another matter) that, ultimately, the problem is that of power. Mao’s threatened position was one of the explicit stakes of the conflict, as Mao himself officially indicated. The findings of our sinologist interpreters are nothing but immanent and public themes of the quasi-civil war that took place in China between ‘65 and ‘76, a war whose properly revolutionary sequence (in the sense of the existence of new political thought) is to be found only the initial segment (‘65-‘68). Besides, since when do our political philosophers consider it a horror that a threatened leader might attempt to regain influence? Is this not what they discuss all day long as constituting the delectable and democratic essence of parliamentary politics? One will then argue that the meaning and importance of a power struggle is judged according to the stakes involved. Especially when the weapons in this struggle are classically revolutionary, in the sense that lead Mao to remark that the revolution is not a gala dinner: unprecedented mobilisation of millions of workers and youths, a truly unheard of freedom of expression and organisation, gigantic demonstrations, political assemblies in all places of work or study, brutal and schematic debates, public denunciations, the recurrent and anarchic use of violence, including armed violence, etc. Now, who can argue today that Deng Xiaoping, qualified by the activists of the Cultural Revolution as second highest amongst the officials who, whilst members of the Party, were nevertheless committed to the capitalist path, was not in fact on a line of development and social construction that was diametrically opposed to Mao’s innovative and collectivist one? Did we not see, when after Mao’s death he seized power in a bureaucratic coup d’État, how Deng unfurled, during the whole of the eighties and up to his death, a completely savage and completely corrupt sort of neo-capitalism, all the more illegitimate as it maintained the Party’s despotism? Thus there really was, with respect to all of these questions, and singularly regarding the most important of all (relations between town and country, between intellectual work and manual work, between the Party and the masses, etc.), what the Chinese in their delightful tongue call a struggle between two classes, two ways and two lines.

But the acts of violence, often so extreme? The hundreds of thousands of dead? The persecutions, especially against intellectuals? One will say the same thing about them as about all the acts of violence that have marked the history, to this very day, of any expansive attempts to practice a free politics. The radical subversion of the eternal order that subjects society to wealth and to the wealthy, to power and to the powerful, to science and to scientists, to capital and to its servants, cannot be sweet, progressive and peaceful. There is already a great and rigorous violence of thought when you cease to tolerate that one counts what the people think for nothing, for nothing the collective intelligence of workers, for nothing, to say the truth, any thought that is not homogenous to the order in which the hideous reign of profit is perpetuated. The theme of total emancipation, practiced in the present, in the enthusiasm of the absolute present, is always situated beyond Good and Evil, because, in the circumstances of action, the only known Good is what the status quo establishes as the precious name of its own subsistence. Extreme violence is therefore reciprocal to extreme enthusiasm, because it is in effect, to speak like Nietzsche, a matter of the transvaluation of all values. The Leninist passion for the real, which is also the passion of thought, is without morality. The only status of morality, as Nietzsche saw, is genealogical. It is a residue of the old world. Thus, for a Leninist, the threshold of tolerance to what, seen from our old and pacified present, is the worst, is incredibly high, regardless of the camp that one belongs to. This is obviously what causes some today to speak of the barbarity of the century. Nevertheless, it is altogether unjust to isolate this dimension of the passion for the real. Even when it is a question of the persecution of intellectuals, as disastrous as its spectacle and effects may be, it is important to recall that what makes it possible is that it is not the privileges of knowledge that command the political access to the real. Like Fouquier-Tinville said during the French Revolution, when judging and condemning to death Lavoisier, the creator of modern chemistry: The Republic does not need scientists. Barbarous words if there ever were, totally extremist and unreasonable, but that must be understood, beyond themselves, in their abridged, axiomatic form: The Republic does not need. It is not from need, from interest, or from its correlate, privileged knowledge, that derives the political capture of a fragment of the real, but from the occurrence of a collectivisable thought, and from it alone. This can also be stated as follows: politics, when it exists, grounds its own principle regarding the real, and thus is in need of nothing, save for itself.

But perhaps it is the case that today every attempt to submit thought to the ordeal of the real, political or otherwise, is regarded as barbarous. The passion for the real, much cooled, cedes its place (provisionally?) to the acceptance, sometimes joyous, sometimes dismal, of reality.

Of course, the passion for the real is accompanied by a proliferation of semblance. For a revolutionary, the world is the old world, it is replete with corruption and treachery. The purification, the divestment of the real, must always begin again.

What must be emphasized is that to purify the real means to extract it from the reality that envelops and occults it. Whence the violent taste for surface and transparency. The century attempts to react against depth. It carries out a fierce critique of foundations and of the beyond, it promotes the immediate and the surface of sensation. It proposes, as heir to Nietzsche, to abandon all other-worlds, and to pose that the real is identical to appearance. Thought, precisely because what drives it is not the ideal but the real, must seize hold of appearance as appearance, or of the real as pure event of its own appearance. To achieve this, it must destroy every density, every claim to substantiality, every assertion of reality. It is reality that acts as an obstacle to the discovery of the real as pure surface. Here lies the struggle against semblance. But since the semblance-of-reality adheres to the real, the destruction of semblance comes to be identified with destruction pure and simple. At the end of its purification, the real, as total absence of reality, is the nothing. This path, undertaken by innumerable ventures in the century – political, artistic, scientific ventures – is the path of terrorist nihilism. Since its subjective motivation is the passion for the real, it is not a consent to anything, it is a creation, and one should recognise in it the traits of an active nihilism.

Where are we today? The figure of active nihilism is regarded as completely obsolete. Every reasonable activity is limited, limiting, constrained by the burdens of reality. The best that one can do is to get away from evil, and to do this, the shortest path is to avoid any contact with the real. Ultimately one comes up against the nothing, the there-is-nothing-real, and in this sense one remains in nihilism. But since the terrorist element, the desire to purify the real, has been suppressed, nihilism is disactivated. It has become passive, or reactive, nihilism, that is, hostile to every action as well as to every thought.

The other path that the century sketched out, the one that attempts to hold onto the passion for the real without falling for the paroxystic charms of terror, I call the subtractive path: to exhibit as a real point, not the destruction of reality, but minimal difference. To purify reality, not in order to annihilate it in its surface, but to subtract it from its apparent unity so as to detect within it the minuscule difference, the vanishing term which constitutes it. What barely takes place differs from the place wherein it takes place. It is in the ‘barely’ that all the affect rests, in this immanent exception.

In both of these paths the key question is that of the new. What is the new? The question obsesses the century, because ever since its inception the century is invoked as figure of commencement. And first of all as the (re)commencement of Man: the new man.

This syntagm, perhaps more Stalinist than Leninist, has two opposing senses.

  • For a whole host of thinkers, singularly in the ambit of fascist thought, and without excluding Heidegger, the new man is in great part the restitution of the man of old, the one who had been obliterated, who had disappeared, who had been corrupted. Purification is really the more or less violent process of the return of a vanished origin. The new is a production of authenticity. In the final analysis, the task of the century is seen here as the restitution (of the origin) by the destruction (of the inauthentic).
  • For another host of thinkers, particularly in the ambit of Marx-leaning communism, the new man is a real creation, something which has never existed before, because it emerges from the destruction of historical antagonisms. The new man of communism is beyond classes and beyond the State.
The new man is thus either restored, or produced.

In the first case, the definition of the new man is rooted in mythic totalities such as race, nation, earth, blood, soil. The new man is a collection of predicates (nordic, aryan, warrior, etc.).

In the second case, on the contrary, the new man is conceived against all envelopes and all predicates, in particular against family, property, the nation-state. This is the project of Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Marx had already underlined that the universal singularity of the proletariat is to bear no predicate, to possess nothing, and in particular to have, in the strong sense, no fatherland. This conception of the new man – anti-predicative, negative and universal – traverses the century. A very important point here is the hostility towards the family, as the primordial nucleus of egoism, of rooted particularity, of tradition and origin. Gide's cry – ‘Families, I hate you’ – partakes in the apologetics of the new man thus conceived.

It is very striking to see that the family has once again become, at the century’s end, a consensual and practically unassailable value. The young love the family, in which moreover they remain until later and later. The German Green Party, considered to be a protest party (everything is relative: it is now in government…), contemplated at one point calling itself the party of the family. Even homosexuals, bearers in the century, as we’ve just seen with Gide, of a part of the protest, today demand their insertion within the familial frame, the tradition, citizenship. See how far we’ve come! The new man, in the real present of the century, stood first of all, if one was progressive, for the escape from family, property and state despotism. Today, it seems that modernisation, as our masters like to call it, amounts to being a good little dad, a good little mom, a good little son, to become an efficient employee, to enrich oneself as much as possible, and to play the responsible citizen. This is the new motto: Money, Family, Elections. Even if the money is that of the net-economy, the family that of two homosexuals, the elections a great democratic feast, I can’t really see the political progress.

The century ends on the motif of impossible subjective novelty and of the comfort of repetition. This motif has a categorial name, obsession. The century ends in the obsession of security, under the rather abject maxim: it’s really not bad being where you are already, there is, and has been, worse elsewhere. Whilst what was alive in these hundred years placed itself, after Freud as after Lenin, under the sign of a devastating hysteria, of its activism, of its intransigent militancy.

Our duty, supporting ourselves on Lenin’s work, is to reactivate in politics, against the morose obsession of our times, the very question of thought. To all those who claim to practice political philosophy, we ask: What is your critique of the existing world? What can you offer us that’s new? Of what are you the creator?


A version of this text, dated April 7, 1999, and originally delivered in a series of lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie, will appear in Alain Badiou’s forthcoming The Century, in a bilingual edition with translation and commentary by Alberto Toscano and responses by Alain Badiou.