A Farewell to Praxis? A Commentary on the Badiou-Gauchet Debate

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Felipe Ziotti Narita
São Paulo State University (Unesp) – SP, Brazil

In an insightful essay published in the late 1960s, Marcuse (1969, 27) argues that the concept of revolution in Marxian theory encompasses a double movement: if the concept is deeply interwoven with the historical horizon and its conditions, it is also a dialectical process that deals with counter-tendencies of political action. Marxian praxis, then, always faces the historical challenges posed by the actuality/effectiveness of political action: “Marxian theory itself is a power in the historical struggle, and to the degree to which its concepts, ‘translated’ into practice, become forces of resistance, change and reconstruction, they are subject to the vicissitudes of the struggle, which they reflect and comprehend, but do not dominate.” Marcuse’s concept of revolution points to the problematic core of Marxian praxis, that is, the very ambivalence of the adherence of theoretical comprehension and consciousness to the political actuality of certain historical situations – what Marx himself, in his famous letter of 1875 to Wilhelm Bracke, called “the real (wirkliche) movement” or, in Marcuse’s terminology, the “vicissitudes” that are not completely dominated. Instead of fatalistic determinism and inexorable necessity in political action (Marcuse, 2000, 317-319), Marxian praxis deals with contingency. And the crossroads of so-called “communism” or “actually-existing socialism” in the twentieth century, in part, lies in this problem.

What is to be done?, the well-known Leninist motto for both the actuality of revolution and the political tasks and problems of the Social-Democratic platform, is the title of the dialogue between Alain Badiou and Marcel Gauchet originally published in French in 2014 (the English edition appeared in 2016). The Bolshevik October Revolution, of course, is an important issue in the Badiou-Gauchet debate, but they do not set the empirical developments of 1917 as the horizon of the problem they address. Badiou and Gauchet are interested in a more general issue: the very idea of communism and its problematic actuality in the face of the present day crisis of democracy – or, to use Badiou’s terminology, the “communist hypothesis.” If communism was identified with a state-building project in the period after the October Revolution, paradoxically this very identity produced a kind of ideological short-circuit between the idea and the contingencies of its historical realization – whether it be in Russian backward central capitalism (Amin, 1976, p. 374) or in other peripheral regions like Latin America, Central-Eastern Europe, some parts of Asia, or in the struggle for national liberation in some African countries. It is as if 1917 and its world-historical echoes throughout the last century had produced a theoretical and political disconnexion between les mots and les choses, that is, a crisis of representation in which reality, the real movement, seems to falsify the theoretical principles (Fausto, 2014).

In short, twentieth-century revolutionary rupture is both theoretical and political. Badiou (2016, p. 21) states that “what triumphed with the 1917 revolution was the Leninist conception of politics as an art of situations and opportunities, in which subjectivity and organization were the highest priorities.” The political pendulum between fate and chance, political project and circumstance, once it was based on an insurrectional action led by the theoretical expertise of the party, lead political action to contingent historical configurations against any deterministic principle or iron laws of historical development – this is the very core of the Lukácsian moment (Augenblick), which is to say, revolution is not merely on the horizon of historical conditions, but instead it is conceived and organized as a practical reality (praktische Aktualität) that melts the world-historical horizon into the pragmatic agenda (Lukács, 1977, p. 523-525). The logical constitution of the real movement, so to speak, comes down to earth. Of course, this is not properly a distinctive characteristic of 1917 – as Badiou and Gauchet recognize, 1917 is, to some extent, the epigone of a nineteenth-century cycle of urban insurrections (much of them analyzed by Marx and Engels, despite the lack of detail on how a communist order should be).  The political turning point of 1917 lies, rather, in the circuit of modernization and state-building projects started from that period onwards.

In Marxian terms, since revolutions are not isolated episodes ruled by pure contingency, but rather they are forms of social conflict based on class structure in the background of objective contradictions within the social system, the theoretical impasse of political action is at the core of this problem. What should be done with Marx? This question posed by Gauchet (2016, p. 60) can also be read as: what should be done with praxis?

Totalitarianism reloaded

Gauchet (2016, p. 26-27) analyzes communist revolutions from within the framework of his suggested theory of modernity. The argument is interesting and it summarizes a vast theoretical trajectory. For him, grosso modo, political modernity expresses a new mode of social structuration insofar as it represents a structural change from society as a heteronomous articulation (purely dependent on religion or the substance of morality in the determination of social space) to an autonomous formation which deals with collective agency (agencement) (Gauchet, 2005, p. 433) that allows society to be aware of its inner mechanisms of auto-production and reproduction (Gauchet, 2002, p. 95). In short, since the nineteenth-century, this new immanence of social forces has produced a future-oriented practice whose goal has been to bring about a new unity, that is, “to create a society that would be beyond divisions.” Since he identifies this effort with Marxism, I think that the theoretical consequences derived by him from this point are very debatable.

For Gauchet (2016, p. 28), Marxism supplied “the internal software” of this project, and “Russian totalitarianism” took charge of it. This immediate link is doubtful, since the Soviet bloc and the Sovietized states did not present the key elements mentioned in Marx’s few lines on the future social and political organization (just to mention a basic assumption in Marx’s writings, collective/social ownership of the means of production is very different from state ownership). The logical consequence resulting from Gauchet’s framework is that “fascism, Nazism, and communism amounted to secular religions: or how to recreate a community and transcendence within modern immanence.” In Nazism and the varieties of fascism, the complete heteronomy based on totalitarian domination over society was achieved for autonomous purposes (nationalism, nation-state, etc.); in the Soviet case (which could be extended to the Sovietized states as well), the constitution of autonomy (self-organizing society, national liberation, etc.) implied a new heteronomy grounded in bureaucratic state domination. Although via reversed ways, all those projects share a common ground: totalitarianism. This matrix, which is supposed to encompass the major part of political violence ensuing in 1914, obliterates important questions concerning the nature and dynamics of the so-called communism and runs the risk of creating an undifferentiated mixture that combines very different values and political logics (we can think, for instance, how far the varieties of fascism remain from the dialectical nature of communist praxis, whether it be in Leninism, Maoism and so on). As Gauchet himself states, the danger of this structural homology is the dissolving of noteworthy differences – according to Badiou’s (2016, p. 30) terminology, thus, totalitarianism is useful if we assume its “purely formal character.”

Striking at its limit, Gauchet’s structural homology of totalitarianisms illustrates a kind of social formation that, by inversion (according to the above-mentioned poles autonomy/heteronomy), resorts to unity. Following his logic, fascist romanticism and its reactionary project of restoring a historical and mythical past, and the revolutionary action towards a society without classes, are both concerned with an attempt at unifying social space. On the other hand, for Badiou (2016, p. 34), there is no unity in the social formation resulting from twentieth-century revolutions: besides the divisions and inequalities (division of technical skills, division of labor, social classes, etc.), the strong state apparatus, the question of nationalities (as for this issue, Stalinism is the prototype par excellence) and social distinctions did not allow any kind of unity. Badiou’s analysis is impeccable regarding the differentiation between historical communism and varieties of fascism according to their content (a point that Gauchet sometimes misapprehends in its full scope). If communist praxis supposes universal contradiction, it cannot be conceived in the framework of pure references (the people, the nation, the heroic myth of race, etc.) and their totality as they are presented in Nazism and in fascist regimes. However, Badiou seems to underestimate the whole prospect of Gauchet’s approach.

Gauchet’s point is not properly the creation of a unified society understood in the sense of social stratification. His analysis does not remain at the level of empirical description either (dictatorship, state apparatus, despotism of a single party, etc.). Rather, he is interested in the political logic that institutes social forces into a unified field. The dilemma of political modernity is the dilemma of a society that institutes itself beyond divisions. In this sense, according to Claude Lefort (1986, p. 286), the two moments of the totalitarian project (the abolition of the signs of division between state and society and the signs of internal social division) produce a de-differentiation of the agencies that constitute society itself. Society, so to speak, is signified in power (not properly in politics) – a process of enclosing both society and power into an undifferentiated social realm. This unity, in Gauchet’s scheme, is the particular phenomenon concerning modern totalitarianism.

But at its most elaborated level, in the framework of a theory of modernity, Gauchet’s argument seems to vacillate. Is the so-called communism purely an Orwellian nightmare? Whereas very insightful in scrutinizing the formal configuration of Leninist and Stalinist regimes and in offering an interesting overview on the main lines of totalitarian power over social dynamics, Gauchet’s analysis of totalitarianism becomes problematic when he tries to embrace another logic: violence.

Dialectics of terror

Political violence, according to Badiou (2016, p. 73), points to “the big problem we’ve inherited from the twentieth century”, which consists in how to deal with the issue of enemies’ power. The problem that the concept of totalitarianism tries to grasp is that violence was not limited to its “creative impetus” (as Marx and Engels sometimes ambiguously remarked) as a midwifery of social form. Instead, totalitarian violence, once it was embodied in regimes, became terror. The structural role of political violence, in this context, presents controversial theoretical issues for the analysis of the relationship between totalitarianism and twentieth-century communism.

Political violence refers not only to a form of political domination entrusted in the state, but it demonstrates that terror is also a relational phenomenon that deals with the revolutionary shift and the counterrevolutionary impetus. Arno Mayer (2000, p. 49) analyzes this structural pattern of modern revolutions in terms of a “battle for sovereignty” that radicalizes political passions and positions in the opposing camps structured into a friend-enemy dissociation. The political form of this struggle for life lies in the kernel of the problem of terror. In this sense, terror is conceived as a process, whether it be the Chinese case, which illustrates the effort to construct a national society in the realm of an attempt at unifying the national state according to Mao’s perpetual motion (as it is expressed in his Sixty Points on Working Methods) or the rise of the Bolshevik state-party under the immediate impact of 1914 and the civil war of 1918 – what Silvio Pons (2012, p. 20), in a seminal work, calls “the cycle of war and revolution” that gave rise to a new form of power.

In the Soviet case, Badiou analyzes the USSR’s turn towards terror as a double rationality resulting from the militarized Leninist party and the Stalinist revolution from above. For Badiou, this historical path perverted the communist hypothesis by producing a cloistered event entrusted to the state alone – and, in this sense, the very determination of the event, with its unpredictability and potential dynamism in creating possibilities beyond the horizon of a given situation (according to Badiou’s (2005, p. 201) own definition of the concept), is annihilated. Bureaucratization and the state, then, lead the revolutionary dynamism to a “conservative inertia” (Badiou and Gauchet, 2016, p. 39), which is to say, a subjective depoliticization that deflates the inner mobility of the event. If the state is only committed to persevere in its being, as Badiou remarks with a Spinozan accent, this all-encompassing image of inertia erases the managed dynamism that portrays twentieth-century revolutions. Far from the monolithic image of a revolutionary inertia, in his thought-images (Denkbilder), for example, Walter Benjamin (1991, p. 327-328) offers a dialectical figuration of revolution as a constant transformation and collective construction pari passu with the increasing bureaucratization which tends to abolish (abgeschafft) private life, so that every movement away from the preordained (vorgezeichnet) direction faces an immeasurable bureaucratic apparatus – and carries impossible costs.

Here I would like to recapitulate Gauchet’s main argument on the relationship between communism and totalitarianism. The monolithic inertia becomes more problematic when it is combined with the concept of totalitarianism and terror. Gauchet (2016, p. 41) goes on in this point: Badiou’s thesis, for him, obliterates the “logic of terror”. Gauchet says that terror is a kind of political project inscribed inside twentieth-century communist movements – from Russia to Cambodia, passing through Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, etc. This historical content of totalitarianism is irreducible to the state, since it would be part of the communist political commitment as such. This argument is not so distant from a set of political criticisms directed towards communist experience – and, in this sense, we can think of Furet’s idea of Bolshevism as a “religion of power” or, in a more sophisticated version, the “Stimmung of violence” of Merleau-Ponty’s late writings.

At this level, I think that the very concept of totalitarianism, as it is used by Gauchet, should be analyzed with caution. If the concept reduces the so-called communist historical experiences to an undifferentiated “totalitarian” realm by identifying structural political violence and collectivist bureaucratic dictatorship without mediation, the concept itself runs the risk of misunderstanding the social process. In this scenario, what would be the place of Mao and the resulting political creation and social violence in the 1960s in China? The Maoist insistence on the mobilization of civil society spread collective violence, but also allowed the rise of political subjectivities and the effort to control the state from outside. This dialectical movement, according to Theda Skocpol’s (1979, p. 286) outstanding study, belies any categorical opposition (whose liberal content is evident) between democracy and totalitarianism.

The party-state, terror and bureaucratization undeniably are part of the so-called communist experience in the twentieth century. But beyond this commonplace there is a point that must be considered in the debate: instead of a monolithic analysis in which political categories are mixed together and sometimes present a reified image of revolution, it is important to take into account a dialectical conformation that embraces political terror and social modernization (see, for example, Hoxha’s first two five-year plans, Stalin’s New Conditions – New Tasks in Economic Construction, etc.). In other words, if we insist on the irreducibility of political violence, as if the terror excluded any other analysis concerning social formation in party-state systems, we run the risk of missing the constitution of social modernization in peripheral areas. In this sense, the political shift and the projective time of social modernization are interwoven in the same image of catastrophe.

As Enzo Traverso (2012, p. 88) argues, communism was not only an Orwellian nightmare: despite the political violence and the bureaucratic collectivism that engulfed whole societies, this modern Janus also represented the rise of political subjectivities from peripheral and semi-colonial regions, to some extent nourished the dignity of subaltern classes and mobilized millions of people across the globe to support strong emancipatory perspectives. This structural position of creative individual agency assumes a particular importance according to what Alex Callinicos (2004, p. 265), echoing the main argument of Trotsky’s History of Russian Revolution, called a new form of agency in which collective identities (the masses, the party, etc.) carry a self-conscious project in a sense that no previous social revolution did.

The ambivalence of praxis

The paths of the contemporary and its structural crisis in the Badiou-Gauchet debate cannot escape this analytical overview of the historical process. As in Walter Benjamin’s striking image in his One-way Street, if the fire alarm is sounding, what is to be done? Beyond the Leninist concern with the actuality of revolution, the expression also points to the possibilities of the political and the conflictual dimension of the contemporary. At this point, the theoretical differences in the analytical frameworks developed by both Badiou and Gauchet become even more patent.

To sum up, there are two different political positions in this debate. On the one hand, for Badiou (2016, p. 48), the historical experience of communism does not lead to a conclusive argument “against the Idea itself.” By separating the Marxian points (supplemented by the Maoist principle of the “mass line”) from the effective historical sequence that extends from 1917 to 1989, Badiou (2016, p. 51) advocates a kind of third-wave communism that deals with the pursuit of “the deprivatization of the production process, the withering away of the state, and the reunification and polymorphism of labor.” On the other hand, Gauchet’s democratic reformism expresses a kind of juste milieu that endorses liberal democracies but in a critical way. For him, terror was structurally involved in communist praxis: “all the communist regimes ended up with internal contradictions that led to this spiral” of violence, since the regimes turned against themselves, the party attacked the party, and so on (Badiou and Gauchet, 2016, p. 47). Like the macabre painting of Goya, the image of Saturn eating his own sons, a well-known metaphor for modern revolution which extends back to Pierre Vergniaud and nineteenth-century liberal caution, is the best description of this position.

Badiou’s communist hypothesis is a possibility of politics, which is to say, a kind of experimental action of the general form contained in the Idea. Regarding communism, the separation between the Idea (in Badiou’s sense) and the historical experience is very useful to avoid conceptual fissures between the word and the things named, but his notion of a third-wave communism is a little bit intangible since he seems to dematerialize the very agency of praxis: the subjectivities committed to political action. This problematic point has two implications. On the one hand, Badiou seems to sketch an immediate opposition between two pure models (capitalism versus communism), dealing with abstract categories instead of focusing on the whole historical process and the real movement of the capitalist world-system. On the other hand, of what are those subjectivities supposed to consist in present-day neoliberal rationality? The old proletarians? In this case, would there be a sort of “generalized proletarianization”, as Samir Amin argues? What is the place of the global precariat in this scenario? When Badiou advocates the Maoist “mass line” as a background for praxis, he seems to overlook its tragic consequences: in fact, workers, peasants, technicians and students at the grassroots level in part led the movement towards an event with radical possibilities, and the “mass line” offered the chance of a new event in submitting the party’s structure to the determination of the collective unity of “the people” against the potential inertia of a new bureaucratic ruling class; but this strategy also promoted a dangerous populist temptation and an increasing wave of violence that was spread across social space in the 1960s.

To abandon twentieth-century revolutions, for Gauchet, means to abandon Marx’s heritage for good. To the extent that Gauchet insists in identifying communism with twentieth-century bureaucratic collectivism, this is the logical path for his theoretical approach to politics. And the practical result of his monolithic conception of totalitarian societies, based on a complete rejection of Badiou’s “communist hypothesis”, emphasizes the inherent danger of the rise of an undifferentiated subjectivation in which the singular individual is swallowed up in collective subjectivity. Democratic pluralism, institutional procedures and their mechanisms of legitimation would have triumphed over the tension between autonomy and heteronomy in social formation since the final collapse of bureaucratic collectivisms in the 1980s. The modern democratic structure and its procedural machineries would have suppressed the shadow of totalitarianism by promoting the conjunction of individual demands and collective agency towards the “universal object” that a political community can set for itself. This new immanence, thus, is the creation of a collective cause, which forms the possibility of modern autonomy based on a double regime of freely committed subjectivation (collective/individual).

In light of todays’ crises (the crisis of representation in political systems, economic instabilities namely in the emerging markets, the resonances of the near-crash of financial system in 2007-2008, etc.), this normative scheme seems not to run exactly in this way. Since liberal democracies do not keep their promises, the dysfunctional dynamics both of its mechanisms of representation and of a political oligarchy detached from the common is at the core of the crossroads of what in recent years has been called a new wave of populism – Chantal Mouffe calls it “the populist moment” and many other scholars and politicians, despite their theoretical and political divergences, have emphasized analogous perceptions in this way (Nancy Fraser, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Cas Mudde, Herman van Rompuy, Benjamin de Cleen, Ronald Inglehart/Pippa Norris, Benjamin Moffitt, Aurelien Mondon, Alberto Aggio etc.). This new populist moment, as a structural distrust of representative democratic procedures, is not properly confined to a style of politics nor a mere demagogy, but rather a societal phenomenon based on three basic assumptions: a society reified, differentiated and divided into two homogeneous groups (“the people” and “the corrupt elite”); a simplification of the corrupt democratic procedures and their representative realms; and a purely negative definition of social and national identity based on the stigmatization of the outsiders (Rosanvallon, 2011). A triple determination, thus, emerges and challenges liberal democracies within their inner structures: a moral question (the corrupt, the establishment, etc.), a social gap (the “elite” and the increasing inequalities in social space) and an identity narrative (the nation) (Rosanvallon, 2006, p. 270). In this sense, Gauchet’s democratic pluralism is corroded from inside. The true will of “the people” over an unfaithful establishment (anti-establishment) has given rise both to a new nationalist agenda rooted in personal leadership and to a perverse, simplistic gap between “the elite” and “the people” in the context of a new arrangement of collective agency which is supposed to be grounded in a unitary, self-evident content of “the people” and its uncorrupted general will.

Gauchet’s democratic reformism, once it is based on the effort “to regain control of the economy” (Badiou and Gauchet, 2016, p. 70), presents the democratic system as a dynamic that cannot be reduced to voting mechanisms, nor understood in the identification of the citizen as a consumer. But the big question remains aside: to what extent is it possible for society to reform itself from inside, within a structural crisis that has arisen from the economic débâcle of 2007-2008 and has turned towards a deep crisis of representation in political systems at least since 2011? For Gauchet, the modern democratic idea carries an inner dynamism, so that it can elaborate social consensus and commitment in collective causes using the means of autonomy. But there are many more issues to be considered in this problem. The rise of a new form of Vergesellschaftung in post-Fordist markets based on consumers illustrates a way for citizens to link up to others, beyond the more traditional modes of social and political integration, in a kind of “sociation by consumption” (Streeck, 2012, p. 36). In short, Gauchet’s structural poles (autonomy/heteronomy) do not take into account the whole picture concerning the rise of new contradictions that seem to emerge from the pervasiveness of neoliberal rationality in social space (Dardot and Laval, 2015) and to undermine the social organization from within.

The limits of Gauchet’s reformism are evident since his perspective sometimes overlooks the class-based institutional dynamics in democratic systems and their social failures in meeting social demands regarding rights, moral recognition, assistance, and so on. Representative democracy is “constitutively controlled by capital”, as Badiou puts it (2016, 67), and this internationalist dimension, which is part of the circuit of capital, emphasizes globalization as a class phenomenon that has structured the modern world-system since the 19th century and has accelerated oligarchical control over politics and the common (Hardt and Negri, 2011) in the last decades. In this very scenario, however, a dialectical component must be considered in social analysis: along with the circuits of production, the financial control over politics, and the constitution of globalized oligarchy; new cycles of struggles have appeared. Badiou (2016, p. 140) states that, from the ruins of so-called communism, an era of depoliticization and desubjectivation has emerged. Since the social process is not univocal, it is possible to challenge his argument by inverting the terms: a new era of politicization and subjectivation has been shaped. From the 1990s onwards, from the nomadic alterglobalization movements (Hardt and Negri, 2012) to the crisis of representation that can be perceived in currently democratic systems, a new multitude has been formed advocating for social rights, moral recognition and real democracy, for democratizing democracy, and for criticizing neoliberal dispossession and financial control over political structures and common issues.

It is worth noting, then, that those transformations in the capitalist world-system go hand in hand with the rise of rooted political subjectivities across the whole political spectrum. The collapse of bureaucratic collectivism in the 1980s and the constitutive affirmation of liberal democracies, instead of resolving the historical horizon of politics and moving the historical process far from the shadows of twentieth-century impasses, has brought to light a new set of problems and impasses. It might be too premature to say farewell to praxis.


* I would like to thank Jeremiah Morelock (Boston College) for proofreading and debating an earlier draft of this essay.



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Felipe Ziotti Narita

Felipe Ziotti Narita

Ph.D. in History. He is a lecturer at the Postgraduate Program in Public Policy Analysis of São Paulo State University (Unesp) - SP, Brazil. He is a member of "Historiar: identity narratives, concepts, languages" (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, CNPq, Brazil). His research interests include social theory, social history, theory of history, and history of education. Currently, he is working on a research project which examines the possibilities of theorizing modernity in peripheral zones (former colonial areas) in the 19th century.
Felipe Ziotti Narita

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