ILLUSTRATION / Wang Buke
Some time ago, French philosopher (and venerable Maoist) Alain Badiou traveled to China to speak to a Chinese philosopher. Though his or her name appears to have been lost in the ashes of time, the transcript of this alleged meeting remains, and bears a noted resemblance to a series of conversations Badiou had with Lu Xinghua, a contentious proponent of the theorization of Chinese contemporary art. A restaging of this dialogue this past December in New York, with an actress as the skeptical interlocutor, provided a window into Continental philosophy’s most ardent Orientalist fantasies—and an hour or two of solid dialectical entertainment.
THE INFINITE LEADER
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER When and under what conditions did you begin to read Mao Zedong’s writing? Mao Zedong is pretty unusual reading material for a French philosopher, after all.
BADIOU I started reading Mao’s writing in the early 1960s, because of the global situation. I had never been tempted by Stalinist communism, the USSR, or Khrushchev’s revisionism. I’ve never been a member of the French Communist Party. Right from the start, the content and style of the Chinese polemic against the Soviet revisionists gave a precise form to my doubts about both the USSR and the French Communist Party. You might say that what I first saw in Mao and the Chinese Communist Party was a “left” critique of Soviet politics. Mao’s major grievance was as follows: Stalin’s vision isn’t dialectical. He represents congealed, immobilized state socialism, whereas Mao, as is clear in all his great texts, thinks in an almost infinite way.
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER Possibly, but the infinity you’re talking about may well be at odds with the solidity and pragmatism of a real political agenda. It is to my mind very surprising, moreover, that Mao was on the side of the infinite dialectic! Thinking infinitely might do a lot of damage in the short life of men and women on this earth. So let me ask you: wasn’t Mao a philosopher of the infinite gone astray in his political struggles?
BADIOU It’s a tricky issue. On the one hand, there is no doubt that two fundamental episodes of Mao’s political struggle can be regarded as grave failures, which took a high toll in human lives: the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And you’re right in seeing in both of them a passion for the infinite real movement. But, on the other hand, these two episodes proved Mao’s determination to find new ways to really move toward communism. Mao wanted a communist revolution in a socialist state. So he had to keep creating something new, keep forging ahead, keep trying, because communism is precisely the infinite that the finitude of the state, including with its brutality, is incapable of by itself.
SPECTERS OF THE SOCIALIST STATE
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER Your Maoism seems almost incomprehensible today, at any rate in the western democratic world you live in. How on earth can anyone be a Maoist in the strict sense of the term in 2014? Doesn’t it make you seem like an old veteran or even a ghost?
BADIOU You’re right, “Maoist” doesn’t mean anything today. In the 1960s and 70s, saying you were a Maoist—as thousands and thousands of militants from all over did between 1966 and 1976, during what I call the “red years”—meant precisely this: we think that the fundamental experience for pursuing communist politics is the Cultural Revolution and not the Soviet state. Today, Russia and China are both capitalist states, which as such are of no interest at all to me as regards political thought. Mao is, for the time being, the proper name associated with the last great historical experiment, the one that attempted to gear the situation in a revolutionary way toward communism, by means of mass action within the socialist state. He is the first to have thought that the state is not the communist solution, but only a new context for that revolution.
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER Are you really serious, or are you being provocative when you say that, despite the terrible destruction inflicted on China by the Cultural Revolution, it should be considered as a source of thought and not as a disaster?
BADIOU One could claim that the Paris Commune in 1871 was a complete “disaster”—20,000 workers shot to death in the streets of Paris—nevertheless, it was by reflecting on the Paris Commune that Lenin developed the means for a victorious revolution in 1917. Likewise, it is only by reflecting on the Cultural Revolution that we can prepare for the future of the communist political movement. Why? Because the Cultural Revolution was the sole example of a revolution under the conditions of state socialism. It is no coincidence that the most important creation of the Cultural Revolution took the name the Shanghai Commune.
REVOLUTIONARIES AS FAILED ARTISTS
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER On the question of when communism will become a reality, your answer is “when everyone becomes a philosopher.” Art is also a condition of philosophy. So must someone who’s a communist also be an artist? Or might revolutionaries all actually be failed artists?
BADIOU I’m opposed to the idea that everything is political. Some very great poets may be communists—there’s no contradiction in that. Politics is an independent form of thought and action. Everyone has the ability to orient his or her life on the basis of an idea. The ideological battle is essential. It means supporting the development of that ability and showing that it founds the possibility of an egalitarian politics.
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER Isn’t your not voting in France showing disdain for an opportunity that many people envy and would like to have?
BADIOU We in Europe or America know how parliamentary democracy is nothing but the political system best suited to the full-scale development of capitalism. In a country like France, voting only means saying you agree, in essence, with the economicopolitical system. As a matter of fact, I don’t agree.
THE CHINESE PHILOSOPHER But isn’t capitalism in our genes, in every one of our impulses? So it is paradoxical to claim to be fighting it?
BADIOU I’ve often noticed that it is ultimately impossible to argue rationally in favor of capitalism. Basically, as capitalism can’t be a norm, because it is a sort of corrupt and sordid finitude, it is declared to be the only possible reality. Let me tell you this: capitalism is a totally artificial social system. We’re still faced with the alternative established by Marx: communism or barbarism. Currently, barbarism is very dominant. But awareness of its pathological aspect is also making progress. The progress is slow and invisible, but entirely real. I am one of the philosophers of this hidden progress.