Alain Badiou: What is Called a Failure?

The mid-1970s saw the begin­nings of the ebb the ‘red dec­ade’ ushered in by the fourfold cir­cum­stances of national lib­er­a­tion struggles (in Viet­nam and Palestine in par­tic­u­lar), the world­wide stu­dent and youth move­ment (Ger­many, Japan, the USA, Mex­ico . . .), fact­ory revolts (France and Italy) and the Cul­tural Revolu­tion in China. It finds its sub­ject­ive form in a resigned sur­render, in a return to cus­toms — includ­ing elect­oral cus­toms – defer­ence towards the cap­italo-par­lia­ment­arian or ‘West­ern’ order, and the con­vic­tion that to want some­thing bet­ter is to want some­thing worse. It finds its intel­lec­tual form in what, in France, acquired the very strange name of ‘the new philo­sophy’. Des­pite the change of name, we have here, almost unchanged, all the argu­ments of the Amer­ican anti-com­mun­ism of the 1950s: social­ist regimes are loath­some des­pot­isms and bloody dic­tat­or­ships. At the level of the state, this social­ist ‘total­it­ari­an­ism’ must be con­tras­ted with rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy which, while it is of course imper­fect, is by far the least bad form of gov­ern­ment. At the moral level, which is the most import­ant in philo­soph­ical terms, we must preach the val­ues of the ‘free world’ centred on and pro­tec­ted by the United States. Because it has ended in fail­ure all over the world, the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis is a crim­inal uto­pia that must give way to a cul­ture of ‘human rights’, which com­bines the cult of free­dom (includ­ing, of course, free­dom of enter­prise, the free­dom to own prop­erty and to grow rich that is the mater­ial guar­an­tee of all other freedoms) and a rep­res­ent­a­tion in which Good is a vic­tim. Good is never any­thing more than the struggle against Evil, which is tan­tamount to say­ing that we must care only for those who present them­selves, or who are exhib­ited, as the vic­tims of Evil. As for Evil, it is everything that the free West des­ig­nates as such, what Reagan called ‘the Evil Empire’. Which brings us back to our start­ing point: the com­mun­ist Idea, and so on.

For vari­ous reas­ons, this pro­pa­ganda machine is now obsol­ete, mainly because there is no longer a single power­ful state claim­ing to be com­mun­ist, or even social­ist. Many rhet­or­ical devices have of course been recycled in the ‘war against ter­ror’ which, in France, has taken on the guise of an anti-Islam­ist cru­sade. And yet no one can ser­i­ously believe that a par­tic­u­lar­ist reli­gious ideo­logy that is back­ward-look­ing in terms of its social vis­ion, and fas­cistic in both its con­cep­tion of action and its out­come, can replace a prom­ise of uni­ver­sal eman­cip­a­tion sup­por­ted by three cen­tur­ies of crit­ical, inter­na­tional and sec­u­lar philo­sophy that exploited the resources of sci­ence and mobil­ized, at the very heart of the indus­trial met­ro­pol­ises, the enthu­si­asm of both work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als. Lump­ing together Stalin and Hitler was already a sign of extreme intel­lec­tual poverty: the norm by which any col­lect­ive under­tak­ing has to be judged is, it was argued, the num­ber of deaths it causes. If that were really the case, the huge colo­nial gen­o­cides and mas­sacres, the mil­lions of deaths in the civil and world wars through which our West forged its might, should be enough to dis­credit, even in the eyes of ‘philo­soph­ers’ who extol their mor­al­ity, the par­lia­ment­ary regimes of Europe and Amer­ica. What would be left for those who scribble about Rights? How could they go on singing the praises of bour­geois demo­cracy as the only form of rel­at­ive Good and mak­ing pom­pous pre­dic­tions about total­it­ari­an­ism when they are stand­ing on top of heaps of vic­tims? Lump­ing together Hitler, Stalin and Bin Laden now looks like a black farce. It indic­ates that our demo­cratic West is none too fussy about the nature of the his­toric fuel it uses to keep its pro­pa­ganda machine run­ning. It is true that, these days, it has other fish to fry. After two short dec­ades of cyn­ic­ally unequal prosper­ity, it is in the grip of a truly his­tor­ical crisis and has to fall back on its ‘demo­cratic’ pre­ten­sions, as it appears to have been doing for some time, with the help of walls and barbed-wire fences to keep out for­eign­ers, a cor­rupt and servile media, over­crowded pris­ons and ini­quit­ous legis­la­tion. The prob­lem is that it is less and less cap­able of cor­rupt­ing its local cli­en­tele and buy­ing off the fero­cious for­eign regimes of the Mubaraks and Mush­ar­rafs who are respons­ible for keep­ing watch on the flocks of the poor.

What remains of the labours of the ‘new philo­soph­ers’ who have been enlight­en­ing us — or, in other words, dead­en­ing our minds – for 30 years now? What really remains of the great ideo­lo­gical machinery of free­dom, human rights, the West and its val­ues? It all comes down to a simple neg­at­ive state­ment that is as bald as it is flat and as naked as the day it was born: social­isms, which were the com­mun­ist Idea’s only con­crete forms, failed com­pletely in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Even they have had to revert to cap­it­al­ism and non-egal­it­arian dogma. That fail­ure of the Idea leaves us with no choice, given the com­plex of the cap­it­al­ist organ­iz­a­tion of pro­duc­tion and the state par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem. Like it or not, we have to con­sent to it for lack of choice. And that is why we now have to save the banks rather than con­fis­cate them, hand out bil­lions to the rich and give noth­ing to the poor, set nation­als against work­ers of for­eign ori­gin whenever pos­sible, and, in a word, keep tight con­trols on all forms of poverty in order to ensure the sur­vival of the power­ful. No choice, I tell you! As our ideo­logues admit, it is not as though rely­ing on the greed of a few crooks and unbridled private prop­erty to run the state and the eco­nomy was the abso­lute Good. But it is the only pos­sible way for­ward. In his anarch­ist vis­ion, Stimer described man, or the per­sonal agent of His­tory, as ‘the Ego and his own’. Nowadays, it is ‘Prop­erty as ego’.

Which means that we have to think about the notion of fail­ure. What exactly do we mean by ‘fail­ure’ when we refer to a his­tor­ical sequence that exper­i­mented with one or another form of the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis? What exactly do we mean when we say that all the social­ist exper­i­ments that took place under the sign of that hypo­thesis ended in ‘fail­ure’? Was it a com­plete fail­ure? By which I mean: does it require us to aban­don the hypo­thesis itself, and to renounce the whole prob­lem of eman­cip­a­tion? Or was it merely a rel­at­ive fail­ure? Was it a fail­ure because of the form it took or the path it explored? Was it a fail­ure that simply proves that it was not the right way to resolve the ini­tial prob­lem?

A com­par­ison will shed light on my con­vic­tion. Take a sci­entific prob­lem, which may well take the form of a hypo­thesis until such time as it is resolved. It could be, for example, that ‘Fermat’s the­orem’ is a hypo­thesis if we for­mu­late it as: ‘For >n, I assume that the equa­tion x2 + yn = zn has no whole solu­tions (solu­tions in which x, y and z are whole num­bers).’ Count­less attempts were made to prove this, from Fer­mat, who for­mu­lated the hypo­thesis (and claimed to have proved it, but that need not con­cern us here), to Wiles, the Eng­lish math­em­atician, who really did prove it a few years ago. Many of those attempts became the start­ing point for math­em­at­ical devel­op­ments of great import, even though they did not suc­ceed in solv­ing the prob­lem itself. It was there­fore vital not to aban­don the hypo­thesis for the three hun­dred years dur­ing which it was impossible to prove it. The les­sons of all the fail­ures, and the pro­cess of examin­ing them and their implic­a­tions, were the lifeblood of math­em­at­ics. In that sense, fail­ure is noth­ing more than the his­tory of the proof of the hypo­thesis, provided that the hypo­thesis is not aban­doned. As Mao puts it, the logic of imper­i­al­ists and all reac­tion­ar­ies the world over is ‘make trouble, fail, make trouble again’, but the logic of the people is ‘fight, fail, fail again, fight again … till their vic­tory’.1

It will be argued here, via a detailed dis­cus­sion of three examples (May ’68, the Cul­tural Revolu­tion and the Paris Com­mune), that the appar­ent, and some­times bloody, fail­ures of events closely bound up with the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis were and are stages in its his­tory. At least for all those who are not blinded by the pro­pa­gand­ist use of the notion of fail­ure. Mean­ing all those who are still inspired by the com­mun­ist hypo­theses in so far as they are polit­ical sub­jects, and irre­spect­ive of whether or not they actu­ally use the word ‘com­mun­ism’. In polit­ics, it is thoughts, organ­iz­a­tions and deeds that count. Proper nouns, such as Robe­s­pi­erre, Marx and Lenin, are some­times used as ref­er­ents. Com­mon nouns (revolu­tion, pro­let­ariat, social­ism . . .) are in them­selves much less cap­able of nam­ing a real sequence in the polit­ics of eman­cip­a­tion, and their use is rap­idly exposed to an infla­tion that has no con­tent. Adject­ives (res­ist­ant, revi­sion­ist, imper­i­al­ist…) are usu­ally used only for pro­pa­ganda. That is because uni­ver­sal­ity, which is the real attrib­ute of any cor­pus of truths, will have noth­ing to do with pre­dic­ates. A real polit­ics knows noth­ing of iden­tit­ies, even the iden­tity — so tenu­ous, so vari­able — of ‘com­mun­ists’. It knows only frag­ments of the real, and an Idea of the real is testi­mony to the fact that the work of its truth is ongo­ing.Badiou-79a10d07ca4c6ade24a365d5e1c1dedc

Between the middle and the end of the ‘red years’ I was speak­ing about earlier, I had sev­eral oppor­tun­it­ies to reach a ver­dict on fail­ure, on the pos­it­ive mean­ing of defeats. A revolu­tion­ary defeat is in fact always divided into a neg­at­ive part (deaths, impris­on­ments, betray­als, loss of strength, frag­ment­a­tion), which is often very obvi­ous at the time, and a pos­it­ive part, which usu­ally takes a long time to emerge (a tac­tical and stra­tegic reck­on­ing, a change of action-mod­els, the inven­tion of new forms of organ­iz­a­tion). Between 1972 and 1978, I wrote what I called a roman­op­era [nov­el­opera] that I called L‘Echarpe rouge [The Red Scarf], It was pub­lished by Mas­pero in 1979, and per­formed in Lyon, Avignon and then at the Pal­ais de Chail­lot in 1984 in the form of a real opera, with music by Georges Aperghis and dir­ec­ted by Ant­oine Vitez. This work fol­lowed, line by line, the schema of Claudel’s Soulier de Satin (which Vitez dir­ec­ted in Avignon a few years later). Basic­ally, I took up the chal­lenge thrown down to pop­u­lar theatre by Claudel’s cre­ation of a form of theatre that was at once mod­ern and Chris­tian. And it is not for noth­ing that the title of Act II, Scene VI is Choeur de la divis­ible défaite [Chorus of the divis­ible defeat]. I will always remem­ber the musical power of the chorus (all dressed in work­ers’ over­alls) while Pierre Vial – an excep­tional actor – strode up and down the stage car­ry­ing an old umbrella and hes­it­antly mur­mur­ing, half-con­vinced, half-nos­tal­gic: ‘Com­mun­ism! Com­mun­ism!’

The scene has to be situ­ated. The regional Party lead­er­ship in the work­ing-class North East of the ima­gin­ary coun­try in which the play is set has launched a sort of civil insur­rec­tion, and has, more spe­cific­ally, called a gen­eral strike. That offens­ive gives the whole of the play’s second act its title (The Autumn Offens­ive). It ends in com­plete fail­ure and, after stormy dis­cus­sions in all the revolu­tion­ary organ­iz­a­tions, it is dis­cussed, cri­ti­cized and rejec­ted in favour of mil­it­ary action on the part of the insur­gents, this time under the lead­er­ship of the South of the coun­try.

The scene I want to cite comes imme­di­ately after the fail­ure of this pre­ma­ture ‘autumn offens­ive’. It is set out­side the gate of the SNOMA fact­ory, early in the morn­ing. The defeated work­ers are return­ing to work, heads bowed, between two lines of sol­diers, man­agers and police. The work­ers’ chorus was, accord­ing to the stage dir­ec­tions, bom of this com­pact pro­ces­sion. The entire chorus has to do with how defeats can be divided and sub­sumed into a higher mode of thought. Here it is:

And so, one morn­ing the col­our of dead earth, we have once more lowered our ban­ners very low and very sol­emnly. We have spumed our insur­rec­tion.

And so, here we are once more, the work­ers of SNOMA, in a town that has been bled try, heads bowed and defeated.

Once again, our efforts were not enough to force the out­come of the dis­pute.

The threshold of a reversal of pos­i­tions.

I speak here of the inter­rog­at­ive pre­ma­tur­ity of our watch­ful upris­ing.

I speak of the isol­a­tion of the pro­let­ariat in the unde­cided town, and of a far-away offens­ive.

I speak here of its fail­ure, and the bit­ter­ness.


No one has the strength to make the mill of his­tory run back­wards for any length of time.

This is the time for both a reck­on­ing and an under­stand­ing, the time of the ten­sion through which, for the defeated,

The bad thing of fail­ure turns into the com­bat­ive excel­lence of know­ledge [un savoir].


Join us, you, the defeated, the legendary defeated, with the fab­ulous sequel to your non-accept­ances!

You! The oppressed of times gone by. Slaves of the sun-sac­ri­fices who were mutil­ated for the splend­our of tombs! The plough­men who were sold, together with the earth that was the same col­our as them! The chil­dren who have been expat­ri­ated into the bloody ser­vice of the cot­ton and the coal, now that the mead­ows have been fenced in.

Have you accep­ted this? No one ever accepts any­thing!

Sparta­cus, Jac­quou le Croquant. Thomas Mün­zer!

And you: the tramps of the plains, the Taip­ing rebels of the great loess, Chartists and Lud­dites, plot­ters from the labyrinth of the ban­lieues, egal­it­arian Babouv­ists, sans-culottes, Com­munards, Sparta­cists! All people from the pop­u­lar sects and sovi­ets of the sprawl­ing quart­i­ers, sec­tion­naires from the days of the Ter­ror, men with forks and pikes, the men of the bar­ri­cades and the burn­ing chat­eaux! And the host of the many oth­ers who are viol­ently striv­ing to dis­cover their plen­it­ude,

And who, as they invent their plen­it­ude, are at work in the con­tin­ental shat­ter­ing of his­tory!

The sail­ors who threw their officers to car­ni­vor­ous fish, the Uto­pi­ans of solar cit­ies who opened fire in their ter­rit­orial out­posts, Quechua miners from the Andes with an appet­ite for dynam­ite! And the suc­cess­ive tidal waves of African rebels shel­ter­ing behind flam­ing leo­pard-skin shields in the colo­nial stench! Not for­get­ting the lone man who took down his hunt­ing rifle and, like a sus­pi­cious wild boar, began to res­ist the aggressor in the forests of Europe.

And the deploy­ment of great pro­ces­sions of all kinds in the streets: sin­is­ter-look­ing stu­dents, girls demand­ing women’s rights, the ban­ners of great clandes­tine uni­ons, old men rising up in memory of gen­eral strikes, nurses in their veils, and work­ers on bicycles!

Join us and give us the count­less inven­tions and the mul­ti­form sim­pli­city of people power: the mob orators and war­ri­ors of the peas­ant leagues, the cam­is­ard proph­ets, the women of the clubs, asso­ci­ations and fed­er­a­tions, the work­ers and the lycéens of the comités de base, the action com­mit­tees, the triple uni­ons and the grand alli­ances! Fact­ory sovi­ets, sol­diers’ sovi­ets, people’s courts, the great vil­lage com­mis­sions formed to share out the land, to open an irrig­a­tion damn, or to form a mili­tia! Revolu­tion­ary groups demand­ing price-con­trols, the exe­cu­tion of cor­rupt offi­cials and for tight con­trols on food stocks!

And those, though they are few of them and this is a period that goes against the gen­eral trend, who cling to the cor­rect idea in base­ments filled with the din of manual rotary presses. And then there are those who, armed with long bam­boo poles, know how to skewer the fat­test of police officers, and for whom everything else is a mys­tery.

All of you! Broth­ers of immense his­tory! You look at our fail­ure and you say: what are you giv­ing up there? Didn’t our fail­ure extend bey­ond death itself? Didn’t we fail inter­min­ably?

Let any man who dares to bring us before the court of that fail­ure stand! And let him be bey­ond all shame!

We gave birth to your uncer­tain cer­ti­tudes. And your strength in the immin­ence of vic­tory is no more than the leg­acy of what we seemed to be doing.

And so, are you going to give up? Are you going to abol­ish our huge efforts, and the his­tor­ical birth of our uni­ver­sal revenge,

In the reac­tion­ary ver­dict and bowed heads of the defeated?

No! I say, No!

The con­ten­ted and the fear­ful are no con­cern of ours. It is the ten­a­cious people’s memory that cre­ates the great hole in the world where the sem­a­phore of com­mun­ism has been planted cen­tury after cen­tury.

People of all times! People of all places! You are with us!

I would simply like to emphas­ize the rela­tion­ship, which is spelled out in the sum­ming up of the whole text, between the sub­ject­ive pos­sib­il­ity of get­ting over a defeat, and the vital­ity – both inter­na­tional and supra-tem­poral — of the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis. A med­it­a­tion on fail­ure changes com­pletely if we relate it not to the pure inter­i­or­ity — intel­lec­tual or tac­tical — of a polit­ics, but to the link between that polit­ics and its his­tor­icity. The thought of fail­ure emerges at the point when a polit­ics appears before the court of His­tory, and when it sees itself there. And it is the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis that rep­res­ents and ima­gines the con­sist­ency of His­tory.


At the begin­ning of the 1980s we were called to a dif­fer­ent reck­on­ing of what was going on. The ‘red years’ were well and truly over. The Mit­ter­rand gov­ern­ment con­jured up all the old illu­sions and chi­meras of the ‘left’, which con­sisted mainly in cor­rupt­ing a frac­tion of the petty bour­geoisie by invit­ing it into the vicin­ity of power (even Deleuze accep­ted an invit­a­tion to dine with the Pres­id­ent) and hand­ing out cred­its to the ‘asso­ci­ations’ it was so keen on. ‘Cul­tural policy’ was a good name for this sys­tem of illu­sions. We had here a defeat without glory, and an unre­cog­niz­able fail­ure in power. It was to last for over 20 years (prob­ably until the present crisis) and its name was the Social­ist Party. Oh! We ought to be able to say once more what Aragon, with the encour­age­ment of Stalin, once said: ‘Open fire on the dan­cing bears of Social Demo­cracy!’2 But no one even thinks of doing so.

On the other hand, it has to be said that the final con­vul­sions of state social­ism and the armed struggles asso­ci­ated with it were unbear­ably viol­ent. The Red Guards of the Cul­tural Revolu­tion were – as young people so often do when they are left to their own devices and obey the herd instinct — already com­mit­ting count­less crimes dur­ing the most con­fused moments of the Cul­tural Revolu­tion. In Cam­bodia, the revolu­tion­ary Khmer Rouge thought they could use com­mandos of very young boys and girls drawn from the oppressed peas­ant masses, who had always been invis­ible, and who were sud­denly given the power of life and death over any­thing that recalled the old soci­ety. Those young killers, whose des­cend­ants can still be seen today — espe­cially in Africa — sub­jec­ted the whole coun­try to their reign of blind revenge, and dev­ast­ated it without pity. In Peru, the meth­ods used by Sen­dero Luminoso to forge the dis­cip­line of the rebel­li­ous Indian peas­ants were little dif­fer­ent: ‘Any­one I sus­pect of not being with me must be killed.’ And the pro­pa­ganda of the ‘new philo­soph­ers’ obvi­ously made unlim­ited use of these ter­ri­fy­ing epis­odes.

We were con­fron­ted with a sort of two­fold notion of fail­ure. We had before our very eyes the clas­sic right­ist fail­ure: those who were weary of mil­it­ant action ral­lied to the delights of par­lia­ment­ary power, and the reneg­ades made the trans­ition from Mao­ism and act­ive com­mun­ism to the cosy home of the Social­ist sen­ator for the Gironde. But we could not for­get the ‘ultra-left’ fail­ure which, by hand­ling every con­tra­dic­tion — even the slight­est — with bru­tal­ity and death, trapped the entire pro­cess within the dark lim­its of ter­ror. This in fact seems to be unavoid­able at times when the polit­ical dynamic of revolu­tions can no longer invent its becom­ing or assert itself for what it is. Even Robe­s­pi­erre had to fight on two fronts as 1794, and there­fore his own fail­ure, drew closer: against the citra-révolu­tion­aires, or the right­ists who fol­lowed Danton, and against the ‘ultra-revolu­tion­ar­ies’ and enragés who fol­lowed Hébert.

I devoted my play to this prob­lem. Once again, it fol­lows the out­line of a play by Claudel (La Ville), and it also uses the most import­ant epis­odes in St Paul’s mis­sion, includ­ing the quar­rel between Paul and Peter over the ques­tion of the uni­ver­sal­ity of the gos­pel, which occurred in Anti­och. The idea is that the revolu­tion­ary theme must not cling to a tra­di­tional par­tic­u­lar­ity (to the rituals of being-Jew­ish in the case of the apostle Peter, or to the assump­tion that there is no altern­at­ive to the laws of the mar­ket eco­nomy and rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy in the case of today’s reneg­ades), and that the destruc­tion of those par­tic­u­lar­it­ies (Chris­tian- inspired anti-Semit­ism or the Khmer Rouge’s exe­cu­tion of the sup­port­ers of the old world) is not the only issue at stake. Uni­ver­sal­ity, rep­res­en­ted in the play by the char­ac­ter of Paula, pre­sup­poses that we res­ist our fas­cin­a­tion with estab­lished powers, and our fas­cin­a­tion with their point­less destruc­tion. No peace­ful con­tinu­ation, and no ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. Polit­ics is a con­struct that cer­tainly sep­ar­ates itself from whatever is dom­in­ant but it defends that sep­ar­a­tion – through viol­ence if need be – only to the extent that, in the long term, it sheds light on the fact that it is only within the uni­ver­sal that we can all live under the rule of equal­ity.

describes a vic­tori­ous and ter­ribly destruct­ive revolu­tion whose lead­ers finally, and for the reas­ons I have just out­lined, take the unheard-of decision to renounce the power they have won.

The first frag­ment I will cite here deals with Céphas’s refusal to go on hold­ing any post. He led the revolu­tion, at the cost of ter­rible destruc­tion. He is giv­ing up because he loves only destruc­tion, and because he proph­es­ies that a new state is about to be recon­struc­ted, built and cre­ated. And he is already bored with that pro­spect. He expresses him­self thus:

Cephas. This is the end. I will lie down in the ashes of states. I will go away with the old texts.

Farewell, I am leav­ing, giv­ing up.

Cam­ille. What! Cephas! You can’t leave things up in the air! You’re not going to leave our under­tak­ing lead­er­less in the midst of dis­aster and neces­sity!

David. Without any explan­a­tion! Without any cri­tique! Turn­ing your back when we should be pick­ing up stones!

Cephas. I joined with you in the jur­is­dic­tion of com­mand in order to do cer­tain things, and we have done them. We hastened the decline of this coun­try, which we took back to its ter­ror­istic ori­gins.

The only thing that lies bey­ond vic­tory is defeat. No, no! Not a sud­den defeat and over­throw! The slow, irre­vers­ible defeat of that which has to come to terms with what exists.

Not the use­less defeat that is covered in glory, not the legendary cata­strophe. On the con­trary: a use­ful and fer­tile defeat, the kind of defeat that brings back the peace of work and restores the might of the state.

I leave you the grandeur of that kind of defeat, not out of pride or lack of interest in its patience, but because I am ill-suited to it.

The order­li­ness of my idea of dis­order now stands in the way of the imper­at­ive to build.

But let the lie be seen in all its clar­ity. In the clar­ity of what we have des­troyed beneath our feet.

May the rubble embed­ded in the res­tor­a­tion main­tain its hold over you, and may the stink


Cam­ille. Don’t go, Cephas.

David. Stay. If power offends you, be the man who dis­turbs it.

Cephas. In the begin­ning, I enjoyed being a leader. These things are not to be scorned:

The cir­cu­lar, as short as a tele­gram from a lover, that brings lycéens who have dropped out of school to their feet on the other side of the coun­try, or that foments a shop-floor uproar in the ban­lieues.

The ova­tions of the crowd as you stand on a plat­form in the sum­mer, between the red flags and the por­traits.

Or the cease­fire dur­ing the winter we spend in our tents.

But all that is over, and all that remains is the fear of the gaze.

That is why I will leave the circle, and chalk the word ‘glory’.

As we can see, the fail­ure for which Céphas finds him­self so ill-suited is the right­ist fail­ure, the ‘slow’, inglori­ous fail­ure of recon­struc­tions and repe­ti­tions. The moment when we revert from revolu­tion to state.

Paula is talk­ing about the other fail­ure — that of blind rage—when she enjoins her son, who has become leader after the depar­ture of Cephas, to give up power. Here is the scene:

David. What exactly are you ask­ing for?

Paula. I’ve told you. I’m ask­ing you to give up power.

David. But why do you insist on using your mat­ernal func­tion for counter-revolu­tion­ary pur­poses?

Paula. You are the counter-revolu­tion. You exhaust all trace of the will to justice. Your polit­ics are vul­gar.

David. And you are so dis­tin­guished.

Paula. Listen to me. Let me speak as though I were a man. Our hypo­thesis was not, in the­ory, that we were going to resolve the prob­lem of good gov­ern­ment. Isn’t that so? We did not involve ourselves in the philo­soph­ers’ spec­u­la­tions about the ideal state. We said that the world could stand the tra­ject­ory of a policy that could be reversed, a policy designed to put an end to polit­ics. To dom­in­a­tion, in other words. And you agreed with that.

David. I’m listen­ing, pro­fessor.

Paula. It so happened that the his­tor­ical real­iz­a­tion of that hypo­thesis was swal­lowed up by the state. A lib­er­at­ing organ­iz­a­tion merged com­pletely into the state. It has to be said that, when under­ground and at war, it devoted itself com­pletely to the con­quest of the state.

And so, the will to eman­cip­a­tion escaped its own ori­gins. It must be restored to them.

David. What do you mean?

Paula. I mean it has to be replaced.

No cor­rect policy can now argue that it is a con­tinu­ation of the work that has already been done. Our mis­sion is to unseal, once and for all, the con­scious­ness that organ­izes justice, equal­ity, the end of states and imper­ial rack­ets, and of the resid­ual plat­form where the con­cern for power sucks in every form of energy.

What an impact it would have if you issued a pro­clam­a­tion of fidel­ity! In prac­tice, that would mean return­ing to the path of the col­lect­ive con­scious­ness and its sub­jectiv­a­tion! You would leave behind the state that loves its pomp, and its mur­der­ous stu­pid­ity.

David. We have left it behind, like an imper­at­ive that was more power­ful than our will, the sac­ri­fice of thou­sands of people, and our vic­tory is its only mean­ing. Are we going to gather together all the dead in the sum­mer of our absurdity, for one sub­lime abdic­a­tion?

Paula. They’ve already played the parti des fusil­lés card.3 What is the sense in pla­cing the mean­ing of polit­ics under the jur­is­dic­tion of the dead? That bodes ill. And let me remind you that crowds of people are dying now, not for the sake of vic­tory, but because of our vic­tory. Whatever choice you make, you will be forced to select the corpses that jus­tify your actions.

David. Where does this moral black­mail get us? Pity is point­less. When you are sur­roun­ded by dev­ast­a­tion, recon­struc­tion is the order of the day. If we have to bor­row from the past, we will do so without any shame. Who can ima­gine that, after such a shock, the old state of affairs will emerge once more, as though noth­ing had happened? The world has changed for ever. You just have to trust it. My dear, dear mother, you see things from below. You are not one of the decision-makers.

Paula. That’s an old trick, David. I am telling you that there is only one pos­sible decision. Everything else is just a mat­ter of using the bru­tal means at your dis­posal to man­age con­straints. Of course you’ll do some­thing new. You’ll paint the sur­face of the sun grey.

David. Tell me pre­cisely who you are. Are you con­demning what we have done? Are you on the side of the whites, of the scum that are lying low? I’m warn­ing you: my heart is grow­ing cold again.

Paula. You’ve done what had to be done. The little imper­ial beast has been exhausted, and is hid­ing out some­where in the hills. You were the ones who sac­ri­ficed it. Thanks to you, the first cycle in the his­tory of justice is now unbroken. That is why you must pro­claim that a second power is emer­ging.

David. You’re cer­tainly not sug­gest­ing that we need more power. You’re sug­gest­ing, on the con­trary, that we renounce it, and for a long time to come.

Paula (takes out a big sheet of paper and unfolds it). Look at this mil­it­ary chart. My brother Claude Ville­m­bray gave it to me just before we had him put to death. There’s the dream, there’s the child­hood. You really would have liked to con­quer the world, just like any old king. Are you going to go on with that never-end­ing child­ish pas­sion? Power is not the mark of the human race’s great­ness. The feath­er­less biped must get a grip on him­self and, unlikely as it seems, go against all the laws of nature and all the laws of his­tory, and fol­low the path that means that any­one will be the equal of every­one. Not only in law, but in their mater­ial truth.

David. You’re such a fan­atic!

Paula. No, I’m not. On the con­trary, I urge you to aban­don all fan­at­icism. The decision you have to take has to be taken coldly. For any­one who gives in to the pas­sion for images, it is incom­pre­hens­ible. For­get about the obses­sion with con­quest and the total­ity. Fol­low the thread of mul­ti­pli­city.

(Long silence)

David. But, tell me Paula: how can we pre­vent everything from becom­ing dis­persed and dis­united if we make the unpre­ced­en­ted ges­ture you are sug­gest­ing?

Paula. Don’t think I’m giv­ing you a recipe. For such a long time, the impasse was that polit­ics was centred on and rep­res­en­ted by the state alone, so I am telling you to get out of that impasse, and to prove that the polit­ical truth cir­cu­lates end­lessly in a people that leans against the fact­ory walls and finds shel­ter from the state in its inner strength.

It is like an event, as non-rep­res­ent­able as the dra­matic labour that makes the actions we see before us mys­ter­i­ously unique.

David (dis­traught). But where do we begin some­thing when you say that it has no begin­ning? Paula. Find the people that mat­ter. Listen to what they say. Organ­ize their con­sist­ency, and aim for equal­ity. Let there be nuc­lei of polit­ical con­vic­tion in the fact­ory. Com­mit­tees of the pop­u­lar will in the estates and in the coun­tryside. Let them trans­form that which exists, and let them be up to the gen­er­al­ity of situ­ations. Let their oppos­i­tion to the state and the prop­erty- own­ing sharks be dir­ectly pro­por­tional to their imman­ent strength, and to the thought they wield.

David. That does not add up to a strategy.

Paula. The polit­ics of the future can begin only if it gives its own for­mu­la­tion form and roots. Polit­ics means unit­ing around a polit­ical vis­ion that escapes the men­tal hold of the state. Don’t ask me for any­thing more than this circle, which is the circle of any ini­tial thought. We can found an era on a tau­to­logy. That is only nat­ural. Par­men­ides laid the found­a­tions for two thou­sand years of philo­sophy simply by pro­claim­ing, with the requis­ite clar­ity, that being is and that non- being is not.

David. Polit­ics means mak­ing polit­ics be, so that the state will no longer be.


Paula. My son, my son! Do you want to trust your­self to this thought, in which, after an errant his­tory, the old hypo­thesis, the old inter­pret­a­tion com­mits the same offence?

David. My head is spin­ning. I can see the unde­cid­able clearly.

Paula. A polit­ics, only one.

David. I trust myself to it.

Paula. I am con­fid­ent that this polit­ics is, thanks to me, real, escapes cap­ture by the state, can­not be rep­res­en­ted and is for ever being decoded.

I am con­fid­ent that, when it fol­lows the under­stand­ing of the will, what is so des­ig­nated will gradu­ally help the strength of a Sub­ject to evade the rule of dom­in­a­tion.

I know that this tra­ject­ory lies in the unique­ness of its con­sist­ency, and in the stub­born­ness of its sub­tlety.

I trust in the never-end­ing lib­er­a­tion, not as a chi­mera or as a smokescreen for des­pots, but as a fig­ure and as an act­ive com­bin­a­tion, here and now, of that which gives man the capa­city for some­thing other than

The hier­arch­ical eco­nomy of ants.

David (expres­sion­less). All that. All that.

Paula. Strike hard, my son. That will give you con­fid­ence. Let the mil­len­nial struggle for power turn into the mil­len­nial struggle for its humi­li­ation. For its final destruc­tion.

David. Oh sov­er­eign decision! The hon­our of an immod­er­ate winter!

In the mean­time, I urge you to be patient. But where is your place now, mother?

Paula. You can say that I did what I could do. Yes, you really can say that.

(They embrace)

We can see from all this that ‘fail­ing’ is always very close to ‘win­ning’. One of the great Maoist slo­gans of the ‘red years’ was ‘Dare to struggle and dare to win.’ But we know that it is not easy to fol­low that slo­gan when sub­jectiv­ity is afraid, not of fight­ing, but of win­ning. Struggle exposes us to the simple form of fail­ure (the assault did not suc­ceed), while vic­tory exposes us to its most redoubt­able form: we notice that we have won in vain, and that our vic­tory paves the way for repe­ti­tion and res­tor­a­tion. That, for the state, a revolu­tion is never any­thing more than an inter­ven­ing period. Hence the sac­ri­fi­cial tempta­tions of noth­ing­ness. For a polit­ics of eman­cip­a­tion, the enemy that is to be feared most is not repres­sion at the hands of the estab­lished order. It is the inter­i­or­ity of nihil­ism, and the unboun­ded cruelty that can come with its empti­ness.

If we look at things in less poetic, more descript­ive and more his­tor­ical terms, we will prob­ably find that the becom­ing of the polit­ics of eman­cip­a­tion meets with not two, but three dif­fer­ent forms of fail­ure.

The best known, or the most cir­cum­scribed, is the fail­ure of an attempt in which revolu­tion­ar­ies who have briefly taken power over a coun­try or a zone and tried to estab­lish new laws are crushed by an armed counter-revolu­tion. Very many insur­rec­tions come into this cat­egory, and the best-known examples in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury are prob­ably the Sparta­cist insur­rec­tion after the First World War, in which Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Lieb­knecht per­ished, and those in Shang­hai and Can­ton in China in the 1920s. The prob­lem raised by this type of fail­ure is always that of the ‘bal­ance of power’. It comes down to a prob­lem that com­bines, on the one hand, the degree to which the people’s detach­ments are organ­ized and, on the other, the oppor­tune­ness of the moment where the dis-organ­iz­a­tion of the might of the state is con­cerned. In the short term, a pos­it­ive assess­ment of the defeat will dis­cuss the new dis­cip­lines that are required if the insur­rec­tion is to suc­ceed. At a later stage, the debate will be more con­ten­tious and will centre on the insur­gents’ abil­ity to rally the broad masses of the ‘civil­ian’ pop­u­la­tion. The paradig­matic example of such dis­cus­sions is the his­tory of the vari­ous assess­ments that have been made of the Paris Com­mune. That debate has been going on ever since Marx. It has involved Marx, Lis­sagaray, Lenin and the Chinese revolu­tion­ar­ies in about 1981, and it still con­tin­ues today. The third study in the present col­lec­tion re-opens the file.

The second type of fail­ure is that of a broad move­ment involving dis­par­ate but very large forces whose goal is not really the seizure of power, even though they have forced the reac­tion­ary forces of the state on to the defens­ive for long peri­ods of time. When such a move­ment retreats because the old order, or at least its gen­eral out­line, has been restored, we have to under­stand the nature of its actions, and their implic­a­tions. Between the idea that it was all ima­gin­ary and the idea that it rep­res­en­ted a decis­ive break in our con­cep­tion of what is to be done and of what a polit­ics of lib­er­a­tion is, there is a whole range of pos­sib­il­it­ies. The Fronde of the early six­teenth cen­tury in France was, per­haps, the first example of this type of move­ment. The 1911 move­ment in China also dis­plays many of the same fea­tures. A more recent model is, of course, the myth­ical May ’68, which gave rise to count­less pub­lic­a­tions and furi­ous dis­cus­sions on its for­ti­eth anniversary. The first study in this volume is devoted to it.

The third type of fail­ure con­cerns an attempt to trans­form a state that offi­cially declares itself to be social­ist, and to bring it into line with the idea of a free asso­ci­ation, which, ever since Marx, has always seemed to be stip­u­lated by the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis. In such cases, the fail­ure is that the out­come takes us in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion: either the ter­ror­ism of the party-state is restored, any ref­er­ence to social­ism, and a for­tiori com­mun­ism, is aban­doned, or the state ral­lies to the non-egal­it­arian con­straints of cap­it­al­ism, or both those things hap­pen, as one paves the way for the other. There have been what might be called ‘weak’ forms of this kind of attempt, as when Czechoslovakia’s ‘social­ism with a human face’ was crushed by the Soviet army in 1968. And there have been much more sig­ni­fic­ant forms, such as Poland’s Solid­ar­ity work­ers’ move­ment between 14 August 1980 (when the strike began in Gdansk’s shipyards) and 13 Decem­ber 1981 (when the state of emer­gency was declared). The truly revolu­tion­ary form, which inspired the whole of French Mao­ism between 1965 and 1976, was the GPCR (Great Pro­let­arian Cul­tural Revolu­tion) in China, at least dur­ing its truly mass and open phase between 1966 and 1968. Chapter II in the present book is devoted to it.

The word ‘com­mun­ism’, together with the gen­eral hypo­thesis that it can imply effect­ive polit­ical pro­ced­ures, is now back in cir­cu­la­tion. A con­fer­ence under the gen­eral title of ‘The Idea of Com­mun­ism’ was held in Lon­don on 13—15 March 2009. This con­fer­ence calls for two essen­tial com­ments. First of all, in addi­tion to the two people behind it (Sla­voj Žižek and myself), the great names of the true philo­sophy of our times (by which I mean a philo­sophy that is not redu­cible to aca­demic exer­cises or sup­port for the rul­ing order) were strongly rep­res­en­ted. Over a period of three days, the con­fer­ence heard con­tri­bu­tions from Judith Balso, Bruno Bos­teels, Terry Eagleton, Peter Hall­ward, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, Jacques Ran­cière, Aless­andro Russo, Alberto Toscano and Gianni Vat­timo. Jean-Luc Nancy and Wang Hui had agreed to speak but were pre­ven­ted from doing so by external cir­cum­stances. All had care­fully read the pro­viso to which all par­ti­cipants had to sub­scribe: whatever their approach, they had to agree that the word ‘com­mun­ism’ can and must now acquire a pos­it­ive value once more. My second remark is that the Birk­beck Insti­tute for the Human­it­ies, which hos­ted this event on a tem­por­ary basis, had to hire a huge lec­ture theatre hold­ing one thou­sand people in order to accom­mod­ate the audi­ence, which con­sisted mainly of young people. This shared enthu­si­asm on the part of both the philo­soph­ers and their audi­ence for a word that was sen­tenced to death by pub­lic opin­ion almost 30 years ago sur­prised every­one. My own con­tri­bu­tion is appen­ded to this dossier on the com­mun­ist hypo­thesis.

This book is, I insist, a book of philo­sophy. Appear­ances not­with­stand­ing, it does not deal dir­ectly with either polit­ics (though it does refer to polit­ics) or polit­ical philo­sophy (even though it sug­gests a sort of link between the polit­ical con­di­tion and philo­sophy). A polit­ical text is some­thing internal to an organ­ized polit­ical pro­cess. It expresses its thought, deploys its forces and announces its ini­ti­at­ives. A text on polit­ical philo­sophy — a dis­cip­line I have always asser­ted to be futile — claims to ‘found’ polit­ics, or even ‘the polit­ical’, and to impose upon it norms that are, ulti­mately, moral norms: ‘good’ power, the ‘good’ state, ‘good’ demo­cracy and so on. And besides, polit­ical philo­sophy is now noth­ing more than the eru­dite ser­vant of cap­italo-par­lia­ment­ari­an­ism. What interests me here is very dif­fer­ent. My exam­in­a­tion of the par­tic­u­lar­it­ies of the notion of fail­ure in polit­ics rep­res­ents an attempt to define the gen­eric form taken by all truth pro­cesses when they come up against obstacles that are inher­ent in the world in which they oper­ate. The under­ly­ing form­al­iz­a­tion of this prob­lem is the concept of ‘point’ described in Book VI of my Logics of Worlds. A point is a moment within a truth pro­ced­ure (such as a sequence of eman­cip­at­ory polit­ics) when a bin­ary choice (do this or that) decides the future of the entire pro­cess. Many examples of points will be found in the stud­ies that fol­low. We have to real­ize that almost all fail­ures have to do with the fact that a point has been badly handled. Any fail­ure can be loc­ated in a point. And that is why any fail­ure is a les­son which, ulti­mately, can be incor­por­ated into the pos­it­ive uni­ver­sal­ity of the con­struc­tion of a truth. Before that can be done, the point over which the choice proved to be dis­astrous must be loc­ated, found and recon­struc­ted. Using the old ter­min­o­logy, we can say that the uni­ver­sal les­son of a fail­ure lies in the cor­rel­a­tion between a tac­tical decision and a stra­tegic impasse. But if we aban­don the mil­it­ary lex­icon, we can say that the ques­tion of the point masks the fun­da­mental state­ment: when a truth is at stake, fail­ure can­not be the­or­ized on the basis of a tau­to­logy. We have a mag­ni­fi­cent the­orem about worlds, whatever they are: the points of a world form a topo­lo­gical space. Which means, in ordin­ary lan­guage, that the dif­fi­culties of a polit­ics are never uni­ver­sal, as enemy pro­pa­ganda — along the lines of ‘your com­mun­ist hypo­thesis is noth­ing more than a chi­mera that can­not be put into prac­tice, a uto­pia that has noth­ing to do with the real world’ – would always have us believe in order to dis­cour­age us once and for all. Its dif­fi­culties are caught up in a net­work in which it is pos­sible, although often dif­fi­cult, to know their place, what sur­rounds them, and how to approach them. We can there­fore speak of a space of pos­sible fail­ures. And it is within that space that a fail­ure invites us to seek and to the­or­ize the point at which we are now for­bid­den to fail.


1. ‘Cast Away illu­sions, Pre­pare for Struggle’, Selec­ted Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. IV, For­eign Lan­guages Press, 1969, p. 248.

2. The allu­sion is to Louis Aragon’s poem Front Rouge (1930). Translator’s note.

3. ‘Le parti des fusilés’ [the party of those who were shot] = the French Com­mun­ist Party. The fusil­lés were those who were shot as res­ist­ance fight­ers dur­ing the Occu­pa­tion. Translator’s note.

2 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: What is Called a Failure?

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: