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On Marxism’s Field of Operation: Badiou and the Critique of Political Economy*

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Abstract Alain Badiou’s theoretical work maintains an ambiguous relation to Marx’s critique of political economy. In seemingly refusing the Marxian analytical strategy of displacement and referral across the fields of politics and economy, Badiou is frequently seen to be lacking a rigorous theoretical grasp of capitalism itself. In turn, this is often seen as a consequence of his understanding of political subjectivity. But the origins of this ‘lack’ of analysis of the social relation called ‘capital’ in his work can also be investigated by means of a detour into the economic writings of the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste, the political organisation in which Badiou played a leading rôle throughout the 1970s in particular. By excavating this theoretical work of the 1970s, we can identify more precisely the historical and political reasons behind Badiou’s ambiguous relation to Marx and specifically to Marx’s systematic grasp of the logic of capital. This excavation will consequently lead us to a reflection on the limits and openings in Badiou’s thought for the Marxian critique of political economy.

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50. FN0 * All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. I owe many thanks to Bruno Bosteels for his personal support, discussions, and for introducing me to the work of the Groupe Yenan-économie, and to Alberto Toscano for his kind assistance, incisive reading and extensive comments which assisted me in revising this article. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers, as well as to Tani Barlow for her generous reading and comments on an earlier version. Needless to say, I am solely responsible for these formulations.
51. FN1 1. Badiou and Critchley 2007, p. 363.
52. FN2 2. Uno 1973, p. 9.
53. FN3 3. Badiou 1985, p. 112. The Talbot factory at Poissy went on an extended strike in December 1983, a strike distinguished by the large presence of immigrant, particularly Arab, workers in the factory. Talbot-Poissy also contained a ‘local’ of the Confédération des syndicats libres (CSL), a pseudo-union formed by management to eliminate worker-autonomy in bargaining. Thus Talbot expressed an entire network of problems: the rôle of the state and immigration (the racialisation of the labour-management relation), the rôle played by ‘official’ unionism in enabling the exploitation of labour by management, and the bind for worker-politics that this complicity between the unions, management, and state-racism created. For an extensive discussion of Talbot-Poissy, see Picciotto 1984.
54. FN4 4. Hallward 2003, p. 237.
55. FN5 5. Badiou 2005b, p. 100. This exact same passage, although appearing in a somewhat different essay, is also translated with slightly different wording by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens in Badiou 2003b, p. 73.
56. FN6 6. Badiou 2001, p. 106.
57. FN7 7. Badiou 2001, p. 105.
58. FN8 8. Badiou 2006b, p. 31.
59. FN9 9. Badiou 2006b, p. 32.
60. FN10 10. Badiou 2010, pp. 99–100.
61. FN11 11. Balibar 1987, p. 155.
62. FN12 12. Badiou 2010, p. 260. Badiou’s recent discussions of ‘the communist hypothesis’ remain in this ambiguous relation to the Marxist theoretical tradition, but contain many points of critical importance for us today. For a discussion of these points, see Walker 2011b.
63. FN13 13. Marx 1962b; Marx 1989, p. 88.
64. FN14 14. Hallward 2003, pp. 279, 284.
65. FN15 15. Žižek 2006, pp. 327–8.
66. FN16 16. Badiou 1985, p. 52.
67. FN17 17. Bosteels 2005a, p. 581; also see Bosteels 2005a, p. 619.
68. FN18 18. Hallward 2004, p. 16.
69. FN19 19. ‘The Yenan-economy group begins from the great Leninist principle: “Politics is the concentrated expression of economics.” Following this principle, the fixation of a consequent revolutionary political line is, over a prolonged period, impossible without mastering the major objective contradictions that govern the economic infrastructure’ (Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 4). This phrase ‘Politics is the concentrated expression of economics’ is frequently used in the two Cahiersproduced by the Groupe Yenan-économie, but in their texts is often disaggregated from the original formulation or paraphrased. The origin of this expression – ‘Politika, yest’ kontsyentrirovannoye virazhyeniye ekonomiki’ – is Lenin’s text ‘Yeshcho raz o profsoyuzakh’ (Lenin 1965a, p. 278; translated as ‘Once Again on the Trade Unions’, Lenin 1965b, p. 83.).
70. FN20 20. See the comprehensive bibliography of UCFML texts and periodicals in Bosteels 2005b.
71. FN21 21. See Badiou and Lazarus 1976.
72. FN22 22. The composition of the Groupe Yenan-économie differs between the two Cahiers: Francis Anclois, Charles Bréaud, and Michel Nouret for Marxisme-léninisme et révisionnisme face à la crise économique, and Anclois, Bréaud, Marc Fallet, and Frédéric Lemaître for Transformations du capitalisme. The first of the Cahiers Yenanwas devoted to Marxisme-léninisme et psychanalyse, a text I do not address here – but we should note and consider the importance of the fact that for the UCFML, the two decisive fields of the ‘immediate ideological conjuncture’ which Marxism-Leninism needed to re-address in a contemporary manner were psychoanalysis and political economy, a pairing that remains suggestive. It is worth noting that Anclois, Bréaud, and Fallet continued to work on the editorial board of Le Perroquetthroughout the 1980s.
73. FN23 23. Badiou and Balmès 1976, p. 70.
74. FN24 24. See Marx 1998, in particular pp. 209–58 and pp. 336–607.
75. FN25 25. Usually known as Stamokapin German as well, an abbreviation for staatmonopolistischen Kapitalismus, the theory is typically referenced in the Cahiers Yenanas ‘C.M.E.’, the French acronym for capitalisme monopoliste d’état. I translate ‘C.M.E.’ with ‘stamocap’ throughout this essay.
76. FN26 26. On the critique of ‘revisionism’ (largely indicating the critique of the line of the CPSU after the Khrushchev ‘thaw [ ottepel’]’ by China-aligned organisations), see Corrigan, Ramsay and Sayer 1978 and its companion-volume Corrigan, Ramsay and Sayer 1979.
77. FN27 27. On stamocap-theory, see Howard and King 1992, pp. 75–127, as well as Mandel 1978, pp. 513–22. It is plainly obvious that Mandel’s political line is radically different from that of the UCFML, but on the question of stamocap-theory the critiques developed by many Trotskyist and Maoist organisations can be said to converge. Badiou, for example, describes the ideological formation of the postwar USSR as emphasising an ‘abstract working class’ but characterised by ‘a concrete bourgeois dictatorship’ (Badiou and Balmès 1976, p. 75, n. 33), a description that could easily be shared in the Trotskyist tradition (leaving aside entirely the complex question of particular organisationally specific analyses of the nature of the USSR after Lenin, i.e., the ‘new bureaucracy’ vs. ‘state-capitalist’ vs. ‘degenerated worker’s state’-arguments, ‘social imperialism’ and so forth).
78. FN28 28. See Lenin 1964, especially pp. 240–6 and pp. 260–5.
79. FN29 29. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 58.
80. FN30 30. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 59.
81. FN31 31. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 64.
82. FN32 32. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 67.
83. FN33 33. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, pp. 69–70.
84. FN34 34. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 70.
85. FN35 35. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 74.
86. FN36 36. These changes were largely codified at the Twenty-Second Congress of the CPSU in 1961: there, Khrushchev emphasised the doctrines of the ‘party of the people as a whole’ and the ‘state of the people as a whole’, in addition to the policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with world capitalism, a moment that spurred on the Sino-Soviet split (and the concomitant split of fraternal parties).
87. FN37 37. Mandel 1978, p. 513.
88. FN38 38. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 80.
89. FN39 39. Badiou 1985, p. 45.
90. FN40 40. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, pp. 83–4.
91. FN41 41. Mandel 1978, p. 515.
92. FN42 42. Mandel 1978, p. 521.
93. FN43 43. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976a, p. 98.
94. FN44 44. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 5.
95. FN45 45. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, pp. 5–6.
96. FN46 46. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, pp. 6–7.
97. FN47 47. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 37.
98. FN48 48. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 68.
99. FN49 49. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, pp. 104–5.
100. FN50 50. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, pp. 176–7.
101. FN51 51. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 186.
102. FN52 52. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 182.
103. FN53 53. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 183.
104. FN54 54. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 188.
105. FN55 55. Ibid.
106. FN56 56. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 189; emphasis mine. Note here that this separationis considered the defining mark of ‘revisionism’.
107. FN57 57. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 191.
108. FN58 58. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 174.
109. FN59 59. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 195.
110. FN60 60. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, pp. 198–9.
111. FN61 61. Groupe Yenan-économie 1976b, p. 207.
112. FN62 62. Badiou and Lazarus 1976.
113. FN63 63. Badiou 1985, p. 54.
114. FN64 64. Badiou 2005a, p. 324; Badiou 1988, pp. 368–9; translation modified, my italics. Curiously, Oliver Feltham leaves out of his English translation what I consider a crucial terminological distinction. In this passage, Badiou argues that, despite an awareness of the fact that the ‘worker’ constitutes a pure multiple, the term was still subsumed under a particular determination. Here, he states in parentheses ‘( et, paradoxe, le savoir marxiste lui-même, ou marxien).’ Feltham leaves out this ‘ ou marxien’, producing a moment in which Badiou seems to be making a point only about Marx ism(as a defeated political trajectory sutured to its own historicity), and not the Marx ianbody of work. But I think his point is more general, and his specific use of the two terms indicates that Badiou understands that the crisis of Marx ismcannot be averted by simply appealing to a purified Marx ianmoment as yet unachieved.
115. FN65 65. Hallward 2003, p. 284.
116. FN66 66. Badiou 1985, pp. 67–8.
117. FN67 67. Toscano 2003, p. 12.
118. FN68 68. Badiou 1982, p. 48.
119. FN69 69. Balibar 1987, p. 155. Without expanding this point here for reasons of space, let me merely note that this identification of Badiou’s work with Fichte is extremely important and ought to be developed.
120. FN70 70. Badiou 1977, p. 39. Let me note that I do not find this particular type of argument, which Badiou is fond of attributing to Deleuze and an entire set of thinkers, very convincing; its violently reductive reading strategy obscures the question of the engagement with the Marxist tradition in both thinkers, or indeed how the Marxist theoretical standpoint allows us to mediate the positions taken by both. But for the purposes of the present essay, I am only concerned with how Badiou tends to connect this split with the question of political economy by schematising certain rhetorical chains that operate in the background of his texts: Deleuze = Negri = regal univocity in the guise of the pseudo-transgressiveness of the multiple = celebration of capital’s deterritorialising effect = economy; Badiou = multiplicity as simply banal order of being = subjective break with the situation = politics. This schematism itself is highly problematic and does not clarify anything, in my view.
121. FN71 71. Badiou 2003a, pp. 125–6.
122. FN72 72. Badiou 2006a, p. 191.
123. FN73 73. For reasons of space, I cannot examine Badiou’s critique of Negri at length, but I will point out that, as mentioned in Footnote 70 above, he tends to caricature Negri’s basic argument. Generally, Badiou attributes this conception of the unity of power and resistance to Negri, and associates it with an ‘economism’, a tendency towards a valorisation of ‘the economic’ at the expense of politics. But Negri does not at all argue, for instance, that ‘economy decides everything’, or that capitalist development itself drives on the political process through the force of historical necessity. Rather, the point Negri (and the tendencies in Marxist theory associated with his work) continually repeats is that the movement of capital, capital’s historical trajectory of development, is something that is spurred on fundamentally by the social rôle of labour, and that, therefore, it is not ‘external’ to the workers’ struggle but rather a result of it. This too, of course, is a simplified reading of Negri. Although there are many powerful criticisms of Negri’s reading of Marx that can be made, I am not convinced that Badiou’s claim of a decisive break with Negri is founded on any such meaningful critical engagement with his work – rather, these claims tell us much more about Badiou’s own political vantage-point and its particular history. Balibar’s important point mentioned earlier, on the possible moments of commonality between Negri and Badiou, undermines the image of this relation as an ‘unbridgeable’ gap.
124. FN74 74. Bosteels 2005c, p. 765.
125. FN75 75. Badiou 1999, p. 58.
126. FN76 76. Hallward 2004, pp. 18–19.
127. FN77 77. Badiou 1989, p. 37; Badiou 1999, p. 57.
128. FN78 78. Badiou 1989, p. 37; Badiou 1999, p. 56. I attempt to read this ‘semblance’ as nothing other than the form of labour-power, the sole ‘possession’ of ‘the masses’ (that is nevertheless strictly speaking absent) in an in-depth cross-reading of Marx, Badiou, and Uno Kôzô in Walker 2011a.
129. FN79 79. Badiou 1977, p. 32. This point, which clearly references Hegel, recurs in Badiou’s discussions of the dialectic in Theory of the Subject(Badiou 1982 and 2009).

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