Rosalind Morris | The Idea of Communism: Notes on the Singular and the Universal with reference to Africa and Asia Or, What’s Anthropology Got to Do with It?

By Rosalind Morris

What could be more difficult than to conjure the idea of and commitment to communism in these avaricious and increasingly unequal times?  To conjure it, as in 1847, in response to and in defiance of a recurring anticipatory exorcism? Is it only bourgeois despair that gasps at the prospect, and shudders at the enormity of the labor demanded? Or is there something in our formulation of the task at this moment in history that constitutes the difficulty—and thus the need for a certain intellectual labor not anticipated by the concept of communism that comes to us from the author of the phrase, “the Communist Hypothesis,” or “the Idea of Communism”? What follows here is an attempt to respond to these questions, in light of the readings assembled on this topic for the Praxis 13/13 Seminar.


  1. ‘The Idea of Communism’ as Event and Happening.

In 2009, Alain Badiou concluded the first chapter of The Communist Hypothesis, entitled ‘Preamble: What is called Failure,’ with a reflection on the fact that the first conference on ‘The Idea of Communism,’ co-organized by Badiou and Slavoj Žiżek, had attracted such an enormous audience that the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London had had to hire a “huge lecture hall” to accommodate the unexpected enthusiasts. And he remarked, with obvious and understandable delight, that, “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”.[1] (It would perhaps be appropriate here to acknowledge, in a way that Badiou does not, but without cynicism, that the attendance at such events is not purely an expression of political or intellectual commitment, but also has to be understood as a function of the desire, among young activist-intellectuals, for a ‘happening,’ and that this desire is partly shaped by the logics of celebrity in the age of social media—but we can leave that question aside for now.[2])


Badiou’s satisfied reading of the gathering and of the political passion it seemed to incarnate, was also echoed by Michael Hardt. In his contribution to the second volume of the The Idea of Communism series, Hardt similarly rejoiced about the apparent renewal of this passion: “the economic and financial crisis has rearranged the dominant view of capitalism and socialism…. The rule of capital is suddenly open to question”.[3] The euphoria was perhaps premature. But many, and certainly Hardt and Negri, would probably narrate the social movements (such as Occupy Wall Street) that emerged following the Financial Crisis as successful (in the sense of instructive) experiments in what Etienne Balibar describes as the communist project, namely: “de-organizing the existing organizations”[4] (EB, 34), including those of which the communists cannot not be a part. Aristides Baltas also describes the present as a time of a return, if under different names, of the communist impulse.[5]


Nonetheless, in the US, today—and more globally—such optimism appears to require some tempering, or at least a recognition of the discontinuity, dispersion and punctual/interruptive nature of communist aspiration and praxis. The last decade has seen the restoration on a global scale of the national idea, the intensification of the defense of private property (these two often go hand in hand, especially with regard to the migrant question), and a deepening of inequality, within and between nation-states. The roll-backs of climate change mitigation efforts, the ossification of identity discourses, the re-energizing of neocolonial extractivism (especially in Africa), and the persisting but also mutating Wars against Terror, give the appearance of a merely pyrrhic victory to much, though certainly not all, of the oppositional struggle that so galvanized the early conferences on ‘The Idea of Communism.’ This same period has also seen—and I will come back to this inconcluding—a re-centering of gender and sexual difference at the heart of nearly all the conservativisms of our time.


The third conference in the series was held in Seoul, South Korea, thanks to the indefatigable efforts and generous labors of Taek-Gwang (Alex) Lee. The initial plans were partly thwarted because South Korea’s “National Security Law” renders communism illegal. The conference was thus resignified as ‘The Badiou/Žižek Event’. Its planned venue at Kyung Hee University was also withdrawn, and it had to be moved off campus. A private art gallery, the ‘Platoon Kunsthalle Seoul,’ stepped in to fill the vacuum, ensuring that the sense of the ‘happening’ that attended the first conference would be given its aesthetic form, and indeed, the form of the aesthetic.


A self-described experimental space for “artists and creatives,” the Platoon Kunstalle was installed in a beautiful, postmodern box of glass, steel and cement in 2009—the same year as the inaugural conference. With its ironic reference to the wars of the peninsula (and a possible nod to those of Southeast Asia, via the film by Oliver Stone), it lies at the architectural intersection point of the techno-club and the white cube, augmented by a long, low-lit bar that runs the length of the first floor. This is where the ‘Idea of Communism’ conference took place, under a different name, the proper names of its foundational organizers.


In all probability, this reinscription of the idea of communism under the proper name of the conference organizers was innocent—demanded by the situation, proffered as a practical solution to the risk of censorship. And yet. A certain hesitation inserts itself here. Badiou has written much about a putative necessity for the leader and the heroic proper name as the representation and object of an identification in communism, a phenomenon that operates “much more forcefully than is the case for other kinds of politics” (CH, 187). This is, I think, Badiou’s answer to the description, in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, of the representational crisis that led to the counter-revolution of 1848.  Recognizing the subjective element in the process of politicization, Badiou holds onto this ‘need’ for representation even after the revolution, although, in my reading, Marx was speaking of this need as that which must be overcome and, indeed, as the condition of possibility for the social revolution (rather than the bourgeois revolution of the preceding century). Here is the relevant text, the passage of the Eighteenth Brumaire in which Marx explains the attraction of the small-holding peasants for the master, in this case Louis Bonaparte:


They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.


We may now read this as a terrifyingly prescient description of populism today.


In his account of the cult of personality surrounding Mao, however, Badiou offers a vigorous defense of the function of the leader as the “representation of the representation” in post-revolutionary moments. This leader is the one who, in the absence of any guarantee of the truth of a new (communist) order, substitutes for that guarantee, taking into himself (herself?) the impossible task of grounding its scandalously groundless self-constitution. In doing so, this leader is said to make possible a belief in “the truth and purity of an apparatus whose local petty chiefs are well known” (CH 114-115).  But in the end, the defense of the “glorious Pantheon of revolutionary leaders”, whose list of names includes “Spartacus, Thomas Müntzer, Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture, Blanqui, Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Mao, Che Guevara and so many others,” risks undermining the very collectivity of the communist subject (the performatively contradictory subject without a Subject) whose actions are supposed to change the world and thus the subjects themselves—as Balibar has rightly and critically noted (CC, 35).


As for the proceedings of the Seoul conference, “the all-star cast” performed on an extraordinarily revelatory stage.  The lectures were delivered from a raised platform, above which hung an enormous portrait of Marx and Engels, entitled ‘Bindi statues’ (2010), by Han Sungpil. The work is an archival pigment print on canvas, and features a treated photographic image of the statues of Marx and Engels in Berlin, ‘defaced’ or ‘refaced’ with bindi marks on their foreheads.[6] Sungpil describes his decision to make it after the removal of the statues during the construction of a subway, as follows:

…like the epitaph of Karl Marx reads “Workers of All Lands Unite”, all laborers united to dig, and measure the statue and stick spots on their forehead like Indians. Finally, the statues of Marx and Engles flew to the sky by crane and settled down in the new place.

In the past, they were looking East toward Alexanderplatz, which [was] surrounded by several notable structures during the GDR period, including the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), the second tallest structure in Europe. After moving into their new place, they are now looking toward the West, the symbol of the Capitalism. [7]

Notwithstanding the artist’s intention to somehow capture the experience of migrant laborers being ironically recruited into a displacement of Marx and Engels, ‘Bindi statues’ also—if unconsciously—discloses something of our contemporary moment’s return to the ‘national idea.’ The recapture of internationalism by the displaced laborers of both global finance and national capital thus takes the form, in this work, of an ‘Indianized’ monument produced by diasporic construction workers in Berlin. Nonetheless, Sungpil’s claim cannot be taken entirely at ‘face value,’ if the pun can be permitted. For the Indianizatoin takes the form of both a feminization and a Hinduization—as the bindi is worn only be Hindu (and some Jain) women. Without advocating any reverence for monumental statuary, one cannot help but wonder whether the ambiguity of ‘Bindi statues’ opens toward or turns away from the communist hypothesis authored by the men whose likenesses the statues incarnate. But that question must remain open.


Beneath this ironic testimony to both the new international division of labor, and the containment (which is to say negation) of communism within a national paradigm, in a city where communism is illegal, the ‘Idea of Communism’ was discussed—with a key thread of the proceedings devoted to a re-reading of the Cultural Revolution. The crowd, of mainly young and mainly male activist-intellectuals, was immense. The atmosphere was one of exhilaration—not unlike what defines the rites of collective ecstasy in the secular world, namely popular music concerts.  And once again, it would be worth asking what it is that the audience sought, and what they understood by the referent, communism, in that venue.  The temptation to read the scale and enthusiasm of an audience as evidence of a shared understanding and as a symptom of the changing status of the communist hypothesis needs to be resisted. At the very least, it needs to be supplemented with a recognition of the entanglement of this rising tide of radicalism with its other, contrary tendency. But one should not be naively purist about the necessity or the desirability of a large audience; there is no virtue and certainly no political utility in obscurity. Communism is always already a movement seeking its own expansion, and, since the Manifesto, it has had to borrow and deploy techniques of propaganda, to inhabit the techno-media of its time. (The Praxis seminar is no less oriented to media recognition than were the IofC conferences, and especially the Seoul instance).



  1. The Idea and the Name of Communism: A Question of Culture?

Alongside of heroic optimism, and a widely shared belief in the resurgence of the communist idea and ideal, many people, including the otherwise relentlessly optimistic Badiou, have likened our contemporary moment to the 1830s or 40s: a time of rapacious ‘robber baron’ capitalism, of extremely limited workers’ rights and large scale social displacement, of massive and intensifying inequality, both within and between nation-states. To liken the contemporary moment with a period nearly two centuries ago is to imply that this moment is as regressive as it is primitive in its cruelties and its indifferences, and that such a regression is perhaps one of the forms of capitalist self-modernization—something both like and unlike the communist return to prior ‘victories’ that constitutes the mode of its forward-moving but retrospectively narrating historicity.


Beyond the question of regression, and thus of the parodic archaism of the present, the difficulty of speaking of communism stems partly from the contamination, evacuation, commodification and/or inversion of the principles and values that we may associate with the idea.  But that does not mean that the referent of the proper name, Communism, is in any way stable. The question, posed in the previous section, of what audiences desired, sought, or heard at the conferences-cum-happenings is neither cynical nor local. It is the very instability of the signifier, communism—treated as an Idea and something like a proper name—that constitutes the difficulty of our task.

If I am skeptical of Badiou’s defense of personality cults, if I share in Balibar’s critique of his conception of communism as the Idea of ideas (see below), if I do not avow the violence that has been perpetrated in communism’s name, I nonetheless accept his description of the core ‘values’ (that is to say, valorized concepts) that it seeks to instanciate, namely: egalitarianism, justice, and a freedom of association that is also a freedom from economic exploitation.  But this is not to say very much. The first two terms are relative and the third is ambiguously tied to the question of the state as well as capitalism. Moreover, the latter abuts but is not precisely coincident (either temporally or conceptually) with the notion of a liberation from private property. Such a liberation is often assumed to entail something like an era of common property, although such a formulation cannot escape the accusation of oxymoron. That which is common must exceed the logic of property, especially if we are to understand the problem in planetary terms, and in relation to the long-term viability of life on this earth. In any case, all of these terms demand some interrogation, if they are to stand as the signifiers of that emancipatory vision which goes by the name of Communism. But the corollary or, perhaps, the necessity, of this possibility—of interrogating the signification of ‘equality,’ ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’—derives from the fact that  the same terms have become banners for apparently contrary political tendencies, concealing within themselves precisely those forces against which communism is called to do combat.


There is only time here to discuss one of the terms. So, let me hazard here a summary description of the (counter) meaning assigned to what is for me the central value of Communism, namely equality, in the globally dominant understanding that circulates in the capillaries and innermost linings of contemporary capitalism. When I say ‘meaning’ or refer to the ‘globally dominant understanding,’ I mean that which is put into play on the basis of the presuppositions and unconscious desires that people (as subjects of the specific histories of capitalism) bring to bear on these ideas, that which underlies the attachments and revulsions that orient people’s actions, that which animates their sense of what a good or successful outcome for their personal and collective projects might be or have been. And let me mark here the indeterminacy of the subject; I am speaking of ‘people,’ and not ‘the people.’


Quite simply, equality, in this globally dominant regime, has come to mean equal access to inequality.  And perhaps even a right to pursue inequality provided that it takes place within the normative forms of a given historical tradition.  This is what I observe in the poorest areas of the de-industralizing world, in the spaces where undocumented migrants scavenge in the ruins and the slag-heaps, the toxic cesspools and the barren fields of extractive industries. There, as here, the idea of equality, which was always already contaminated by its dependency on the abstract rationality—at once poison and remedy, as Derrida would say of the pharmakon—at the heart of commodity exchange, has become a name or cipher for a desired equal opportunity to pursue self-interest in the form of wealth, relative advantage, rank and power.  A more radical equality is, in my experience, rarely avowed; hierarchy is said to be natural, because culturally meaningful.


In my own contribution to the Asia conference and third volume of The Idea of Communism (eds. Taek-Gwan Lee and Slavoj Žižek) I tried to show, with respect to Thailand, how the concept of ‘community culture’ had emerged in the period when the overt insurrectionary struggles of the 1960s and 70s came to an end, and when intellectuals who had joined the guerillas, often as guests of peasant producers in ‘the jungle’ (against the backdrop of the US anti-communist wars in Southeast Asia), returned to urban life under a militarily-granted amnesty. This concept, I argued, was symptomatic (it bespoke a contradiction) of a trend within anthropologically oriented social science, one that argued for the ‘cultural meaningfulness’ of historically specific forms of social hierarchy and thus against the violent and inevitably ethnocentric universalisms that haunted the discourses of Communism. From the moment of the Manifesto, those discourses were fundamentally and irreducibly internationalist; which is to say, they were opposed to national forces and to the local structures (of gender, race, clan and lineage) within which relations of domination and subordination are intimately experienced as relatively immediate, and where they function as the condition of possibility for psycho-social recognition. ‘Community culture, like culture more generally, became in this period, the name of an argument for the non-universalizability of the Communist hypothesis and for the non-universalizability of equality as a value.


American Anthropology remains, at its core, divided around this question. And much can be said about the shift, starting in the mid 1970s, in the conception of anthropology’s critical task, in the movement away from what was initially referred to as critical or dialectical anthropology, often in the writings of the same people (Talal Asad is a case in point), and toward a renewed culturalism in defense of the victims of US imperialism.  The first gesture in this project—one that most of us would accept—consists in parochializing (de-centering, denaturalizing, displacing, etc.) the Western forms that claim for themselves universality or that repose in presumptive self-transparency (this transparency grants whiteness, masculinity, or heterosexuality, the capacity to signify the universal). But often, disciplinary anthropology did more than this; it responded to the violence of capitalist universalism with a defense not of an alternative universalism—a different anthropology, one might say (of this more to come)–but with an ardent defense of culturalized localism. Somewhat ironically, I think, the concern with ‘practice’ that traversed the discipline in the 1980s, as Ann Stoler described in her contributions to the Praxis seminar last semester, served this latter localism more than it fomented an engagement with the radical conception of praxis that was allied to communist internationalisms. Thus, for example, in Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice was essentially a description of how normative structures are animated in such a way as to promote the subjective appropriation of norms—via the habitual repetitions that make bodily life the incarnation and automating reproductive machine of a social logic.


In his own effort to theorize the communist hypothesis and the emergence of new forms of political emancipation that may or may not go by the name of communism, Aristedes Baltas proposes a new anthropological vision, and argues for the trans-cultural presence and immanence of a tendency toward justice. The example he gives of its primal scene is that of a child who, experiencing an unjust curtailment of his desire, finds himself possessed by a passionate aspiration for justice:


At one point or another in our childhood, all of us have had the sense of being subjected to an unbearable injustice, an injustice which no “rule of law” (of our parents or of the polity) was capable of correcting. The sense of justice which is not explicitly bound by rules or laws is “common” precisely because we share that experience. In other words, all of us share an empirical basis for grasping the basic characteristics of the value of universal justice; all of us, in some way, share the demand for its actualization. And this means that the prospect of universal or infinite justice or, equally, the tendency inherent in each class society to aspire at Communism, is a form of anthropological constant.[8]


I like this formulation. Nonetheless, I think it is wrong. Or at least partly wrong, as I have already told Baltas in person. It is wrong because it fails to grasp the depth of the ideological interpellation that culture, every culture, performs from the very moment, even before the moment, of a birth.  This work of culture is such that the sensation of an injustice depends not on the perception of a transgression that goes uncorrected by any rule of law, but on the differentiation between a transgression or injustice that is perceived and received as right or natural, even when undesired, and one that is not. The perception of the generalizability of this cognition takes place as a second moment, and, I think a constitutive one for anything that deserves the name of communism.


It is the melancholy obligation of anthropology to recognize within every known society a demand or a tendency of some of the victims of structural, naturalized inequality, to accept this as given in nature, which is to say by culture, and indeed to avow it. As we know, the ideology machine of bourgeois capitalism ensured, for a long time, that women would be the handmaids of their own oppression. But this is only one instance. Generation and sexual difference, but also race and caste, are among the most powerful organizers of the process that is, as Althusser said long ago, disseminated through various ideological apparatuses, some of them within the state, some of them beyond it.


If then, there is an anthropological constant (?), in the form of an intuition of justice (is this the secular form of the intuition of the transcendental, described by Kant?), it cannot be the sensible intuition for infinite justice, but rather the capacity, under particular historical circumstances, to denaturalize what culture has rendered as second nature and to discern in our own singular experience something generalizable. The content of that distinction remains entirely open.  But its discovery mean subverting or rather redeploying other structures of generalization—gender, generation, race, caste, etc.. Those categories, however, are also ones of containment, of borders that interrupt what might have been a flight toward the universal.  The generalization that makes use of the category of both comparison and limitation is the form of praxis by which a common (which may or not be universal) is produced—not because we all have an empirical experience of having been transgressed in a manner that exceeds the rule of law, and can spontaneously cognize the equivalence between these experiences, but because we can both think the counter-example and generalize, which is to say, participate in an idea. As Balibar says, in what I believe to be an especially felicitous formulation, it means “projecting the political imagination into the rational exercise of the understanding” (CC, 22). This brings me to the question of the imagination, and of fiction, as it relates the topic of this seminar, namely ‘Praxis.’ And of communism as a universalist undertaking.


Make no mistake. The consequences of the above-formulation, whether my own orBaltas’s, entail a profound anti-normativity and thus a certain anti-culturalism. This cannot be undertaken lightly, and certainly not with the kind of dismissal that it receives from Badiou in The Century. The structuralist tradition in anthropology assumed that such anti-normative events (I now use this term in Badiou’s narrow sense), occurred in non-state societies mainly as a result of contact with alterity—often in the form of conquest and encompassment by larger state forms but sometimes through the mere encounter with someone for some thing from another society. In the 1980s, Marshall Sahlins attempted to negotiate this problem, albeit in a decidedly non-Marxian manner, by identifying a “structure of conjuncture,” which could explain how change within societies previously described as “without history” could be grasped as the effect of a simultaneous mutual misrecognition between dominating and dominated societies, one that could produce profound cultural realignments and the production of new values.[9] But I share with Baltas the notion that every tradition has within itself the basis of an autocritical impulse, if only at the level of the capacity to imagine otherwise, if only in the form of a question that arises briefly and implicitly in the silent perplexity of a child who does not yet know what is prohibited. For that impulse to become communist in Baltas’s sense, however, it requires something more than the sensation of transgression; it becomes common not in the empirical domain but via abstraction. Whether or when the spectral powers of this abstraction can be generalized or ‘communized’ is a question of history, circumstance, and also of radical contingency.


  1. The Idea and the ideal: Fiction and Praxis.

When Marx and Engels wrote of the specter of communism on the European horizon in the Manifesto of 1847, they were not identifying a still ethereal promise whose incarnation would come like a procession of ghosts into the light of really existing day. They were offering a ‘real vision’ (if one may use that term) of communism, in the form of a ‘theoretical and practical program’, to combat the hallucinatory projection of the ‘Holy alliance’ of ‘old powers’ who had anticipated the arrival of an insurrectionary movement with what he (Marx) described as a pre-emptive attempt at exorcism. In a gesture that inverted the naïve temporality of then-dominant (and still persisting) historicism, the Manifesto suggested that a counter-revolutionary movement had preceded a revolutionary one. The Manifesto was in this sense a belated articulation called into being by the forces that would resist it. These forces were not all states. Nor were they of commensurable categories: “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.” This does not mean that the idea of communism, as it appeared in the Manifesto, was the mere reaction to, the forces resisting emancipation. To the contrary, it implies a certain synchronicity, and it demanded a different historiographical practice.  As is well know, the Manifesto was published on the eve of what Marx himself deemed the ‘failed’ revolution of 1848—the prefaces to subsequent editions made note of this. Badiou asks us to consider what it means to treat such incomplete revolutions as those in 1848 as “failures.” And he does so by adducing a theory of the event as the opening of new possibilities which can only be discerned retrospectively, and via a specific narrative technique (CH, 182).


In his contribution to our discussions, Aristides Baltes articulates a sentiment that resonates with those expressed by Badiou in The Century as well as The Communist Hypothesis (where it is echoed by others, including Hardt, cited above). In brief, it figures the events 9/11 as something like primal scenes of a new communism, or new communisms, the event at which a new possibility emerged. Michael Hardt attributes a similar status to the Financial Crisis of 2008/2009. This evental reading of those crises, which construes them as inaugural and transformative, works by retrospectively appropriating them in a historical narrative as the basis of a critical, egalitarian struggle, one that also part of an interrupted continuum in the communist effort to realize its ideal. This is what Badiou refers to when he speaks of the “narrative constructed after the fact,” and, borrowing from Lacan (via Žižek), the operation of “project[ing] a fragment of the political real into the symbolic narrative of a History” (CH, 179-80).


I want to consider two aspects of these specific narrations. One is empirical. The other is theoretical. But they are related. The first concerns the question of firstness intrinsic to the narrative. In both cases—9/11 and the Financial Crisis of 2008/9—the events that afflicted the US and that were globalized thereafter, had precedents. Seen from elsewhere (which is not yet anywhere else), 9/11 was preceded by the bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in 1998.  And the Financial Crisis of 2008 had its precedent in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. There is not time to go into the details of these ‘events,’ which were experienced in their respective locations as world-changing, and which shared many of the structural features as well as the institutional players with the events of 9/11 and 2008/9. But we should acknowledge, firstly, that they were events (now in the commonsense use of the term) that can only be understood with reference to the operations of global capital. One way to consider them—as security discourse often does—is as warning signs, or, perhaps even trial runs for the ‘larger’ events that would follow. Such a reading transforms scale into teleology, while ignoring the more difficult, productive and also dangerous entailments of taking Badiou seriously when he writes that “an Idea presents the truth as if it were a fact” (CH 184) and it does so retrospectively.


As Balibar explains in his own contribution to Volume 2 of The Idea of Communism, Badiou treats communism as the Idea of ideas, and even as the absolutization of the idea: “Badiou certainly has a tendency to suggest that communism is the only Idea in the true sense of the term, or the Idea of ideas (like Justice, the idea of the Good, in the philosophy of Plato), and conversely that Idea – or, for this purpose, rather, ‘ideal’ – and communism are synonymous terms” (17). And, Balibar rightly cautions against that gesture, which would entail not so much a Kantian as a Platonist conception of truth, one that would make “all the other ideas […] either […] names, perhaps partial names, for communism (such as Equality, or Justice, or the Universal) or simulacra of the communist idea (such as the Market) – the case of the idea of Democracy is dubious…” (CC, 17). I agree. Yet, the question of narration, ideologization, and indeed “fiction” remains. And, as I think needs to be acknowledged, it is only through a consideration of this fictionality that we can grasp how and why 9/11 and the Financial Crisis can come to appear, retrospectively, as events capable of exposing a truth, while those which preceded them generally do not.  On this basis, I’d like to propose a different way of conceiving the question of the anthropological which, in various ways, functions as the mediator of the singular and the universal in the writings of communism.


Badiou writes, “the Idea presents certain facts as symbols of the real of truth.”  And he adds, “The symbol must imaginarily come to the aid of the creative flight form the real. Allegorical facts must ideologize and historicize the fragility of truth.” In other words, a local event, subjectively grasped and narrativized retrospectively, must provide the occasion for a leap toward the universal. Despite the (troubling) language of glory, and Badiou’s well-known deployment of the epiphany of St. Paul as the allegory par excellence of the practice of universalization, the example he provides to describe this process of universalizing the event of the real (and Badiou’s truth is Kantian, in the sense that it must be universalizable) is a remarkably banal one: “four workers and a student in an ill-lit room must be enlarged to the dimension of Communism.” And, the “five-person meeting in an out-of-the-way suburb must be eternal.” Above all, this entails narration, for “the real must be exposed in a fictional structure.” Leaving aside the degree to which a meeting between four workers and a student merits the aggrandizement that Badiou proposes, the fictionalizing of the event is indeed a crucial and necessary moment for any project (communist or otherwise) that imagines itself capable of producing a historical transformation. Balibar is correct, and here he shares much with Gayatri Spivak—and Marx whom he cites on this very point—when he characterizes the difference of the communist transformation as one in which the (would-be) communist seeks not only the transformation of the world but of his or herself (18).


But what of this fiction? In a CCCCT seminar last year, Spivak invoked the famous lines from the Eighteenth Brumaire, in which Marx distinguishes the bourgeois revolution of the 18th century from the social revolution of the nineteenth century: “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.” And we had a spirited conversation about what that could mean. Why does Marx turn to poetry when, for example, he claims that only the novelists of his era had adequately perceived and described the problems of industrial capitalism (in “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, for example)? Is poetry the name of a kind of utterance purified of fiction? Or is it the name of a fiction subjectivized?


In relation to the texts read this week, I think it is helpful to remember Marx’s own efforts to distinguish between the fictions of religion, with which he associated fetishism proper, and those of industrial capitalism, with which he associated a derivative form, or analogicall extension of, fetishism in societies organized around and toward the production and exchange of commodities—which he designated as having a “fetish-character”.  In “Revenue and its Sources,” Marx describes, capitalism as “a kind of fiction without fantasy, a religion of the vulgar.” This in contrast to his description of religious fantasy:


But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

The rhetoric of the passage is as hyperbolic as it is tender—and it is often reduced by careless readers to a crude image-based theory of ideology as misrepresentation. In fact, it makes clear that ideology is, as Kracauer reminds us, the untrue truth of the world. Badiou’s emphasis in the Truth of communism is thus in entirely in keeping with Marx’s own conception of ideology as a mode of both dissimulation and truth.


I have argued elsewhere (Returns of Fetishism) that there are two fetishisms in Marx’s writing, which correspond to two orders or regimes of illusion, each of which has it narrative forms. Without repeating that argument, it is important to note that only in the form of finance capital do these two fetishisms converge in and through the fantasy of immediacy—which transforms the tripartite structure by which land had been conceived as the source of rent, capital the source of profit and labour the source of wages, into a unity, wherein finance capital is made to function as the source of all three forms of  surplus. That account and its argument need not detain us here. But I think it is important to understand that Badiou’s effort to make fiction the necessary vehicle of an anticipatory politics aimed at liberation from this system in which fiction has been stripped of fantasy, in a process that he describes as “ideologizing,” depends on both the redemption or, better, the redeployment of fantasy (in both its commonsense meaning and in the more literary sense of unverifiable singularity) and the recognition that communism, as a liberatory movement, is dialectically entangled with what it opposes.


So much has been said before. Yet, the complex temporality of communism, as Badiou conceives it, is such that communism is at once belated viz. the constraining forces and structures of capitalism, and originary—although this originary status is only grasped in the act of fictionalizing the event.  In that process, communism, as a kind of liberatory fiction (an Idea as an ideal) is a tendency inscribed, says, Badiou, in the anthropological imagination—across societies, and assuming many forms (here Baltas is close to Badiou. It is the source of that excess which ensures the possibility of the polis, of the possibility that human beings can exceed their merely biological status. This is how he—and Balibar—understand Kant’s anthropology, transformed by Marx, that human beings make themselves as such, and only at the collective/species level. There, as politicized species, through the process of self-education (via the training of the imagination and through the technique of fiction), the human as a being that can be in common becomes real, becomes something of the order of the real. (It is possible to read Marx’s concept of communism as an effort to escape Kant’s limitation of the concept of the “common” to a notion of having property in common. This occurs in the very moment that he attempted to conceive of the human as that defined by its inhabitation of the earth in common.[10])


And so, back to the anthropological.  In the closing chapter of The Century (written just before The Communist Hypothesis, and published in 2005), Balibar invokes Sartre and Foucault, and writes that “if man does not have communism, integral equality, as his project, then he is an animal species of no more interest than ants or pigs.” He continues: “That’s where we are. After Sartre and Foucault, a bad Darwin (TC, 175). And then: “Let’s not forget […] that a species is, above all, what can be domesticated. If I wished to scandalize, I would say that my conviction is that this domestication, which subtends the project-less humanism that is inflicted upon us, is already at work in the promotion, as spectacle and norm, of the victimized body.  The “animal humanism” which renders “Man [..] a pitiable animal.”  Many things come in for condemnation under this rubric: from bourgeois ecological movements opposed to fox hunting, to humanitarian movements that conceal warfare under the veil of liberationist intervention, to the hypostatizing of the ‘Holocaust’ as the event of events of the twentieth century and so forth.  And yet, when he is conceding the “unbearable” violence of those terrors (manipulated by the “new philosophers”), that were carried out as part of the “final conclusions of state socialism and the armed struggles associated with it,” Badiou also indicts “blind revenge” carried out “without pity.” It is necessary to quote the passage in which this unexpected (for Badiou) sentimentality appears.


                … 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 oppresses peasant masses, who had always been invisible, and who were suddenly given the power of life and death over anything that recalled old society. Those young killers whose descendants can still be seen today – especially in Africa (emphasis added) – subjected the whole country to their reign of blind revenge, and devastated it without pity (CH, 13).


I would like to be able to leave aside the strange gesture of discerning the descendants of the “young killers” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in Africa. But I can’t—although there is not space here to undertake the reading that it necessitates. And yet, this gesture, which finds in Africa the ultimate destination of vengeance, has as its more optimistic mirror image, the scene of “living communism” (really existing communism) in Peter Hallward’s essay, “Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will,” from  Volume 1 of the Idea of Communism series. Hallward invokes S’bu Zikode’s description of the practices of the South African shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo as follows:


Abahlali baseMjondolo is rooted in the ‘places that we have taken’ and kept: We will no longer quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all [political] discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly, but firmly. We do not allow the state to keep us quiet in the name of a future revolution that does not come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quiet in the name of a future socialism that they can’t build. We take our place as people who count the same as everyone else.[11]


Describing Zikode’s discourse as evidence of that kind of “unconditional popular politics” that starts with “an unconditional assertion of the ‘humanity of every human being’” (126), he discerns in South Africa the form of appearance of the Idea of communism as the anticipation of a universal “people”.  Here, as is often the case, Africa is figured as the scene of those with no part. Žižek, invoking Rancière, describes the status of that potentially universalizable category as follows:


…there are social groups which, on account of their lacking a determinate place in the ‘private’ order of social hierarchy, stand directly for universality; they are what Ranciere calls the ‘part of no-part’ of the social body. All truly emancipatory politics is generated by the short circuit between the universality of the ‘public use of reason’ and the universality of the ‘part of no-part’.[12]


In the age of post-wage labor and neo-extractivism, it often figures the absent place of what formerly went under the name of the proletariat. In an important revision of the Marxian attribution of universalizability to the proletariat, as the class that does not act on the basis of class interest, Žižek invokes the idea of the ‘Excluded’, (figured as new forms of apartheid, Walls and slums) and argues that the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded is qualitatively distinct from other social antagonisms, including: “the looming threat of ecological catastrophe, the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called ‘intellectual property’, the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics” (HBB, 212).


Now, neoliberal humanism also often assigns the role of signifying human universalizability to Africa. It too treats Africa as the supplement that sutures the empirical and the transcendental together. And, I think, it understands itself to be doing what Žižek ascribes to emancipatory politics, namely operating a “short circuit between the universality of the ‘public use of reason’ and the universality of the ‘part of no-part’.”  In Africa, neoliberal humanitarianism finds the image of a humanity it needs to transform what was conceived by Kant as a regulative ideal into an apparent actuality, thus covering over the fact that the historical actualization of ‘humanity’ as the form of appearance of the universal, occurred only through processes of capitalist colonialization.  (Recall here, that the universality of Reason for Kant is not limited to the human but must be that which would operate even in a non-human race, on another planet!)  Reconciliation commissions, extra-juridical justice, ujamaa and now, ubuntu : these are the theaters of the human that neoliberal humanitarianism valorizes. The “living communism” of shack-dwellers, by contrast, is the theater of the human that (some) communists valorize—in the sense that Žižek proposes. In many ways, their valorizations are the analogs of the Workersim of 70s Marxism in Europe (Spivak’s critique of this Workersim in “Can the Subaltern Speak” remains exemplary).

All of this is not to dismiss the righteous solidarity that Hallward and other communists feel for those movements, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, in which a “living communism” is being experimented with—bravely and creatively. But one must question the degree to which the burden of providing the empirical instance of the universal is so repeatedly distributed in a manner that makes Africa the scene of its appearance, and ask if this is not a mere reversal of that which makes Africa the scene of its barbarous descent (in every sense of that phrase). Fanon’s caustic observation might be borne in mind: “When the whites feel that they have become too mechanized, they turn to the men of color and ask them for a little human sustenance.”[13] To be fair to Badiou, he concedes the truth of W.E.B. Dubois’s claim that the “problem of the Twentieth century” was “the problem of the color line” (TC, 199), and is everywhere attuned to the violence of colonialism in the constitution of the global (which he distinguishes form the universal).

But one cannot decide the relative claims of neoliberal humanitarianism and communism simply by asserting that communism is the Idea of ideas, or that it is, a priori, the locus of a truth, at once more intense and disinterested than the others. Balibar’s critique of this assertion is apposite, as is his observation that Badiou’s argument works by asserting, rather than demonstrating, the error of Carl Schmitt’s claim that “the national myth is stronger than the communist myth in distinguishing the friend from the enemy, and maximizes the intensity of the community of friends” (CC, 21). Which brings me back to the question of culture/nation and the problem that arises when we recognize that all of the terms used to qualify the name of communism are, at present, also being deployed to describe opposed tendencies and regressive political forms. Moreover, they are associated with distinct clusters of meanings in specific contexts. One may respond by saying that equality cannot be reduced to “equal access to inequality,” but if one is to be persuasive, if one is to decolonize desire, as it were, one will have to take seriously the forms within which difference is coded as hierarchy, which is to say inequality, and naturalized, which is to say culturalized, via other master signifiers.

  1. Unconcluding postscript

Communism, clams Badiou, must be vehemently opposed to every parochialism, every nationalism, every localism. His somewhat desperate claim—written before the elation of the conferences on The Idea of Communism—that the new milliennium seems dominated by or torn between a return to classical humanism bereft of God, and an animal humanism that reduces humans to a species “no more interesting than ants or pigs”, leaves the national question’s return interrogated. Why would the national question seem to provide an answer to this sensation of possible destitution? To answer that question requires, I think, an address to the term that is largely absent from the texts selected this week, namely the question of gender and sexual difference.  It is mentioned in passing by Balibar, who credits Hardt and Negri with a “fresh consideration of the relationship between Marxism and the issue of anthropological differences (of which the manual and the intellectual, the rational and the affective, but above all the sexual differences and the differences of gender-roles are typical examples)” (CC, 32, emphasis added).[14]  For Balibar, sexual difference is anthropological difference, one of a diversity of social relations that destabilizes every effort to ensure that the “common” of communism means the same thing for everyone, even when they are oriented toward it. But it is also a special one: above all.


Now, the return of the national thing in our current moment in populist form,  demonstrates that anti-communism or counter-revolution is capable of matching the intensity that Badiou imagines to inhere with relative force in communism. This is only intelligible if one grasps what the counter-revolution (whether it precedes or follows the revolutionary impulse), offers in lieu of the proper name, even if such movements have their leaders—whoo may or may not be the product of elite universities.  I am going to speculate somewhat wildly here, but also with some confidence, by stating that leaders of contemporary populist nationalisms are unlike those of the post-revolutionary regimes described by Badiou, as well as those of more modest and even neo-liberal sort, such as was associated with Nelson Mandela; these leaders lead in the name of a difference, the difference that functions as the Idea of difference in all cultural systems we have known thus far, namely sexual difference. I mean to invoke and resignify Badiou’s notion of a representation of the representation, acknowledging the utility of its logic while recognizing that the truth encoded in this latter representation is the history not of emancipation but of originary inequality.  There is a reason why virtually all of the new nationalisms have agendas that include a disavowal of homosexuality, a restitution of conventional sexual norms, and/or sexual binarity, and the redomestication of women. It is what binds conservativisms on all sides of the East/West, North/South divide—in opposition to what gets coded as decadence. That this decadence is, in the hallucinatory projection of the new nationalists, and some internationalists, understood to be a corollary of capitalism is a consequence of the fact that the idea of universal equality is the remedy extracted from the poison of general equivalence, and thus capitalist Reason itself. This is what Spivak would call capitalism’s “enabling violence.”  And this was the spectral possibility that Marx and the early communists sought to incarnate—and that the Holy alliance of old powers sought to pre-emptively exorcise—even if, as Althusser says of Marx’s analysis more generally, the radicalization of equality entailed by the inclusion of women (especially women of color) was an answer to a question they could not yet formulate. Today, once again, given the regression that is capitalisms form of self-modernization, there is no hope of overcoming the new nationalisms without recognizing the persisting force of a representation which makes sexual difference itself the object of desire, and which then represents that representation in such a way that the object (rather than the self-universalizing subject) is not-Man.



[1] Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis. Trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran. London and New York: Verso, 2015 [2009]. Hereafter referred to in the text with ‘CH’ in parentheses.

[2] Verso advertises the book to this same fact, describing the first volume of the series as the product of “an all-star case of radical intellectuals” who gathered to “discuss the continued importance of communist principles: “Unexpectedly the conference attracted an audience of over 1,000 people” (


[3] Michael Hardt, “The Common in Communism,” in The Idea of Communism, Volume 2. Ed. Slavoj Žiżek. London and New York: Verso, 131.

[4] Étienne Balibar, “Communism as Commitment, Imagination and Politics,” in The Idea of Communism, Vol. 2, pp.11-35, 34. Hereafter referred to in the text with the parenthetical abbreviation, ‘CC’.

[5] Aristides Baltas, The Names of Communism (

[6] The work can be seen at:

[7] Han Sungpil, “Artist’s Statement” (

[8] Aristedes Baltas, The Names of Communism?  Trans. Chloe Howe Haralambous. Available at:

[9] See, for example, Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987; also Pierre Clastres, Chronicle of the Guyaki Indians, trans. Paul Auster. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2000 [1972].

[10] This is the argument of The Metaphysics of Morals, where Kant specifically eschews colonial conquest even when it takes the form of a (duplicitously negotiated) contract. Marx repudiates the fact that, in the end, Kant can avow freedom of mobility on this earth inhabited in common, only as the basis of a right to ‘trade’ or ‘commerce’ (verkehr), and he makes clear that Kant’s original sin is that he cannot understand that which is in common other than as a mode of property.

[11] Peter Hallward, “Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will,” in The Idea of Communism, Vol. 1, pp.111-130, 126.

[12] Slavoj Žiżek, “How to Begin from the Beginning,” in The Idea of Communism, Volume 1, eds. Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žiżek, pp.209-226, 215.

[13] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 98.

[14] Balibar has written on this in the chapter, “Bourgeois Universality and Anthropological Differences” in his book, Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology. Trans. Steven Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.