It is a fascinating book which investigates strands of failure within radical and communist movements over the last 100 years or so from our modern perspective living with the aftermath of the 2007-9 financial crisis. The basic premise is that despite the visible failure of communism during the twentieth century we should continue to believe that that a more equal society is possible. That we should not “renounce the whole problem of emancipation”. In particular, that communism has and should continue to learn from it’s failures. As Badiou states in the Preamble:
“It will be argued here… that the apparent, and sometimes bloody, failures of events closely bound up with the communist hypothesis were and are stages in its history.”
Badiou identifies three specific failures. First where an open attempt at revolution where power has been seized if only briefly is crushed by counter-revolution. The second is where a broad movement, seeking change but not truly aiming for power, is forced to retreat as the old order reasserts itself. The third is the failure of a state which has already declared itself ‘socialist’ to truly transform itself into the sort of free association envisaged by Marx. Three examples are used to illustrate these categories. The Paris Commune for the first, May 1968 in France for the second, and the Cultural Revolution in China for the third.
In his assessment of May 1968 Badiou examines the growth of a spontaneous uprising eventually forced into retreat. He outlines how the traditional structures of the left – party, trade union – acted as a constraint, a barrier to the struggle of students and young workers. This new radicalism blossomed in some ways because of the lack of an internal hierarchy to restrain it. And yet having shaken the status quo, the insurgent movement found that without that hierarchy it was impossible to sustain the gains made. The old order reasserted itself and the result was two decades of ‘betrayal’ by the leadership of the ‘left’.
Badiou clearly admires the Cultural Revolution. which he portrays as Mao’s attempt to overcome the growing bureaucracy of the communist Chinese state. Once again the theme here is the mobilisation of the masses in opposition to the hierarchies of the organised left. The end result is violence and bloodshed, but the goal of developing alternative structures and ways of organising the mass of people is valid.
Finally Badiou approaches the Paris Commune, first as standard history, then through high philosophy. That the mass of anonymous workers can seize control in defiance of existing political leadership makes this unique. An ‘event’ visible throughout subsequent communist history, influencing all those revolutionaries following in it’s wake and as shocking now as it was at the time. This is the least accessible part of the book, but creates the communist ‘Idea’ developing the thread which connects it to both May 1968 and the Cultural Revolution.
Which leads us to Badiou’s conclusion. We should not lose sight of the communist idea despite a century of experiments with a communist state. After these experiences the ‘party’ is no longer relevant as the key organisation leading the revolution. Despite this the recent neoliberal reaction may in fact be coming to an end, in which case the focus for progressives of the left should be on finding new forms of organisation.
Revolutionaries are divided and only weakly organised, broad sectors of working class youth have fallen prey to nihilistic despair, the vast majority of intellectuals are servile… nonetheless more and more of us are involved in organising new types of political processes among the poor and working masses”
The book finishes with this call to arms, encouraging us to join intellectual activity with practical action to “usher in the third era of [the communist] Idea’s existence”. As a dialectical examination of 150 years of communist experiments and failure and how the experience could be used to influence current practice the book is an insightful contribution, although perhaps somewhat optimistic about the prospects for success.