The Four Principles of Marxism1

Alain Badiou
Translated from French by Gavin Walker

How did you encounter Marx’s thought, and how did you start to make use of it? In what theoretical and political context, responding to what urgencies and to what problems? How did these uses change, what were the relations of this evolution, on the one hand with the transformations in the field of Marxist studies, and in the broader academic domain, and on the other hand with political events and your engagements as a militant?

I encountered the thought of Marx quite late, in the 1950s, and first under the constraints imposed by the broader situation of the war in Algeria, a situation of intolerable violence, which required a firm commitment from me. I thus began, under the influence of Sartre – my philosophical master of the time – to think the situation in light of the Marxist analyses of imperialism, of colonialism, and more generally, the class relations that subtended the horrifying colonial war of the era. At the same moment, incidentally, Sartre was moving from an existentialism based on German phenomenology towards a renewed Marxism. He wrote that “Marxism was the unsurpassable horizon of our era.” With my friends, we read the newly published Critique of Dialectical Reason,2 which opened us to a non-dogmatic Marxism, a Marxism that had been ‘de-Stalinized’ in a sense.

We must note that at this moment, I remained a left-wing social democrat, so far as organized politics is concerned. With a few friends, I founded a socialist section at the École normale supérieure, which, although belonging to the SFIO, struggled directly against the colonial politics of the party. A bit later, no longer able to tolerate the abject colonial policies that our party supported, we actively participated in the scission of the SFIO in creating first the PSA (Parti socialiste autonome) and then the PSU (Parti socialiste unifié), of which I remained a militant until 1969. In sum, I was a reformist, informed by a Marxism that was still very general, and that I consider retrospectively to have been quite superficial.

My radicalization (to use this term in a positive sense…) began in the mid-1960s, when I was a teacher of philosophy in a provincial city. I became interested in the controversy of the Sino-Soviet split, which dealt with the class-character of state power, the precise nature of the contradictions with American imperialism, and with the status of communism itself. I was then the federal secretary of the PSU in the department: I organized meetings, supervised electoral campaigns, and so on. But paradoxically, I felt attracted by the Chinese positions in the hard ideological struggle waged by the Chinese Communist Party against the post-Stalinist stance of Nikita Khrushchev. This led me to read more closely the texts of the Marxist canon, particularly those dealing with the fundamental notions of ‘class struggle’, ‘revolution’, and ‘communism’.

At the same time, at the École normale supérieure, Althusser was forming a new generation of young intellectuals in a renewed Marxism, under the influence of the structuralism of the time, coming rather from the most theoretical texts of Marx, in particular, Capital. Obviously, I was interested in this orientation, although Marx would remain for me essentially the theoretician of a militant communism more than the author, taken often in an academic mode, of a ‘critique of political economy’, the subtitle, of course, of Capital itself. My most important references were – and still are – The Poverty of Philosophy, the Manifesto of the Communist Party, The Class Struggles in France, The Civil War in France, the Critique of the Gotha Programme, the critique of the Erfurt programme, in other words, all the works that made Marx the founder of a militant and organized body of thought for which the master watchword is ‘communism’.

Of course, May ’68 came along to break my compromise between the attraction exercised by communist thought, including the global ideological struggle, and my organizational status as cadre in the PSU, and thus my status as a left social-democrat. Immediately, the theme of class became crucial with the joining between the detachments of the student movement and the general strike in the factories, in which I participated actively. It was there that I gained a concrete image of Marxism: the militant link, directly organized and agitational, between the young intellectuals and the representatives of the working masses. That these workers were often of foreign background, most frequently coming from neocolonial Africa, immediately gave way to an international dimension of the political process. We put forward the watchword – “Organize the international proletariat of France” – and in the end, it was this watchword that for me linked together political practice and Marxist conviction.

As our attempts were confronted, sometimes in a violent manner, by the opposition of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the CGT (Confédération général du travail)3 of the time, who regarded basically all the mobilizations of 1968 and subsequent years with suspicion, my interest for the critical positions of Mao against Russian revisionism grew significantly. With my comrades, we closely studied the texts that accompanied and attempted to think the successive episodes that the Chinese called ‘The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’. This revolution touched us all the more because it had at its core the question of the relationship between the student movement and the workers’ movement, a relation that found its newest and most inspirational form in the ‘Shanghai Commune’ of 1966. It was in these conditions that I became a ‘Maoist’, which has only ever meant one thing for me: that, just as Lenin activated and renewed Marxism in the fire of the Russian Revolution of 1917, so Mao activated a Marxism founded on the backdrop of the degeneration of the USSR and the new possibilities opened by the Chinese Revolution. To refer to this revolution, to the analyses and directives of Mao, to the Cultural Revolution, and so forth, was nothing more than thinking and practicing Marxism in the present.

The long period of counter-revolution, under the wretched banner of unbridled liberal capitalism and a servile parliamentary ‘democracy’, which followed the failure of the Cultural Revolution (after 1969), the death of Mao (1976), and the fall of the Soviet Union (1989), opened a phase in which we still remain today, wherein Marxism is somehow absent everywhere in the world, as a possible composing element of mass opinion. It has taken refuge in the conservatism of a few small groups, and in academism. In particular, its organic and militant link with the communist vision has been very gravely affected, to the point that even the word ‘communism’, that the dominant propaganda has succeeded in criminalizing, is practically no longer present in ideologico-political discussion. I remain one of the faithful guardians of this word, of everything that it has signified and will signify, which is the real life of Marxism.

What do you retain as essential of the thought of Marx for thinking the present period politically? What has been and what is today your conception of communism?

For me, communism resides in the final instance in four principles, established and legitimated by both the Marxist theoretical analysis of human societies and by the militant heritage of Marxism throughout the last two centuries. These principles are all concerned with the possibilities of transformation of what constitutes, for at least five thousand years (since the formation of the Neolithic Era), the principle of class in human society.

First, it is possible to organize collective life around something other than private property and profit. We must return to the crucial statement of Marx, who, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, declares suddenly that everything he has said can be compressed into a single point: the abolition of private property. This idea has long been present in history, since we can find it on a certain level already in Plato and it animated, in truth, practically the entirety of the emancipatory thought of the 19th century. It is today largely forgotten, and it must be revived at any cost. To put it another way, capitalism is not, and should not be, the end of History. What comes after, how, with what outcome, and so on, is another story.

Second, it is possible to organize production around something other than specialization and the division of labour. In particular, there is no reason to maintain the separation between intellectual and manual labour or between tasks of direction and execution. There is no rationality that prescribes the impossibility of entering into the era of what we can call with Marx the ‘polymorphic worker’. There is no possible reason to consider as definitively rational that an African should dig a hole in the road, while a white man stands by handing out orders to his lackeys. It is pathological, more profound even than the countable notion of equality. It is in reality the idea that the divisions that organize work itself are deadly, murderous.

Third, it is possible to organize collective life that is not founded on closed, identitary sets, such as nations, languages, religions, and customs. Politics, in particular, can unify humanity as a whole beyond these references. All these differences can and should exist. It is not at all a case of saying that they should disappear, that everyone ought to speak the same language and so on. They can and should flourish, in a generative manner, but on the political scale of the entirety of humanity. From this point of view, the future is one of complete internationalism and we must affirm that politics can and must exist in a fashion that is transversal to national identities. It is not true that human collectives must of necessity collectively organize themselves on the basis of this type of identity. Again, it is not a case of saying that these should not exist; they must coexist without being founded on principles of separation.

Fourth, it is possible to gradually make disappear the state as a separated power, with the monopoly of violence, the police and the army. To put it another way, the free association of human beings and the rationality that they share can and should replace the law and the constraint.

To make a long story short: in one sense, these four principles clearly constitute a programme for an exit from the Neolithic moment, in which we still live, that is, an exit from the structural state of humanity for the last four or five thousand years, namely the whole epoch in which private ownership of the principal means of production and exchange resulted in the division of humanity into classes. This division is today at its apex, wherein an oligarchy of a few hundred people possesses the equivalent of what is owned by more than two billion others, where the inheritance of 1% of humanity equals that of 50% of this same human population.

But on the other hand, these four principles are not exactly a programme in the strong sense. They are principles for the evaluation of what has happened historically, permitting us to respond to the question: “Does what has happened in our world, as movement, as organization, have a relation with one of these four points, which one, and in what conditions?” If none of these points is convoked in any way, well, we will judge in any case that what has happened is not in the general strategic direction necessary so that a new politics could be created and become a new historical development.

The question thus becomes: is the realization of these four possibilities inscribed in history? Or will history simply continue onwards, or even end in catastrophe for humanity, without having been able to achieve this exit from the Neolithic? This question is identical to the following: will a living Marxism reappear and inscribe the possibility of communism in the overall consciousness of humanity?

I cannot for the moment respond to this question. It was formulated at the outset of the Marxist epoch as the watchword ‘communism or barbarism’. This has become simultaneously obvious, urgent, and absent. But the future, as Althusser once said, lasts a long time.

Alain Badiou is a world-renowned philosopher, formerly Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and the author of numerous books including Theory of the Subject, Being and EventLogics of Worlds, and many more.

  1. Translator’s Note: This text was published in French as « Les quatres principes du marxisme » in Avec Marx, philosophie et politique, sous la direction d’Alexis Cukier et Isabelle Garo (Paris: La Dispute, 2019), 31–38. I wish to thank Alexis Cukier, Isabelle Garo, and the editorial staff of Éditions La Dispute for permission to translate and publish this text in English.
  2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1960).
  3. The CGT is the main Communist Party affiliated trade union.