Mass, Class and Party: Badiou’s Communist Critique of Sartre
Alain Badiou is one of France’s best, living philosophers. His book Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy (2009) is published by Verso Books. As a shorter work, the book contains brief tributes from Badiou on several major intellectuals. From his perspective teaching in France, he introduces and eulogizes the masters of postwar French thought, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser. Each chapter recovers some of the old friendships, affinities and quarrels between his peers including Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Badiou is uniquely positioned inside the political and intellectual movements defining the postwar period. Especially pertinent are his lessons on the experience of the communist movement. Formerly a professor for one of the most prestigious universities in the country, Badiou becomes involved in the Maoist movement among his students during the period of the Cultural Revolution in China. Badiou writes:
“What independent revolutionary activity are the masses capable of? Can they, as Maoism puts it, be ‘self-reliant’? What is the relationship between the mass movement and the great inert political institutions of imperialism: parliament and the trade unions? What political party does the working class need today?” (2009, p. 20)
In his chapter on Sartre, we learn what impresses Badiou is a unique concept of “the event.” The event is always an apocalypse, something Sartre borrows from André Malraux. To Badiou the essence of events is the unique break that each affects in reality. So too Sartre is defined by those break lines he traverses. In his book, Badiou writes: “The important thing is that, in 1950, Sartre became the man of concrete historical conflicts. They were the three great struggles” (Pocket Pantheon, p. 17). These are the three breaks defining Sartre’s politics:
“In the 1950s, and in the face of hysterical anti-communism and pro-Americanism, Sartre took the side of the Parti Communiste Français on the grounds that it was the sole expression of the working class.”
“In the 1960s, Sartre supported the anti-imperialist struggle. He opposed the colonial war in Algeria. He discovered the popular power of the peoples of the Third World.”
“Sartre came to understand the reactionary character of the PCF. Together with the Maoists of the day, he took the side of the immigrants, the unskilled factory workers, the miners of the Nord départment. And of anti-capitalist and anti-union struggles.”
(Badiou, Pocket Pantheon, p. 14)
Each of the three stages of Sartre’s political life signify distinct breaks or ruptures which Badiou commends. As a fellow communist in philosophy, he respects Sartre for “thirty years of correctness in revolt, well-judged changes of position, and the anger appropriate to them” (p. 15). In that sense the truth of events is political. That is, politics pertains to events as ruptures.
All during those events, in France Sartre is someone who “is definitely at that stage of his fame where he can afford to be non-conformist to the extreme” (Desan 1965, p. vii). The effect is what professor Wilfrid Desan calls “the interminable cascade of Sartre’s dialectic.” That dialectic culminates in Sartre’s theory of groups as a sort of determinism. To Badiou the dialectic stands for the “reversibility that allows freedom to flee” (18). He clarifies further:
“Indeed, men are only men when the series is dissolved. Activity and reciprocity have as their content the destruction of passivity […] According to Sartre, the human is nothing more than the dissolution of the inhuman. The dialectic is conditioned by the anti-dialectic […] One has in fact the feeling that man exists only in flashes, in a savage discontinuity that is, ultimately, always absorbed into inertia […] Collective action is the pure moment of revolt.” (p. 31)
What is an organization?
“In his view, an organization is basically a revolt that has crystallized. It has crystallized because it has been forced to internalize the passivity against which the group rebelled.” (Badiou, p. 32)
What is a group? Badiou writes:
“First of all, we find in Sartre some astonishing historical and concrete descriptions of social ensembles. He identifies three main types: the series, which is an inert gathering; the group, which is collective freedom and reciprocity; and the organization, which is a serial form that has been internalized by the group.” (p. 20–1)
There are three types of gathering: the series, the group, and the organization.
What is a fused group?
“The emergence of the fused group, which reacts against social inertia, signals, on the other hand, a bid for optimism. It has to be said that there is a certain dialectical obscurity about this. How can men who have been passively brought together in their impotence and separation by large social collectives suddenly call into being an active unity in which they recognize one another? It is worth noting that Sartre, borrowing an expression from Malraux, calls this event an apocalypse. The apocalypse means that the series dissolves into a fused group. The mediation this requires is itself partly external: it is the awareness of its intolerable nature that dissolves the series and creates a new reciprocity. If, for example, the bus we are waiting for in passive indifference does not come along, there will be protests and mutterings. People will start to talk to each other about the inhumanity of their external conditioning. Even at this stage, an element of fusion is already apparent. Unity in separation is practised as an internalized unity: I speak to the Other because he, like me, finds the wait intolerable. What was ‘I am the same as the Other whilst being other than me’ becomes ‘the other is the same as me, and I am no longer my other’. As Sartre says, in the series, unity is created elsewhere, namely in the object. It is a passive unity. In the fused group, the unity is immediately there, within me and in all the others. It is an active unity and a ubiquitous unity. In the series, the Other is everywhere; in the fused group, the Same is everywhere.” (p. 22–3)
What is an organization? Politics is dealt with in the third type of gathering.
“The matrix of the organization, or the thing that allows it to move from fusion to institution (which is another serial collective), is the oath. The oath appears at the point where the possibility that the group might disperse has been internalized. […] Whatever form it may take, the oath is in fact the group’s internal struggle against the imminence of betrayal. Treason is an inevitable threat because separation is the normal form of sociality. If the series is not to reappear, the group must bring a counter-pressure to bear upon itself in the shape of an essential subjective element. That element is fear of the traitor, within others, but also within me.” (p. 25)
That the basis of the organization process is fear, fear of betrayal, reveals Sartre’s pessimism. He is paranoid since, to him, every social relation is antagonistic. All social relation is nihilation. What is nihilation? Negation is simply the manner consciousness exists. Our experience of the other is always a sense of being looked at for better or for worse. The moment of recognition offers love as well as hate. Desan writes:
“I am only a Self if I make myself recognized by the Other, and if I recognize the Other in the same way. This dialectic, a form of rebounding reciprocity, will be much used by Sartre” (Desan 1965, p. 34).
All consciousness is consciousness of something, of some content of thought. What is the basic relation of consciousness to being-in-itself? Nihilation because the other opposes and negates us. And in turn, consciousness defines for-itself by negating in-itself. The distinction is one Sartre borrows from Hegel’s dualism of fur sich and an sich. In his book The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1965) Desan distinguishes the two as reflective and non-reflective consciousness.
The In-itself (en-soi) is ordinary, inert matter. Matter in-itself has no consciousness and lacks nothing. And to the contrary, consciousness negates the in-itself (en-soi). The function of negation means that “Sartre’s method in Critique is much more Hegelian than Husserlian” (Desan, p. 33):
“It is Hegel’s claim that the Self asserts itself through negation, that is, a Self which is merely in the an sich state (or what we may call an immature and unreflected state) becomes fur sich (clearly and fully itself) through its negation of the Other” (p. 33).
Through Hegel’s phenomenology much of Sartre’s focus pertains to the concrete individual for-itself. By insisting on the subject Sartre intends existentialism as a humanism. In a meaningful sense, “Sartre made the absolute freedom of the Subject central to experience” (Badiou, 17–18). Since we are free we are also responsible for our choices, especially for our politics. When Sartre barks “an anti-communist is a dog,” then, “he was simply recognizing […] that an anti-communist had simply abdicated his responsibility and chosen servitude and oppression, both for himself and for others” (p. 16). Even in the most constrained situations, the human subject is still free to choose to act.
In the foreword to his book Desan writes how “Sartre, at any rate, had only this one purpose in mind: Marxism is livable, but only after it has understood and accepted the invaluable price of the concrete and of freedom” (Desan, p. viii). In his book professor Desan is concerned with the question of: “Whether or not this marriage of Marxism and existentialism is a sound one” (1965, p. viii). What most Marxists cannot accept from Sartre is his emphasis on the subjective experience of the individual. In particular, Louis Althusser occupies one prominent Marxist position against Sartre.
Dialectic and Class
In Badiou’s critical evaluation of Sartre, “no political cause can unite consciousnesses in any collective project” (2009, p. 18). Social isolation is the consequence threatened by an existential ontology. Because ever since Hegel all self-consciousness depends on the basic recognition of an Other. What consciousness is is not here, but depends on something external to it called the other. In his chapter on Sartre Badiou sums up the dialectic and its consequences:
“The relationship with the Other is certainly a given which constitutes that consciousness. But my relationship with the Other is what makes me see myself, through the gaze of the Other, as a shameful thing, as reduced to the being that, because I am free, I am not. The immediate relationship with the Other therefore oscillates between masochism, which allows me to make myself be for the other, and sadism, in which I make the other in order to be me. In both cases, freedom makes a point of becoming limed in being, either because I deny it in myself, or because I deny it in the other. The reversibility that allows freedoms to flee one another means that there is no room for any reciprocity or combative solidarity. The Subject is freedom’s never-ending flight from being, and man is hell for man. From that perspective, no political cause can unite consciousnesses in any collective project. All unification is external: it is a form of being that itself refers to a great Other, to an invisible gaze for which we are things, and we freely accept that we are things. Any collective project can therefore only be passive. Only the individual is an active centre. Even in 1960, Sartre would describe as ‘collective’ a multiplicity of individuals whose unity is a passive synthesis.” (p. 18–9)
How do we experience the other? To Merleau-Ponty, others are variants of oneself since each expresses different potentials. His view runs up against Sartre’s in which others incessantly oppose and negate us. In Martin Heidegger, others are experienced as the They-self. We are thrown into established ways of being. Authentic living opens a dialogue (dialectic) with those traditions. The They is strictly impersonal by what Sartre calls the passive synthesis. Passivity is the norm of social relation.
The dominant form of sociality is what Sartre calls seriality. What is a series? Badiou writes:
“The series is a gathering of men in which every man is alone because he is interchangeable with every other man. Sartre’s initial example is that of a queue at a bus stop: everyone is there for the same reason, but that common interest brings people together externally. That externality is internalized in the form of everyone’s indifference to everyone else: I do not speak to the others, and simply wait in the same way that they wait. In a series, men are, if you like, brought together by the object. The unity of the gathering exists because everyone’s relationship with the object is the same. But that external identity becomes an internal alterity: if the object makes me the same as everyone else, then I am other than myself. As Sartre puts it: ‘Everyone is the same as the Others to the extent that he is Other than himself.’ Ultimately, the law of the series is unity through separation. Sartre extends this formula to all collective activities: working on an assembly line or in local government, listening to the radio — in all these cases, the object produces an undifferentiated unity or a unity based upon separation. Typically, this is a passive synthesis. In it, Sartre rediscovers one of Marxism’s great ideas: the impotence of the people is always its internal division, its separation from itself. And it is that that ensures the continued reign of the Other, the reign of the bourgeoisie. There is still a trace of Sartre’s pessimism here because, for him, the series is the archetype of sociality. It is, if we can put it this way, the ordinary structure of the life of the masses.” (p. 21–2)
Why the title, Critique of Dialectical Reason for Sartre? Because the Critique of Dialectical Reason fulfills “the principle that ‘It is the masses who make History’” (Badiou, p. 32). The Subject is always one constituted by fidelity to an event, to the break or rupture therein. Badiou continues:
“There are moments that are anti-dialectical moments: that of pure matter on the one hand, as opposed to individual praxis. That of the institution, as opposed to the insurrectionary group. Unlike Hegel, Sartre therefore tries to conceptualize a dialectical continuity. Practical freedom is constantly being turned against itself by natural and institutional inertia, even though material products and institutions are products of praxis. The transparency of the free man is absorbed into its opposite, and Sartre calls that opposite the practico-inert. As a result freedom can only perceive itself at very specific moments: that of the dissolution of the series and that of unifying revolt.
[…] The only form of collective activity is the mass movement against social inertia, but that inertia is protected by the adversary and the supreme institution of the state. Passivity is the normal form of sociality. Is history oriented towards a greater liquidation of passivity? That is the meaning of the communist idea.” (p. 30)
The meaning of a strike is the fusion of a series, the class of workers resisting their serial organization. To Sartre, a class is a serial organization since members are united only in division. Union action like strikes or go-slows require what Badiou calls “bonding” or fusing with the working class:
“Perhaps the most interesting thing about this bonding is the way it allows us to breathe new life into the Marxist concept of class. From 1955 onwards, Sartre fought vigorously against a purely objective or purely social definition of class. In his view, a class was a mobile ensemble articulated into series, groups and institutions. At the level of production, the purely objective reality of the working class is a unity in separation, a passive, serial unity. It is governed by the law of division and competition. All working-class resistance or any shop-floor revolt is a local fusion of a series. Even at that level, we have a principle of subjective reciprocity. Sartre analyses it in detail. Discussing go-slows, he demonstrates that they are a sort of dialectical ethics based upon a rejection of serial competition. ‘If a worker says, “I shall avoid doing more than the Others, in order not to require the Others to do more than they can, and in order that I shall not be required to do more than I can by another”, he is already a master of dialectical humanism.’ [Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason i: Theory of Practical ensembles, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith, Verso 2004, p. 803] […]
A class is therefore a series: that is its social being. A class is in fusion: that is its practical being as a mass. A class is an organization […] which is to a greater or less extent stable and which can take the form of a para-state organization like the big unions […] and they finally revert to being institutions that generate a new type of serial: an institutional division that in a sense replicated division through labor.” (p. 29)
Sartre’s dialectic explains “how the individual’s projects come back to one as the opposite of one’s intentions” (Hirsh 1981, p. 203). Pessimistically, the institution returns the same passivity the group was meant to ward off. Since passivity is the norm any semblance of unity, political or otherwise, can only inhabit a group temporarily. That is the unique presupposition for a theory of groups from the Critique of Dialectical Reason summed up in Badiou’s chapter on Sartre.
The People’s Party:
In his chapter Badiou makes a temporal distinction between democratic and proletarian politics. Sartre’s humanism belongs to the epoch of bourgeois-democratic revolution. Sartre sets out to describe an event like the storming of the Bastille, one coming together spontaneously among the people who are present. Crucially, there is something missing: the role of the party to guide the masses of the people. From Sartre we learn how groups fuse into relative affinity with one another and eventually form social institutions. And outside the groups, no matter how fused, there is no party representing those actions for a class. Badiou writes:
“Sartre applies this schema in brilliant analyses of days of rioting or insurrection. He demonstrates the specific workings of serial collectives (the storming of the Bastille). He shows how the intolerable (poverty, fear) brings pressure to bear on inertia. He shows the emergence of fusion (the cry: ‘To the Bastille’). But he does so — and this is worth noting — within the framework of bourgeois revolutions, and especially that of 1789. He refers, that is, to days of rioting in which there is no dialectic with institutional political forces, and in which no people’s party is present in the masses. From that point of view, fusion is a historico-revolutionary concept, and not a political concept.” (p. 24–5)
In stark contrast, Sartre represents the masses and the classes as practico-inert. Instead, for him any revolutionary action arises from the conditions of affinity among fused-groups. The fused group from spontaneity is hardly an adequate substitute for the active continuity of the masses and of the party. What is the party? Badiou writes: “In my own view,”
“The party is a specific process internal to the masses, but it brings about a particular break: the break known as politics, as communism. The party is therefore something more than an instrument and something other than an instrument. The party integrates homogeneous contributions into its presence within the masses, and they are mainly of an ideological and theoretical nature. The logic of its development is not inscribed solely within the discontinuity of riots. It has a particular continuity, and it is no longer that of the inertia of the institution, but that of the continuity of proletarian politics. And if we are to think the continuity of that politics through to the end, we must take the view that there is more to the masses than the destructive ability to dissolve the series. We have to conclude that mass activity and mass ideas have an internal correctness [justesse] that is simply not there in the fused group. In a word, we have to conclude that, at any given moment, popular ideas and practices are divisible and contradictory, and that collective experience is never simply trapped into the activity/passivity contradiction. We can trust the masses precisely because their ideas also have to do with the processes that shift their ground and assert something new that exists outside the activity/passivity contradiction.
Ultimately, Sartre fuses politics and History because history’s sole driving force is the contradiction between transparent individual practice and inert matter.” (p. 32–3)
In Badiou’s critique, socialism is not something merely identical with a certain riot or self-activity of groups. Neither is revolution the same as storming the Bastille. Still, Sartre’s affinity with the individual-in-revolt delivers him to the Maoist movement in France during the Cultural Revolution. As another representative of France’s new Maoist tendency, Badiou also admits of Sartre, “we can also understand why, after ’68, he became the Gauche prolétarienne’s fellow traveler. The Gauche prolétarienne had only one slogan: [‘It is right to rebel!’] ‘On a raison de se révolter’” (p. 34).
The group named Proletarian Left or GP (Gauche prolétarienne) is the largest of many active Maoist groups in France forming after the events of May 1968. The name of the group derives from another slogan during the Cultural Revolution, this time from the Prime Minister Zhou Enlai: “Excel in identifying and supporting the proletarian left within the movement” (Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 140). Although the group lasts only four years, their influence is far reaching.
When the group’s publication is seized and threatened with censorship, the Proletarian Left actually recruits the help of Sartre who joins their editorial board. His participation lends the French Maoists enough legitimacy together in the press so that the police and the French state may pause their repression. The political cause of the group retains Sartre for a short time when he can often be seen outside distributing pamphlets among the young Maoists. After Sartre is arrested, he is famously released.
For his involvement Sartre deserves the treatment he receives from Badiou. “Sartre still remains one of those who re-awakened Marxism” (p. 35). And who else is qualified to judge Sartre except another Maoist and French philosopher? To him, Sartre belongs “our great national writers” comparable to Voltaire. Like so many others in France, Badiou reads Sartre during his teenage years. And through his reading he then departs from Sartre. Badiou offers a critique that is specifically Maoist:
“There are two Maoist realities whose necessity cannot be demonstrated by Sartre. First, trust in the masses, defined as a permanent principle that refers not only to insurgent violence but also to the communist future. Second, the new-style party, which is the support not only for the revolutionary idea but also for a logic of popular unity that is valid in itself: it is affirmative and creative, and not simply warlike or dissolving.” (p. 35)
Such is the brilliant expression Badiou gives for the unique idea of communism. He ends his chapter by targeting that merely destructive tendency that belongs to Sartre who invokes the mass revolt for his standard symbol. Instead, Badiou affirms the creativity of the masses and especially the young. To him, insurgency is still something necessary, but insufficient for a party that could support both the two ideas. First, uniquely communist support “for the revolutionary idea” is combined with another logic of “popular unity” that justifies itself (“valid in itself,” p. 35). In Badiou’s configuration there is both a temporal appeal “to the communist future” and a distinction between fused groups whose activity ought not be confused with the activity of the masses who really make history. From that distinction Badiou reclaims from Sartre the proper sense of the Maoist slogan to “trust the masses.”
“We must have faith in the masses and we must have faith in the Party. These are two cardinal principles. If we doubt these principles, we shall accomplish nothing.”
(Mao Zedong, “On the Question of Agricultural Cooperation,” July 31, 1955, 3rd ed., p. 7.)
Trust in the masses is something “affirmative and creative” for Badiou whose idea of communism is uniquely distinct from the narrower subject-in-revolt. And in his work a year later, The Communist Hypothesis (2010) Badiou explores the party-union-movement relation in flux during the events of May ’68 and the Cultural Revolution. One small piece of advice from that book is that “every political organization must be transgenerational” (p. 130). More remains to be seen in the near future since notes on that work are already completed. There we evaluate the fate of the movement and the party in France through the Red Decade and the period of Eurocommunism a decade later. Next for our series we move on to Louis Althusser.
Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy. Translated by David Macey. Verso Books 2009.
Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis. Verso Books 2010.
Wilfred Desan, The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Doubleday Anchor 1965.
Arthur Hirsh, The French New Left: An Intellectual History from Sartre to Gorz. South End Press 1981.
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Critique of Dialectical Reason. trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith, Verso Books 2004.
Mao Zedong, “On the Question of Agricultural Cooperation,” July 31, 1955. Available online.