False Universals: Why Alain Badiou Misunderstands China

After researching this material more than a decade ago, I did not think I would return to it. I speak of the curious philosophical positions of Alain Badiou – an old French philosopher (older than me) in whom some people happen to be interested. Recently I ran a small seminar on one of his first books to be translated into English, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. It took place at Renmin University of China, in Beijing, by request of some masters students who were trying to understand Badiou. There is also a Chinese translation, made directly from the French, so we were able to compare both translations.

Much could be said about the book: it is not so good upon a rereading; it suffers from a central contradiction, namely that the paradigmatic truth-event of Paul the Apostle is based on an event Badiou sees as a fable (the resurrection) – even though he tries mightily hard to tear it away from this basis; it is one of the more extreme statements of the sheer spontaneity of the event (to borrow a term from the Russian Revolution), which cannot be planned, expected or counted; it has a constitutive myopia concerning socialism in power; it suffers from a profound sense of crisis, common among Western European Marxists at the time; and it is in a curious way deeply conservative, if not imperialistic.

I will pick up some of these issues in a moment, but let me begin with a feature that the seminar participants saw as particularly nonsensical. Badiou suggests that the site of an event is necessary but not determinative. This proposal comes to the fore in the chapter on death and resurrection: death is the necessary site for the resurrection, but it does not determine the resurrection. I leave aside the theological problems with this strange reading, as well as the refusal of dialectical analysis (and thereby a refusal of Marx, Mao and Xi Jinping, to name a few). Instead, the seminar participants were interested in why Badiou tries to reject the determinative nature of the site or situation.

The obvious philosophical point is that it qualifies the universal, but Badiou has a particular target in mind. Repeatedly through the book he polemicises (and sneers) at identity politics, with its more immediate post-structural heritage. A longer view would see such politics as arising from the liberal tradition, with its emphasis on individual choice – a tradition with a distinctly Euro-American trajectory. We may agree or disagree with him on the criticism, but my point is that it arises from a specific context, a distinct site.

In fact, the way we examined this feature of Badiou’s thought in the seminar was to do what he rejects: examine the situation from which it arises. Any reader soon notices how thick the allusions and references are to specific French issues, let alone to the whole tradition of Western European culture and its philosophy.

More to the point, the book is one of a number of products by Marxist philosophers that witness to the profound crisis caused by 1989, for which the symbol is the ‘Fall’ of the Berlin Wall (or Anti-Fascist Rampart Wall). While many ‘Western’ Marxists had already fallen into the myopia that saw them ignore developments in the Soviet Union, let alone Eastern Europe, there was still at least a lingering presence of communism – in Europe and the Soviet Union. But now it had ‘collapsed’ or even ‘failed’. What was to be done? Apart from suggesting that Lenin and the Communist Party were now obsolete, Badiou (and some others) dug into what they saw as the ‘Western’ tradition. They sought a deeper model for revolution, a rethinking of communist politics. And it was to the Christian tradition, especially the Bible to which they turned.

On the one hand, we may see this as an unexpected recovery of the Christian communist tradition, but the move came at significant cost. The implication was that revolution came to be seen as a distinctly European-Christian invention, which was then exported to other parts of the world. By now it should be obvious how – and not only from a Chinese perspective – this implication is somewhat imperialist.

Further, the post-1989 crisis in Western Europe was part of a larger dynamic: in the very moment of apparent ‘victory’ over communism, the European tradition experienced a crisis of legitimacy, a loss of soul, if you will. This is a much larger topic into which I cannot go here, but it includes the closing of borders and minds, research projects and cultural products that increasingly seek to identify what is unique about Western European culture and tradition. And it includes a collection of Marxists who turned to the Christian communist tradition to recover some authenticity for Marxism itself. In this respect, it was a distinctly conservative turn.

The third upshot of 1989 – the ramifications of which we have not yet fully understood – brings me to the subtitle of this piece: how Badiou misunderstands China. It seems to me that the rise of the misperception that China has abandoned Marxism has much to do with 1989. If communism had ‘failed’ in Europe and Russia, then it obviously had failed in the global ‘peripheries’. The Eurocentrism of this view should be obvious.

Of course, it also has longer seeds in the curious phenomenon of European Maoism, of which Badiou was for a time the last living champion. That his pronouncements on Mao and China have gained some currency more recently is, however, due to the post-1989 phenomenon I have tried to outline. But it is a strange and non-dialectical Mao (how one can read Mao in this way is curious indeed), a Mao of the Cultural Revolution and not the much richer Chinese Marxist tradition, indeed a Mao strangely divorced from his context. For example, I have yet to find anywhere in Badiou’s work a careful engagement with Deng Xiaoping, subsequent leaders, or indeed the rich development of Marxist articulations of the reform and opening up. A few passing shots are hardly sufficient. The Chinese are usually very generous with someone like Badiou, calling him a maozhuyizhe, which can be translated as ‘Maoist’. But they know that he is really a maopai, a distinctly negative term that designates a Mao sectarian or factionalist.

I have also had a number of discussions concerning Badiou’s cancelled visits to China. To date, he has been invited on three occasions, only to cancel at the last moment for a variety of reasons. The sense here is that China today would really be Badiou’s ‘Real’, challenging his philosophical system to the core. If he did come to China, he could of course hammer on, oblivious to the reality around him. Or he might stop, listen and learn. He would find a communist party strong, secure and energetic, a leadership for whom Marxism is the guiding principle of all that happens in China today, indeed that the reform and opening up is a deeply Marxist project, let alone the extraordinary unfolding of the anti-colonial project (so Losurdo) now seen in the Belt and Road Initiative, African cooperation, and so on. But he has never been to China.

By now it should be obvious that Badiou’s situation is indeed deeply determinative of a philosophical system that seeks to negate such a situation. This approach to Badiou resonates deeply with Chinese assessments of Badiou, identifying his obvious shortcomings but also his potential insights.

All of this leads to the final point, which concerns nothing less than universals. One aspect of Chinese debates deals with what I would like to call the difference between false universals and rooted universals. A false universal is one that forgets or denies its specific location and asserts that the universal applies to all, irrespective of location or context. The European tradition has more than enough of such false universals. By contrast, a rooted universal is one that is always conscious of the context and culture in which it arises. This means that one is always aware of its insights and limitations. They are genuine universals, precisely because of their specific contexts. This distinction not only surpasses the very European opposition between absolute and relative, but it also very helpful in relation – for example – to human rights, where the rooted universal of the European tradition leads to civil and political rights, while the rooted universal of Chinese Marxism leads to the primacy of the right to economic wellbeing. In this case, specific contexts can contribute to a richer notion of the universal in question.

How is all this relevant for Badiou’s philosophy? He risks all too often a false universal, dismissing regionalism (in a very European fashion) and thereby rejecting socialism in one country and socialism with Chinese characteristics – a distinctly strange suggestion. All the same, there is potential in his thought for a rooted universal, specifically in terms of his rejection of ‘the One’ and the argument for a multiplicity of universals. I may have missed it, but I have yet to find any such argument in Badiou’s texts. If he did, he would realise that the Chinese situation and its rooted universals arise from a distinct historical rhythm and philosophical tradition, where Marxism has been transformed – or ‘sinified’ – in a Chinese context (makesizhuyi zhongguohua). Deng Xiaoping was not the first to propose this approach, for it comes from none other than Mao Zedong.