When the Real Lessons of the Commune are Missed: Ajith Responds to Badiou

This is a response to Alain Badiou’s “The Paris Commune: Marx, Mao, Tomorrow.” It was originally published on Ajith’s Medium page on June 16, 2021.

In a piece on the Paris Commune recently published in the Monthly Review (May 2021), Alain Badiou concludes thus, “Today, the Commune’s political visibility must be restored by a process of disincorporation: born of rupture with the left, it must be extracted from the leftist hermeneutics that have overwhelmed it for so long.” The ‘left’ indicated by Badiou is the parliamentary left. The one that acts as a buffer, softening or swallowing up the revolutionary energy of the masses. It is the fake left.

Badiou’s demarcation will be welcome to those striving for a systemic rupture from the existing state of affairs. His caustic observations on the fake left’s deployment of the commemorative stance to gut events or uprisings of their revolutionary content are apt. We, in India, are all too familiar with such rituals staged by the parliamentary left.

Yet, despite the disincorporation (to use Badiou’s word), despite the vehement opposition to empty commemoration, despite his insistence for a “real political declaration”, one fails to see what exactly is being posed as the opposing pole. Badiou writes that we must, today, “…take up the challenge of thinking politics outside its subjection to the state and outside the framework of parties or party.” Let’s leave aside the matter of the party for now. What would this politics be, separated from concern for political power? After all, the state is merely its embodiment. And where would such a politics demarcate itself from the parliamentary lefts’ pretensions of struggling for political power?

The uniqueness of the Paris Commune no doubt lay in the new form of state power it established and proposed for the whole country. But that was consequent to its seizure of political power. Without this as the foundation, without the ‘storming of heavens’ so eloquently described by Marx, the Commune would not have materialised. Now that would seem like a statement of the obvious. Could anyone possibly deny it? Apparently not. But then, appearances can be deceptive too. Take the case of the “real political declaration” Badiou demands. The decision of the Parisian proletarians “… to deal with the situation solely on the basis of the resources of the proletarian movement.”, instead of handing over the destiny of the uprising to the politicians of the fake left, this is the type of political declaration he seeks. It surely is a political demarcation. But where did it come form? What prompted this rupture from the previous practice of tailing the fake left? There can only be one answer here — the recognition of the need to seize power and the decision to get on with that task. That was what gave content to the political declaration made by the people of Paris. That was what made their political declaration real. Minus it and there is no Commune. Conversely, singling out the proletariat’s reliance on its own resources as the political act that mattered most dislodges the act of seizing power from its prime position. It guts revolution of … revolution. The promised disincorporation remains as false as that of the fake left.

Hence the reminder of the CPC led by Mao Zedong on the occasion of the centenary of the Commune, “To persist in revolutionary violence to smash the bourgeois state machine and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, or to maintain the bourgeois state machine and oppose the dictatorship of the proletariat — this has been the focus of repeated struggles between Marxism on the one hand and revisionism, reformism, anarchism and all kinds of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology on the other, the focus of repeated struggles between the two lines in the international communist movement for the past hundred years.”

Badiou notes that Marx praised the Commune for its steps leading to the dissolution of the state, yet deplored its weakness in acting decisively against its enemies. That, to him, reveals an ambiguity, because to act as Marx desired would have meant acting as a state. This begs the question, wasn’t the Commune a state? Badiou himself admits as much when he goes on to talk about the quest for new forms for a proletarian state, initiated by the Commune. Where then is this ambiguity he criticises? In its elaboration he has argued that “…the party realizes the ambiguity of the Marxist account of the Commune, gives it body. It becomes the political site of a fundamental tension between the nonstate, even antistate, character of a politics of emancipation and the statist character of the victory and duration of that politics.” This raises a fundamental question. The fulfillment of a politics of emancipation, understood as the emancipation of all humanity, would certainly have to inscribe a state-less society as its necessary corollary. But can the transition to this end, the process to achieve it, be carried out without a state? If one accepts that classes will continue to exist even after the proletariat succeeds in its revolution, that a new bourgeoisie will emerge, then the answer would be clear. The proletariat will need its state, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Its politics of emancipation cannot be ‘anti’ state, even as it digs away the grounds necessitating a state.

In the midst of all this muddle, or rather despite it, Badiou still demands careful thought. He has touched on a vital truth revealed in hitherto seen experiences of the communist project. The party had indeed become the political site of a fundamental tension. But it’s not the one he talks about, the supposed tension between nonstate and statist characters the party has to assume. This false posing arises from his premises. He assumes that Marx’s evaluation was flawed because of the notion that “…the question of power … was the order of the day” during the Commune’s existence. No, that precisely was the question throughout. Power to defend itself against its enemies. Power to sustain, extend and proceed towards its stated goal of eliminating all exploitation. This dual nature of the power it had to wield lay at the root of the tension Badiou notes. It is generic to all dictatorships of the proletariat. This is not an ambiguity. It is a contradictoriness, a dialectic, born from the very character of proletarian state power. It is given by its class character.

“This new Commune, which breaks with the modern state power…The antagonism of the Commune against the state power…The Communal Constitution would have restored to the social body all the forces hitherto absorbed by the state parasite feeding upon, and clogging the free movement of, society.” — these words used by Marx to describe the characteristics of the Commune captured its uniqueness. Yet they were not complete. We see an indication of this in the words of Engels, where he notes that the Central Committee’s handing over power to the Commune so soon after its establishment was an error. He was drawing attention to the need to maintain centralisation in policy and execution even after power is seized and the new state is established. But the institutional form this would take remained to be identified. We see that it remained so even when Lenin was writing the ‘State and Revolution’. The early debates in the Soviet assembly, while the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were still present, also confirm this. Lenin was then confidently speaking of how any one of the parties represented in the Soviet could come to ‘government’ by gaining a majority. This belief was rudely swept aside by actual class struggle. Imperialist intervention, civil war, the switch over of the Mensheviks and other forces to the side of the counter-revolution — the actual course of events pushed the Bolsheviks to the only possible solution … the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat through the party.

That is how Lenin put the matter. He said that, after two years of real experiences of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Bolsheviks had to tell the International that the dictatorship of the proletariat has to be exercised through the party. Note that he records it as a factual observation, as something necessitated by the situation. It is not presented as a conclusion derived from theoretical analysis. The initial expression of what Badiou chooses to describe as the ‘party-state’ can perhaps be seen in those words of Lenin. To do justice to his critique, Badiou ought to have probed the circumstances that made it the answer to the challenges faced by the fledgling state. He could then have examined the question of whether its later theorisation as the necessary form of proletarian rule was justified — not speculatively, but firmly placed on the real grounds of the harsh demands of class struggle.

To be a state, yet one that aids in the preparation of its own withering away, this is the uniqueness of the proletarian state. This lies at the root of placing the party at its very core. Every state, being the instrument of specific class interests, must necessarily have institutions that ensure the continuity of those interests. In the feudal monarchies it was the royalty, the kingship. In bourgeois rule it is the permanent army and bureaucracy. The proletarian state too needs an army and bureaucracy. But it cannot rely on these forces as the instruments that will ensure continuity of its class interests. No matter how different their functioning, in their essential nature they will still remain as powers alienated from the masses. The party system becomes the only institution capable of fulfilling this need. It has to both lead and be part of the state to realise it. The vanguard party and the mass organisations and forums it leads comprise the party system. The grounds for the bureaucratisation of this institution lie in their ‘being part of the state’. But that cannot be made a reason for avoiding this role. The actual demands of continuing the class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat won’t allow it.

With the bitter experiences of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union before them, the Chinese communists tried to bring back the lessons of the Commune as live practice. That much was already indicated in the May 16 circular. But was the eventual formalisation of Revolutionary Committees as the new form of power an abandoning of Commune principles? Was it a closure of the revolutionary parenthesis as Badiou argues? To answer that one would have to answer Mao’s question to Chang Chun Chiao and the Shanghai comrades, “Where would they place the party?”. It wouldn’t do to avoid that vital question. As for the form, wouldn’t its revolutionary credentials be better attested to by the line followed, by the consolidation of ‘great democracy’ for the people seen in the new Constitution, by the deepening of a materialist understanding of the factors underlying the threat of capitalist restoration?

Badiou has problems with the party and what he calls the ‘party-state’. In his view, that structure marked, determined, the ‘first initiative’ of the communist project. Later, as was seen in his essay on Trump, one sees him accepting that, if not the Leninist party, some sort of an organisation is needed. In his words, “… we must certainly open the question of the organisation in the sense of some organisation that must stay near the movement, with the idea of the movement and which controls the state, which has the power to control the state, to exercise a sort of popular dictatorship over the state.” The essay on the Commune moves away. One could identify several reasons for these flip flops. Among them, his ambivalence on the concrete sense of seizing power stands out. One sees quite a lot of talk on revolution, but the necessary means of carrying it out, the armed struggle, does not figure there. This was seen in this very article on the Commune. Where one fails to recognise the centrality of armed struggle in the proletariat’s quest to seize power and retain it, the role and significance of having a vanguard party to lead and sustain it will inevitably be missed. The movement of the masses is surely vital. But it cannot replace the vanguard. True, we cannot simply be satisfied with hitherto existing models of the vanguard. Today we need to go beyond the Leninist model and apply the principles and methods of the ‘Maoist party’. That, however, is not a negation of the vanguard concept. It wouldn’t do to dismiss it as a hangover of ‘retrogressive statism’.

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