Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe


On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left.

Louis Althusser marches at a demonstration

Louis Althusser marches at a demonstration

Ross Wolfe: Much of this French theory centers on a struggle between structure and subject and the idea that events do not necessarily happen autonomously. The question you seem to be asking is, “How do we understand the given circumstances that are not of our own making, but in which historical action takes place? Is it possible for a political subject to intervene in history?”

BB: In a recent, highly philosophical book on Marx, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval propose that there are two major logics in Marx that are at loggerheads: There is the logic of capital, which is a logic of systematic constraints and turnover, and there is the logic of struggle.[1] They apply Hegelian logic to the way that capitalism posits its own presuppositions, claiming that something that enables capitalism is in fact already the product of capitalism, logically if not historically. There is this kind of spiraling movement in which it seems the logic of capital is unbreakable and that human subjects are only bearers of these functions coming out of the immanent logic of capital’s own self-positing. On the other hand, there is what Dardot and Laval call the historical logic or a logic of class struggle that is contingent, working upon the gaps or moments of breakdown within the economic logic of capital itself. They claim that it all comes down to the question of whether Marx himself (they deal far less with Marxism) was able to reconcile the logic of struggle and the logic of capitalism. They believe that “communism” is almost like an imaginary kind of glue that (even though it is impossible) pretends that these two things can be held together. One of the interesting things about Dardot and Laval’s philosophical reconstruction of the French debate over the competing logics in Marx is their return to the legacy of Hegel and the Young Hegelians. They see two major paths: there is either a more idealist, Fichtean approach or a more materialist, Feuerbachian approach. One path, which is the path of someone like Bruno Bauer or Max Stirner, is to insist upon the subject’s capacity for self-positing. The subject can, in a sense, almost posit itself into existence; it can posit its own presuppositions almost boundlessly. On the other hand there is the more materialist school, which insists on the givenness of external factors that are not the result of the subject’s own positing, but instead precede the subject. Marx, in their account, tries to hold these things together. It is in that particular moment, when Marx seeks to articulate and overcome the idealist and materialist readings of the Hegelian notion of positing the presuppositions, that a certain logic and a certain history is productively combined.

RW: Marx captures the differences between the more Fichtean Hegelians and the Feuerbachian Hegelians in The Eighteenth Brumaire, where he writes, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[3]

BB: These two logics, which are still at play in trying to think about the event, go back to this legacy of German Idealism. I am interested in seeing what happens when this encounter occurs (or again, in a sense, when this encounter fails to occur) between the logic of capital and the logic of political struggle. They clash precisely at the point where the logic of capital is inconsistent, in the sense that it cannot, strictly speaking, claim to have posited all its own presuppositions. Nor is the logic of the subject here one of spontaneous freedom or autonomy. But, it is precisely just as the structure shows inherent moments of breakdown, where the subject reveals itself to be structurally dependent on what Sartre called “the practico-inert.” What came out of 1968 was, especially in the Althusserian and Lacanian schools, an attempt to formalize the inconsistencies of the structure. That is what we call post-structuralism. This is then tied to a new theory of subjectivity. So all these ex-Althusserians — Rancière, Žižek, and also Laclau — are, in fact, trying to hold these two logics together. It is in the notion of “the event,” or what Althusser called “the encounter,” that these two logics meet. This is why 1968 is so important. It is why the articulation of Althusser-Lacan or Althusser-Sartre is so important, and also explains what happened to those Althusserians who paradoxically (and against Althusser) started to become interested in processes of subjectivity.

RW: What is interesting is that the debates of 1968 were largely framed by two intellectual figures whose own political outlook was formed prior to 1968, namely Lacan and Althusser. Could you expand upon the legacies and interpretations of Lacanianism and Althusserianism in relation to 1968?

BB: It is interesting, of course, that those are the two schools that are retrospectively posited as the dominant schools. The school that was more established was of course Althusser’s; it is not accurate to say that Lacanianism was well-established as a school of thought in wider circles beyond clinical psychoanalytic work. Nevertheless, by then, Lacan may well have stood as a more sophisticated thinker of the subject than Sartre. But what is ironic is that both Althusser and Lacan were surpassed by 1968 and their followers; perhaps more thoroughly in the case of Lacan than in the case of Althusser. Both Lacan and Althusser failed to perceive any political novelty or any event at all in 1968. It is rather the old, so-called “humanist” Sartre who was capable of being in the right places at the right time, as were the Situationists, who occupy a very interesting position between these two extremes. This is why the Althusserians had to first move through a moment of ferociously critiquing Althusser, both in Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson and in Badiou’s On Ideology.

Paris, France; October 16, 1970: La Cause du Peuple, a revolutionary newspaper edited by Jean-Paul Sartre, is censured and banned by the government

Paris, 1970: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone
de Beauvoir hand out La Cause du Peuple

When we go back now, we can of course see that there are elements of this interest in subjectivity present in Althusser or in Lacan, but that is an insight that comes from outside those traditions. Žižek comes to this insight out of a very interesting parallel development: anti-Frankfurt School (because a Frankfurt School-style philosophy strangely enough was the intellectual orthodoxy in Slovenia), and pro-Althusser (because he was considered heterodox). Treading that same path a decade later, trying to articulate Althusser and Lacan, the encounter between Žižek and Badiou was almost bound to happen.

The question is then: How does one articulate the capacity for making history and the inertia of the circumstances that are not chosen but presupposed? Even in Badiou’s work there has been an oscillation; he either emphasizes the aspect of structural constraint or he pushes more toward a belief in humanity’s capacity to will what he calls “the communist hypothesis,” which is beyond or outside of history. So the ahistorical, radical political leftism in Badiou also alternates with the insistence for politics to be articulated within a given, historical situation. Whenever there is a certain leaning toward the Left he will take a turn toward the Right, or vice versa. In the 1990s, when most of this was still being worked out in isolation, he was discovered in English, at a moment when he was supposedly no longer working along dialectical lines, but in a more formalist, mathematical tradition. Politically, this expressed itself in his belief that one needed to untie politics completely from history. Anything even reeking of objectivity was actually just a subjective condition of truth. Since then, he has gone back to insisting that his work is still an attempt to continue the materialist dialectic, or a certain dialectical and materialist form of thinking, against any sort of leftist radicalism. I am interested in those oscillations, and how they repeat themselves in history both within Marx’s own work, within the history of Marxism, and within the history of communism or socialism in their articulation with anarchism and individual thinkers.

AN: The most interesting moment in your interpretation of Badiou’s work is the minimal difference between “the event-site” and what he later calls “the inexistent.” The event-site is not a given; as you say, it is a breach that has to be opened up in a situation. For example, you say that there are formal reasons why capitalism cannot claim responsibility for its own conditions of existence, which would be “bootstrapping.”

BB: There is a kind of Münchhausen trick by which capitalism claims to bring itself, as a completely self-sustaining system, into existence. The fundamental premise of capitalism is always that it builds everything, even its own historical presuppositions (“We did build that”). But such bootstrapping is not possible because there are certain outside factors that capitalism does not posit. We can name at least two, which are limited offerings: One is of course labor, or labor-power, and the other is land (which goes back to the question of Latin American Marxism and agrarian reform). Today we might add water. Capitalism did not generate or produce these things. To take these presuppositions into account, then, leads us back to a certain determinism, which is after all still what Althusser studied in terms of structural causality. What Badiou, Rancière, and the other post-Althusserians add to this is that this logic of absent causality is not actually something that moves us in the direction of more inertia. Rather, this is the logic of what happens when the structure starts to collapse, starting from those moments where the fact that there is an outside folded into the logic of capital starts to cause the whole structure to run aground. Suddenly there is a wrench in this machine that is not made by the machine itself. Badiou’s use of set theory, or the use of mathematics by a thinker like Kozo Uno in Japan, as my friend Gavin Walker has shown, is really about the attempt to formalize this moment when structural constraints historically hit this wall. This is not just some formal trick, whereby somebody uses mathematics to fool people. This is really then the moment where the analysis of history — the history of capitalism’s becoming and its perpetuation — can be studied so that history and logic are being articulated through the formalization of inconsistencies. This is not a universal given but something that happens only on rare occasions when the structure internally cannot control its own excesses, when things do not seem to work out so smoothly or naturally. Badiou calls such moments “events.” When these situations emerge, the logic of absent causality functions on the side of the event, not on the side of structural constraint, as it did in Althusser.

But then the question is this: If this is not just a flash in the pan, where something briefly emerges and shows — let us say in a crisis, for example — that there are certain limits that cannot be folded back into the logic of capital, it also requires or already presupposes a subjective or political intervention. There is a subject, but the subject is also “split.” This is why the Lacanian left tradition becomes so important, explicitly for Badiou and Žižek, but also for Rancière. Even though Rancière apparently never read Lacan or engaged extensively with Lacanianism, as he recently said in the public conversation we had at The Kitchen in New York City, in reading Rancière one still sees on a number of occasions that what defines a political subject is what he calls its “distance from itself.” Thus, proletariat is not some kind of substantial identity, but something that is an empty operator that works because there is this internal splitting. The notion of the “site” of an event (which is the symptomatic place where a structure condenses the historical energy that forms around a certain inconsistency in the logic of capital) reconnects with different theories of the subject.

Cover to Yannis Stavrikakis' book, The Lacanian Left

Cover to Yannis Stavrikakis’ book on The Lacanian Left

RW: There is a kind of obviousness to the notion of an Althusserian left, insofar as Althusser was working within the tradition of Marxism, but the notion of a Lacanian left is somewhat more contentious. Carl Cederström, for example, wrote an essay that claimed “The Lacanian Left Does Not Exist.”[4] Manfredo Tafuri, an Italian Marxist, was similarly skeptical of Lacanian leftism already in the 1970s. Does the Lacanian left exist? If so, how was it assimilated into contemporary forms of leftism?

BB: Does it exist? Yes and no. Yannis Stavrakakis, Žižek, and others suggest that there is a use of Lacan that may be compatible with, or even necessary for, a certain post-Marxist, post-revolutionary leftist politics. More precisely, there is the insistence upon the inconsistency or incompleteness of social structures, but also the fact that subjects are always already predetermined by an outside symbolic order, which is how Lacan specifically defines the unconscious. Claude Lefort, for example, attempted to study the logic of radical democracy, by focusing on a notion of power or of the political field as symbolic, structured, and organized around a void or empty place. This emptiness must necessarily remain empty, without becoming substantively filled, as it supposedly was under totalitarianism. At that moment, this line of thought became very appealing for leftists who were grappling with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as they attempted to define a Lacanian concept of radical democracy. This is very clear in Žižek’s first few books, particularly The Sublime Object of Ideology and then, to a lesser extent, For They Know Not What They Do. I discuss this in the chapter of Badiou and Politics (“For Lack of Politics”) that deals with this model of radical democracy that Lacanians (but also Heideggerians) tried to develop in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What Žižek uncovered soon after that, in moments of self-criticism that were sometimes phrased as criticisms of others, were the shortcomings of the Lefortian model. This is because Lefort remained too overly structural and descriptive, organizing a notion of “the political” around a fundamental lack or empty place, but without changing the structure itself. Therefore, for Žižek, something else was needed besides a philosophy of “the political,” something more than a Lacanian or Heideggerian redefinition of radical democracy as a regime of politics.

As the post-Soviet left was looking to account for the structure of the political field, of “the political,” the search expressed itself in terms of the Lacanian left or the Heideggerian left. That is, around the same time, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe found in Heidegger’s deconstruction of metaphysics a similar way of dealing with the legacy of Soviet communism. Similar, that is, to the lessons that Lacanians were drawing about radical democracy at the same time. They, too, were trying to argue for a complete emptying out of the substance, and subject, of politics. The “political field” became a Kampfplatz or battlefield for the articulation of “the common,” in which there are no substantial identities. So even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, these thinkers had already been working out notions of “the political” in answer to the crisis and final death of Soviet Communism, and the question arose: What kind of politics can take place within such a framework of the critique of the subject?

RW: In The Actuality of Communism you defend Badiou against those who criticize “the communist hypothesis” as an ahistorical ideology. You partially vindicate Badiou’s quasi-Platonic conception of communism as “tactical ahistoricism,” writing that, “in the present circumstances, the recourse to the eternal — the invariant — the ahistorical can certainly be justified.” What do you think is at stake in defending communism as a transhistorical and eternal idea? And what were the historical conditions that first made the idea of communism plausible?

BB: “Speculative left” is a term used by Badiou in Being and Event. For him, it basically means a left that wills itself into existence, independently of any situation. It is a question of the total “disconnection” or what he often calls the “delinking” of a political movement from any situation that would not be of its own making. It is an idealist or even Manichean insistence on the question of the autonomy of the Left, which then is attractive because of the purity of its own shining, eternal strength. This is why for me, as I discuss in Marx and Freud in Latin America, the “speculative left” also expresses itself very often in a certain melodramatic articulation of politics, because there is this notion of “good” and “evil,” or a pure force versus an entirely fallen, degraded existing world. It often entails moralization in terms of good and evil and the purity of the “beautiful soul,” an idea common from Hegel to Lacan. So the lesson to be learned from Badiou, in terms of what to do in order to avoid the temptation of “speculative leftism,” is to insist on the fact that any political movement has to be articulated within the present situation. So there would have to be a dialectic between the affirmation of the political idea and its inscription in the given circumstances. That was precisely the question that for Badiou, in his work in the 1970s, when he first mentioned the idea of “communist invariants,” required an articulation of invariants and historical variation. There were certain fundamental principles that he called communist. Lately, I have been thinking you could as well call them anarchist because they are anti-property, anti-state, and anti-hierarchy. We could add anti-religion and anti-god. Those are the very simple “communist invariants.” Laclau, in his book on populism and Marxism (Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory), already picked up on this and so did Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus.

I actually like the notion a lot that there is a dialectic between communist invariants and historical variation and how they are instantiated in history. Laclau, for instance, says that they are neither invariant nor communist because there is nothing specifically communist about them. What I am interested in is that I can see the advantages existing on the invariants side and I can see the advantages existing on the historical variation side. First of all, as you ask, what are the conditions that brought communism into existence for Marx? There actually already existed a mixture of socialist-communist and anarchist ideas that came together in Marx as he tried to distill them into a certain Marxian notion of communism. This makes it all the more important to understand the history behind these ideas. They come into existence at particular historical times. As someone who works at the crossover between literature and politics, I am interested in the historical complexity behind what later appears to be a pristine, self-evident idea. Those ideas are only the tip of the iceberg and it is important to study their genealogy, in the Foucauldian sense. The drawback of such an approach is that you start to lose sight of the novelty of the appearance. Suddenly, if you start studying any event and looking at the broader historical circumstances that played a role into the “coming-into-being” of it, any radical novelty seems to be explained away by referring to the historical conditions. As Rancière says, “No period is capable of jumping over its own shadow.” Historicization also always comes with the risk of normalization, a confirmation that something could only happen because of these specific historical conditions. I, on the other hand, think one needs to go back and forth between invariants and historicism. There are moments where insisting upon the historicity of what we consider to be a natural fact is radical, for example when Marx writes his critique of political economy. One of the reasons it is a critique is because it entails a denaturalization and historicization of all the beliefs which classical political economists take for granted as the natural way — if you read Adam Smith, there are few words that appear as often as “naturally.” To undermine the natural factor and to insist that capitalism is a historical process that needs to be unraveled suggests how the very appearance of naturalness is integral to how capital posits its own presuppositions. This seems to suggest that it bootstraps itself into existence. That critical approach requires a historicization not only of some historical event but also of the very production of the appearance of a seemingly eternal natural factualness.

AN: In the 1859 preface to the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx identifies exactly those two poles, exemplified on one side by Victor Hugo, and other the other side by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. So in what sense is this not mere repetition?

BB: Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France are exactly why people like Badiou insist on a political Marx. Badiou never writes on Capital. But he does say in an interview that “Being and Event is, by the way, a commentary on the International.”[5] Why can he say that? Precisely because he is working on the very logic by which ahistoricity, the naturalness of the structure of our lives today, appears as eternal. It is a fallback position. Anything else can be rejected as being dogmatic or involuntary imposition over and above what comes naturally. It is the easiest anti-political ideology one can use. The violent logic by which capital has imposed itself over the past centuries has been by erasing its own forcing of the situation through exploitation, expropriation, wars and so on; it then gives the impression of itself as the natural expression of historical necessity. So there historicization is critical, and even in its destructive ability it shows that what came into existence can go out of existence. However, the other side of the coin is that historicization tends to explain away the novelty of what appeared. If you consider the French Revolution, historians can argue that we didn’t need the French Revolution for establishing bourgeois society, it would have happened regardless. And this risk inherent in historicization is already apparent, to some extent, in Foucault, whom Badiou (in the first interview reprinted in Badiou and Politics) blames for dissolving any event into its historicity.

Therefore, we do not need to focus only on historical events, but also on the historical conditions that make these things happen as if beyond history. That is where what I call “tactical ahistoricism” could be effective because then you insist that there is a recurrence of very simple ideas that have changed very little until now. That is why someone like Badiou would say that there has been very little change from Plato until now. I, for my part, am interested in how it is possible that there is something in the idea of Zapatismo, for example, that transcends its historical specificity in the Mexican Revolution. In 1914–1915, in Morelos, the Zapatistas fell back on their own territory; they began to focus on the question of agrarian reform, autonomous self-government, and municipal or political self-organization with a minimum program that is reminiscent of socialism. The Zapatistas have the idea that utopia must be actualized. What happens when 80 years later that idea reemerges? I want to know what happens to those ideas when they undergo what Freud called “latency”: when they disappear and then suddenly become re-politicized. They become the actual mobilizing forces in the political movement that threatens the Mexican state and they reorganize different types of autonomous, communal modes of organization in Chiapas but also in Oaxaca.

AN: You track forms of potential in descending order, with the actual “becoming-of-the-event” last as that which makes the impossible possible, which is related to your interpretation of the oscillation between actualization and virtualization in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Finally, it would seem that the “speculative left” forgets what you call “effective justice,” and instead confines itself to thinking about the specter of communism. How would you characterize the politics of this process as it is expressed through theory?

BB: Foucault proposes a variation on the philosophical term “conditions of possibility” that Deleuze also talks quite a lot about. The variant allows us to talk about conditions of existence instead of asking about conditions of possibility. This means that we are not asking a transcendental question about the condition of possibility of an event, of politics, or of judgment, but we are asking about historical conditions of existence of how a certain mode of politics, say through a strike or electoral politics, questions these forms that have a history to them.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Stalin (1954)

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Stalin (1954)

I think one needs to retain a capacity for formalization or abstraction to recognize recurring structures, and at the same time be attentive enough to the historical specificity of when and how these phenomena occur. Currently I am working on the notion of the commune in Mexico and how the battle between communism, socialism, and anarchism can be studied by looking at that particular manifestation of the commune. Plotino Rhodakanaty writes in “La Comuna americana” (a text from 1877 published in the Mexican journal El Combate) that the future of the Paris Commune is in America. To follow that idea allows us to study the tensions between communism and Marxism, especially in the Bakunin–Marx debates as they were being fought out in Mexico at the same time (or shortly thereafter) as they were within the First International. And that is not simply a replication of what is happening in Europe; it is another consequence of asking a question that is not purely philosophical.

If you are speaking in philosophical terms, you are asking in terms of abstract, universal conditions of possibility; you are not asking about the institutionalization of the discourse of philosophy and at what cost that discourse came into existence. If you are French or German, you don’t have to ask that question because you can speak from within that established place. But if you ask the typical question that came out of ’68, “Where do you speak from?” you speak outside of that locus. To use the technical jargon, you have to justify your particularity. And immediately critics will say, “Well, you are not talking from the philosophical tradition but from your particularistic identity.” The burden of particularism always falls on non-Western traditions. If you start this type of debate you end up with this knee-jerk reminder or bad conscience of the Western tradition, but it is much more than that. Regarding the communist idea, which is a distillation of a historical experience that has a series of historical moments that for Badiou can be summoned with proper names, I am not going to critique that as being Euro-centrist. It can and must be studied elsewhere as well according to the specific articulations of forms of politics and socialist or communist ideas, as in the case of the commune in Mexico.

RW: Your book, The Actuality of Communism, contributed to the growing body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of communism’s renewed salience? What is at stake in reasserting this once tabooed concept now? What does it set out to correct?

BB: The idea of going back to “communism” has to be placed in the context of the debates during the 1980s, and especially after 1989. There was an unspoken consensus, broken very rarely by very few, to drop “communism” altogether. Due to a variety of failed experiments, deceptions by and disappointments with both Eurocommunism and François Mitterrand, or French socialism, “socialism” was put in the same bag of tried-and-tested ideas that deserve to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Jean-Luc Nancy was one of those few to break with this consensus, interestingly enough, invoking Badiou as one of the better voices to suggest that we need to retain the notion of communism, just as it made sense to hold on to the word “symbolism” in French poetry even after all the watered-down versions that came later.

On the other hand, though, this relegation of communism to the dustbin went hand-in-hand with a return to certain readings of Marx. There was a so-called “political turn” within deconstruction. Derrida published Specters of Marx. Michel Henry and others in Europe also wrote in this vein. There was, of course, also a revival of Italian Marxism. The posthumous writings of Althusser made a big splash, bringing in questions of a hidden tradition of “aleatory materialism,” so one could have Marxism and materialism.

RW: And what about democracy?

BB: One can have democracy — even radical democracy! One can have socialism, as in Laclau and Mouffe, but probably not communism. And certainly not any Marxist versions of communism. One could only have Marxism minus communism.

AN: Was this not Dick Howard’s position?

BB: It took years to come to the point where tactically and strategically it might be important to revisit these ideas that were either forgotten or sidetracked. Why accept this consensus? What is at stake is whether it is worth going back to this notion of communism.

Spanish communist propaganda, 1936

Spanish communist propaganda, 1936

RW: While he may have been its most celebrated advocate, one of Marx’s enduring contributions to revolutionary thought arguably consists in his sustained polemic against rival theories of communism that existed during his time. Would you say that Marx’s critical intervention into the history of the communist idea is irreducible? Or might his legacy of immanent critique perhaps be dispensable at present?

BB: For me it is not a question of going back to an orthodox notion of communism that needs to be resurrected — the result of the Marxian purging of other rival theories of socialism and communism. I am not interested in restaging these debates. It is actually more about reliving the confusion: literally the “fusion” or coming together of a variety of socialist, communist, utopian, anarchist, and anarcho-syndicalist understandings of the politics of equality (in its most generic terms). So it is rather an attempt to study how people sort out the advantages of one position over another instead of the construction of an orthodoxy out of those deviations.

Žižek writes in a preface somewhere that it is important when talking about deviations, “left” or “right” deviations from a more correct line in the middle, to realize that, in a paradoxical way, the deviations precede the orthodoxy. Deviations do not occur from a pre-given orthodoxy. The orthodoxy does not exist, except by going through the debates and the polemics that arise.

RW: So the heresies precede the orthodoxy?

BB: Yes, the orthodoxy establishes itself by purging a number of positions, which are then labeled “heresies.” The energy for a rejuvenation of leftist politics lies in tracking these debates. Today one sees the same regurgitation of the whole debate between anarchist riots versus an organization that then very often has to take the form of a party, as Jodi Dean writes about Occupy. It is a different way of going through the controversies between a so-called “anarchist” position and a so-called “Marxist” or “Leninist” position. The renewed emphasis on communism is a way to suggest, in the context of a Marx without politics (without communism), that we go back to Marx as a figure who is part of a larger political landscape.

RW: Is a non-Marxian communism necessary, then? Or is Marx indispensable? Must any future communism go through Marx?

BB: No, I would not say indispensable, because then the question becomes: Why would Marx be the standard-bearer and therefore the measuring-stick by which we would gauge the authenticity of a political sequence? That seems a little exaggerated. From another viewpoint it is the same problem that is presented by the issue of socialism or communism in Latin America. The immediate way this has been tackled by historians and political theorists is to inquire about what might have been the influence of the Soviet Union, the Second International, or the Comintern in the region. So historians ask: “To what extent did they know about Marx? Did they read him correctly? Did they have enough knowledge about the Marx and Bakunin debate?” But why would that have to be the measuring stick for the spreading of socialist ideas? Which Marx? Or even more narrowly, which texts by Marx are they supposed to have read? It is a huge problem not only in peripheral countries, but for Western European nations as well. Did they have access to the right texts? The right manuscripts? That cannot be the way that one measures the emergence or reemergence of certain communist ideas. It is maybe not even that helpful to establish too rigid a divide between socialism and communism. The point is not to reestablish any lost orthodoxies but to traverse the heresies. |P

1. Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique? (Paris: Seuil, 1985).
2. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Marx, prénom Karl (Paris: Gallimard, 2012).
3. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte..
4. Carl Cederström, “The Lacanian Left Does Not Exist,” Ephemera, 7.4 (2007): 609–614.
5. Gavin Walker, “On Marxism’s Field of Operation: Badiou and the Critique of Political Economy,” Historical Materialism 20.2 (2012): 39–74.

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5 thoughts on “Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

  1. Pingback: Platypus Review #54: Special Issue on “Communism” | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: Marxism’s relation to “communism”: Bruno Bosteels, Jodi Dean, and Boris Groys | The Charnel-House

  4. Pingback: Burying Lenin | The Charnel-House

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