On Marxism’s Field of Operation: Badiou and the Critique of Political Economy

in Historical Materialism
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Alain Badiou’s theoretical work maintains an ambiguous relation to Marx’s critique of political economy. In seemingly refusing the Marxian analytical strategy of displacement and referral across the fields of politics and economy, Badiou is frequently seen to be lacking a rigorous theoretical grasp of capitalism itself. In turn, this is often seen as a consequence of his understanding of political subjectivity. But the origins of this ‘lack’ of analysis of the social relation called ‘capital’ in his work can also be investigated by means of a detour into the economic writings of the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste, the political organisation in which Badiou played a leading rôle throughout the 1970s in particular. By excavating this theoretical work of the 1970s, we can identify more precisely the historical and political reasons behind Badiou’s ambiguous relation to Marx and specifically to Marx’s systematic grasp of the logic of capital. This excavation will consequently lead us to a reflection on the limits and openings in Badiou’s thought for the Marxian critique of political economy.

On Marxism’s Field of Operation: Badiou and the Critique of Political Economy

in Historical Materialism



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Badiou and Critchley 2007p. 363.


Uno 1973p. 9.


Badiou 1985p. 112. The Talbot factory at Poissy went on an extended strike in December 1983 a strike distinguished by the large presence of immigrant particularly Arab workers in the factory. Talbot-Poissy also contained a ‘local’ of the Confédération des syndicats libres (CSL) a pseudo-union formed by management to eliminate worker-autonomy in bargaining. Thus Talbot expressed an entire network of problems: the rôle of the state and immigration (the racialisation of the labour-management relation) the rôle played by ‘official’ unionism in enabling the exploitation of labour by management and the bind for worker-politics that this complicity between the unions management and state-racism created. For an extensive discussion of Talbot-Poissy see Picciotto 1984.


Hallward 2003p. 237.


Badiou 2005bp. 100. This exact same passage although appearing in a somewhat different essay is also translated with slightly different wording by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens in Badiou 2003b p. 73.


Badiou 2001p. 106.


Badiou 2001p. 105.


Badiou 2006bp. 31.


Badiou 2006bp. 32.


Badiou 2010pp. 99–100.


Balibar 1987p. 155.


Badiou 2010p. 260. Badiou’s recent discussions of ‘the communist hypothesis’ remain in this ambiguous relation to the Marxist theoretical tradition but contain many points of critical importance for us today. For a discussion of these points see Walker 2011b.


Marx 1962b; Marx 1989p. 88.


Hallward 2003pp. 279 284.


Žižek 2006pp. 327–8.


Badiou 1985p. 52.


Bosteels 2005ap. 581; also see Bosteels 2005a p. 619.


Hallward 2004p. 16.


See Badiou and Lazarus 1976.


Badiou and Balmès 1976p. 70.


See Marx 1998in particular pp. 209–58 and pp. 336–607.


On stamocap-theory see Howard and King 1992pp. 75–127 as well as Mandel 1978 pp. 513–22. It is plainly obvious that Mandel’s political line is radically different from that of the UCFML but on the question of stamocap-theory the critiques developed by many Trotskyist and Maoist organisations can be said to converge. Badiou for example describes the ideological formation of the postwar USSR as emphasising an ‘abstract working class’ but characterised by ‘a concrete bourgeois dictatorship’ (Badiou and Balmès 1976 p. 75 n. 33) a description that could easily be shared in the Trotskyist tradition (leaving aside entirely the complex question of particular organisationally specific analyses of the nature of the USSR after Lenin i.e. the ‘new bureaucracy’ vs. ‘state-capitalist’ vs. ‘degenerated worker’s state’-arguments ‘social imperialism’ and so forth).


See Lenin 1964especially pp. 240–6 and pp. 260–5.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 58.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 59.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 64.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 67.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976app. 69–70.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 70.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 74.


Mandel 1978p. 513.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 80.


Badiou 1985p. 45.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976app. 83–4.


Mandel 1978p. 515.


Mandel 1978p. 521.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976ap. 98.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 5.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bpp. 5–6.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bpp. 6–7.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 37.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 68.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bpp. 104–5.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bpp. 176–7.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 186.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 182.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 183.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 188.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 189; emphasis mine. Note here that this separation is considered the defining mark of ‘revisionism’.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 191.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 174.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 195.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bpp. 198–9.


Groupe Yenan-économie 1976bp. 207.


Badiou and Lazarus 1976.


Badiou 1985p. 54.


Badiou 2005ap. 324; Badiou 1988 pp. 368–9; translation modified my italics. Curiously Oliver Feltham leaves out of his English translation what I consider a crucial terminological distinction. In this passage Badiou argues that despite an awareness of the fact that the ‘worker’ constitutes a pure multiple the term was still subsumed under a particular determination. Here he states in parentheses ‘(et paradoxe le savoir marxiste lui-même ou marxien).’ Feltham leaves out this ‘ou marxien’ producing a moment in which Badiou seems to be making a point only about Marxism (as a defeated political trajectory sutured to its own historicity) and not the Marxian body of work. But I think his point is more general and his specific use of the two terms indicates that Badiou understands that the crisis of Marxism cannot be averted by simply appealing to a purified Marxian moment as yet unachieved.


Hallward 2003p. 284.


Badiou 1985pp. 67–8.


Toscano 2003p. 12.


Badiou 1982p. 48.


Balibar 1987p. 155. Without expanding this point here for reasons of space let me merely note that this identification of Badiou’s work with Fichte is extremely important and ought to be developed.


Badiou 1977p. 39. Let me note that I do not find this particular type of argument which Badiou is fond of attributing to Deleuze and an entire set of thinkers very convincing; its violently reductive reading strategy obscures the question of the engagement with the Marxist tradition in both thinkers or indeed how the Marxist theoretical standpoint allows us to mediate the positions taken by both. But for the purposes of the present essay I am only concerned with how Badiou tends to connect this split with the question of political economy by schematising certain rhetorical chains that operate in the background of his texts: Deleuze = Negri = regal univocity in the guise of the pseudo-transgressiveness of the multiple = celebration of capital’s deterritorialising effect = economy; Badiou = multiplicity as simply banal order of being = subjective break with the situation = politics. This schematism itself is highly problematic and does not clarify anything in my view.


Badiou 2003app. 125–6.


Badiou 2006ap. 191.


Bosteels 2005cp. 765.


Badiou 1999p. 58.


Hallward 2004pp. 18–19.


Badiou 1989p. 37; Badiou 1999 p. 57.


Badiou 1989p. 37; Badiou 1999 p. 56. I attempt to read this ‘semblance’ as nothing other than the form of labour-power the sole ‘possession’ of ‘the masses’ (that is nevertheless strictly speaking absent) in an in-depth cross-reading of Marx Badiou and Uno Kôzô in Walker 2011a.


Badiou 1977p. 32. This point which clearly references Hegel recurs in Badiou’s discussions of the dialectic in Theory of the Subject (Badiou 1982 and 2009).


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