Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Mao and Manichaeism
In so doing Jambet and Lardreau turn toward the monastic practices of early Christianity, to the Manichean themes of the ‘hatred of sex’, ‘hatred of work’ and ‘hatred of thought’. The question, posed against the lucid and caustic political scepticism of Lacan, is the following: Can there be a form of revolt that does not turn into mastery, i.e. that is cultural and not ideological? A real separation of the Rebel from the Master?
The dualistic ontological matrix of this concept of revolt, however, undergoes an extensive critique in their later collaboration Le Monde (1978) and particularly in Jambet’s treatment of the barbarous will to purity of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. On the basis of this short-circuit between Christian asceticism, May 1968, and the ravages of Cambodia, I will try to address the following questions: Does the barbarous issue of dualistic or ‘angelic’ revolt militate in favour of a certain fatalism concerning the eternity of mastery? Or must we instead replace the distinction between cultural and ideological revolution with a more articulated concept of resistance? Finally, can we formulate a political concept of desire that obviates the alternative between the equivocal celebrations of libidinal materialism and the horizon of a completely desexualised revolt?
The narcissism of renegades?
The spectres of recuperation, repetition and imitation have always haunted the various ideologies of resistance, at least those not all too happy to celebrate the joys of ambivalence and the hybrid, those for which resistance is not just the name of a minimal inflection – a torsion, a distance, perhaps even a perversion – in the densely articulated space of hierarchies, partitions and dominations. In order to make a contribution to specifying what resistance may mean today, whether the term is even applicable or operative, what its minimal lineaments may be, I would like to turn to a relatively minor, if, as I hope to argue, symptomatic, episode in the vicissitudes of this concept: the intellectual trajectory that led some figures emerging from the current of French Maoism, first, to formulate an ideology of pure revolt, or absolute resistance, countering the complicities of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary politics vis-à-vis the perennial mechanisms of power and oppression; second, to revise the latter theory of ‘angelic’ or non-dialectical revolt into a tragic theory of morality, separating the resistance exemplified by moral protest and the defence of human rights from any notion of revolt, now considered ‘barbaric’ – thus adopting, despite all protestations to the contrary, the key thesis of the nouvelle philosophie, as instigated and ‘produced’ by Bernard-Henri Lévy, to wit, that there is a bloody thread running straight from Das Kapital to the Gulags, and that it is philosophy’s collusion with mastery and the state that lies behind the ‘totalitarian’ disasters of the 20th century. The aforementioned trajectory is encapsulated in two works arising from the collaboration of Christian Jambet and Guy Lardreau, philosophers schooled at the École Normale at the time of the May events, and militants in the Gauche Prolétarienne, the most visible of the post-68 Maoist organisations, famously supported by Foucault and Sartre against the censorship of its newspaper, La cause du peuple. The GP disbanded in 1974 after its increasingly patent inefficacy on the shop-floor and its last-minute retreat from the option of armed struggle. It would be easy, and perhaps even useful, to reduce the two works in question, L’Ange and Le Monde, to mere effects of an exquisitely Parisian sequence, which led a few children of the elites, ‘the little princes of the University’, as Lacan sardonically noted, into a spectacular but ineffectual, and misinformed, embrace of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, through a period of inevitable disappointment, into an equally overblown and narcissistic exploitation of their personal failures for media effect, and, finally, to the collaboration with the increasingly hegemonic ideology of human rights and humanitarian interventions, still with us today – witness the pro-Bush pronouncements of André Glucksmann, ex-GP member, and author of arguably the most prominent work of the nouvelle philosophie, The Master Thinkers. Such a micro-sociology of the upper class normalien militant might have its attendant joys, especially for the Francophobe among us, but I won’t indulge in it here. Indeed, everything that needs to be said regarding the role of Jambet and Lardreau in what one might be inclined to call an ‘objectively reactionary’ ideological phenomenon, as agents of a functional anti-revolutionary doxa, is economically encapsulated in two texts from the time: Gilles Deleuze’s scathing interview ‘Concerning the new philosophers and a more general problem’, and, Dominique Lecourt’s ‘Dissidence or Revolution?’. Besides their role in stifling any philosophical and conceptual experiments by engendering a new journalism of ideas, and their participation in the Cold War theme of ‘human rights’ forwarded by the then Carter administration in the United States, the function of the nouveaux philosophes amounts to the relentless and public enunciation of two theses, which are, according to Deleuze: ‘THE revolution must be declared impossible, uniformly and always’ and ‘the only possibility of the revolution, for the nouveaux philosophes, is the pure act of the thinker that thinks it impossible’. It is easy to see how the conjunction of these two theses made the nouveaux philosophes both into a perfect and willing pawn in the stakes of the Cold War and allowed them to maintain their privileged point of enunciation as tragic renegades of communism (in a kind of farcical Parisian reprise of the ‘god that failed’ generation of Koestler et al.). Though perhaps inevitably reaching some of the same conclusions, I would like to go against the grain of Deleuze’s analysis and provisionally extricate the work of Lardreau and Jambet from its historical and ideological coordinates, in order to assay its use in reconsidering the theme of resistance. First, I would like to consider their attempt to think the ‘autonomy of revolt’. Against any dialectics of system and insurgency, power and resistance, Lardreau and Jambet try to think what an absolute form of revolt could be, one that isn’t simply the reiteration, under a different guise, of the eternal reality of mastery. This is what is encapsulated in the distinction between ideological and cultural revolution, a theme that is accompanied by a trenchant polemic against any form of sexual liberation, or of politics of desire, which is condemned as the exemplary form of a recuperable revolt. What I would like to consider is the profound ambivalence of such a ‘manichean’ notion of revolt, which both provides a potent critique of the distracting fantasies of freedom and expression forwarded by a certain kind of libidinal materialism and serves as the antechamber for a position, presented in Le Monde, which, by making the realisation of revolt into the site of absolute crime, ‘provisionally’ accepts the eternity of inequality for the sake of a politics of protestation, one which, alas, cannot but serve a certain kind of master (the Western master of human rights and liberal democracy, the master of the lesser evil, the lesser master).
Lacan against the naturalists
As I have mentioned, the wager of Lardreau and Jambet, in the first phase of their work, at the volatile cusp between Maoist extremism and resignation to the ‘world’, is that of thinking a pure revolt, a revolt that would not be a mere functional epiphenomenon quickly reabsorbed into the eternal history of domination. But this wager is profoundly determined by ‘failure’, which is why the attempt to forge an ontology of revolution, an ontology of the ‘other world’ of revolt under the sign of the Angel (we will see in a moment why the figure bears this name), is first and foremost an operation of radical doubt, of unsparing critique. Specifically, the failure of the political sequence that takes the name of ‘cultural revolution’ – in China through the re-imposition of order and reforms (marked by the opaque death of Lin Piao), as well as the cult of Mao, in the French microcosmos through the triumph of the reaction and the impasse of armed struggle – seems to leave Jambet and Lardreau with two ideological options that would take stock of 68 without simply writing off its occurrence as a non-event: (1) a radicalization of the figure of the revolt, which would found itself on an unsparing critique of all collusion with the apparatuses and discourses of domination; (2) a transformation of the Manichean event of revolt, of the hope in the elimination of all mastery, into a capillary thinking of localized resistance and desiring production, an endemic micropolitics for which 68 signals the systematic evasion of the classical alternative between equality and non-equality, domination and non-domination. The critical purification of revolt – whereby either revolt will be autonomous and non-recuperable, or it will not be – and the fierce attack on the second option are inextricably linked (see the subtitle of L’Ange: Pour une cynégetique du semblant). The missing link is Lacan. Lacan’s systematic scepticism vis-à-vis the events of 68 is thus raised to the level of a purifying filter for the ideology of revolt: in order to foreswear all collusion and all recuperation one must not only move beyond Lacan, but also go through Lacan: revealing the entirely illusory character of libidinal revolt in order to prepare the way for a real revolt. Or, to use a striking motto from L’Ange: ‘To follow Mao, one must be a Lacanian!’ The crucial element in this purification through polemic, such that the messianic wait is coextensive with the obliteration of semblance, is a certain understanding of Lacan’s formulation of the ‘discourse of the Master’. In its distilled (and wilfully impoverished) version by Jambet and Lardreau, this entails the notion that (1) a master-less society is impossible, (2) all desire is dictated by a certain relationship to signification, meaning that (2a) all desire is sustained by the lack of its object and (2b) all desire, and all enjoyment, is ultimately dictated by the master. Of course, the critical and political efficacy of this thesis, which makes no distinction between master-as-signifier and master-as-political-agency depends on the premise that reality is through and through discursive. As Lardreau writes: ‘There is no nature, there is only a discourse on nature’; ‘the real is nothing but discourse’; ‘the world is a fantasy [fantasme])’. It is the crucial error of naturalism, whether ‘trivial’ or ‘libidinal’, to deny these psychoanalytic theses and therefore deceive the subject into thinking and acting as if desire could be realised (liberated or expressed), as if the absence of mastery could be attained through a particular use of sex. What is more, the sin of such naturalism is, in bypassing Lacanian pessimism, simultaneously to evade the problem of the necessity of revolt (which is the correlate of the eternity of mastery). In other words, to dissolve the problem of domination (linguistic, political) into a flux of desire indifferent to any separation between the dominator and the dominated. It is also to evade the crucial question posed by Lacan, which is that of the complicity of philosophy with the discourse of the master, which he formulates as follows: ‘Qu’est que la philosophie désigne dans toute son evolution? C’est ceci – le vol, le rapt, la soustraction à l’esclavage, de son savoir [son savoir-faire], par l’opération du maître’. The constraints imposed upon desire by psychoanalytic discourse lead Lardreau and Jambet to a stark conclusion, the only possible path to evade the pessimistic truth of psychoanalysis (‘the discourse of the Master is eternal, since being a Master, is being a Master of discourse’), to wit, that ‘One must do exactly the opposite of what is said by the discourse of liberation, one must totally disjoin sex and rebellion.’ Sex, or more precisely sexual desire in its subjection to a form of signification which is the basis of mastery (‘la fonction de signifiant sur quoi s’appuie l’essence du maître’), is something that cannot be liberated, since it is precisely through and through constituted by discourse. The only hope for Jambet and Lardreau (to remain Maoists, in the sense of partisans of absolute revolt, of the end of domination) is thus to subtract revolt from any reference whatsoever to sex. Whence the necessity to pose three distinctions: of the body from sex, of thought from reason, of discourse from the discourse of the master. The angelism of revolt translates precisely this sexlessness, and the idea that ‘the rebel thinks’ passes over into a ‘correction’ of Lacan: in order not to reduce revolt to the mere grunting of a bestialized subject, to a grotesque theatre of victimized affect, or an unreasonable discourse, a thought of revolt must be possible. The paradoxical conclusion, to our ears, is of course that desire and revolt are incompatible. The Sadeian and libidinal naturalists (materialists) engage in the culpable obfuscation of this incompatibility, which leads to their peddling of a semblance of revolt, a perversion complementary to the maintenance or even intensification of the power of the master (for instance by creating, through the illusion of subversion, ever more sites for the extraction of surplus-value). What does the semblance of revolt (or resistance or subversion, we’ll consider the terms to be equivalent for the time being) consist in? It consists in trying to bypass the necessary but artificial closure of Mastery lucidly registered in politics by Hobbes and in the unconscious by Lacan, by introducing a link between desire and nature. Basically, the existence of nature is at the basis of the semblance of revolt. This is the reason for Jambet and Lardreau’s penchant for Hobbes and Lacan over Locke and Sade (not to mention the object of their most vicious diatribe: Lyotard): the former lucidly state both the eternity and the (discursive) artifice of mastery, without trying to fix it in any natural signs or processes. It is clear that we are here confronted with a struggle in theory against one of the effects of 68, the promotion of a libidinal materialism marked by a return to Sade, a return which attempts to discern in Sade some kind of anti-authoritarian content.
The hatred of sex
L’Ange begins in a starkly autobiographic if highly poeticized tone, as a tale of a conversion suspended between the failure of a project and the resurgence of order and new, false prophets, on the other. Quotations of Saint Peter and Beckett, a ring of desperation, mentions of sleepless nights and shattered lives. In the midst of this wave of weakness and reactions a call: ‘We will not let ourselves be Schereberianised.’ The conversion was no psychosis, something must be retained: ‘And we know that duplicity must be refused, that there are two paths and that they find one another repugnant, that we must not be apostates, but neither must we go further in our imperfect conversion: against all powers and dominations, maintain the hope that another world, despite everything is possible. To designate the possibility no other image came to us but that of the Angel.’ Why turn to Christianity at the very point when a conversion has failed, especially since the authors say that, following Lacan, ‘the fact that God ex-sists means that he is not’? Because, Jambet and Lardreau contend, to elucidate the failure and remain faithful to the possibility of a politics of non-domination, whilst eschewing the semblance of liberation provided by the libidinal materialism of the likes of Lyotard and Deleuze-Guattari, one must undertake an enquiry into the forms of cultural revolution, in order to think how the practical repudiation of authority (their baseline definition of cultural revolution) can transform itself or be transformed into another discourse of mastery and other, perhaps more brutal, forms of domination. The central essay in L’Ange, Lardreau’s wonderfully entitled ‘Lin Piao as Will and Representation,’ is thus precisely an investigation into (primitive) Christianity as a formal matrix for cultural revolution, one bearing certain crucial isomorphism with a specifically Marxist-Leninist cultural revolution and also some profound lessons about its paradoxes and limitations. In a certain sense, which we might compare with the recent work of Badiou, Žižek Zizek or Agamben, Jambet and Lardreau put forward the thesis that Christianity is the eternal model of cultural revolution. Their specific aim in this comparative exercise in forms of anti-authoritarian subjectivation is linked to a twofold relation to Lacan: one the one hand, as Lardreau writes, ‘he is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille’ (in other words the antidote to the semblance of liberation and reality of capitalist perversion allegedly peddled by the likes of Lyotard). On the other hand, if ‘another world’ – not a better or gentler world, but a world without a master – is possible, if an ‘angelic revolt’ is not a contradiction in terms, then Lacan’s transcendental pessimism must be punctured. The strategy is to divide revolution, to divide division itself, as it were, between cultural and ideological revolution. The will to absolute purity is the law of cultural revolution. This means of course, that from the vantage point of the order that such a revolution intends to abrogate the cultural revolution simply does not exist – in Christianity, purity in the extreme is just a cloaked prelude to an easily classifiable debauchery (as is the case with pilgrimages in which the sexes mixed), in politics, a master-less society is simply the cover or antechamber for another form of domination, so that one might as well eschew the dangers of a purification that cannot but issue into impurity. The distinction between the two is given in the difference drawn between the penchant of ideological revolution for symbolic castration, accepted inasmuch as it is a negation of the negation and thus a position of the good, and the real castration of the heretic, or cultural revolutionary, which is a pure subtraction without return and is thus theologically equated by the ‘ideological’ church with evil itself. In Jambet’s later ‘Reflection on the new state of Cambodia’ written in 1978 against Lardreau and Jambet, and Badiou’s, own paeans to the taking of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 (Badiou’s were not retracted, of course, as Jambet pointedly remarks). Jambet gives this definition of the crux of ‘cultural revolution’: ‘To have done with mastery is to abolish all its attributes, without letting even one of them subsist. There is in the very essence of rebellion, in its definition, this will to radically exhaust the ground of mastery. Among the imperatives that any social master cannot see disappear there is above all the obligation for his flock to reproduce […] furthermore, there is the obligation to produce and to respect a certain quantity of knowledge’. I shall return in a moment to the analysis of the regime of Pol Pot in terms of this characterization of revolt. Turning back to the question of Christianity, which Lardreau in L’Ange approaches in the Foucaultian terms of the practices of early heretic sects, the key elements of its cultural revolution are accordingly the refusal of sex (of pleasure, family and sexual difference) and the refusal of work, foregoing the imperative of the master, that his flock, or his cattle – Lardreau pointdely uses the word bétail – produce and reproduce, in all senses of the term, from the physiological to the economic. Having made the distinction between the cultural revolution (abolition of the master) and the ideological revolution (replacement of the master by another, dissimulation of the master), Lardreau points to the monastery as the site of conversion of cultural into ideological revolution (a conversion which is actually the shift from one history or world to another, on the basis of the dualistic matrix affirmed at the outset); from the errant, asexualised errancy of pilgrimage, into a fixation to the land, the schedules of work and the sexual division of mature monasticism; and finally, the partition between those with the vocatio and those without, against the uncontrolled contagion of the revolutionary ideal. Beyond the example of Christianity, and with specific reference to the pseudo-revolution that they espy in the liberationist themes of 68, sex-pleasure is viewed as a key operator in the transformation of cultural revolution into ideological revolution, trading in the abolition of mastery for a re-valuation of morality – whether as liberation or repression is entirely indifferent from the standpoint of revolt. For Lardreau thus, hatred of sex is viewed as an escape from this genre of systemic blackmail. It is in this light that he reads the multiple debates about the role of chastity: specifically, within cultural revolution sexual difference is to be abolished, in order for the master to have no hold, thereby producing a kind of militant indifference or indiscernibility – far more powerful than immorality – against both nature and the Church. The key is to render oneself useless to mastery. Virginity and the mixing of bodies in pilgrimage and asceticism are thus an obstacle to the control and partition of the sensible – not the kind of negation that can be easily manipulated, not a functional excess. But alas, the hatred turns into legislation, the master of reproduction cannot but localise its practice, dampening its effects. This is what happens in ideological Christianity, whose institutions are aimed at warding off the threat, indicated by Lardreau, of a sexless mass of pilgrims, without sexes, names, places, entirely improductive, a smooth sterile mass with no grip for power. Leaving aside the question of knowledge, of the revolutionary hatred of knowledge (the third target of the heretic/revolutionary), it is worth pointing out the importance of the theme of the hatred of work. In the analysis of monasticism this follows a parallel path to sex, moving from a kind of mystical otium to the obligation of work, whereby the anti-social cultural revolution of the desert monks is transformed into the ideological revolution that merely changes the ancient partition of the vita activa (manual labour) and the vita contemplativa (intellectual labour) into the convergence of spiritual probity and the obligation of work within the parameters of institutionalised monastic life.
The theme of work becomes particularly enlightening if we turn to Jambet’s discussion of Cambodia in Le Monde, and the manner in which it links to the shift from the distinction between cultural and ideological revolution to the one between cultural revolution (or rebellion tout court) and terrorism. The Khmer are presented first as the ‘purest’ attempt in the lineage of purification, being to Marxist-Leninism what it is to Proudhonian anarchism, to wit, an accusation that its predecessor has not gone far enough in the destruction of the old, that its revolts have been mere deferrals, displacements of hierarchy that do not attack the principles of exploitation and oppression at their source. Jambet follows his statement about the essence of revolt, with a simple thesis, that had already been presented in L’Ange. In the earlier book, under Lardreau’s pen, and referring to the voluntary abjection and baleful ignorance of the disciple, the ascetic servility of the monk, it took the following form: ‘Once it is no longer commanded by the hatred of the Master, but rather to obedience, the Hatred of Thought [or the repudiation of knowledge] becomes the abject subjection to the thinking of Authority’. Such abject subjection, compounded by the terroristic obliteration of bodies, of any point of resistance, is what Jambet will glean from the witness accounts and party documents of the Kampuchean ‘organisation’, Angka, about which he writes, ‘non-knowledge becomes at once the single knowledge of the authority of Angka’. What explains this reversal of cultural revolution into the terror of authority? For Jambet, the explanation is, in the abstract, a simple one and is contained in the following theorem: When revolt conserves one of the attributes of the Master it engenders the maximal State. In other words, when cultural revolution leans on the absolutization of one element – in the case of Cambodia, the generalisation of the imperative of production, a generic work imposed upon an anonymous mass of ‘equals’ (the reversal of proletarian purity into the sombre repetition of the Asiatic mode of production), accompanied by the destruction of pleasure and the obliteration of scientific knowledge – it entails the most absolute authority, the elimination of any material support for practices of resistance, or, what’s more, for any subjectivation alternative to the subjection to the imperative of masterlessness. Or, to link Jambet’s discussion to the question of capitalism, the elimination of exploitation, working through the secret Master – Pol Pot as Brother Number One, the Angka (or Organisation) as the inapparent, anonymous entity that masters masterlessness – is converted into the most absolute and ruthless oppression imaginable. But is this alternative, between a blind fidelity to the fury of purification, and the acceptance of some variety of liberal democracy as the only material for resistance, really compelling?
Beyond the lesser evil
The question negatively posed by the trajectory that goes from the nouvelle résistance of the Gauche Proletarienne to the sexless autonomy of revolt of L’Ange to the resignation to worldly morality of Le Monde is the following: must the attempt to escape from the logics of failed revolt, in its three branches, structural repetition, specular doubling and recuperation, end up in mysticism and/or resignation to a liberal-capitalist status quo? Or, to borrow from Jacques Rancière, is it possible to move from the logics of failed revolt and the autonomy of revolt to the seemingly more nuanced, but ultimately more powerful, affirmation of the existence and intelligibility of logical revolts? Jambet and Lardreau’s work finishes with a kind of mystical realism: some Masters are better than others, in this world, and the only revolt is a spiritual revolt, an inner revolt. Irony of history whereby the Maoist Lacanian turns into the sombre cousin of the Rortyan liberal ironist (or the nephew of Koestler’s Yogi), dejectedly adjudicating the lesser evil between Kerry and Bush, and retreating into a spiritual foyer intérieur to be seized by the light of Molla Sadra or the icy depths of Lautréamont. So is this another reason to give up on the fanaticism of revolt, or on its possible autonomy? I think we can answer no, and for two reasons. The first has to do with Lacan: does his teaching really reduce to the moral evaluation of masters, the sober knowledge of the lesser evil? The second has to do with Marx. First, with Marx avec Lacan as it were: Jambet and Lardreau evade the problem of surplus value, of the plus-de-jouir as something that might affect the nature of mastery. Second with Marx the militant: in order to evade the dialectics of mastery, not only must Jambet and Lardreau sing the praises of real castration, they must obliterate the real political problem of dialectics, the one indicated by the Maoist formula ‘One divides into two’: what kind of organization, what kind of political subject, can effect a determinate separation from the capitalist order, in such a way as to constitute a generic part, a realization of non-domination? It is only by thinking the determinate subtraction, through organization, from mastery that one can actively think a way out of the moral blackmail of the ‘lesser evil’. However, to think such a subtraction, to think an ideology of revolt, a communist politics, which would be adequate to our conjuncture, it is of the greatest importance to consider the specificity of capitalism, even in terms of the theory of discourses forwarded by Lacan. Two options. The first is Lacan’s own in Seminar XVII. There, we are confronted with the specificity of capitalism (and real socialism) as variations on the discourse of the master, in Lacan’s terms as the ‘modernised discourse of the master’, which, following the originary expropriation of the ‘know-how’ of the slave effected by philosophy, puts knowledge (S2) in the place of mastery, or agency. The second can be found in Zizek’s Tarrying with the Negative, with specific reference to the Khmer Rouge. Zizek’s first point is that it is not the master-signifier per se, but rather a supposedly saturated network of knowledge, without lack and without transcendence, which is the key to contemporary capitalism. Whence the infamous thesis that Spinozism is the ideology of late capitalism (this could be well adapted to DeLanda and our belated fascination with cybernetics). So are the Khmer really, as Jambet and Lardreau argue, actually a realisation of the autonomy of the rebel, such that we would be obliged to renounce revolt for a moral attitude of ‘lesser evil’? Zizek’s answer is no. Movements like the Khmer Rouge must be understood as a brutal solution – an ‘infinite judgment’, in Hegelese – to the intrinsic antagonism that defines the political framework late capitalism, between the formal emptiness of liberal democracy (Badiou’s capitalo-parliamentarianism) and the survivances of ‘traditional elements’ (in this respect the Pol Pot’s Angka is the specular opposite of contemporary Salafism), in other words in terms of ‘the constitutive antagonism of today’s capitalism’. Apropos of the Khmer (and of their Peruvian counterparts, Sendero Luminoso), Zizek notes the following: ‘The result of this desperate endeavour to surmount the antagonism between tradition and modernity’ which paradoxically unites ‘the most radical indigenist antimodernism (the refusal of everything that defines modernity: market, money, individualism…) with the eminently modern project of effacing the entire symbolic tradition and beginning from a zero-point’ is ‘a double negation: a radically anti-capitalist movement (the refusal of integration into the world market) coupled with the systematic dissolution of all traditional hierarchical social links, beginning with the family (at the level of “micro-power”, the Khmer-Rouge functioned as an “anti-Oedipal” regime in its purest, i.e. as the ‘dictatorship of adolescents”, instigating them to denounce their parents)’. But this means that considering the Khmer as the truth of the barbarous angel – in other words, the idea that any attempt to realise and totalise the dissemination of vanishing events of revolt, is nothing but (radical) evil incarnate, and the reason for the adoption of the ‘kindest’ master – is a fundamental mistake, which ignores the systemic horizon of their emergence (just as it ignores the sequence of historical conditions: Nixon and Kissinger’s ‘secret’ bombing of the Cambodian countryside). As Zizek notes, the Khmer, like Sendero, and, in complementary respect the various forms of Islamic militancy dubiously identified under the banner of Al Qaeda, ‘are an integral part of the notion of late capitalism: if one wants to comprise capitalism as world-system, one must take into account its inherent negation, “fundamentalism”, as well as its absolute negation, the infinite judgment on it.’ The open question of course, which is no way solved by any kind of Leninism of the act, of the kind lately forwarded by Zizek, is the following: what is a subtraction from the material and discursive reality of late capitalism, which wouldn’t simply amount to a symptom? An answer to this question, I think, would lead us to conclude that the ideology of resistance as well as that of pure revolt are insufficient, to the very extent that a true subtraction demands a new thinking of organization. To end with a provocation, we might be wiser to reflect on the partisan and institutional history of the Church, as Badiou enjoins us to do in his Théorie du sujet, than to persist with the subjective logics of the act, conversion and heresy.
François Aubral and Xavier Delcourt, Contre la nouvelle philosophie, Paris, Gallimard, 1977
Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire – Livre XVII. L’envers de la psychanalyse, Paris, Seuil, 1991
Robert Linhart, ‘Western “dissidence” ideology and the protection of the bourgeois order”, in Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary societies, London, Ink Link, 1979
Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet, L’Ange, Paris, Grasset, 1975
Jacques Rancière, Les scénes du people, Lyon, Éditions Horlieu, 2003
Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, Durham, NC, Duke UP, 1993
Religion and Revolt
Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity (1908)
1. Political Theology Today
Let’s begin with a thesis that we can hazard as the encapsulation of a certain Maoist sequence in French philosophy, going from the notorious ‘events’ of 1968 to the publication of Badiou’s Peut-on penser la politique? in 1985: The rebel is the one who gives rise to the exception. Or, in a cruder variant: the rebel is the exception. In either case, the sovereign’s decision, the decision of and for the state, is made in the wake of and against the irruption of the rebel, the subject (whether singular or collective) of revolt. I am echoing, of course, Carl Schmitt’s now infamous thesis, from his Political Theology, ‘the sovereign is he who decides on the exception,’ a thesis he identified as the distillate of a process of secularization whereby the concepts of politics relayed the categories of theology – illumined, like the latter, by the extreme case, preoccupied, like the latter, with the themes of authority, will, subjection and evil.
Can the recent resurgence in Christian, and more specifically Pauline, models of subjectivation and militancy warrant a characterization in terms of ‘political theology’? Are we, as I’ve begun to suggest, dealing with an inversion of the customary concerns of political theology (the reactionary science par excellence, one might argue); the excavation of a Biblical counter-discourse, to paraphrase Foucault, that would provide the wherewithal to invent new figures of universality and/or subversion after the much vaunted retreat of politics? In a more critical vein, are the propositions extracted from the exhumation of the militant corpus of the Christian faith to be accorded the status of secularized doctrines, with all the historical-metaphysical pessimism and suspicion that entails?
The more or less explicit links made between this Pauline turn and the figureheads of a putatively secular notion of politics and of revolt – whether Marx as a thinker of class in Agamben’s Il tempo che resta or Lenin as a thinker of organization in Badiou’s Saint Paul – beg the question: Are we now confronted with the more or less ironic confirmation of the renowned reactionary thesis of communism as secularized eschatology – not just with the confirmation, but with the proud assumption of this thesis? Given that the gap between the phenomena of revolt, political organization, and militancy, on the one hand, and religious or theological discourse, on the other, is the privileged site of ideology critique in the Marxist canon, is the formal or rhetorical equivalence drawn between commitment and conversion, universality (or communism) and messianism, a mere elision of that key problem? The disincarnate and often wildly rhetorical debates around this renaissance of Christian militancy sometimes make it seem as if we weren’t dealing with a field that has already, at least ever since Engels’s writing on Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasants’ War been richly ploughed, thematised, critiqued.
2. Invariance of Revolt
In 1975, Alain Badiou, in the Yenan imprint at the Editions Maspéro of the organization he led, the UCFML (Groupe pour la formation d’une Union des communistes de France, marxiste-leniniste), published the first in a series of pamphlets on dialectical materialism, Théorie de la contradiction, to be followed by the collaborative De l’idéologie the next year. Where ex-Maoists (from the Gauche Prolétarienne) like Christian Jambet and Guy Ladreau drew their metaphysical balance sheet after, as they tellingly put it, ‘having hit bottom,’ Badiou set down, in painstaking and resolute detail, the philosophical groundwork of a Marxist-Leninist theory of revolt. The primacy of revolt – that is, the primacy of practice – is in fact the militant leitmotiv of Badiou’s writings in the seventies. This is especially true of Théorie de la contradiction, a terse speculative commentary upon Mao’s dictum ‘it is always right to revolt against the reactionaries’ (to which should perhaps be added the corollary by Lin Piao, recently quoted by Badiou in his afterword to Peter Hallward’s collection Think Again: ‘the essence of revisionism is the fear of death’). In it, we read the following: ‘Revolt does not wait for its reason, revolt is what is always already there, for any possible reason whatsoever. Marxism simply says: revolt is reason, revolt is subject. Marxism is the recapitulation of the wisdom of revolt.’ It is on the basis of this equation between political practice and antagonism that Badiou can write: ‘The real is not what brings together, but what separates. What happens is what disjoins’ [Le réel n’est pas ce qui rassemble, mais ce qui sépare. Ce qui advient est ce qui disjoint].
Here we must hear the materialist thesis that the faktum of revolt – or in Badiou’s more recent discourse the irruption of the event or dysfunction of a transcendental regime – comes first, subjectivation second. Moreover, to the extent that any structure of placements, any represented situation, is in a sense the fallout from or recuperation of its forceful dislocation by a subject, ‘resistance is the secret of domination’. Badiou comes closest to a dualistic matrix of the political, such as the one propounded by Jambet and Lardreau in their l’Ange (1975), in stating that the reason of revolt is an invariant, ‘deep and inextricable’; the refusal of mastery constitutes a subjective given that precedes Marxism and any causal or structural analysis it may provide. There is an ontological anteriority of revolt, an autonomous power of egalitarian opposition which operates like a trans-historical constant.
Following the Maoist thesis that division is the very essence of dialectics (‘One divides into two’), Badiou’s theory of contradiction is founded on the asymmetry of the terms of the contradiction, purifying force, on the one hand, the system of places, on the other. But, and here lies the key point, no angelic purity is given beforehand and neither can we put our hopes in a simple epiphany mechanically emerging from the ruins of the old. As Badiou writes in the Théorie du sujet: ‘in every contradiction, force manifests its impurity through the aleatory process of its purification’. In the Théorie de la contradiction, the thesis of the rightness of revolt (or of the justice of the new) is linked by Badiou to a whole partisan theory of consciousness and truth, whereby both Marxism as a science of social formations and the objective historical reality of revolts are doubled by, and indeed find their reason in, the conscious assumption of the tasks of revolt in organisation and directive, in short, in a party. Marxist truth, he starkly states, ‘is that wherein revolt finds its reason in order to demolish the enemy’ and, in a tone absent, for all intents and purposes, from his latest works, declares that it repudiates all equality before truth.
In Badiou’s work of the 70s but also in his most recent production, subject names precisely that point through which what is impossible in a given situation is forced into possibility: ‘A subject is a point of conversion of the impossible into the possible. The fundamental operation of a subject is to be at the point where some impossible is converted into possibility’ (Théorie axiomatique du sujet, unpublished manuscript, p. 8). On the basis of this minimally dialectical thesis we can ask: is the fundamental structure of mastery or of the discourse of mastery an invariant, such that the only change given is a change in the occupant of its eminent place? If there is a qualitative element in this change what are the criteria for evaluating it? Are they immanent, or rather based on some external criterion (morality, for instance)? In his 70s writings, whilst wary of the leftism of simply posing the purity of revolt, Badiou’s focus on novelty qua purification entails some unequivocal statements that seem to approximate to the thesis of the political theology of revolt stated at the outset of this article.
‘To the nothing new under the sun the thinking of revolt opposed the ever new insurgent red sun, under the emblem of which the unlimited affirmative hope of rebellious producers engenders ruptures’; ‘There are radical novelties because there are corpses that no trumpet of Judgment will ever reawaken’; ‘To resolve is to reject. History has worked best when its dustbins have been better filled’; ‘The field of Marxist knowledge is always in ruins – all truth is essentially destruction’; ‘There is no veritable revolutionary thought but for the one that takes the recognition of the new all the way to its unavoidable obverse, the old must die. […] Not just death but the dispersion of the ashes’. The last, for instance, in one of Badiou’s most pertinent examples, is the way in which colonialism should die, consigned to eternal forgetting. Cultural revolution is hereby affirmed as anti-memory. The paradox openly assumed by Badiou, in which I think is encapsulated what I have elsewhere called his communism of separation, is that the destruction of inequality, the obliteration of mastery has dualistic asymmetry (class struggle, in short) as its condition.
This paradox is therefore that of the necessity to master the path to masterlessness, to dominate domination in order for non-domination to arise – the paradox, to give its obvious classical Marxist topos, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But what then, we may ask, of Christian Jambet’s sober observation, partly aimed at Badiou, that the theme of anti-memory, of the Year Zero so famously linked to the killing fields of Cambodia, depends on the most radical hypostasis of Mastery, on a discourse reduced to the inscrutable secrecy of an unknowing command to work and submit to anonymity, coupled, inevitably perhaps, with the most pointless and exorbitant practices of confession – witness the practices at the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh? In response to such objections, we could recall that one of the key theses in Badiou, reading Mao, is that it is not the primary contradiction, the one of exploiters and exploited, from which novelty emerges, but rather from a ‘secondary’ contradiction, from a separation or division within the camp of the primary contradiction itself – from the partisan truth of a faction, for instance, which separates itself in order to separate out (or subtract) a real which is denied by the state of the situation. It is transforming this secondary contradiction into a primary one which is the formalization of the act of revolt.
The critique of ‘anarchism’, from the attacks on Stirner (or Sancho) in the German Ideology to Badiou’s own invectives against Deleuze-Guattari in both Theory of Contradiction and the article ‘The Flux and the Party’, is founded precisely on the denial of anarchism’s key thesis that the politics of power, of struggles over the place of domination or the discourse of mastery, are merely quantitative shifts that leave the eternal reality of oppression untouched – establishing another dualist but non-dialectical matrix which consigns one to a marginality that colludes with mastery in a semblance of subversion. The opposition to the dualistic matrix of Jambet and Lardreau’s ‘angelic’ thesis – which begins as a defence of revolt and ends up in the false alternative between Kissinger and Khmer Rouge – is thus based on one of the inaugural gestures of Badiou’s thought, the critique of structuralism for the sake of a twofold dialectics of force and place, in which antagonism is asymmetrical, and the forcing of a subject in the place of mastery (the dictatorship of the proletariat) is by definition a qualitative change (I say by definition in the sense that what marks out a subject is that, as an included part forcing itself upon the whole, it engenders qualitative change, and what defines qualitative change is conversely the presence of subjective action).
In these early writings, Badiou can be found arguing that the presence of subjectivity changes the nature of violence itself. Inasmuch as the dialectics of a real revolt introduces qualitative novelty into a situation – such that ‘The State, which is to say the concentrated form of all phenomena of domination, no longer even has the same name’ – it divides death itself, into what is incorporated and metamorphosed under a new law (symbolically reinscribed) and what is simply abrogated. In purely structural phenomena devoid of novelty, in which it is only a quantitative shift of places that is at stake, be it colonialism or WWI, the drive to conserve and continue is accompanied for Badiou by enormous violence, in his stark words: ‘When nothing changes, men die.’ It is precisely the lack of asymmetry, the ultimately non-antagonistic basis of the massive antagonisms that appear to deploy themselves on the battlefield which mean that such ‘structural’ antagonisms depend on pure quantitative triumph, and are thus cumulative, non-creative, interminable, bloody and sterile.’ In brief, then, against the opposition of resistance and power, Badiou proposes a political dialectics of structure (materialist) and tendency (dialectical). Needless to say, it is very difficult indeed to see either reinscription or dialectics at work in the obstinate carnage perpetrated by the Pol Pot’s Angka. Death was clearly not divided by novelty in Democratic Kampuchea and the character of its ‘change’ remains deeply obscure.
3. Political Theology Today: Slight Return
The very title ‘political theology of revolt’, as I hinted at the outset, is meant to bring into relief one of the questions which, posed by Schmitt, seems to have gone lost in the critical evaluation of a supposed turn or return to Christianity. Inasmuch as it is patent that such a turn is motivated by a political, or even ideological, deficit and not a theological need we seem to be faced with at least three options.
The first option is that revolt is to be thought of in terms of the secularization of theological categories, specifically as a secularization of the kind of apocalyptic equality that calls upon the dominated to traverse and abolish the structures of iniquity and worldly corruption, as a forced anticipation of, or preparation for, the promised kingdom of humanity. In this sense the political theology of revolt is the hidden, but perhaps primordial counterpart, within the subjective matrix of Christianity, of the submission to worldly authorities and the temporality of the wait attached that is attached to it. Saint Paul, as the original debates and proclamations surrounding the peasant revolt prove, is the name for the metastable conjunction of these two theologies. Herein, theology is simply the unsurpassable framework of our political thought. This thesis is conservative, fatalistic.
The second option is to argue that theology is merely an apparently seamless constriction, imposed by the interest of the dominant class, over the subjective practices of revolt. This, to some extent or another is the classical thesis of historical materialism, for which theology is in the main nothing but an obstacle, an epochal distortion of class struggle, determined by the particular state of the relations of production and their statist correlates,. This can be more or less virulent in its repudiation of the theological, considering, with Marx, a possibly positive function in religious-revolutionary enthusiasm, or, with Engels, seeing religion either as an iron mask over class struggle or as traversed by a debilitating double truth (such that Thomas Müntzer, at the helm of his armed league of peasants, could not voice what the real content of his practice was).
The third option is to argue that the form of revolt, or the form of cultural revolution, as such is indifferent to the distinction between the political and the theological. This is the stance of Lardreau and Jambet, who put forward the Manichean thesis of the two worlds, implying that Lin Piao and the early Christian desert monks are essentially subjects of the same transhistorical injunction to have done with mastery, whilst the Catholic Church and Deng Xiaoping likewise stand united on the side of mastery. Since the history of revolt and the history of mastery (the latter being a discontinuous, vanishing or even foreclosed history) are essentially separate from one another and indifferent to the politics/theology distinction the subject of revolt does not enjoy any kind of dialectical articulation with ideology and thus escapes any thesis of secularization.
Badiou’s own contribution to this debate is tellingly formulated by way of a commentary on Engels’ writings on the German Peasants’ War, and specifically on the articulation between religion, revolt and ideology. Still within the categorial ambit of the historical materialist, Marxist-Leninist tradition, Badiou’s theory of communist invariants is essentially articulated around two arguments.
(1) Aspirations for radical equality, for the annihilation of property and state, are present throughout the history of politics, revealed in the intermittence of revolts, in the specific figures of the antagonism between domination and the dominated. A key thesis here is that the exploited have always known they’ve been exploited, that the height of ideology is precisely the thesis that ideology is efficacious through and through. Revolt is primary, indeed, as Badiou writes, the universal agent of transformation is the revolutionary revolt of the masses. Thus, communist invariants are essentially disjoined from any economic teleology and constitute the spontaneous thought of the masses in the face of the structured objectivity of exploitation, as represented by the dominant ideology. There is, in other words, an ‘immediate intelligence’ of communism, which constitutes the antagonistic thought of the masses, the force of their resistance, and which is unrepresentable from the point of view of the state.
(2) These communist invariants are only realised with the constitution of the proletariat, that is, with the advent of that figure that signals the transformation of the masses (and not the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, etc.) into the revolutionary class. The communist invariants, which until then had been structurally destined to defeat – (a) expressed in the language of domination and (b) serving the needs of another class – are now themselves directed by the party and guided by the divisive analysis of class. This conjunctural opportunity is, in the eyes of Badiou and Balmès, absolutely new, and bound to the fact that the invariants are no longer a demand of equality heterogeneous to the order of representation, but, albeit foreclosed, are structurally transitive to this order. In other words, with the advent of capitalism the unrepresentable force that had driven revolt up to that point is capable, by means of the antagonistic conjunction of masses, class, and party, to assume its role as the foreclosed source of order, to take power in the clear knowledge that ‘resistance is the secret of domination.’
Now, this figure of revolt, crystallised in what the authors refer to as the ‘communism of production’, is entirely sustained by the historico-political notion of realisation, whereby the unrepresentable excess that has always driven revolt can constitute itself not just an intermittently recurring force, but, through class-antagonism and the appropriation of production, emerge as a transitional representation of the unrepresentable, as a dictatorship of the proletariat. Whilst this position is not the ‘classical type’ of a classist politics – as testified to by the eternity of the invariants and the decisionist character of the antagonism directed by the party, which evacuates the teleological dimension of classism, the idea of the party as ‘midwife’ of communism – it does accord to class a crucial role, to wit that of providing the dialectical articulation of the unrepresentable demands of resistance (‘the eternity of the equal’) and the law which structures and orders representations (in this case the ideological expression of the relations obtaining under capitalism). The transitivity of the excess (in the guise of resistance) to the structural totality (the capitalist mode of production and its ideological component) is crucial here; it sustains, in the domain of historical becoming, what Badiou will later refer to as the Marxist hypothesis, which posits the task of egalitarian politics as the domination of non-domination.
4. The Revolution of the Common Man: Excursus on the German Peasants’ War
‘Anno domini 1525, at the beginning of the year, there was a great, unprecedented upheaval of the Common Man throughout the German lands’, thus we read in Stumpfs Reformationschronik, the attestation of what Marx too would call ‘the most radical fact of German history’. Badiou’s early assessment of this fact, whilst providing the occasion for formulating his theory of communist invariants, and tending toward the most positive characterization possible of the part played by non-ideological subjectivity in such a revolt, nevertheless seems to follow the Marxist vulgate in declaring the material and historical necessity of its failure. Thus the standoff between his early dialectical materialism and the angelic philosophy of plebeian resistance, of the kind put forward by Jambet and Lardreau, seems to recapitulate another philosophical debate, the one which saw György Lukacs, in his History and Class Consciousness, provide a scathing critique of Ernst Bloch’s Thomas Müntzer: Theologian of the Revolution. Whilst Bloch certainly did style himself a Marxist, his positing of an Ubique – a trans-historical, mystical kernel of revolt that Marxism actualized despite itself, and which was only being unearthed by what he regarded as the ‘religious element’ in the Russian revolution – is not unlike the ‘thesis of the Angel’, of the juxtaposition of the world of the Rebel and the world of the Master, of cultural revolution and ideological revolution, offered by Lardreau and Jambet in their l’Ange.
The stark repudiation of mastery in the 1525 revolt, despite the customary references to the Pauline requirement to respect worldly authorities, is patent. Michael Gaismair, revolutionary leader in Tyrol and the author of a truly astounding and lucid plan for the constitution and economic structure of a non-capitalist republic in Switzerland, wrote of creating a union of ‘masterless men’. Müntzer, whose statement Omnia sint communia is the very emblem of communist invariance, even took this repudiation of authority into theological terrain, arguing in his theology of crucifixion that the ascetic assumption of suffering was akin to a becoming God and even bridging the gap between scatology and eschatology. As Luigi Parinetto notes in his fine if idiosyncratic La rivolta del diavolo, in Melanchton we find transcribed what was allegedly one of his enemy’s favourite formulae: ‘I shit on God, if he does not put himself at my service like he did with Abraham and the Prophets.’ Mannheim plausibly argues in Ideology and Utopia that the revolts of 1525, inasmuch as they are motivated the apocalyptic sermons of the likes of Müntzer are anarchistic (‘leftist’ in Badiou’s parlance), not socialist: ‘Chiliasm considers the revolution as a value in itself; it is not at all a means to attain a rational purpose, but rather is conceived as the only creative principle in the present.’
For Lukacs, who includes his critique of Bloch’s Müntzer within a broader attack on the insufficiencies of any revolutionary humanism, the problem of the peasants’ revolt is the problem of starting from man in Christianity and the gospels. This entails either the conservative ontology of a moral defence of the status quo, the political theology of authority mentioned above; or a utopian response which is itself split into apocalypse as the global annihilation of empirical reality, on the one hand, or the ascetic ontology of the saint, on the other. Any relaxation of utopia, as in the collapse of cultural into ideological revolution mapped by Lardreau and Jambet, equals the capitulation to conservatism, a capitulation which Lukacs contends is written into the very undialectical fabric of the utopian instinct. Revolutionary utopianism is mired in undialectical humanism, a ‘consumption communism’ (of the kind some have accused Hardt and Negri of peddling, incidentally). It depends on the idea that an unblemished internal life could be awakened independently of man’s concrete historical life, that we could simply organise the exodus from the apparatuses of production and reproduction impinging on the realisation of a non-dominated human essence. What’s more, Lukacs reaffirms the Weberian thesis that this revolutionary messianism was not by chance developed in the heartlands of capitalism, and was thus but the preparation for a subjection to the imperatives of capital: ‘For the union of an inwardness, purified to the point of total abstraction and stripped of all traces of flesh and blood, with a transcendental philosophy of history does indeed correspond to the basic ideological structure of capitalism’ (p. 192). The target of Lukacs polemic is thus the ‘irreducible quality and unsynthesized amalgam of the empirical and the utopian’ that he finds obscured by the elemental vigour of Müntzer.
But closer inspection of the way in which the religious and utopian premises of the theory concretely impinge upon Müntzer’s actions will reveal the same ‘dark and empty chasm’, the same ‘hiatus irrationalis’ between theory and practice that is everywhere apparent where a subjective and hence undialectical utopia directly assaults historical reality with the intention of changing it. Real actions then appear – precisely in the objective, revolutionary sense – wholly independent of the religious utopia: the latter can neither lead them in any real sense, nor can it offer concrete objectives or concrete proposals for their realisation. When Ernst Bloch claims that this union of religion with socio-economic revolution points the way to a deepening of the ‘merely economic’ outlook of historical materialism, he fails to notice that his deepening simply by-passes the real depth of historical materialism. When he then conceives of economics as a concern with objective things to which soul and inwardness are to be opposed, he overlooks the fact that the real social revolution can only mean the restructuring of the real and concrete life of man. He does not see that what is known as economics is nothing but the system of forms objectively defining this real life. The revolutionary sects were forced to evade this problem because in their historical situation such a restructuring of life and even of the definition of the problem was objectively impossible. But it will not do to fasten upon their weakness, their inability to discover the Archimedean point from which the whole of reality can be overthrown, and their predicament which forces them to aim too high or too low and to see in these things a sign of greater depth.
Crucially, Lukacs hold that is strictly impossible for the individual to exit the situation of reification, especially through an affirmation of inner freedom which is merely the utopian counterpart of a frozen empirical realm. The species, or even Gattungswesen, as a mythologized individual, is also incapable of such a feat. ‘And the class, too, can only manage it when it can see through the reified objectivity of the given world to the process that is also its own fate’ (p. 193). Lukacs thus concurs to some extent with Badiou, though the latter, in order not to hold what he thinks is the untenable thesis of the complete unconsciousness of revolt to itself – that is in order to affirm a pre-proletarian or pre-revolutionary political space not entirely under the thrall of ideological dissimulation – put forward his theory of communist invariants. Like the latter he also provides a strong critique of the leftist deviation which emerges in a certain political theology of revolt, which depends on the dualistic matrix of the utopian and the empirical, or the Angel and the Master.
But do any of these stances really do justice to the relation between politics and theology in the peasants’ war? Much of the recent work on that ‘radical fact’ testifies against the Marxist tenets behind the work of Lukacs and Badiou – inasmuch as the latter, in order to bolster the logical singularity of the proletariat as class subject must overplay the importance of theology in that historical event (and, we might add, in other events too), thus skating over its invention of its own modalities of political thought and subjectivity. This is what emerges in part, from the work of the historian Peter Blickle, who attacked the primarily East German, Engels-derived thesis of 1525 as an ‘early bourgeois revolution’ as untenable, countering with the thesis of the revolution of the common man: according to this thesis the peasants’ war was a transversal alliance, across classes, as well as across the division between those who were to suffer the impositions of princely absolutism and, we should add, following Parinetto, the joint destructive political effects of the rise of monopoly capital, personified by the figure of Jacob Fugger (or Fucker, as Luther preferred to call him) – an explicit nemesis of figures like Gaismair. Here the figure of the common man is neither an invariant doomed to failure, nor a mere unwitting vehicle for the irruption of a bourgeois revolution, nor even a theologically overdetermined figure that substitutes for the proletariat as the only subject conscious of its own revolt and that revolt’s conditions – it is instead a political configuration in its own right, in which the religious element does not play the overweening ideological role ascribed to it by many interpreters. It is worth noting here that the preference for a preacher like Müntzer over a far more articulate political agitator like Gaismair is an index of the refusal to immanently think the political mode of the 1525 revolts, preferring to immerse it into a political-theological matrix dominated by the themes of ideology, secularization and the invariance of communist utopia – leading to the overestimation of the theological debates over the Reformation in the genesis of the peasants’ revolt and the fascination with the theological-political juxtaposition of Luther and Müntzer.
5. Nihil novi sub sole?, or, Left and Right Deviations in Political Theology
One of Badiou’s early dialectical theses, put forward most forcefully in his reading of Hegel at the beginning of the Theory of the Subject (in seminars overlapping with the publication of the Theory of Contradiction) is that totalitarianism doesn’t exist, being what he calls a pure structural figuration with no historical reality, the idea that there is only the collapse of supposed novelty into the nihil novi sub sole of the eternal order and inevitability of mastery and hierarchy (the right wing, or structuralist stance) or a powerless, suicidal, leftism, a novelty so absolute it cannot get its hands dirty with realisation (the anarchist or libidinal materialist capitulation to mastery and semblance of revolt). The thesis of totalitarianism is essentially bound to this dualistic matrix so prominent in the work of Jambet and Lardreau as well as André Glucksmann: the state and the plebe (but no proletariat), the master and the angel (but no subject).
Badiou turns to the history of the church in order to illustrate this critical point. Indeed, he argues that the Hegelian dialectics of division is entirely organised around the reciprocal torsion and determinations of the relationship between the Father, with which Badiou schematizes force, and the Son, with whom he schematizes place. Both dualistic anarchism (i.e. there is pure force without process) and the fatalistic idea of a perennial structural repetition (i.e. there is a structure of places free of force), are thus presented as the by-products of the process of division itself, or, more precisely as the arrests in the process of division that, according to Badiou, moves through the figures of Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The ‘leftist’ deviation and the ‘rightist’ deviation are thus equivalent not in their manifest content, which is indeed reversed, but rather in the fact that they both deny the dialectics of force, the real process of determination – they both freeze division, turning contradiction into opposition. Within the history of the Church, the rightist heresy of Aryanism collapses the passion of the Christ into the statement that ‘the Son is only a creature’, that is, Christ is human and there is no link between the infinite and the finite (that he was only a place, not an intrinsic division or determination of the force of God). The ‘leftist’ heresy of Gnosticism, in the contrary, de-dialecticizes the resurrection, stating that ‘God has never descended into the world’, that the Christ is absolutely divine and cannot be endowed with a real body. ‘Just as much as the peaceable and reasonable hierarchical order of the Aryans, this ultra-leftist heresy, obsessed by the pure and the original, violently oriented toward Manichaeism, blocks the dialectical fecundity of the message.’ In the axiom of the council of Nicea, the split identity of God and Christ, Badiou recognizes the key need for a dialectical thinking of revolt, to always think the identity in division of force and place, the work of purification and not the reality of purity. It is not the least of the interests of Badiou’s early texts that a philosophy of revolutionary rupture also presents itself as a defence of orthodoxy, of a living orthodoxy that must continually separate itself from its non-dialectical fallout.
The passage, after the publication in 1985 of Peut-on penser la politique?, to a non-dialectical theory of political subjectivation, generic equality and truth, whilst it might allow us to think the autonomous modality of political subjects such as Geismair’s ‘common man’, nevertheless leaves in abeyance what I would in the earlier work appears as the problem of realisation: without the historical a priori of the proletariat and its logical power the eternity of communism cannot be translated into the reality of communism, cannot be fully subjectivated. Does this mean that we remain in the inevitably ideological grip of masks and displacements, inasmuch as the communist invariants are always included within a particular ideological conjuncture and can never find their ‘proper’ expression? Or are we indeed to leave behind the entire problem of ideology, and of the religious and theological mediations of politics, for the sake of a renewed attention to the autonomy of politics?
A Brief History of Fanaticism
"Who writ the histories of the Anabaptists but their enemies?"
- Richard Overton, leveller
Wherever we look, the attempt to bind – in an emancipatory manner – political action and truth has been confronted with the accusation of fanaticism. Indeed, we could say that any attempt to evaluate the theoretical and organisational manifestations of a politics of truth, or even its most basic preconditions, cannot afford to circumvent the circulating idea of egalitarian politics as a properly fanatical pursuit, a denial of mediation and representation, in short, as a type of practice that would simply secularise (in some acceptation of this fraught and layered notion) certain theological, cultic or even archaically ritual motifs. Though the refrain and reproach of fanaticism (and related concepts of millenarianism, chiliasm, and political messianism) is manifestly entangled with the ‘classical’ critique of totalitarianism and Terror, it is of special interest because of its concern with political subjectivity and what it sees as the religious matrix of uncompromising or ‘true’ political action. Rather than merely engaging in historico-political categorisation and condemnation, the notion of fanaticism aims to reveal the transcendental and epistemological errors that underlie any attempt at a robust linkage of politics and truth. Indeed, unlike totalitarianism and Terror, fanaticism is perhaps primarily a question concerning the thinkable. I would thus like this brief investigation of some of the tropes and signature events of the critique of fanaticism to serve as a propedeutic to answering the question under whose banner we are speaking today. To answer it, hopefully, in the affirmative.
In so doing, I’m concerned with fanaticism as an abiding object of horrified fascination, but also, more generally, as a symptom of a poverty of analysis and imagination, bound to the wish to remain within a closed horizon defined by the mastery of differences and finite possibilities afforded by our political common sense. The field of history, and of the theses proffered to account for certain key conjunctions of politics and truth, most often in a religious or spiritual vein, is crucial in this respect. ‘Fanaticism’, when ascribed to singular subjects or movements, is a political and historical judgment, a judgment which incorporates the idea that an egalitarian politics of truth is in some sense a-historical and therefore anti-political. The ‘point at which theology and social protest intersect’, as the historian Peter Blickle refers to it, thus remains one through which a politics of truth must pass, if only because its adversaries and detractors have set up their tribunals there long ago.
The equation of egalitarian and primary communist politics under the rubric of fanaticism is hardly a recent fact. Edmund Burke famously spoke of an ‘epidemical fanaticism’, which, in continuity with the peasant depredations, or levellings, of the Anabaptists of Munster, afflicted an anti-clerical revolutionary France – asking ‘to what country in Europe did not the progress of their fury furnish cause for alarm?’ In this respect, we might observe that the theory of fanaticism is the reactionary obverse of what Badiou and Balmès termed ‘communist invariants’ in their 1976 text on ideology. The Cold War saw a rich, if monotonous seam of tracts and analyses focussing on fanaticism as the subjective determinant, affect, cognitive position or ethical stance which uncovered a supposed continuity between mediaeval millenarian uprisings and communism. Norman Cohn’s seminal The Pursuit of the Millennium, used as a resource even in anti-systemic works such as Vainegem’s, is canonical in this respect and remains a reference – even for authors such as Anatol Lieven, who seek to unearth the millenarian roots of contemporary American nationalist fanaticism. In an erudite, albeit nouveax-philosophical vein, we could cite Dominique Colas often shrill but instructive Civil Society and Fanaticism: Conjoined Histories. In such books, fanaticism designates a form of anti-representational, millenarian politics. Or rather, inasmuch as politics is identified with civil society, and with the maintenance of certain ‘natural’ levels of inequality and distinctions of culture, ethnicity and identity, fanaticism – and its supposed search for an absolute and incarnate truth – is designated as violent anti-politics par excellence. Of course, many other texts could be considered, for instance J.L. Talmon’s influential The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, with its analysis of a continuity between the French revolution and 20th century ‘totalitarian movements’ in terms of a concept of political (or totalitarian) messianism. More to the point perhaps, is the indication of the fundamental continuity between the anti-communist denunciation of political fanaticism – also present within the philosophical field in Merleau-Ponty’s attack on Sartre’s ultra-bolshevist decisionism – and the proponents of ‘radical democracy’. Ernesto Laclau’s endorsement of Cohn’s work on the millenarian character of communism in the concluding passages of New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time is more than symptomatic in this respect, inasmuch as he considers the millenarian tendency to betoken a ‘limitless representability’, that famous transparency of the social which Marxist and revolutionaries have allegedly sought, ravaging the world with their impossible, hysterical demands. Laclau’s use of Cohn is also revealing inasmuch as it shows the reversibility or coincidence within the notion of fanaticism between anti-representation – in what Kant in the Critique of Judgment regarded as the delusion to SEE the infinite in a positive presentation – and total representation, such that perfect, i.e. unmediated representability, is indistinguishable from the death of representation.
As Colas notes, of course, the reproach of fanaticism, and its oppositional pairing with civil society, runs throughout modernity – featuring in such works as Leibniz’s Theodicy, Voltaire’s Muhammad, or Fanaticism and more recently, John Paul II’s Centesimus annus. However, following Colas’ lead, we shall focus on the reception of the salient episode in this peculiarly monotonous history and focus principally on three moments: the historical and theoretical debates around the German Peasants’ War of 1525. The principal source for the trope of fanaticism may in fact be found in the ideologue of Protestantism and companion of Luther, Philipp Melanchton (in a commentary on Aristotle’s Politics from 1529), though crucially, for the anti-communist and ‘postmodern’ revisionism which has been with us since the late 70s, it is a theme which is given its philosophical droit de cité in Kant’s Critique of Judgment and other writings, where we encounter the crucial distinction between the mania of fanaticism, at once iconoclastic and idolatrous, and the admissible madness of political enthusiasm – a distinction which has received significant treatment in the writings of Lyotard and Arendt, among others. As for Islamism, which I shall touch upon with respect to Foucault, it is no mystery that it has supplanted communism as the main object of that epithet – thus returning us to some of the less savoury aspects of the Enlightenment excoriation of fanaticism, witness Voltaire.
The philosophical history of fanaticism is an instructive one. What we need today are antidotes to the role of the concept of fanaticism as a kind of negative talisman, a tool for exorcism: rather than accepting the image of a fanatical invariant, and of a trans-historical divide between the partisans of fallibility and the partisans of the absolute (and of partisanship itself), disactivating the lure of fanaticism from within might permit us to lay the groundwork for a position that might do justice to instances of uncompromising egalitarian politics, without disfiguring them as simple instances of a metaphysical temptation. As I shall indicate in the conclusion, to leave behind the lure of fanaticism, we need to leave behind the terms of the juxtaposition between the critique of representation and the ‘critique of the critique of representation’. From a historical, and not just philosophical level, this means treating the political subject not the merely at ideational level (where the blind affect of fanaticism is the centrepiece) but in terms of its specific conditions of emergence and organisation.
‘Anno domini 1525, at the beginning of the year, there was a great, unprecedented upheaval of the Common Man throughout the German lands’, thus we read in Stumpfs Reformationschronik, bearing witness to what Marx too would call ‘the most radical fact of German history’. Since the reaction to the supposedly delusional politics of messianic truth at the heart of this upheaval is the locus classicus of the discourse on fanaticism, I’d like to dwell here on some of the theoretical responses to it. These orbit, for the most part, around the character of the German Peasants’ War as a manifestation of what Alain Badiou, in D’un désastre obscur, has dubbed ‘the eternity of communism’ – of a politics of truth based on a hypothesis of non-domination, i.e., on axiomatic equality (as encapsulated in the statement ‘men think’, les gens pensent) and the systematic dismantling of any mastery over truth. In this respect, the conservative or reactionary tradition that has reiterated its attacks on a supposed political fanaticism for the past 500 years is perhaps to be grasped first and foremost as an attack on the possibility of a thought that would refuse a mastery or authority over truth and its partition, as a putting of truth in its proper place and a termination of any socially efficacious ‘raving with reason’ (to use Kant’s term) – an attack on a politics of truth which, as Badiou himself put it in Peut-on penser la politique?, might seek to make inegalitarian statements impossible.
Reading the proclamations, drafts and constitutions collected in compendiums such as the recent The German Peasants’ War, we can say that the drastic repudiation of mastery in the 1525 revolt, despite the customary references to the Pauline and Lutheran requirement to respect worldly authorities, is patent and that this – rather than the ruleless, deep-seated and brooding passion of Schwarmerei as Kant would have it – is the key to these political movements. Of course, Thomas Müntzer, whose statement Omnia sint communia (let everything be in common) is perhaps the emblem of Badiou’s communist invariance, did take this repudiation of authority into passionate theological terrain, proposing, in his theology of crucifixion, that the ascetic assumption of suffering – and the desire, as he put it in his reading of Daniel, to make oneself insane in what is most intimate – was akin to a becoming God. This utter repudiation of mastery went to the extent of bridging the gap between scatology and eschatology. Melanchton thus transcribes what was allegedly one of his enemy’s favourite formulae: ‘I shit on God, if he does not put himself at my service like he did with Abraham and the Prophets.’ Yet, when the likes of Michael Gaismair, revolutionary leader in Tyrol and the author of a an astoundingly lucid programme for the constitution and economic structure of a non-capitalist republic in Switzerland, write of creating a union of ‘masterless men’ – in terms of a rupture with the order of authority and privilege, rather than an ascetic and fanatical rapture – we can begin to see that the theme of fanaticism might be cloaking the reality of a communist politics in the state of mind of a communist apocalypse.
The figure of Müntzer, recently resurrected in the historical novel Q., also features in History and Class Consciousness, where Lukács articulates an unsparing critique of Ernst Bloch’s utopianism – as manifest in the latter’s 1919 book, Thomas Müntzer: Theologian of the Revolution. Whilst Bloch was unequivocal about his Marxist allegiance, Lukács, adamant about the non-substitutable role of the proletariat in a historical materialism, attacked the former’s positing of an Ubique – a trans-historical, mystical kernel of revolt that Marxism actualised despite itself, and which was only being unearthed by what Bloch regarded as the ‘religious element’ in the Russian revolution. For Lukács – who inserts his critique of Bloch’s Müntzer within a broader assault on the shortcomings of any revolutionary humanism – the problem of the peasants’ revolt is the problem, inherited from Christianity and the gospels, of starting from man. This entails either the conservative ontology underlying a moral defence of the status quo, i.e. the Pauline-Lutheran political theology of authority mentioned above; or a utopian response which is in turn split into apocalypse as the global annihilation of empirical reality, on the one hand, and the ascetic psychology of the saint, on the other. In this Christian speculative Leftism, as it were, relaxation of utopia equals the capitulation to conservatism, a capitulation which Lukács contends is written into the very undialectical fabric of the utopian instinct. Revolutionary utopianism is thus mired in an undialectical humanism, as well as what he dismisses as a ‘consumption communism’. Such a millenarian communism depends on the idea that an unblemished internal life could be awakened independently of man’s concrete historical life, that we could simply organise the exodus from the apparatuses of production and reproduction impinging on the realisation of a non-dominated human essence. What’s more, Lukács reaffirms the Weberian thesis whereby it is no accident that such a revolutionary messianism developed in the heartlands of capitalism, and was thus but the preparation for a subjection to the imperatives of capital. As he puts it:
For the union of an inwardness, purified to the point of total abstraction and stripped of all traces of flesh and blood, with a transcendental philosophy of history does indeed correspond to the basic ideological structure of capitalism (192).
The target of Lukács’s polemic is thus the ‘irreducible quality and unsynthesized amalgam of the empirical and the utopian’ that he finds obscured by the elemental subjective vigour of Müntzer. Bloch-Müntzer is guilty of the wishful, fanatical sin of trying to see the truth of revolution without wielding the tools of change in the scientifically propitious moment. As he says: ‘it is trapped in the same “dark and empty chasm”, the same “hiatus irrationalis” between theory and practice that is everywhere apparent where a subjective and hence undialectical utopia directly assaults historical reality with the intention of changing it’. Providing a Marxist twist to the critique of fanatical immediacy proper to the post-Kantian tradition, Lukács argues that, contrary to Bloch’s hopes for a vivifying fusion of the religious with the socio-economic, Müntzer’s proclamations merely show that social actions are ‘wholly independent of the religious utopia’. In making this argument, Lukács, who also contends that Bloch underestimates the depth of the restructuring of life called for by historical materialism, nevertheless remains faithful to the Engelsian orthodoxy: the revolt is an anachronism; for it, a definition of the problem of emancipation was ‘objectively impossible’. Crucially, Lukács holds that is strictly impossible for the individual to exit the situation of reification, especially through an affirmation of inner freedom which is merely the utopian counterpart of a frozen empirical realm. The species, or even Gattungswesen, qua mythologized individual, is also incapable of such a feat. ‘And the class, too, can only manage it when it can see through the reified objectivity of the given world to the process that is also its own fate’ (p. 193).
The figure of Müntzer and his peasant hordes also haunts Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, where millenarian fanaticism or chiliasm is presented as the paradigm, or zero-degree of utopia, defined as: ‘A state of mind … incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs’, and, significantly, as a state of mind, or situationally transcendent idea, which strives towards some kind of realization. For Mannheim there are 4 types of utopia: chiliastic, liberal, conservative, and socialist-communist, with the first two characterised by a kind of indeterminism or a notion of contingency (fanatical and decisionist in the first case, regulative and deliberating in the second) and the latter two by a determinateness or a notion of necessity (inert in the first case, transformative in the second).
Chiliasm is the zero-degree of utopia inasmuch as it is pitted against the old order in a total and uncompromising manner (to the point of pushing for a veritable exodus from the world). Its conjunction with the ‘social question’ amounts to a historical explosion:
The decisive turning-point in modern history was … the moment in which “Chiliasm” joined forces with the active demands of the oppressed strata of society. The very idea of the dawn of a millennial kingdom on earth always contained a revolutionizing tendency, and the church made every effort to paralyse this situationally transcendent idea with all the means at its command (190).
What’s more, this moment, in which ‘Chiliasm and the social revolution were structurally integrated’ (190) is the birth of modern politics, ‘if we understand by politics a more or less conscious participation of all strata of society in the achievement of some mundane purpose, as contrasted with the fatalistic acceptance of events as they are’ (191). The chiliasm of Müntzer, John of Leyden and their epigones, in other words, is for Mannheim the first anti-systemic movement, and modernity is not born of a secularization of politics but, as he puts it, of its spiritualization.
One of the features of modern revolution … is that it is no ordinary uprising against a certain oppressor but a striving for an upheaval against the whole existing social order in a thorough-going and systematic way (195n2).
Mannheim’s distinction between utopia and ideology is also a possible antidote against the pervasive the trope of fanaticism – which depicts ‘religious’ revolts as delusions, anti-political explosions of the social or failures of mediation. Utopias such as the peasants’, according to Mannheim, ‘are not ideologies, i.e. they are not ideologies in the measure and in so far as they succeed through counteractivity in transforming the existing historical reality into one more in accord with their own conceptions’ (176). Far from being reducible to a kind anti-representational frenzy, the chiliastic utopia is best seen as a creation of a new temporality by determinate social strata in a process which is formative of political consciousness. Contrary to what he condemns as the ‘liberal-humanitarian prejudice’ that politics is a matter of ideas and representations, such a transformation mobilises a political affect which is pre-representational without necessarily being anti-representational. What is more problematic in Mannheim is the unwillingness of thinking through the specifically political forms and political demands of this religious politics (among which are the Christian Unions and the peasant assemblies). This disavowal of organisational thought – dominant in most analyses of millenarian political movements – once again manifests itself in the fatal attraction for Müntzer, the apocalyptic preacher, over any other leader in the wars against the German lords.
The limitations of Mannheim’s sociology are especially evident in terms of the question of time:
It is the utopian element … which determines the sequence, order, and evaluation of single experiences. This wish is the organising principle which even moulds the way in which we experience time. The form in which events are ordered and the unconsciously emphatic rhythm, which the individual in his spontaneous observation of events imposes upon the flux of time, appears in the utopia as an immediately perceptible picture, or at least a directly intelligible set of meanings (188).
In other words, the time of revolution is wholly subordinated to the static and visible time of utopia, a time of synchronic apperception of the future. Political time is stifled by the supposedly primary role of subjective time, of a mindset or world-view. This inattention to the specific organisations, prescriptions and constituent processes undertaken by these putatively religious movements – and the documentary record is a rich and surprising one – means that the link between ideas, religion and social protest is ultimately read internally in terms of a suspension of time and externally or methodologically in terms of a variant of the philosophy of history. On the first count Mannheim plausibly argues that not ideas but ‘ecstatic-orgiastic energies’ were at stake in the revolt’s spiritualization of politics, and that chiliasm is marked by a ‘tendency always to dissociate itself from its own images and symbols’ (193). But in so doing he reduces his own image of the peasant revolts to the cognitive state of ‘absolute presentness’ (193), where there is ‘no inner articulation of time’, and in which revolution is ‘the only creative principle of the immediate present’ (196). On the second count, though not replicating the ideas of an ‘anachronism’ of the peasants’ war which features in much of the literature, Mannheim still argues that ‘every age allows to arise (in differently located social groups) those ideas and values in which are contained in condensed form the unrealized and the unfulfilled tendencies which represent the needs of each age’ (179).
But do such of these stances really do justice to the relation between politics and theology in the peasants’ war and similar events? Do they not simply reaffirm one of the constants in the diagnosis of fanaticism – the depoliticising idea of a historical anachronism, an epistemological misfit between religious form and political or social content? Much of the recent historical work on the ‘radical fact’ of 1525 argues against such an appraisal and what can be seen as a fallacious overestimation of the theological or spiritual element in so-called chiliastic politics. In this respect it goes against the grain of some Marxist readings, from Engels on the ‘early bourgeois revolution’ to Badiou’s ‘communist invariants’, via Lukács, which in order to bolster the logical singularity of the proletariat as class subject must overplay the importance of the mask of theology in historical events such as 1525 – thereby skating over the invention of modalities of political thought and subjectivity which are not merely immature social forces whose impossibility of translating themselves into political action bursts into history through the visionary violence of a fanatical project.
This is what emerges from the work of Peter Blickle, who counters Engels’ idea of an ‘early bourgeois revolution’ with the thesis of the ‘revolution of the common man’: according to this thesis the peasants’ war was a transversal alliance, across class groupings, to maintain urban independence and peasant autonomy in the face of the concentration of princely power and the devastations wrought by the rise of money capital, personified by the figure of the banker Jacob Fugger – an explicit nemesis both of Luther and of peasant leaders like Gaismair (the insult fucker was allegedly first used by Luther to attack said banker). Here the subjective figure of the common man is neither an invariant doomed to failure, nor a mere unwitting vehicle for the irruption of a bourgeois revolution, nor even a theologically over-determined figure that substitutes for the proletariat as the only subject conscious of its own revolt and that revolt’s conditions – it is instead a political configuration in its own right, in which the religious element does not play the overweening ideological role elsewhere ascribed to it.
In his essay ‘Social Protest and Reformation Theology’, Blickle investigates the war in terms of ‘the mutual dependence of Reformation theology and social protest’, asking the following questions: ‘(1) where and how is social protest articulated; (2) how does it stand in relationship to Reformation theology, and (3) what consequences arise from the possible combination of these two movements’? Contrary to the single-minded focus on the fanatical form taken by the politics of those groups and movements which triggered the peasants’ war of 1525, Blickle is attentive to the manner in which seemingly pragmatic and specific demands are combined with religious themes and citations from Biblical authority – which are accorded the function of minimal if perennial criteria of justice. As he puts it: ‘concrete economic and social demands are arranged within a vindicatory nexus with “the Word of God” and “the Gospel”’ – via the use of certain ‘logograms’ (4) proper to religious discourse. This articulation is divided by Blickle into positive protest, via the Gospel and towards a more just socio-economic order; and negative protest, via the Gospel and away from the socio-economic order altogether (what he calls “the exodus from history”). Justice and exodus. It is the vindicatory nexus which here not only has legitimising force but manages to make converge the urban protests of guilds with the demands of peasant communities and assemblies:
It provides the basis for urban and rural anticlericalism, with its cutting-edge against the monasteries and orthodox clergy; it legitimises the demand for communal autonomy, exemplified in the call for the right to decide issues of correct religious doctrine, to elect the minister and to allocate tithes; and it is ultimately made the yardstick of social and political order (8)
through the theme of the common weal or brotherly love. Urban demands in the German context primarily centre on representation and religious freedom, peasant demands around economic equality and autonomy. According to Blickle, reference to the Gospel allowed the putting forth of demands which would have been impossible with the prior form of legitimation (reference to the ‘old order’), such as the abolition of serfdom (9). There is thus a definite sequence, both causal and chronological, from urban to rural to chiliastic (or Anabaptist) – inasmuch as ‘the very experience of transforming Reformation theology into political practice was a necessary pre-condition of Anabaptist, negative protest’ (11). Negative, ‘fanatical’, protest – which takes the form of separation of the community of the faithful and Müntzer’s proclamation of a ‘total reversal of the secular order’ is thus seen to follow from a failed reformation in the city and military defeat in the countryside.
Interestingly, it is scripture which here, contrary to some of its later fundamentalist transformations, results in a negation of dogma and doctrinal authority. Most significantly, behind this oppositional and revolutionary use of Biblical ‘logograms’, which opened the way for a traversal of the town and city distinction in the figure of the common man, there lay the development of new political and organisational, as well as military forms (such as the Christian Union), institutional inventions that force us to move beyond the purely ideational and historico-philosophical interpretation of these phenomena crystallised in notion of fanaticism and related concepts of millenarianism and chiliasm.
If the German Peasants’ War, or revolution of the common man, is really the founding moment of modern politics, what is the role of the trope or accusation of fanaticism and of the theorization of political millenarianism in the estimation of contemporary political events?
With a certain inevitability, Foucault’s chronicles of the Iranian revolution, written for Il Corriere della sera, have been recently republished, in appendix to a volume whose equally inevitable subtitle is ‘Gender and the Seductions of Islamism’. The dossier presented in this book covers all the themes I’ve introduced herein: the spiritualization of politics (a term Foucault uses repeatedly), the figure of Müntzer (who Foucault mentions together with Savonarola and Cromwell in writing about Khomenei), the matter of the temporality proper to religious politics (he speaks of the ‘continuous impatience’ which drives political Shi’ism) and, of course, the accusation of abetting fanaticism (forcefully put to Foucault in the pages of Le Monde by an Iranian woman dissident). Throughout these texts – which are not devoid of the kind of two-dimensional ‘plebeian’ anti-Marxism of the nouveaux philosophes, with whom he sympathised with at the time – Foucault tries to resist and provoke what he sees as a typically Occidental supercilious dismissal of religious politics. He highlights the importance, within the mounting social turmoil in Iran, of a religious resistance to what he calls the ‘modernisation-corruption-despotism’ series, explicitly trying to resist the capture of the situation in Iran by the ‘millenarian concept’ of fanaticism (708). Foucault also counters some of the more naïve or platitudinous responses to the spiritualization of politics and its relation to the social. In a typically acerbic remark, he says:
Do you know the phrase that makes the Iranian sneer the most, the one that seems to them the stupidest, the shallowest, the most Western? “Religion is the opium of the people.” Up to the time of the current dynasty, the mullahs preached with a rifle by their side in the mosques (201).
Shi’ism is thus seen by Foucault not as inertial form, as the ideology that true revolutionaries need to cloak their discourse in, or even as a simple common vocabulary for popular aspirations. Religion is viewed not as a mask or vehicle but, somewhat in the terms used by Blickle to deal with the 1525 revolt – and indeed, in another passage on the subject, Foucault makes the analogy entirely explicit, writing of the Anabaptists – as a veritable crystallising force, inasmuch as it represents ‘a mode of social relations, a supple, and widely accepted, elementary organisation, a way of being together, a manner of speaking and listening, something which allows people to comprehend one another and will together’.
In his 1977 preface to the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus Foucault had uttered the following directive for what he famously called a non-fascist ethics of thought: ‘Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action’ (xiv). It is thus striking to see, how, at certain moments in his reports, and for all the micro-political methodology elsewhere employed, with its techniques, technologies, discourses and dispositifs, Foucault turns to one of the most classical forms of the grounding of political truth, the collective will. Explicitly sidelining the occidental prism of power struggles and political intrigues – not to mention the unabashedly ‘representational’ discourse of legal religious authority which was Khomenei’s crucial innovation – Foucault depicts in the Iranian revolution one of those insurgencies of the ‘plebs’ so dear to the anti-party, anti-Marxist, renegade Maoist rhetoric of the nouveaux philosophes. Whence the constant theme of a religious mass against the State. At the very time that he was lecturing in the Collège de France on the molecular administrative practises of governmental biopolitics, he encounters mass religious politics – and not political Islamism per se – as a peculiar realization of a kind of unmediated Rousseauian scene.
Faced with the advance of the revolution, Foucault asks himself whether the idea of Islamic government is to be seen as a reconciliation, contradiction or the threshold of a novelty? (694). His intuition was that the supposed absence of a classical political programme driving the revolutionary uprising was matched by the strength of will, ‘the collective will of a people’ (746) – ‘an abstraction in political philosophy encountered for the first time in the flesh’. Tellingly, Foucault seems to elide the idea that Iran manifested a finally embodied Rousseauianism with the provocative notion that this appearance of the popular will in a religiously articulated uprising was a general strike against politics. Or, more precisely, that it demonstrated a political will not to allow any grip within the uprising for politics as it is classically understood. The question for Foucault then, who remains rather pessimistic on this count, is that of knowing when this popular or general will, this spiritual plebeian irruption, was to be replaced by the instrumental exercise of politics.
It is undeniable, rereading the Corriere articles, that the supposedly non-representational will of this ‘spiritual politics’ exerted a massive fascination on Foucault. So that, despite himself, and in order to flee from the specific rationality of the historical materialist explanations he was opposing at the time, Foucault too fell prey to the lure of fanaticism, witness the following statement:
It is the same protest, the same will which is expressed by a doctor from Tehran and a mullah from the provinces, by a petrol worker, by an employee of the post office and by a student under her chador (715).
Khomeini – like Müntzer, but possibly through a far graver misunderstanding of the former’s ‘art of governing’ – is dramatised as attacking the very scene of politics, in ‘the first great insurrection against planetary systems, the most modern form of revolt and the maddest’ (716). In this short-circuit between an immovable spiritual leader and a convergent mass, the limit-concept of a totally anti-systemic politics, born with the German Peasants’ War and its intimations of negative protest, scuppers the attempt to think, in a determinate and organised form, the nature of a politics of truth. The anti-Marxist stance – which leads Foucault to argue that there is no classical social or political revolution at stake in Iran, no evident class struggle, social contradictions or political vanguard – together with the methodological focus on an eventality indifferent to consequences crystallises in a return, via a reference to François Furet, to the dichotomy and disjunction of revolt and revolution; a temporal and subjective asymmetry between the domain of social contradiction and change, on the one hand, and the specific (spiritual) intensity of the political act. Religion, no longer an ideology or a space of conciliation, is here ‘the vocabulary, the ritual, the atemporal drama wherein one could lodge the historical drama of a people which puts its existence on a balance with that of its sovereign’ (746). It is this which allows Foucault to endorse the mythic figure of a revolt of the people against the power, in a ‘bond between collective actions, religious ritual and act of public right or law’ (748) which suspends history:
Because it is thus “outside history” and in history, because everyone puts his or her life on the line, we can understand why uprisings have easily found in religious forms their expression and dramaturgy. Promises of the beyond, return of bygone periods, wait for the saviour or empire of the last days, undivided reign of the good, all of this has constituted for centuries, where the form of religion allowed it, not an ideological costume, but the very way of living uprisings (791).
Iran thus dramatises for Foucault a definitive refusal of the analytical schemas of either liberal or Marxist thought, or of ‘Western’ thought tout court, the irruption of a different ‘regime of truth’ (753). Reconnecting with a tradition whose roots lie in Stirner, revolt is seen by Foucault as the point of insertion of subjectivity within history, a protest against any notion of political ‘evolution’ or progress, such that a spiritualization of politics is read, via a projection onto Shi’ism, as a total, internal revolution (an inner exodus of the kind promoted in Müntzer). As Christian Jambet notes, for Foucault:
It is a matter not of the politics of a future State, but of the essence of an uprising, of the ‘spiritual’ politics that makes it possible, and this is, consequently, a ‘transcendental’ interrogation: under what conditions can a culture determine a revolt, on the basis of an experience and a hope marked by ‘events in the sky’?
Foucault’s customary method of ‘microanalysis’ is thus inflected in an explicitly non-teleological and indeed (contrary to the usual image of his thought) anti-strategic sense, witness Foucault’s motto: ‘be respectful when a singularity rises up, intransigent when power violates the universal’ (794). It is here, in the fantasy of a mass anti-systemic singularity, of a primal capacity for resistance against which revolution is a mere rationalist domestication, that lies Foucault’s subjection to the trope of fanaticism – not in a supposed collusion with ‘Islamism’ or in some dubious sort of homosexist Orientalism, as the authors of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution contend.
If a politics of truth is indeed to be thinkable we need to move beyond the Scylla of denunciation – fanaticism as the ideology of a failed or anachronistic politics, as anti-representation, as a way, following Lukács, of violently vaulting the hiatus between a humanistic idea and an unjust order – and the Charybdis of enthusiastic assumption of a politics of pure singularity or exodus. Moving beyond the trope of fanaticism, is, I believe, a condition sine qua non for the formulation of a politics of truth. Such a suspension of the denunciatory and mythological machine of fanaticism involves confronting three decisive issues:
A. The legacy of Kantianism
Inasmuch as the condemnation of fanaticism – as well as of the ‘totalitarian’ or ‘terroristic’ politics of truth that supposedly rest on the fanatical subreption, the delusion of pure presentation – achieves its modern canonical form in Kant, to what extent must we surpass the very transcendental parameters in which Kantianism poses the question of truth (or rather of truths – moral, scientific, political)? It is this question which organizes the differend staged at the end of The Ticklish Subject by Žižek between Lacan and Badiou. Is the non-totalization of being, which defuses the very problem of fanaticism, to be understood in terms of the ‘specific mode of human finitude’ (conceived, allegedly, in psychoanalytic and not merely anthropological terms), or is it rather to be grasped via what Badiou terms a mathematical secularization of the infinite – of an infinite which is not the delusional aim of political truth, but its starting point in the axiom of equality? My own sympathy for the second stance is in part driven by the limits of the Kantian opposition between a defensible political enthusiasm and a disastrous or terroristic fanaticism, as it features in the works of Lyotard and Arendt, among others. Part of this suspicion lies in the fundamental limitation of the category of enthusiasm to the figure of the political spectator – explicit in Kant’s and Arendt’s reading of the French revolution – and the impossibility within the Kantian horizon of thinking a political (rather than a moral) subject, and therefore a political (rather than a moral or scientific) truth, in terms other than a regulative notion of the human species.
B. The question of political versus historical time
Whether in the form of an immediate revelation of time in the fanatical vision of the future kingdom, a suspension of time in the intense act of revolt, or an outright denial of time, the vision of politics that shadows the notion of fanaticism seems unable to temporalise political truth. In this regard we could argue that Badiou’s suggestion that we think a properly political time, the time of sequences, periodisations and ‘historical modes of politics’ might be a way out of the oscillation between the apocalyptic suspension of time, on the one hand, and the neutralisation of politics and truth within a dense, historical time, on the other. Whilst such a treatment of political time in interiority, as it were, might bypass the problems of political anachronism which have bedevilled much historical materialism (see Lukács above), it always risks overcompensating by drawing a separation, at once stark and opaque, between politics and history, the truth of the subject and the profane density of the world. In brief, this is the problem of the relation to be entertained between a politics of truth and the entire tradition of dialectical thought, be it negative, messianic or materialist, for which the articulation of politics and history is of paramount concern. This distinction between politics and history in what concerns truth leads us to the final issue.
C. The problem of separation
Ever since Luther and Melanchton, the tradition of anti-fanatical thought, or what Colas calls the ‘critique of the critique of representation’, has rested on a defense of the separation between the city of men and the city of God. In more contemporary and secular writers such as Arendt, who have transformed the critique of fanaticism into a critique of totalitarianism, this immunising, demarcationist impulse is translated – still as a way to ward off the totalizing drive of a fanatical perception of truth – into a distinction between the social and the political, a distinction which in Arendt’s case is the object of, if not fanatical, at the very least obsessive concern. To what extent must a politics of truth maintain such demarcations, even or especially, as in the case of Badiou, when it moves beyond the Kantian framework? In what sense do there remain traces within such a politics of truth of a preoccupation with the possibility of a terrorising, unlimited truth – of the possibility for truth to overstep its proper bounds and generate what Badiou has termed a political disaster? Perhaps we could end by saying, in a more affirmative vein, that in the face of the line of thought running from Luther to our Kantian contemporaries, a politics of truth needs to construct what we could call its own protocols of limitation, protocols which are not over-determined by the fear, or better, the terror of fanaticism.