Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou’s critique of anarchism (Benjamin Noys)

    Blah blah blah Alain Badiou blah blah blah anarchism blah blah blah…

Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou’s critique of anarchism
Benjamin Noys
Anarchist Studies, Vol.16, No.2 (2008)


The French philosopher Alain Badiou is one of a number of contemporary theorists whose work has been identified as a source for postanarchism. This essay questions that identification by focusing on Badiou’s sustained criticism of anarchist and libertarian currents for their failure to engage fully with the difficulties of political power, and in particular their failure to break with capitalist and statist political forms. Although problematic, these criticisms converge with existing debates in the ‘movement of movements’, which have started to address the difficulty of finding egalitarian forms of practice to sustain the movement. These debates lead us towards the often elided problem of the relationship between postanarchist theory and anarchist practice.

It has become a commonplace to argue that we have witnessed the resurgence or renaissance of anarchism in recent years, particularly with the emergence of the ‘movement of movements’ after the Seattle uprising of 1999 or the earlier Chiapas uprising of 1994. David Graeber has poetically summarised the case: ‘Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of what’s most new and hopeful about it’ (2002: 62). This new attention to anarchist practice has been accompanied by a renewed interest in anarchist theory. In this, important parallels have been noted between the work of leading thinkers and philosophers, including Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciére, and anarchist themes and approaches. What is striking in both cases, especially the second, is the general absence of anarchism as an explicit reference point. It seems as if anarchism is the politics that dare not speak its name. One of the results of this absence has been the significant effort by anarchists or those sympathetic to anarchism to re-establish the anarchist credentials of the present. As Saul Newman, one of those responsible for this effort has put it: ‘perhaps anarchism can be seen as the hidden referent for contemporary radical politics’ (2007: 12). In fact, as Newman himself stresses, this is one way to define postanarchism: as the production of a synthesis that will establish that both contemporary radical political practice and political theory constitutes a new form, or new paradigm, for anarchism.

To make good on this argument postanarchist thinkers have typically made a double move. First they have argued that many contemporary theories, which are usually identified as post-structuralist or post-Marxist, are better understood through the lens of a revised anarchism. While these theories often remain attached to a residual Marxism or are vague about their political implications, integrated into anarchism they can become truly radical. The ways in which these theories challenge the primacy of class explanation, attack the dominance of the state and attend to the micro-politics of power, converge with anarchist thought and practice. The second move is to argue that these theories allow us to purge ‘traditional’ anarchism of its humanist, naturalist, and positivist residues. Post-structuralist or post-Marxist thought allows us to shift anarchism away from its supposed reliance on a set of ‘essential’ human qualities or norms that would then dictate a natural, or true, politics. In this way, it is argued, these theories open anarchism up to a new thinking ‘that embraces contingency and indeterminacy and rejects essentialist identities and firm ontological foundations’ (Newman 2007: 16). The postanarchist synthesis is then often linked to the new forms of decentered and dispersed practice in the movement of movements, to this new political and social inventiveness that remains unconstrained by the limits of traditional anarchism. In this way a narrative has been constructed in which the ‘hidden referent’ of anarchism is explicit: our moment is anarchist in theory and practice if we fundamentally revise what we mean by anarchism to become postanarchist.

Critics rightly argue that this seemingly persuasive narrative tends to flatten the depth of traditional anarchism into the cliché of ‘essentialism’ (Conn 2002). Yet my concern is the way in which postanarchism operates with a smooth and trouble free narrative of its emergence as a new paradigm, while claiming to inject into politics conflict and antagonism. I want to suggest that the making of postanarchism is considerably more problematic by focusing on the case of one thinker who has started to be assimilated within postanarchism, the French philosopher and political militant Alain Badiou. My reason for selecting Badiou is that despite having much in common with anarchism and postanarchism he is also highly critical of anarchism, claiming that it is unable to deal with the complexities and practicalities of power. In this way Badiou raises crucial issues for both anarchist theory and anarchist practice, questions which remain unsettled.

First I will consider the reason why Badiou has been considered attractive to postanarchism. This will involve a discussion of Badiou’s own political and theoretical evolution. In particular I will focus on his discussion of the Paris Commune of 1871, in which his arguments concerning this workers’ uprising converge with anarchist arguments. Secondly, I will consider in more detail Badiou’s criticisms of anarchism. These are not so much directed at anarchism per se but they do take in many of the currents of thought that have influenced postanarchism. Finally I want to examine how Badiou’s criticisms have found an echo in recent discussions within the anarchist and anti-capitalist milieu. Here we can see emerging a new debate concerning the practical means by which we might achieve and sustain egalitarian and anarchist social forms. My approach then is not to confront directly postanarchism, nor is it to answer the question of whether we can really consider Badiou to be a postanarchist. Instead, by taking a detour through Badiou’s criticisms of anarchism, I want to return to consider the difficult question of the link, often elided, between postanarchist theory and anarchist practice.


At first glance Alain Badiou appears as an unlikely candidate for assimilation into postanarchism, especially if we consider his intellectual and political formation.[1] In the 1960s he was a student of the leading Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and his early work was concerned with developing theories of aesthetics and of mathematics from a Marxist persepective. Like many others Badiou was radicalised by the events of May 1968, but he did not take up a libertarian or anarchist position. Rather he was one of the founder members of the Maoist organisation Union of Communists of France Marxist-Leninist (UCFML). This group was never slavish in its attitude to the ‘official’ Maoism of the Chinese Communist Party and it was sceptical about the possibility of building the Party at that time in France, making it an unusual far left formation. Yet it retained a quite typical Marxist attitude to anarchist or anarchist style activity – one of condemnation and unremitting criticism. The group dissolved in 1985 and several of its militants, including Badiou, formed a new group Organisation Politique (OP). This new group continued the path of political militancy, but defined itself more firmly as a post-party formation.

In terms of his theoretical work Badiou published his magnum opus Being and Event in 1988, translated into English in 2005. This dense work defended the modern project of philosophy through the deployment of the mathematics of set-theory. As the title of the book suggests Badiou was not simply concerned to describe matters as they are but also the possibility of events: radical ruptures with the rules and structures of existing situations. In the field of the political – one of the four fields in which events can take place, alongside art, love and science – this means that he retains a fidelity to the event of revolution, signalled for him by 1917. At the same time, in his own political practice and in various books, essays, and interventions, Badiou has both insisted on the need to revise old political models and the need to constantly contest the politics of the present. His short book Ethics (2001), which forms the best introduction to his work, engages in a violent polemic against the ideological abuse of ‘ethics’ to provide justification for the domination of capitalism and the state. Unusually for a philosopher, Badiou has maintained a dialogue between his theoretical work and political militancy that has persisted through the waning of the political hopes invested in May 1968 and the context of an increasingly reactionary intellectual turn following September 11 and the ‘war on terror’. It is this political intransigence which, in part, makes Badiou such an influential and attractive figure for re-thinking contemporary radical politics.

While Badiou’s own political practice has been hostile to the anarchist tradition there are strong points of convergence between his work and anarchism. The most obvious, which stems from his political practice, is his increasing scepticism towards the party form. Badiou regards this form as one that is now exhausted and that must be replaced by a new post-party politics. Another point of convergence is that Badiou has always retained his hostility to the state and to what Deleuze and Guattari identified as ‘State thought’ (1988: 24). Finally, Badiou has always insisted on a radically egalitarian notion of the potential for everyone to be engaged with radical thought and practice. Although Badiou’s thought has shifted and changed he has always maintained these central tenets at the core of his work. It is for these reasons that Saul Newman has drawn on Badiou’s work (amongst others) to define postanarchism, arguing that Badiou ‘veers quite close towards anarchism’ (2007: 12). While this is true, we might also note that Badiou also violently veers away from anarchism. To further study this matter of proximity and distance I want to consider a more detailed case of Badiou’s veering towards and away from anarchism in his discussion of the Paris Commune.

In his essay “The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics’ (2003) (in Badiou 2006: 257-290) Badiou takes issue with classical Marxist and Leninist interpretations of the failure of the Paris Commune. As Badiou points out the classical Marxist position was ambiguous: on the one hand stressing the dissolution of the state and, on the other hand, the formation of the party as the body capable of seizing and organising a new state (Badiou 2006: 264). He goes on to argue that the Marxist interpretation of the Commune embodies this ambiguity, in which the Commune, which dissolved the state, is taken to have failed because of the lack of the party. The solution proposed by Marxism to the conundrum is ‘the figure of the party-state’ (Badiou 2006: 264). For Badiou this ‘solution’ is an evasion of the political truth of the Commune: the truth can only be reached by reactivating the Commune as the figure of the dissolution of the state without the party, rather than burying it in a narrative of failed revolution. Considering his past, it is unsurprising that Badiou turns to the Maoism of the Cultural Revolution as an example of such a reactivation. What he suggests, however, is that this represents the point at which Maoism tried and failed to think outside of its Leninist and Stalinist inheritance. While the Chinese proposed the Commune as experience to learn from, the attempt to take possible forms outside the domain of the party was reined in ‘by the tutelary figure of the party’ (Badiou 2006: 269). This failure leads Badiou to pose the question of how, today, ‘we have to take up the challenge of thinking politics outside of its subjection to the state and outside of the framework of parties or of the party’ (2006: 270). Anarchists might well reply this has been exactly what anarchism has been doing for at least two hundred years . . .

What is Badiou’s answer to this challenge? First he insists that the Commune should be understood as breaking with the context of the ‘Left’, which Badiou reads as those who translate a political movement back into parliamentary politics (Badiou 2006: 272). This vehement rejection of the existing ‘Left’ places Badiou in proximity to those anarchists who have articulated ‘anarchy after Leftism’ (Black 1997), as a critique of the statist residues in Marxism. Unlike the post-Leftist anarchists, however, Badiou is still loyal to the anti-statist elements of Marxism. Rejecting the ‘Left’ interpretation he holds to his own complex political ‘ontology’ of the Commune that can articulate a truly anti-state analysis. Badiou uses the tools of his own philosophy, which itself deploys the discourse of contemporary mathematics, to articulate the features of the Commune. I will not reproduce the detail of this analysis but, in summary, Badiou sees the Commune as a particular site of revolutionary politics involving a particular range and organisation of forces. From this site emerge those who have not been considered to count within the political situation – the workers. This appearance of the workers ruptures the existing limits of politics. In Badiou’s technical sense the Commune is an event, which is a rupture of such intensity that it rearranges the terms of a situation and allows us to draw out new egalitarian political consequences (similar to what is commonly called a ‘revolution’).

Those who did not and could not appear yesterday – in 1871, the workers – now come into existence in all their subversive force. The Commune consequently realised a new possibility: the emergence of an independent workers’ movement. In other words, what the Commune announces is the possibility of another world (Badiou 2006: 289). What is striking in this conclusion is how close Badiou’s analysis comes to anarchism, especially contemporary anarchism: his rejection of the state as object of political power; his vehement criticism of the existing ‘Left’ and his articulation of an independent political power of the excluded that questions the very concept of ‘democracy’. Badiou even appears to be moving towards the slogan ‘another world is possible’.

Nevertheless, in a companion piece on the Cultural Revolution Badiou makes clear his continuing hostility to anarchism:

We know today that all emancipatory politics must put an end to the model of the party, or of multiple parties, in order to affirm a politics ‘without party’, and yet at the same time without lapsing into the figure of anarchism, which has never been anything else than the vain critique, or the double, or the shadow, of the communist parties, just as the black flag is only the double or the shadow of the red flag (2006: 321).

As we will see, behind this rather lamentable critique of anarchism is something more serious. We might regard Badiou’s outburst as a symptom of defensive anxiety: he rejects anarchism because anarchists had been elaborating a politics without party and an anti-statist position long before him. But rather than develop this diagnostic strategy, I want to analyse further what might explain his animus. My contention is that some of the scepticism Badiou directs towards anarchism is echoed by anarchists themselves.


Badiou’s critique of anarchism operates indirectly; it attacks what Daniel Bensaïd describes as ‘[a] neo-libertarian current, more diffuse but more influential than the direct heirs of anarchism . . . [which] constitutes a state of mind, a “mood”, rather than a well-defined orientation’ (Bensaïd 2005: 170). One of Badiou’s examples of this tendency, which he identified when he was still a Maoist, is Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s book Anti-Oedipus (1972). This book, with its vision of a flux of desire that can escape the constraints of both capitalism and the ‘prison’ of the Freudian Oedipus complex, not only had a significant influence on the libertarians of the movements after May ’68 but also on later anarchists and postanarchists. Where anarchists have tended to celebrate their theories of the uncontrollable fluxes of desire Badiou sarcastically comments: ‘Unforeseeable, desiring, irrational: follow your drift, my son, and you will make the Revolution’ (2004: 76). This point summarises Badiou’s general scepticism towards what he regards as the anarchist faith in the ‘pure’ movement of resistance, a movement that seems to operate without the need for aim or direction but will somehow still result in revolution.

Badiou refines this general scepticism in making a series of more precise criticisms of the ‘libertarian current’. He argues that the central problem of this current is that it sets up a simple-minded opposition between power and resistance (or revolt, or rebellion). The result is a sterile set of ‘static dualisms’, from which is derived ‘the catechism of the System and the Flux, the Despot and the Nomad, the Paranoiac, and the Schizo’ (Badiou 2004: 80). In this case Badiou is explicitly referring to a number of oppositions that structure the text of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, in which the second term is valorised at the expense of the first. The problem with such dualisms is that they fail to grasp the ways in which politics actually operates: ‘power’ is not one monolithic whole, and neither is ‘resistance’. Instead the task of ‘doing politics’ involves a closer analysis of different forces and contradictions as well as, for Badiou, the formation of the party as the form to handle and organise these contradictions. Whatever we might think of the second point we can, I think, accept the first is well made. While there may be a polemical or motivational gain in presenting politics in terms of a grand opposition, and there may well be times where struggle operates in this form, more often matters are considerably more complex.

For Badiou these kinds of oppositions reflect the limits of the French political scene in the 1970s: namely the opposition between the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser, which finds its model in the French Communist Party, and the philosophy of desire that Deleuze and Guattari gave voice to, and which finds its model in the dispersion of the little groups of libertarians (‘groupuscules’). In the first we find the relentless and paralysing insistence on the power of structure and, in the second the celebration of ‘pure’ revolt. We can see here the origin of Badiou’s later contention that the anarchist model mirrors the communist party model. Anarchists oppose their small groups to the supposedly ‘monolithic’ style of the communist party. What they fail to recognise are the fissures and contradictions that run through both power and resistance. In this period Badiou, and the UCFML, are groping towards a new party-form that would be able to negotiate a dialectical reading of politics that could engage with force and place, disruption and structure, without reifying one of the terms against the other.

The irony is that defenders of Deleuze and Guattari, or Michel Foucault, whom Badiou also attacks, will argue that they present a model of power and resistance as multiple, fluid, and unstable – precisely not a binary. Badiou, however, is correct to note a tendency to re-constitute new binaries in these modes of thinking: ‘Schizo vs. Paranoid’ (Deleuze and Guattari), ‘Pleb vs. Power’ (Foucault), or ‘Multitude vs. Empire’ (Negri and Hardt). In each case the attempts at anti-dialectical thinking risk becoming merely un-dialectical. Badiou himself certainly changes the terms of his own thinking, but he retains the mistrust of what he regards as this fundamental libertarian or anarchist schema. So, in the later Being and Event (2005) Badiou will critique what he calls ‘speculative leftism’, which believes in the ‘pure’ event of revolt – the miracle of revolt appearing out of nothing.[2] Again his point here is that there is a faith in the emergence of a force of revolt posed against a static sense of power, without any real attempt to analyse the possibilities and limits of the forces that would compose this ‘revolt’. This faith in the miracle of the event of revolt is coupled, Badiou argues, with a sense of the inevitable defeat of such revolts by power. The result is that we are left in the situation of fighting an endless (losing) war – alternating between the eruption of revolt out of nothing and then its inevitable return to nothing.

More recently Badiou has focused his criticisms on the [debunking?] of Antonio Negri (co-author, with Michael Hardt, of Empire (2000)), and his influence on the ‘movement of movements’. Badiou tends to conflate Negri with the ‘movement of movements’, and while it is true that the language and thinking of Negri has had considerable influence, it has by no means passed uncontested. Badiou modulates his earlier general criticisms of anarchism / libertarian positions but stays within the same general frame: Negri is not truly opposed to capitalist ‘Empire’ but instead romanticises the power of capitalism:

As is well known, for Negri, the Spinozist, there is only one historic substance, so that the capitalist empire is also the scene of an unprecedented communist deployment. This surely has the advantage of authorizing the belief that the worse it gets, the better it gets; or of getting you to (mis)take those demonstrations – fruitlessly convened to meet wherever the powerful re-unite – for the ‘creation’ and the ‘multiform invention’ of new petit-bourgeois proletarians (Badiou 2006: 45).

Therefore Negri cuts the ground from under any truly anti-capitalist politics by being overly fascinated with the mobile power of capital. At the same time he is also overly hopeful about the powers of resistance on this ground, offering only a ‘dreamy hallucination’ (Badiou 2003: 126) of the power of the ‘multitude’, which lacks the discipline to properly detach itself from the state.

Badiou’s critique of anarchism ranges across a number of repeated and modulated criticisms. At the fundamental level it involves a constrained sense of the possibilities of politics that remains in a dualism of resistance versus power. This monolithic conception prevents a properly political assessment of the complex arrangements of political power and the means by which capitalist and state power might not only be resisted but also overthrown. This static dualism often leaves the origin of revolt unexplained or undetermined. It seems to come from nowhere and also to go nowhere; the ‘miracle’ of revolt is always doomed to defeat or recuperation. Also, this dualism leads to a structure of mirroring between anarchism and state or capitalist power. The invocations of drift and liberation found in the libertarian current are dangerously close to the ideological forms of capitalism itself. For Badiou, this means that anarchism lacks the ability to ‘construct new forms of discipline to replace the discipline of political parties’ (Badiou 2003: 126). Of course anyone knowledgeable of the history of anarchism will recognise this line of criticism, particularly as it has often been advanced by Marxists. But it is the vehemence with which Badiou poses these questions in the present context, and his choice of theoretical targets that make them worth considering as critical questions – especially since, as we will see, some voices within the movement have arrived at similar conclusions.


Daniel Bensaïd is rather more generous than Badiou when he credits the ‘neo-libertarian current’ – he has in mind Antonio Negri and John Holloway – with ‘relaunching a much-needed strategic debate in the movements of resistance to imperial globalisation’ (2005: 171). But instead of sorting through Badiou’s misapprehensions about anarchism, I want to consider how his reservations about strategy dovetail with discussions in the ‘movement of movements’. I will begin with Badiou’s argument that Negri, and the ‘movement of movements’, remain overly fascinated by and linked to state and capitalist power. In their text Barbarians: disordered insurgence (2004) the anarchists Chrissus and Odotheus provide a critique of Negri that is very close to the arguments of Badiou. Like Badiou they question whether Negri has really escaped the schemas of a teleological and mechanistic Marxism, in which the supposed ‘advance’ of capitalism will form the conditions for communism. While Negri hymns the power of the multitude – his name for the new dispersed but common subject of resistance – Chrissus and Odotheus query how we can imagine that ‘this being … has power even when everything would seem to bear witness to the contrary’ (Chrissus and Odotheus 2004: 17). They argue that Negri forms the left-wing of contemporary capitalism, supposing only reforms based on the supposed ‘communist’ power of the multitude.

Alongside this critique, we can also see other signs of the rejection of the tendency of the movement to mirror the power that it opposes. Recent discussions in the journal Voices of Resistance from Occupied London, subtitled the Quarterly Anarchist Journal of Theory and Action from the British Capital after Empire, raise the question of the limits of the counter-summit – precisely because it remains locked into shadowing the summits of those in power. The article ‘For a Summit Against Everything’ by the Comrades from Everywhere asks the question: ‘Sure we need to meet – and our counter-summits are an excellent opportunity for doing so. But why follow them around in their summits, why give them the tactical advantage of selecting where and when our battles are to take place?’ (2007: 44). Arguing for a new form of counter-summit, autonomously organised, they note: ‘Rather than waiting for them to decide where and when to meet, no longer running behind them, we’ll jump on the driver’s seat and decide this for ourselves’ (2007: 44). This suggests a strategic recognition not only of the successes of the anti-globalisation movement (which Badiou does not recognise), but also its failures or limitations. The limitation of the counter-summit is being answered with the proposal that a new independent and autonomous form of summit take place. Whether or not this is successful the suggestion implies the recognition of the problem that Badiou had earlier identified: whether ‘anti-capitalist’ politics finds itself mirrored in its own self-definition as a movement of opposition (‘anti-‘). One of the strategic questions posed to anarchism, or anarchist practice, will be its negotiation of this different form of autonomous ‘power’, especially in distinguishing itself from more usual ‘leftist’ or ‘radical’ forms of organisation or ‘counter-power’.

The second point to consider is Badiou’s claim that anarchism takes up a position of perpetual opposition without really believing or acting in such a way as to change the existing situation. The journal-cum-newspaper Turbulence (2007), developed for reflection within the movement of movements, titled its first issue ‘What would it mean to win?’ Thus it posed to the movement the question Badiou suggested that libertarian or anarchist thought has tended to evade. What is interesting is that some of the articles in the issue do reflect a sense of crisis or failure in the movement that links to the problem of ‘organisation’, or the development of struggles. Ben Trott posits the need for ‘directional demands’, which ‘aim to produce a point around which a potential movement could consolidate’ (2007: IS). Similarly, the group The Free Association argue that what is required are ‘problematics’, shared problems that involve ‘acting and moving’ (2007: 26). The Argentinian group Colectivo Situaciones argues for the need to develop a ‘non-state institution of that which is collective’ (2007: 25). While it would obviously be foolish to take [these?] as representative of ‘the movement’, even less as particularly anarchist, it is a sign that the problem of ‘winning’ seems to point to the fundamental criticism Badiou poses: how would anarchists go about achieving their desired egalitarian collective social forms?

To ‘win’ is, of course, not only a matter of proposing alternative social forms, but also of the means by which these might be achieved. Of course this problem arises in part because Marxist or ‘leftist’ critics often cannot identify what anarchist practice does as having ‘real’ effects because it does not conform to their idea of what politics is or should be. Anarchist thought and practice has always been concerned with the critique of politics, as the separation of one realm of human activity from all others and a separation which helps create an expert political class and professional politicians or militants. That said, as the ‘movement of movements’ starts to look beyond the limits of the counter-summit it begins to encounter the problem of strategy and practice outside of the ‘mass’ protest or ‘temporary autonomous zone’.

Although not coming from an anarchist position, but rather from the tradition of post-autonomist thinking, Sandro Mezzadra and Gigi Roggero raise the problem of organisation directly in their article in Turbulence. They point to the difficulty that the ‘movement of movements’ has had in intervening in relations of production and that there is a danger of simply repeating statements concerning the exhaustion of the party form and the promotion of the new form of the network. Taking the case of EuroMayDay, they point out that although it posed problems, especially concerning migration, and transmitted ‘explosive images’, it ‘did not manage to generate common forms of organisation and praxis’ (2007: 8). This raises the question of the relation of movements to institutions – not only in terms of existing institutions but also in terms of the creation of new institutions (Mezzadra and Roggero 2007: 9). In particular they consider the case of what they call ‘laboratory Latin America’: the multiplicity of movements and institutions emerging in a range of countries, especially Venezuela. That complex situation offers some insights about how we might form a space in common and how we might answer the question: ‘how can one employ the relations of power without ‘taking power’?’ (2007: 9).[3]

We should note that the wider ‘left’ does not speak with a unified voice on these matters; nor has it promoted any successful solutions even in terms of its own models of ‘revolution’ or ‘reform’. At the moment the struggle is to find a way between what seems like a sterile opposition: between ‘changing the world without taking power’ (as suggested by John Holloway) and ‘taking power to change the world’ (a more ‘traditional’ left position). Anarchist sympathies rest with the first ‘option’. But if anarchists are to answer the type of criticism posed by Badiou and acknowledge the limits currently being experienced by the ‘movement of movements’, the implication appears to be the need for new strategic thinking that can engage with and against power to make a new world.


We may seem to have wandered far from our starting point concerning postanarchism and Badiou’s critique of anarchism. However, the advantage of considering Badiou’s criticisms of anarchism is that [it] has pushed us towards reposing issues around postanarchism in terms of the relation of theory to practice (to use an unfortunate binary). That debate has often been a sterile one: with activists bemoaning the inactivity and mystificatory role of ‘theory’, and theorists criticising the supposed naivety of activists. It would be difficult enough to settle such matters in what is, after all, a work of theoretical reflection. However, we can say that Badiou’s work poses important questions about revolutionary change and his criticisms of anarchism allow us to sharpen what anarchist thought and practice might have to offer and what resources it might have to develop. It also requires that we interrogate the alternative models of anarchist practice that have often been linked to postanarchist thinking, such as the network or the temporary autonomous zone. While these forms aim to escape the supposed limits of ‘traditional’ or ‘humanist’ models of anarchist practice we have to be aware that concepts like the ‘network’ are hardly politically neutral. In fact, the ‘network’ model has been a central legitimating trope for many forms of contemporary capitalist work practice and activity. While much is made of the ‘paradigm shift’ to postanarchism for facing up to the contemporary realities of power, much more work needs to be done in [fleshing] out the implications for practice.

As Badiou notes even the category of ‘movement’ is problematic, ‘because this category is itself coupled to the logic of the state’ (2003: 126). The very right to movement is one that is dominated by the state and capitalism and the question becomes whether it can be wrested from this logic or whether it must, as Badiou indicates, be abandoned. The journal Turbulence chose its name to indicate the re-interpretation in movement terms of non-linear dynamics, popularly known as ‘chaos theory’. While the emphasis on instability and chaotic flow may appear congruent with anarchist or libertarian modes of life, we have to note the ambiguity in which capitalism and the state also deploy such logics. Israeli Defence Force theorists have shown an interest in the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari and chaos theory to create non-hierarchical, non-linear, tactics of ‘swarming’ as a mode of military intervention (see Weizman 2007: 185-218). The new doctrines of the American military have shown a parallel interest in borrowing from the models of non-hierarchical activism to develop a flexible battlefield response to the chaos of war (Monk 2007). Our enemies are learning from us.

This kind of recuperation is nothing new, and it does not simply imply abandoning such tactics for hierarchical forms. It does suggest that anarchist practice must find new inventive ways to engage with such problems, rather than simply invoke concepts like ‘movement’ or ‘network’ as a mantra. In the text “The Call’ (2007) the French group La Rage write, ‘[a]ll in all, we would rather start from small and dense nuclei than from a vast and loose network. We have known these spineless arrangements long enough.’ This suggests a felt need to re-think fundamental concepts of strategy to answer the problem posed by Daniel Bensaïd: ‘In the end no crisis has ever turned out well from the point of view of the oppressed without resolute intervention by a political force (whether you call it a party or a movement) carrying a project forward and capable of taking decisions and decisive initiatives’ (2005: 180). Of course this way of putting things already loads the dice against anarchist practice, but then we will have to re-think what is meant by ‘resolute intervention’ outside of hierarchical arrangements, or of what Badiou calls ‘discipline’ outside of connotations of sacrifice and repression.

The very bluntness of Badiou’s criticisms, which lumps in ‘postanarchist’ currents with ‘traditional’ anarchism, suggests that these matters are far from being resolved. This is not simply a question of theoretical mastery, i.e. the idea that once we have discovered the correct theoretical orientation then our political practice will smoothly unfold from it. Instead we might recognise what Guy Debord usefully stated:

But theories are only made to [die] in the war of time. Like military units, they must be sent into battle at the right moment; and whatever their merits or insufficiencies, they can only be used if they are on hand when they’re needed. They have to be replaced because they are constantly being rendered obsolete – by their decisive victories even more than by their partial defeats. Moreover, no vital eras were ever engendered by a theory; they began with a game, or a conflict, or a journey (2003: 151).

While anarchists might object to the military metaphor the point is, I think, a valid and useful one. It suggests, and this has been one of the merits of anarchist thinking, the need for critical revision and suppleness in thought and practice, rather than the proclaiming of theory as a dogmatic truth. Rather than beginning with a theory, postanarchist or otherwise, we might better begin with ‘a game, or a conflict, or a journey’.


1. The interested reader should refer to the accounts of Bruno Bosteels (2005), Peter Hallward (2003: 29-47), and Jason Barker (2002: 13-38), to which I am indebted in what follows.

2. Badiou’s implicit target here is the comparatively little-known work L’Ange (1976) by Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet. This work offered a model of perpetual spiritual revolt, contained in the figure of the ‘Angel’, which combined elements of early Christian asceticism and the extremes of the Maoist Cultural Revolution. For further discussion of this work, and Badiou’s critique, see Alberto Toscano’s article ‘Mao and Manichaeism’ (2005).

3. If we want a more anarchist opinion on the situation in Venezuela we can turn to the work of El Libertario, the voice of the Comision de Relaciones Anarquistas (CRA) of Venezuela. I would refer the reader to their website, which has an English language section, to gain a fuller picture. See


Badiou, Alain 2001. Ethics. Trans, and intro. Peter Hallward. London and New York: Verso.

Badiou, Alain 2003. Beyond formalisation: an interview with Alain Badiou. Angelaki 8.2: 115-136.

Badiou, Alain 2004. The flux and the party: in the margins of Anti-Oedipus. [1976]. Polygraph 15/16: 75-92.

Badiou, Alain 2005. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London and New York: Continuum.

Badiou, Alain 2006. Polemics. Trans, and intro. Steve Corcoran. London and New York: Verso.

Barker, Jason 2002. Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto.

Bensaïd, Daniel 2005. On a Recent Book by John Holloway. Historical Materialism 13.4: 169-192.

Black, Bob 1997. Anarchy After Leftism. Columbia: Columbia Alternative Library.

Bosteels, Bruno 2005. Post-Maoism: Badiou and Politics, positions 13.3: 575-634.

Chrissus and Odotheus 2004. Barbarians: disordered insurgence. London: Elephant Editions. Available online at chrissus_odotheus.html [].

Conn, Jesse 2002. What is Postanarchism “Post”? Postmodern Culture 13.1.

Colectivo Situaciones 2007. Politicising Sadness. Turbulence Ideas for Movement 1: 24-25.

Comrades from Everywhere 2007. For a Summit Against Everything. Voices of Resistance from Occupied London 2: 45-46.

Debord, Guy (2003) Complete Cinematic Works, trans. and ed. Ken Knabb. Oakland, Ca and Edinburgh: AK Press.

Graeber, David 2002. The New Anarchists. New Left Review 13: 61-73.

Hallward, Peter 2003. Badiou: a Subject to Truth. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Mezzadra, Sandro and Gigo Roggero 2007. Singularisation of the Common. Turbulence Ideas for Movement 1: 8-9.

Monk, Daniel Bertrand 2007. Hives and Swarms: On the “Nature” of Neoliberalism and the Rise of the Ecological Insurgent In Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (eds.) Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, pp.262-273. New York and London: The New Press.

Newman, Saul 2007. Anarchism, Poststructuralism and the Future of Radical Politics. Substance 113 36.2: 3-19.

The Free Association 2007. Worlds in Motion. Turbulence Ideas for Movement 1: 26-27.

Toscano, Alberto 2005. Mao and Manicheaism. Institute for Conjunctural Research, November 30 2005.

Trott, Ben 2007. Walking in the Right Direction? Turbulence Ideas for Movement 1: 14-15.

Weizman, Eyal 2007. Hollow Land. London and New York: Verso.

    Benjamin Noys teaches in the department of English at the University of Chichester. He is the author of Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (Pluto 2000), The Culture of Death (Berg 2005) and The Persistence of the Negative: a critique of contemporary Continental Theory (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming).

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2017 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
This entry was posted in Anarchism, State / Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou’s critique of anarchism (Benjamin Noys)

  1. Paul Justo says:

    “Similarly, the group The Free Association argue that what is required are ‘problematics’, shared problems that involve ‘acting and moving’ (2007: 26)”

    Sweet mother of Christ, this is balmier than the balmiest Trotskyism.

  2. @ndy says:


    Oh yeah.



  3. Grumpy Cat says:

    Actually the Free Association (the group that evolved out of the crew that wrote the ‘final’ Class War) are pretty fucking awesome and one of the better English language post-Operaismo commie groups. Worth a read.
    rebel love

  4. THR says:

    In broad terms, I don’t believe that Badiou’s work is antithetical to anarchism. The ‘event’ of the ‘multiple’ could, in principle, be anarchist, particularly as there are no communist revolutions on the horizon today in the developed world. His own political practice in France has (apart from involvement with the communist party) been focused on the sans-papiers, namely, immigrants denied a legal status (among other things) by the French state. Badiou is perhaps not as opposed to Foucault and D&G as this article implies. Hardt and Negri are a different story, but then, every man and his dog seem to have a critique of Hardt and Negri.

  5. @ndy says:

    Using the most advanced mathematics, I’ve calculated that the following is the most appropriate response to Badiou, Hardt, Negri and the Free Association:

  6. Pingback: La Hipótesis Anarquista o Badiou, Žižek y el prejuicio anti-anarquista – Portal acracia, Carceles y otros temas

  7. ablokeimet says:

    “Post-Anarchism” is rubbish. The “post-Anarchist” criticisms of Anarchism fall into two categories:

    (a) Straw opponents – positions which are not held by one’s opponents, but are criticised in their stead because one cannot criticise their real positions effectively; and

    (b) The cult of the new, a chasing after the most recent and ostensibly “radical” stance of opposition, regardless of what it might mean in terms either of effectiveness in achieving a change in society or of establishing a viable society after capitalism.

    Baidou’s criticisms of Anarchism, therefore, are actually criticisms of Post-Anarchism. Genuine class struggle Anarchists, who work for a workers’ revolution and see federalism as their fundamental organisational method, do not have the flaws for which Baidou faults the “Anarchists” at whom he aims.

  8. @ndy says:

    Rubbish or not, post-anarchism is A Thing, and a response to theoretical issues to do with ‘classical anarchism’ and its (alleged) limitations. Paul Nursey-Bray provided a useful overview (and one not esp sympathetic to the ‘post’-anarchist shift) here:

Leave a Reply