“Worse than Nothing”: On the Discussion of the Letter by Russian Leftists to Alain Badiou

The following text was originally published (in Russian) on the website of the Forward Socialist Movement (ВПЕРЁД>>).

The story with the letter sent to Alain Badiou by a group of leftist intellectuals and activists provoked a whole slew of interpretations from the conspiracy theorists and political spinmeisters. As often happens at critical moments, many key antagonisms and oppositions were thrown into sharp relief during this incident, which touched many people to the quick personally and professionally. Who initiated the letter? Who paid off its authors? Whose pet project was it? Who was really in charge? Although they belong to warring ideological and intellectual factions, all the commentators had one thing in common—a stunning, catastrophic unwillingness to admit the possibility that this was an OPEN, TRANSPARENT, NON-HIERARCHICAL, DEMOCRATIC decision by a group of people who share a particular initiative.

For some, to recognize this possibility would have been tantamount to banging their brains into a bloody pulp along with all the filthy booklets published by Gleb Pavlovsky’s Evropa publishing imprint and all the paid provocations on Channel One about the conspiratorial, top-down, corrupt nature of revolutions—orange, red, what have you.

For others, this would have meant betraying their cute reactionary habit of explaining away ANY collective political action as the result of private intrigues, biographical facts, and the hidden interests of individual participants.

A third group of naysayers (including certain well-wishers) argue that the leftists shouldn’t have tried to stop Badiou’s visit, but should have used it to their own ends. This touching logic—the instrumentalization of everything under the sun—is likewise a fairly grim reality. Moreover, the authors of the letter discussed the question of “using” the visit. First of all, however, an alternative visit is in the works. Second of all, how, for example, did leftists use Žižek’s last visit to Russia and his public appearance in Moscow? Well, they didn’t use it all. The philosopher reeled off several of his favorite talking points at the President Hotel, showed off a bit, and gave out some autographs and interviews. Afterwards, the journalists wrote about this with glee: there’s a leftist for you—weak in the knees for publicity and favors from the “enemy”! In short, it was “worse than nothing,” just as we wrote in our letter to Badiou.

We believe that, while a full-fledged political boycott is impossible at present, a boycott of the most reactionary institutions and mass media on the part of critical artists and intellectuals is quite realistic, and has shown itself to be a fairly serious weapon. For example, the poet Fyodor Svarovsky recently refused to do an interview for the propaganda website Russia.ru. He appealed to everyone else to do the same, and as a result the site’s editors labeled all poets scumbags and shut down their poetry section altogether. Does Russian culture lose much from the fact that Putin’s speeches and Nashi demonstrations are no longer interlarded with poetry video clips? No, it doesn’t. On the other hand, many writers (who, it must be said, are among the most politically discombobulated strata in society) sensed for the first time what the notorious concept of “politicization” was all about. It is what happens when you perceive an episode in your personal professional career as something universal, as political. And so that is what it becomes.

How do we separate the most reactionary institutions from the moderately reactionary ones? There is, of course, no ready answer to this question. In every discrete instance, it is a matter of political, intellectual, and ethical choice. The problem is that there is no sustained reflection on this issue in Russia. Here, everyone—from the “accursed” poet to the successful journalist or ambitious politician—believes that his personal text is more important and cooler than the context: the message is everything; the medium, nothing. This is simultaneously a political and a cultural problem. Among leftists, it takes two extreme forms. On the one hand, it manifests itself in the claims, which arise from time to time, to “leftist saintliness.” (This leads only to the exhausting search for dirt on one another, which has an unbelievably animating effect on our enemies.) On the other hand, it is seen in the widespread notion that “on the road to the socialist revolution all means are justified,” which has now resulted in our being wholly bogged down in the dull, unarticulated, depoliticized discourse of “semi-peripheral” postmodernism, from which we have been trying to free ourselves with all our strength. “There is no working class, no bourgeoisie, no politics,” the right-wing ideologists tell us. “You leftists are the same unprincipled, swinish sell-outs as we are. There’s no point pretending to be virgins. Let’s have a nice chat about Badiou together,” say the Kremlin’s postmodernist philosophers. And that is why our struggle against society’s political impotence includes ethical resistance; a war against the hegemonic handmaidens who have gone on a bender with “daddy’s” money; and the conviction that, independently of their individual qualities, all people, ourselves included, are capable of collective intellectual analysis, moral protest, and emancipatory acts of solidarity.

We know that, for active Marxists, action—praxis—is directly linked to theory, and vice versa. We believe that it is necessary to restore the link between academic Marxism (neo-Marxism, “leftist thought” as such) and direct political activism. In this case, “action” means not only the participation of the intellectual in pickets or the direct support of particular political forces, but also, first and foremost, action in one’s place of work. Alain Badiou has something to say about theory and about praxis—for example, about his own attempts, in the early eighties, after the final collapse of the revolutionary project of the sixties and seventies, to renew the theoretical and practical legacy of Marx. This led to his writing the book Peut-on penser la politique? and forming L’Organisation Politique for collective grassroots political action. It goes without saying that today Badiou’s workplace, his reputation as a leftist radical notwithstanding, is the sufficiently comfortable academic system, a workplace where ideas, concepts, reputations, and symbolic capital compete. His weight in this system would have allowed him (just like those of his fellows who visited Pavlovsky before him— Žižek, Perry Anderson, and Immanuel Wallerstein) to spit on the letter from “Russian intellectuals and activists” and accept Pavlovsky’s prestigious invitation. Why didn’t he accept it? It probably wasn’t because of a bourgeois “fear for his own reputation.” Rather, it was probably because he clearly understands an elementary fact: a leftist philosopher isn’t a rock star or a supermodel. You have to read his works, not gawk at him. Despite his sometimes-academic language and complicated constructions, at the end of the day he works for the oppressed and wants to be a comrade-in-arms for activists, not a navel-gazing guru or an unprincipled “star” with a heavy touring schedule.

There is no great tragedy in the fact that Moscow leftists won’t get to see Alain Badiou at the President Hotel. More important is the fact that they will read his works with greater trust and curiosity and perceive them as a part of everyday political practice.

This is what our modest common victory is about.

Kirill Medvedev, Forward Socialist Movement

The positions expressed in this text are wholly supported by the Chto Delat workgroup.


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2 responses to ““Worse than Nothing”: On the Discussion of the Letter by Russian Leftists to Alain Badiou

  1. Rikard Sorge

    Dear comrades,

    Greetings from London; I just came across your principled letter to Badiou, and noted your comments re: Zizek. I would be grateful if you’ll let me know what Zizek said in his talk at the President Hotel (at the same panel with Pavlovsky and Markov).


  2. Also sprach Zizek :)

    Hi Rik,
    It was a sort of round table with Zizek and russian political “experts” like Pavlovsky and Markov sitting next to him. The event was a year ago, so it’s difficult to re-tell all the discussion. Zizek started with a talk on globalization in relation to concept of neighbor and followed by presenting his point on democracy. It was about some of his familiar topics – critique of “postpolitical” stance, defense of universality as demand for democracy etc.
    It was ok, but the whole title of the event was like “Prospects of Sovereign State in the Globalized World” (what follows from Putin’s ideological mantra on “sovereign democracy”) and these Russian pro-Kremlin spokesmen, who shaped the majority at this table, had enough time to express their “special” views with Zizek at the background. The discussion was formalized, so any polemics was impossible. This appropriation of a well-known intellectual like Zizek by PR consultants looked really disgusting.
    Alexei Penzin

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