Voyou Désœuvré

The young Marx criticizing the Rousseauism of the French Revolution:

The more powerful a state and hence the more political a nation, the less inclined it is to explain the general principle governing social ills and to seek out their causes by looking at the principle of the statei.e., at the actual organization of society of which the state is the active, self-conscious and official expression. Political understanding is just political understanding because its thought does not transcend the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is, the more incapable is it of comprehending social problems. The classical period of political understanding is the French Revolution. Far from identifying the principle of the state as the source of social ills, the heroes of the French Revolution held social ills to be the source of political problems. Thus Robespierre regarded great wealth and great poverty as an obstacle to pure democracy. He therefore wished to establish a universal system of Spartan frugality. The principle of politics is the will. The more one-sided – i.e., the more prefect – political understanding is, the more completely it puts its faith in the omnipotence of the will, the blinder it is towards the natural and spiritual limitations of the will, the more incapable it becomes of discovering the real source of the evils of society. (“Critical Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian'”)

I wonder if a lot of this doesn’t also apply to Badiou (perhaps the RCP were right to call Badiou a Rousseauist). Of course it’s not true to say that Badiou believes in the omnipotence of the will, but a blindness to natural and spiritual limitations does sound more on point, particularly as manifested in a difficulty in seeing the sources of social problems. Now, you might object that Badiou, with his advocacy of a critical distance from the state, is in fact doing precisely what Marx advocates here; but this isn’t so, becauase Badiou’s rejection of the state “does not transcend the limits of politics.” Instead, Badiou rejects the state because, in his analysis, the state is not political. This position is not that uncommon among post-Marxists (you can see it in Rancière and Mouffe, too; Jodi Dean discusses this tendency in her recent article on “Politics Without Politics”), but the more I think about it the odder and more indefensible it seems to me.

(I’ve posted a few critical things about Badiou recently, and will post more shortly, so I kind of want to distance myself from the recent-ish Badiou blog backlash; I’m tarrying with the negative here in the process of hopefully coming up with a  discussion of Badiou and Marx at some point in the future that does something more interesting than just criticizing; on the other hand, I’m hoping to get in on the ground floor of the Rancière blog backlash.)


  1. anodyne lite, 12:57 pm, July 29, 2009

    “The more powerful a state and hence the more political a nation”

    I suppose all of this makes sense if you buy this premise…

  2. voyou, 1:11 pm, July 29, 2009

    Hmm, yes, this might be somewhere where Marx’s historical period makes a significant difference. In a period where the modern state is still being consolidated (and is in the process of replacing older absolutist forms), I think that line of Marx’s does make sense. Nowadays, when modern state is fully constructed, we probably can’t directly index the strength of the state to the political-ness of a nation.

    However, I would tend to think that this just means that the modern state is now ubiquitous, and everywhere is now as political as the “strong states” Marx was talking about.

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