The figure of the masses in protest takes on a near mystical and highly rational logic in post-Leninist thought during the twentieth century. For example, one of the things that Althusser abandoned in his theory of overdetermination was that the general contradiction between forces of production and relations of production–embodied in the antagonistic relation between the two classes–was not a sufficient contradiction to provoke a revolutionary situation.
The concept of overdetermination, much like the idea of the ‘weakest link’ was a way of accounting for how revolutionary Russia presented the weakest point within imperial states but still revolted successfully. This is because Russia had the largest sum of historical contradictions that tipped over into a core principle of revolt, and it was at this objective stage of development that the figure of the masses present the power of a new type of logic.
Overdetermination was an attempt to identify the masses as a new “ruptural principal” — and for some time, Althusser adopted Mao’s notion that the principal contradiction was on the side of the masses in revolt, and not on the side of the organized proletariat (labor unions, the existing party, etc.). But Althusser abandoned this idea in favor of the idea that a revolution of the infrastructure does not ipso facto modify the existing superstructures and particularly the ideologies of the state. While Althusser was influenced by the Cultural Revolution, he ended up deviating from much of its theoretical project of purification and came to abandon the core dialectical approach of the “one divides into two” in his rejection of Hegel in favor of a scientific Marxism.
But despite the complete transformation of twentieth century Maoism and its questionable legacy today, I argue that there are several highly important lessons to glean from this pre-Theory of the Subject set of theoretical work, particularly in Alain Badiou’s set of essays, “On Ideology,” “Theory of Contradiction,” “The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic,” and the “Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism.” These pre-Theory of the Subject texts are instructive to today’s situation of global riots and insurrections as they reveal how the figure of the masses possess a logic that is too often dismissed in contemporary theory. Putting aside the fact that we no longer have a party politics framework on the left, can we still rely on the logic and the reason of the figure of the masses as subject?
Class Struggle vs. Class Conflict
To revisit the central claims of these texts, we can start with the difference between the class struggle and class conflict. Class conflict is embodied in the fundamental capitalist contradiction between relations of production and forces of production. This is the first-level contradiction, but to think a rupture within this contradiction would not effectively result in a modification to the situation. The more fundamental contradiction had become saturated. The more significant, principal contradiction, is on the side of the class struggle, which is embodied in the conflicts over power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
This is the principal contradiction because it contains a strong inequality of the Two classes, but within each class, there is an additional set of contradictions over the appropriation of the figure of the masses. As Mao argued, the principal contradiction is always on the side of the masses, and the figure of the masses in revolt against the status quo, or against the bosses, labor unions, or the party, etc. present, if not the outward sign of a communist name or slogan, a set of implicit ‘communist invariants.’ As Badiou writes, “there exists, regardless of the epoch under consideration,” a set of “egalitarian, anti-proprietary and anti-statist aspirations” in every revolt by the masses.
In Theory of the Subject, Badiou will revise this model of the two contradictions and show how there is both a class contradiction, which is a structural fact, and there is class struggle, which is a political process under certain conditions. The second principal contradiction is not deducible from a weak correlation, but rather, the class struggle is a strong correlation because it results in the ruin of the One. At any given time, there is a historical (strong correlation and strong difference) and a structural contradiction (weak correlation).
But the class struggle between the ruling class and the oppressed class is still dominant–in terms of the place of positioning in the class struggle–on the side of the bourgeois ruling class. The struggle between the two classes is often over the figure of the masses, and every contradiction divides the people into two. This is one of the central ways to understand the very definition of the “one divides into two.” The conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat is such that it possesses reality only insofar as each one of them organizes the people (masses) on its own terms.
The concrete example of the Peasant Revolt in the late 1920’s in China is one of the primary empirical mutations to class struggle that presented the figure of the masses in a new light. Here, the masses revealed a new way of overcoming the contradictions inherent both in the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Because the peasant masses defied the corruption of the existing revolutionary party and brought about a successful revolt, Mao placed a new level of trust in the masses and this is why Badiou will develop a new Kantian sense of reason on the radical chance of the masses.
Revolt as Reason
What does it mean to say that the revolt is reason? There are two types of reason. The first is based on the dictum that “it is right to rebel against the reactionaries.” This formula does not mean in the first place that “one must rebel against the reactionaries” but rather that “one rebels against the reactionaries”—it is a fact, and this fact is reason. What the formula states is the primacy of practice at the level of reason.
In addition to the development of a logic and a reason of the masses revolt, their radical contingent logic is also central to re-periodizing Marxist historiography. As Badiou states, it is the masses that “condense one rational time and deploy another.” What this framework of the principal contradiction gives us – in regards to historical periodization, is that it highlights a historical contradiction. The result being that the current place of the subjective is on the side of a historical contradiction. The lesson of the masses reinforces the Leninist dictum that “politics is the concentration of the economy” which means that politics must take precedence over the economic sphere. The conclusion here is that ‘every subject is political’ and not economic. Every subject is on the side of the principal contradiction, which is a political contradiction.
In the Margins of Anti-Oedipus
One way to understand what it means to privilege the logic of the masses is to examine Badiou’s theory in relation to Deleuze and Guattari. The short polemical essay written in response to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus called “The Flux and the Party: In the Margins of Anti-Oedipus” gets at this question. In this short text, Badiou is opposed to Deleuze and Guatarri’s ‘positivizing’ of the revolutionary subject. He is arguing that Deleuze and Guattari are thinking a subject of revolution that can be posited by its own immanent position through a re-configuration of desire.
Such a structure of thinking the subject fails as it assigns the future revolt, and places the masses in a position of what Badiou would later come to call “the place” in Theory of the Subject. What the “professors of desire” prefer in their nomadic assemblage is the utopian ‘outplace’ that perfunctorily assumes the outplace without a proper rupture from the place or ‘splace’ that is inhabited by the state/bourgeoisie. This situation will always fall back into the logic of the bourgeoisie and fail to capture the masses logic. One of the more interesting things that Badiou claims is that Deleuze and Guattari are returning to Kant in that they are putting forth a false binary between subjugated groups and the other by subject-groups.
What is striking in this polemic against Deleuze and Guattari is how it resembles the same polemic that Badiou wages against Negri post Arab spring. I wrote about this in a review of Badiou’s latest text on the four forms of the riot, however, it is striking to see the same general positioning of the masses then as now.