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Conflictual Universalism(s) – Part 2 of 3

Katrine Bregengaard in discussion with Etienne Balibar- Part 2 of 3
(Illustration of Etienne Balibar by Zahid Mayo)

(The interview is a revised version of a conversation that took place in November 2014 at Professor Balibar’s office at Columbia University’s French Department.)


KATRINE BREGENGAARD: Let’s turn to the history of your work in relation to universalism, which seems equally conflictual. Without mentioning your age, I believe that you have been around for some time, at least long enough to have engaged with different discourses and ideologies of universalism. You have also experienced a loss of faith in such ideals or a reevaluation of them. (I’m of course talking about Marxism here). If we return to some of your earliest work with Althusser, in which you were trying to create a grand theoretical framework by re-reading the history of Western philosophy from a Marxist perspective, you must have had a more uniform universalist discourse compared to the conflictual one you’re proposing today?

ETIENNE BALIBAR: Believe it or not, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the two collective books that made my master, Professor Althusser, world famous. The first being a collection of his own essays on Marx called “For Marx” and the second collective book, which unfortunately is known and widely supposed to have been written by Althusser and me, because the edition on which most translations have been made included only my essay in addition to his and therefore leaving aside the other three, and particularly the essay by Jacques Ranciere — who is now a very known philosopher in his own right — that had terrible consequences and takes us back to internal conflicts that are both personal and political and usually not very elegant to say the least. But, leave that aside. Because of this anniversary, I’m increasingly asked to talk on the story of the collective seminar, which led to the publication of the book. Since we were Marxist, however critical, or heretic or perhaps innovative — don’t believe we had an absolute privilege in that respect — I would gladly tie together two formulas at the time. One which comes from Habermas and one which comes from my friend and comrade, Regis Debray — the one who went to Bolivia with Che Guevara. The phrase that comes from Habermas is simply that reconstruction is the opposite of deconstruction. Reconstruction of historical materialism or Marxism is a phrase that he used as a book title several years later. So, Habermas had been young at some point in his life — don’t misunderstand me, I have perhaps more than several of my friends and comrades, great admiration for Habermas in many respects, even if his philosophy is not mine. When Habermas was young, he was a Marxist like others and in his own way inspired by the legacy of the great founding figures of the Frankfurt school, Adorno and Horkheimer. He shared the idea that it was not just about the continuation of Marxism, but about a reconstruction of Marxism. This involved elucidating the philosophical prerequisites of Marxism and especially getting rid of the philosophical dogmas imposed on it during the 20th century. His way of doing that, through the Frankfurt School, led to an increasing importance granted to Kant and German idealism. Althusser’s agenda and we with him adding things that did not entirely come from Althusser… It is very wrong to believe that the whole text “Reading Capital” has a single philosophical inspiration that simply derives from the teaching of Althusser. Of course none of us — neither me nor Ranciere — would have been able at the age of 23 to write 150 pages in a grand philosophical style, if we had not somehow been mesmerized by our master and induced into believing that you don’t have to wait. But, we derived our ideas from other masters as well, who were our professors at Sorbonne at the time or outside the Sorbonne: Canguilhem, who is now recognized as a major figure of history of science and epistemology, partially because he is supposed to have been Foucault’s master; and Lacan, the great reformer — for better or worse — of French psychoanalysis. That was not something Althusser was against, but something we contributed to the project. So on the one side we have reconstruction of historical materialism — of a new philosophical basis elucidating the obscurities. The other motto that I believe is revealing is one that Regis Debray proposed in a famous pamphlet that he wrote in collaboration with Fidel Castro some years later. He had come as young friend visiting the revolutionary leader, who in turn was happy to find this kind of interlocutor. Out of that came a book with the title “A Revolution Within the Revolution Itself”. I believe that that was very much our general concern at the time. We looked for it in every possible direction. That is not only true for us, but for most Marxist of that generation, who were bitterly aware that the Soviet Union and state communism in socialist countries had arrived at an impasse. I was too young to be completely aware of it at the time of the Budapest uprising in 1956, which was such a choking experience for communists and socialists all over the world. I was on the contrary fully conscious in 1968 when the Soviet troops marched against the young rebels and protesters in Warsaw and Prague. So, there was an awareness of the fact that the revolution had become not only frozen, but in a sense perverted and reversed against its own ambitions. In spite of many revelations and discourses, we did not always have a full understanding of the extent of which Soviet and China were totalitarian regimes, but we were certainly completely aware of the fact that this had arrived at a dead end. Marxist proved to have totally differing notions and ideas concerning how to to start again. Some were more reformist, they believed in the Prague Spring and thought that a certain amount of not only democracy, but perhaps even liberalism or in any case pluralism, had to be introduced against the single party rule of socialist countries. Or that this should be the way that Western European communist should invent their own road to socialism. That became known as Eurocommunism in which the Italians became a leading force. Others looked towards Cuba and Latin American guerrilla warfare. And others started to look towards China and believed in the cultural revolution as a complete break and renovation. But the formal thing that was common to all was the idea of a revolution within the revolution — meaning that the very concept and strategy of the revolutionary transformation has to become revolutionized itself. We believed it liberated revolution from its pervasion into bureaucracy and oppression while at the same time re-inventing it in new terms. So, both the idea of reconstruction of Marxism and the idea of the revolution within the revolution mean that you believe in what Alain Badiou has now called the communist idea — and to believe in the communist idea is to believe that there is a certain universal truth in the idea, which is that the line of progress for mankind as such is one that leads to a classless society called communism through the contradictions of capitalism. That is a form of universalism.

KB: So, can you say that after monotheistic religions and civic bourgeois universalism of the Enlightenment, you have another form of universalism, which is communism?

EB: Yes, or you can think, which is more perilous for Marxists, that it is a sort of combination of both. It is a new secular religion. Thiscategory is very dangerous to use, especially for me, as it was invented by 20th century anti-communists who were anti-totalitarian political philosophers (I don’t give names), but which do apply to certain essential aspects of communism. However, communism is a very contradictory form. It is the perfect illustration of the notion of conflictual universalism. Not only because there are several branches of communism permanently fighting one another. But because as Althusser said — and I keep thinking that it was a great formula and invention — Marxism by its very nature, which he took to be a science, but definedin terms, which he called schismatic science — a science whose development cannot exist if it doesn’t become divided among conflictual notions. But it is conflictual in an even deeper sense because it is permanently torn between its own aspirations towards rationality and faith. It is also caught between different ideas of emancipation. Some of which are very strongly individualist, which is the great subject of today’s reflections on ethics. Marx was absolutely not of the idea that communism would mean that the individual subjectivity would be the expression of the common mind. On the other hand he was a fierce critic, and rightly so, of the selfish, egoistic, and individualistic dimensions of the bourgeois society. He believed that an emancipated social order is one in which individuals are not permanently forced to fight against one another.


KB: As a Marxist you were, of course, a universalist?

EB: Communism or Marxism is universalism in the classical sense — and it is a conflictual one as well. But the struggle that I’m embarked in now, especially when I have to answer questions about my Althusserian past, which inevitably leads to interrogating the kind of Marxism we all shared. That leads me, again, in the direction of the idea of the multiverse from a slightly different angle. To talk of Marxism is to talk about discourses, politics, and strategies of emancipation. So, it is emancipation from alienation, domination, or oppression. Let us connect the idea of exploitation of labour with the idea of class struggle. That is a very broad program as class struggles don’t always take the same form, because labour is exploited in many different ways, and there is not only labour of the worker, but also the domestic labour of the woman, etc. But the Marxist idea of emancipation from these forms of oppression and exploitation remains a valid one. It is very important to assert it in today’s circumstances since it is very much as a result of the collapse of communism that we find the increasing dismantling of the traditional organization of the labour movement. When people see the latent economic inequalities and injustices of today’s world, they tend to return to Marxism — that’s in the air. Again, a revolution within the revolution is probably needed today to make good use of it, but Marxism is not something that everybody rules out — far from. I would say that this is a problem that is characterized by a certain universality, meaning: there is exploitation everywhere and the categories that you may want to use to describe the forms and issues at stake in exploitation at the global level are essentially the same. You need to take the differences into account, but these differences are of degree and not of nature. If you look at the women and the children who are exploited in the worst possible forms in Bangladesh or Africa to make the goods that we use everyday here and which we don’t think about too much, these are forms of exploitation that are exactly the same that Marx would describe in the 19th century Europe. Perhaps, if you look around, there are some blind spots even here where you find them as well. But the question again becomes about universalism, because that is not the only form of exploitation or oppression, which this orthodox Marxism was not really able to comprehend. Althusser is an interesting case, because he invented

notions that clearly seek to pluralize, multiply, radically diversify our understanding of struggle and practices, such as the notion of overdetermination. The essential idea is that you’ll never have a historical moment or process in which humans are struggling for one single reason or in one single direction. However, since he was a Marxist he remained of the opinion that in a sense the multiplicity of practices, values and ideals must be determined in the last instance. So perhaps they are not reducible, but they contribute to an essentially unique transformation process which is class struggle. Of course, the cultural and historical discourses such as feminism on the one hand and anti-imperialismon the other hand weredecisive for people in my generationto understand that you cannot use a category of universality in that way. So, I’m struggling with the logical difficulty of thinking. Here, I probably have to shift from universalism to universality — to the idea that there are different universalities or universals, which claim recognition even at the same time, so that you cannot sacrifice one to the other. If you say that there is a general problem of the emancipation of women from oppressive norms that has been governing mankind for millennia you know that it is not simple, and we have to do with the fact that it is not possible all over the world to immediately find a single language in which to express it. But I’m a universalist. I believe that there is an essential element in the emancipation of women. I don’t buy the discourse that in certain parts of the world women want to be independent and in others women gladly accept to be permanently treated as inferior humans. I believe that there is an essential element of universalism in the emancipation of women. But that’s not the same as class. You’ll hardly find a situation where the two things are totally separate. While women are oppressed because they

are not considered equal and treated, as old philosophers said, as persons who are by nature dependent on others, their work is also exploited either inside or outside the house. So these are universalities that are different and intersecting. If you have different universalities unfolding or claiming recognition in the same situations there will be conflict. This will not be peaceful. It is the same for cultural rights and emancipatory objectives. Here, I gladly resume Althusser’s word “overdetermination’. I want to push the understanding of the idea of overdetermination — of the multiverse — beyond the limits of which Althusser himself would keep it. Because he did not deny that there were other emancipatory struggles, but essentially for him, the one that formed the last instance, was class. 


This interview is from Naked Punch 17.  To order a print copy of the issue click here.

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