Philosophy for Militants

A review of Philosophy for Militants by Rob Mason

Around the world, recent events have seen the creation of a radical group comprising students, the young, workers and immigrants. It is Badiou’s contention that the politics of such militants should condition the tasks of philosophy, even as philosophy clarifies the truth of our political condition. Badiou insists that the questions and priorities of philosophy at any given time are shaped by four different material activities: science, politics, art and love.

"What is our situation today - I mean, the situation of the peoploe who are comfortable enough to call themselves 'Westerners'?.  The price to be paid for our cherished liberty, here in the western world, is that of a monstrous inequality, first within our own countries but then above all, abroad. From a philosophical point of view, there exists no justice whatsoever in the contemporary world.  From this point of view we are entirely without virtue in the sense given to this word by our great ancestors the Jacobins.  But we also flatter ourselves for not being terrorists either.  Now again, Saint-Just also asked: What do the people want who want neither virtue nor terror? There is indeed a desire for us to wallow in corruption without looking any further. Here, what I call 'corruption' refers not so much to the shameful trafficking, the exchanges between banditry and 'decent society' the embezzlements of all kinds, for which we know that the capitalist economy serves as the support. By corruption I mean, above all the mental corruption which leads to a world that, while being so evidently devoid of any principle, presents itself as, and is assumed by the majority of those who benefit frrom it to be, the best of all possible worlds.  This reaches the point where, in the name of this corrupt world, people tolerate the waging of wars against those who would revolt against such disgusting self-satisfaction - and within our borders, our persecution of those who, having arrived from elswhere, do not unconditionally profess the self-proclaimed superiority of capitalo-parlimentarianism." Alain Badiou

For Badiou, philosophy cannot and should not play any hegemonic role over politics, for the simple reason that it is rather philosophy which is always conditioned, whether knowingly or not, by actually existing forms of politics, science and so on.  More broadly speaking, philosophy is incapable of producing any events or truths of its own, be they political or otherwise.  Instead philosophy is conditioned by events that are not of its own making. So unable to produce any truths of its own, philosophy must be able to be at the service of politics and other thought-practices, such as art or science, without for this reason becoming hegemonic over them. What then is the precise nature of this enigmatic relation between politics and philosophy? How exactly can philosophy be at the service of politics without telling militants what is to be done.

One comment might be in order to explain the possible uses of the category of the 'militant' in the title of this collection. While ordinarily this category carries echoes of stomping marching boots and the whole arsenal of modern weaponary, such vulgar military connotations need not be the most relevant here.  We could say that a militant simply put, is somebody who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk or who goes the full mile.

Roughly speaking we can distinguish four basic figures in the articulation between philosophy and politics:

Especially in the Marxist view, this articulation ideally takes the form of the unity, or fusion between theory and prectice.  Philosophy thus would set up a future ideal to which reality must adjust itself, or which strives to realise itself in actual historical practice..  We can call this first articulation a figure of prescriptive realisation or normative application.

Based on the primacy of practice, philosophy can also see its role as raising actually existing practices to the dignity of the concept.. In this case, the articulation adopts the figure of a speculative reflection, whereby philosophy always risks losing its materialist credentials in favour of its inherent idealist temptation.