For my sins, I have been reading Alain Badiou. (The intellectual’s work is never done.) He is, in his own words, “the most widely read and translated French philosopher in the world.” More banally, he is the very latest professor of liberation; and more banally still, the very latest professor of liberation from liberalism. In his conceptually delirious way, he mocks “the presumed ‘rights of man’” and “the humanism of human rights” in favor of an “emancipatory politics.” If the word “democracy” can still be salvaged, it is only by means of “a detour through the Idea of communism.” Badiou regards it as his “thrilling task” to “give new life to the communist hypothesis.” He adduces “the People’s War of Liberation in China, from 1927 to 1949” and “Bolshevism in Russia, from 1902 to 1917” and “the Great Cultural Revolution [in China], at any rate from 1965 to 1968” as examples of “a new practice of collective emancipation.” He lists “the first sequence of the Iranian revolution” and the Zapatistas in Mexico admiringly alongside the Solidarity movement in Poland. He once wrote a commentary—“guided by the idea of the eternity of the True”—on Mao’s writings on Stalin. This slavish devotion to historical cataclysm, this guiltless affiliation of progressivism with barbarism, is derived from the mysticism of “the event” in his masterwork (“I was quite aware of having written a ‘great’ book of philosophy”) Being and Event, a rancidly overdeveloped and almost risibly arcane system of ontology according to which “truth procedures” in art, science, politics, and love are melodramatically inaugurated by a rupture in the normal order of things and new possibilities are violently disclosed. Badiou’s “event” is something between a revolution and a revelation, and it expresses his deep contempt for the transcendences that may be had in unclimactic, unecstatic, unapocalyptic experience, in events that are not “events.” The human subject is “nothing other than an active fidelity to the event of truth,” or “a militant of truth.” This is not at all postmodernism (which is all the good that can be said of it); it is a godless theology in which Badiou’s elect, in the radiance of l’événementiel, march to free us from “our ‘democratic’ totalitarianism” and attain “the emancipation of humanity in its entirety.” In sum, a heartless bastard.
And nowhere more so than in his analysis of the Jews. Badiou despises Israel. Zionism was an “event”—Badiou’s greatest benediction—owing to “the emergence [within it] of the great revolutionary communist and socialist projects,” but it was a “counter-event”—Badiou’s greatest malediction—owing to its “colonialism.” Israel is a “colonial state” for which Palestinians are “slaves.” It has engaged in “the project of a genocide of the Palestinians.” And so Israel must disappear into “the creation of a secular and democratic Palestine.” All this makes Badiou just another member of the high-progressive mob (and in his desire to erase Israel, somewhere to the right of Saudi Arabia). But then he adds his own contribution to the discourse of delegitimation. In the wake of Auschwitz, he instructs, “Jewish identity has triumphed through a historical glorification of its name.” For “the name ‘Jew’ became, like every name of the victim of a frightful sacrifice, a sacred name,” and “the predicate ‘Jew’ and its religious and communitarian dimension... receive[d] some singular valorization—a transcendent annunciation!” (I mean, think about it: who really benefited from the Holocaust?) The objective of Badiou’s writing on the Jews is to strip “Jew” of this dark glamour by denying the whole of Jewish particularity. His principle is that “the intrusion of any identity predicate into a central role for the determination of a politics leads to disaster.” Indeed, “truly contemporary states or countries are always cosmopolitan, perfectly indistinct in their identitarian configuration.” (Which states or countries does he mean? Never mind.) (Are there not many states or countries in the throes of such “disaster”? Never mind.) It is the Jews who must teach perfect universalism, “the dissolution of all identity,” to the world. It is Israel that “must become the least racial, the least religious, and the least nationalist of states. It must become the most universal of all.” We must “agree upon a meaning for the word ‘Jew’ that would have universal import.” The glory of a secular democratic Palestine, you see, is that it would be “subtracted from all predicates.” (What about the predicate “Palestine”? Never mind.) Who are Badiou’s authorities for this purification—which is to say, this annihilation—of Jewish identity? Spinoza, Marx, and Freud, of course, the non-Jewish Jews, the defectors and the subverters, the ones who enabled a century of radical critics of actually existing Jewish life to believe that they understood the first thing about it. Badiou knows nothing about the Jews and their history, which he crudely summarizes as “SIT,” or “the Shoah, the State of Israel, and the Talmudic Tradition”—der Talmudjude! And he goes a virulent step further. His disqualification of Jewish specificity is mandated by none other than Paul, “the greatest ancient Jew,” who presciently recognized that “every truth procedure collapses differences” when he proclaimed that “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” And so the disciple of Althusser and Lacan arrives at the hoary Christian dogma of the usurpation of Judaism by a new universalism. Progress!
I should add that the predicates “French” in “French Revolution” and “Chinese” in “Chinese Revolution” do not repel Badiou, for whom they are merely “the empirical indices of this localization” of an event. So isn’t this anti-Semitism, you ask? But I will not fall into your trap. I know that almost nothing is anti-Semitism, and that the allegation of anti-Semitism is usually more offensive than anti-S... no, I will not fall into it. Let us say rather that Badiou’s belligerent treatment of Judaism and Jewishness is an abomination with historical precedent. It is no advance on Marx’s infamous conclusion that “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism,” which is the very prooftext of coercive universalism. It is clear, I hope, that justice for the Palestinians, which many Jewish Jews wish, does not require this hatred: it is an indecency of its own. Let Belgium or Pakistan be the light unto the nations. Badiou’s philosophy of intolerance is a disgrace to genuine universalism. There will be justice for nobody until we are emancipated from “emancipation.”
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.