One Divides into Two

Liam O'Ruairc loruairc at
Mon Apr 15 11:36:13 MDT 2002

Alain Badiou
Today, Lenin’s political works are being entirely revisited through the 
canonical opposition between democracy and totalitarian dictatorship. Yet 
the truth is that this debate has already taken place. For it was equally on 
the basis of the category of democracy that from 1918 onwards, Western 
social democrats, lead by Karl Kautsky, attempted to discredit not just the 
Bolshevik revolution in its historical unfolding, but Lenin’s political 
thought as such.
What can still be of interest to us here, above all, is Lenin’s theoretical 
response to this official attack, which was contained in particular in the 
pamphlet that Kautsky published in Vienna in 1918 under the title The 
Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and to which Lenin responded with his 
famous text, The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade.

Kautsky, as behoves a declared partisan of the representative and 
parliamentary political regime, puts almost all the emphasis on the question 
of the right to vote. What is altogether remarkable is that Lenin regards 
this procedure as the very essence of Kautsky’s ‘renegation’. Not that Lenin 
thinks that upholding the right to vote is in any way a theoretical error. 
On the contrary, Lenin thinks that it can certainly be useful, or even 
necessary, to participate in elections. He will reiterate this view with 
violence, against the absolute adversaries of parliamentary vote, in his 
pamphlet on leftism. What Lenin reproaches Kautsky with is far subtler and 
more interesting. Had Kautsky said: I oppose the Russian Bolsheviks’ 
decision to deny the right to vote to reactionaries and exploiters, he would 
have taken a stance on what Lenin calls an essentially Russian question, and 
not on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general. He 
could then have entitled his pamphlet Against the Bolsheviks. Politically, 
things would have been clear. But this is not what Kautsky did. Kautsky 
claimed to intervene on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat 
in general, and of democracy in general. To do this on the grounds of a 
tactical and localised decision in Russia is the essence of ‘renegation’. 
The essence of ‘renegation’ is always to argue from a tactical circumstance 
in order to renege on principles; to start from a secondary contradiction in 
order to pronounce a revisionist judgement on that conception of politics 
which defines it as a matter of principles.

Let us look in greater detail at how Lenin proceeds. I quote:

By invoking the right to vote, Kautsky has revealed himself as a polemicist 
enemy of the Bolsheviks, one who makes litter out of theory. For theory, 
that is, the study of general class principles of democracy and dictatorship 
– not just those particular to one nation – must not bear on a special 
question such as the one of the right to vote, but instead on a general 
problem: can democracy be maintained for the rich and the exploiters, in the 
historical period marked by the overthrow of the exploiters and the 
substitution of their State with the State of the exploited? It is thus, and 
only thus, that a theorist can pose the question.
Properly speaking, theory is thus what integrates within thought the moment 
of a question. The moment of the question of democracy is in no way fixed by 
a local and tactical decision, such as that of the prohibition of the right 
to vote for the rich and the exploiters, a decision linked in this instance 
to the particularity of the Russian revolution. This moment is instead fixed 
by the general principle of victory: we are, Lenin says, in the moment of 
victorious revolutions, in the moment of the real overthrow of the 
exploiters. We are no longer in the moment of the Paris commune, a moment of 
courage and bloody defeat. A theorist is one who approaches questions – of 
democracy, for example – from within a moment so determined. A renegade is 
one who takes no account of the moment. One who hangs his political 
resentment onto a particular episode.
One clearly sees here in what sense Lenin is the political thinker who opens 
the century. He is the one who makes victory – what is effectively real in a 
revolutionary politics – into an internal condition of theory. In this way, 
Lenin fixes what will constitute the main political subjectivity of the 
century, at least until its last quarter.

So the century, between 1917 and the end of the seventies, is in no way – as 
today’s liberals claim – the century of ideology, of the imaginary or of 
utopia. Its subjective determination is a Leninist one. It is the passion 
for the real, for what is immediately practicable, here and now.

What does the century have to say about itself? In any case, that it is not 
the century of promise, but that of realisation. It is the century of the 
act, of the effective, of the absolute present, and not the century of 
portent, of the to-come. The century experiences itself as the century of 
victories, after millennia of attempts and failures. The cult of the vain 
and sublime attempt, bearer of ideological enslavement, is assigned by the 
actors of the 20th century to the one preceding, to the unhappy Romanticism 
of the 19th century. The 20th century declares: no more failures, the time 
of victories has come! This victorious subjectivity outlasts all apparent 
defeats, because it is not empirical, but constitutive. Victory is the 
transcendental theme that commands failure itself. ‘Revolution’ is one of 
the names of this theme. The October Revolution of 1917, and then the 
Chinese and Cuban revolutions, as well as the victories of the Algerians and 
the Vietnamese in their wars of national liberation, all of this counts as 
empirical proof of the theme, and amounts to the defeat of defeats, 
redressing the massacres of June ‘48 or of the Paris Commune.

For Lenin, the means of victory is theoretical and practical lucidity with 
respect to a decisive confrontation, to a total and final war. Only a total 
war will lead to a victory that is truly victorious. In this regard the 
century is the century of war. But this statement intertwines several ideas, 
all of which turn around the question of the Two, or of antagonistic 
scission. The century declared that its law was the Two, antagonism; in this 
sense, the end of the cold war (American imperialism against socialist 
camp), the last total figure of the Two, also signals the end of the 
century. Nevertheless, the Two can take on three different guises:

1. There is a central antagonism, two subjectivities organised on a global 
scale in mortal combat. The century is the stage of this combat.

2. There is an equally violent antagonism between two ways of considering 
and thinking antagonism. This is the very essence of the confrontation 
between communism and fascism. For the communists, the planetary 
confrontation is in the last instance that of classes. For the radical 
fascisms it is that of nations and races. Here, the Two divides in two. We 
witness the entanglement of an antagonistic thesis, on the one hand, and of 
antagonistic theses on antagonism, on the other. This second division is 
essential, perhaps more than the first. All in all, there were more 
anti-fascists than communists, and it is characteristic that the second 
world war was fought in accordance with this derivative split, and not on 
the basis of a unified conception of antagonism, which only gave rise to a 
cold war, save on the periphery (Korean and Vietnam wars).

3. The century is summoned as the century of the production, through war, of 
a definitive unity. Antagonism is to be overcome by the victory of one camp 
over the other. Thus one can also say that, in this sense, the century of 
the Two is animated by the radical desire of the One. What names the 
articulation of antagonism with the violence of the One is victory, as 
attestation of the real.

Let us note that we are not dealing with a dialectical scheme. Nothing 
allows one to foresee a synthesis, an internal overcoming of contradiction. 
On the contrary, everything points to the suppression of one of the terms. 
The century is a figure of the non-dialectical juxtaposition of the Two and 
the One. The question here is to know what is the century’s assessment of 
dialectical thought. In the victorious result, is the motor antagonism 
itself or the desire of the One? This is one of the main philosophical 
questions of Leninism. It revolves around what one must understand in 
dialectical thought by the unity of opposites. Without doubt, it is the 
question that Mao and the Chinese communists worked on most assiduously.

Around 1965 there begins in China what the local press, always inventive 
when it came to the designation of conflicts, calls a great class struggle 
in the field of philosophy. This struggle opposes, on the one side, those 
who think that the essence of dialectics is the synthesis of contradictory 
terms, and that it is given in the formula one divides into two, and, on the 
other side, those who think that the essence of dialectics is the synthesis 
of contradictory terms, and that the right formula is consequently two fuse 
into one. Apparent scholasticism, essential truth. For this is in fact a 
question of the identification of revolutionary subjectivity, of its 
constitutive desire. Is it the desire of division, of war, or is it instead 
the desire of fusion, of unity, of peace? In any case, in the China of the 
time those who hold to the maxim ‘one divides into two’ are declared 
leftists, and rightists those who advocate ‘two fuse into one’. Why?

If the maxim of synthesis (two fuse into one) taken as a subjective formula, 
as desire of the One, is rightist, it is because in the eyes of the Chinese 
revolutionaries it is altogether premature. The subject of this maxim is yet 
to fully traverse the Two to the end, it does not yet know what an 
integrally victorious class war is. It follows that the One whose desire it 
harbours is not yet even thinkable, which means that under the cover of 
synthesis, this desire is calling for the old One. This interpretation of 
dialectics entails a restoration. In order to not be a conservative, in 
order to be a revolutionary activist in the present, one must instead desire 
division. The question of novelty immediately becomes that of the creative 
scission within the singularity of the situation.

In China the Cultural Revolution opposes, singularly during the years ‘66 
and ‘67, and in the midst of unimaginable fury and confusion, the partisans 
of these two versions of the dialectical schema. There are those who behind 
Mao, at the time practically in a minority within the direction of the 
Party, think that the socialist State must not be the policed and 
police-like end of mass politics, but, on the contrary, that it must act as 
a stimulus for the outburst of politics, under the sign of the march towards 
real communism. And there are those who, behind Liu Shaoqi, but especially 
Deng Xiaoping, think that, economic management being the principal aspect of 
things, popular mobilisations are more nefarious than necessary. The 
educated youth will be the spearhead of the Maoist line. The Party cadres 
and a great number of the intellectuals will undertake more or less overt 
opposition. The farmers will cautiously bide their time. The workers – the 
decisive force – will be so torn between rival organisations that in the 
end, from ‘67-‘68, it will prove necessary, with the State at risk of being 
carried away by the political flood, for the Army to intervene. There begins 
a long period of extremely violent and complex bureaucratic confrontations, 
not without a number of popular irruptions, all the way up to the death of 
Mao (1976), swiftly followed by the Thermidorian coup that brings Deng to 

This political hurricane is, as far as its stakes, so novel and at the same 
time so obscure, that numerous lessons that it doubtless entails for the 
future of the politics of emancipation have yet to be drawn, in spite of the 
fact that it provided a decisive inspiration for French Maoism between 1967 
and 1975, the only innovative and consequent political current of post-May 
‘68. In any case, it is beyond doubt that the Cultural Revolution signals 
the closure of an entire sequence, whose central object is the Party, and 
whose main political concept is that of proletariat.

Let it be said in passing that it is fashionable today, among the restorers 
of imperial and capitalist servility, to qualify this unprecedented episode 
as a bloody and feral power struggle, in which Mao, a minority in the 
Chinese Politburo, attempted by any available means to climb his way back to 
the top. First of all, one will reply that to qualify a political episode of 
this type with the epithet of power struggle is to attract ridicule by 
breaking down a wide-open door. The militants of the Cultural Revolution 
never stopped quoting Lenin’s declaration (perhaps not his best, but that’s 
another matter) that, ultimately, the problem is that of power. Mao’s 
threatened position was one of the explicit stakes of the conflict, as Mao 
himself officially indicated. The findings of our sinologist interpreters 
are nothing but immanent and public themes of the quasi-civil war that took 
place in China between ‘65 and ‘76, a war whose properly revolutionary 
sequence (in the sense of the existence of new political thought) is to be 
found only the initial segment (‘65-‘68). Besides, since when do our 
political philosophers consider it a horror that a threatened leader might 
attempt to regain influence? Is this not what they discuss all day long as 
constituting the delectable and democratic essence of parliamentary 
politics? One will then argue that the meaning and importance of a power 
struggle is judged according to the stakes involved. Especially when the 
weapons in this struggle are classically revolutionary, in the sense that 
lead Mao to remark that the revolution is not a gala dinner: unprecedented 
mobilisation of millions of workers and youths, a truly unheard of freedom 
of expression and organisation, gigantic demonstrations, political 
assemblies in all places of work or study, brutal and schematic debates, 
public denunciations, the recurrent and anarchic use of violence, including 
armed violence, etc. Now, who can argue today that Deng Xiaoping, qualified 
by the activists of the Cultural Revolution as second highest amongst the 
officials who, whilst members of the Party, were nevertheless committed to 
the capitalist path, was not in fact on a line of development and social 
construction that was diametrically opposed to Mao’s innovative and 
collectivist one? Did we not see, when after Mao’s death he seized power in 
a bureaucratic coup d’État, how Deng unfurled, during the whole of the 
eighties and up to his death, a completely savage and completely corrupt 
sort of neo-capitalism, all the more illegitimate as it maintained the 
Party’s despotism? Thus there really was, with respect to all of these 
questions, and singularly regarding the most important of all (relations 
between town and country, between intellectual work and manual work, between 
the Party and the masses, etc.), what the Chinese in their delightful tongue 
call a struggle between two classes, two ways and two lines.

But the acts of violence, often so extreme? The hundreds of thousands of 
dead? The persecutions, especially against intellectuals? One will say the 
same thing about them as about all the acts of violence that have marked the 
history, to this very day, of any expansive attempts to practice a free 
politics. The radical subversion of the eternal order that subjects society 
to wealth and to the wealthy, to power and to the powerful, to science and 
to scientists, to capital and to its servants, cannot be sweet, progressive 
and peaceful. There is already a great and rigorous violence of thought when 
you cease to tolerate that one counts what the people think for nothing, for 
nothing the collective intelligence of workers, for nothing, to say the 
truth, any thought that is not homogenous to the order in which the hideous 
reign of profit is perpetuated. The theme of total emancipation, practiced 
in the present, in the enthusiasm of the absolute present, is always 
situated beyond Good and Evil, because, in the circumstances of action, the 
only known Good is what the status quo establishes as the precious name of 
its own subsistence. Extreme violence is therefore reciprocal to extreme 
enthusiasm, because it is in effect, to speak like Nietzsche, a matter of 
the transvaluation of all values. The Leninist passion for the real, which 
is also the passion of thought, is without morality. The only status of 
morality, as Nietzsche saw, is genealogical. It is a residue of the old 
world. Thus, for a Leninist, the threshold of tolerance to what, seen from 
our old and pacified present, is the worst, is incredibly high, regardless 
of the camp that one belongs to. This is obviously what causes some today to 
speak of the barbarity of the century. Nevertheless, it is altogether unjust 
to isolate this dimension of the passion for the real. Even when it is a 
question of the persecution of intellectuals, as disastrous as its spectacle 
and effects may be, it is important to recall that what makes it possible is 
that it is not the privileges of knowledge that command the political access 
to the real. Like Fouquier-Tinville said during the French Revolution, when 
judging and condemning to death Lavoisier, the creator of modern chemistry: 
The Republic does not need scientists. Barbarous words if there ever were, 
totally extremist and unreasonable, but that must be understood, beyond 
themselves, in their abridged, axiomatic form: The Republic does not need. 
It is not from need, from interest, or from its correlate, privileged 
knowledge, that derives the political capture of a fragment of the real, but 
from the occurrence of a collectivisable thought, and from it alone. This 
can also be stated as follows: politics, when it exists, grounds its own 
principle regarding the real, and thus is in need of nothing, save for 

But perhaps it is the case that today every attempt to submit thought to the 
ordeal of the real, political or otherwise, is regarded as barbarous. The 
passion for the real, much cooled, cedes its place (provisionally?) to the 
acceptance, sometimes joyous, sometimes dismal, of reality.

Of course, the passion for the real is accompanied by a proliferation of 
semblance. For a revolutionary, the world is the old world, it is replete 
with corruption and treachery. The purification, the divestment of the real, 
must always begin again.

What must be emphasized is that to purify the real means to extract it from 
the reality that envelops and occults it. Whence the violent taste for 
surface and transparency. The century attempts to react against depth. It 
carries out a fierce critique of foundations and of the beyond, it promotes 
the immediate and the surface of sensation. It proposes, as heir to 
Nietzsche, to abandon all other-worlds, and to pose that the real is 
identical to appearance. Thought, precisely because what drives it is not 
the ideal but the real, must seize hold of appearance as appearance, or of 
the real as pure event of its own appearance. To achieve this, it must 
destroy every density, every claim to substantiality, every assertion of 
reality. It is reality that acts as an obstacle to the discovery of the real 
as pure surface. Here lies the struggle against semblance. But since the 
semblance-of-reality adheres to the real, the destruction of semblance comes 
to be identified with destruction pure and simple. At the end of its 
purification, the real, as total absence of reality, is the nothing. This 
path, undertaken by innumerable ventures in the century – political, 
artistic, scientific ventures – is the path of terrorist nihilism. Since its 
subjective motivation is the passion for the real, it is not a consent to 
anything, it is a creation, and one should recognise in it the traits of an 
active nihilism.

Where are we today? The figure of active nihilism is regarded as completely 
obsolete. Every reasonable activity is limited, limiting, constrained by the 
burdens of reality. The best that one can do is to get away from evil, and 
to do this, the shortest path is to avoid any contact with the real. 
Ultimately one comes up against the nothing, the there-is-nothing-real, and 
in this sense one remains in nihilism. But since the terrorist element, the 
desire to purify the real, has been suppressed, nihilism is disactivated. It 
has become passive, or reactive, nihilism, that is, hostile to every action 
as well as to every thought.

The other path that the century sketched out, the one that attempts to hold 
onto the passion for the real without falling for the paroxystic charms of 
terror, I call the subtractive path: to exhibit as a real point, not the 
destruction of reality, but minimal difference. To purify reality, not in 
order to annihilate it in its surface, but to subtract it from its apparent 
unity so as to detect within it the minuscule difference, the vanishing term 
which constitutes it. What barely takes place differs from the place wherein 
it takes place. It is in the ‘barely’ that all the affect rests, in this 
immanent exception.

In both of these paths the key question is that of the new. What is the new? 
The question obsesses the century, because ever since its inception the 
century is invoked as figure of commencement. And first of all as the 
(re)commencement of Man: the new man.

This syntagm, perhaps more Stalinist than Leninist, has two opposing senses.

For a whole host of thinkers, singularly in the ambit of fascist thought, 
and without excluding Heidegger, the new man is in great part the 
restitution of the man of old, the one who had been obliterated, who had 
disappeared, who had been corrupted. Purification is really the more or less 
violent process of the return of a vanished origin. The new is a production 
of authenticity. In the final analysis, the task of the century is seen here 
as the restitution (of the origin) by the destruction (of the inauthentic).
For another host of thinkers, particularly in the ambit of Marx-leaning 
communism, the new man is a real creation, something which has never existed 
before, because it emerges from the destruction of historical antagonisms. 
The new man of communism is beyond classes and beyond the State.
The new man is thus either restored, or produced.
In the first case, the definition of the new man is rooted in mythic 
totalities such as race, nation, earth, blood, soil. The new man is a 
collection of predicates (nordic, aryan, warrior, etc.).

In the second case, on the contrary, the new man is conceived against all 
envelopes and all predicates, in particular against family, property, the 
nation-state. This is the project of Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, 
Private Property and the State. Marx had already underlined that the 
universal singularity of the proletariat is to bear no predicate, to possess 
nothing, and in particular to have, in the strong sense, no fatherland. This 
conception of the new man – anti-predicative, negative and universal – 
traverses the century. A very important point here is the hostility towards 
the family, as the primordial nucleus of egoism, of rooted particularity, of 
tradition and origin. Gide's cry – ‘Families, I hate you’ – partakes in the 
apologetics of the new man thus conceived.

It is very striking to see that the family has once again become, at the 
century’s end, a consensual and practically unassailable value. The young 
love the family, in which moreover they remain until later and later. The 
German Green Party, considered to be a protest party (everything is 
relative: it is now in government…), contemplated at one point calling 
itself the party of the family. Even homosexuals, bearers in the century, as 
we’ve just seen with Gide, of a part of the protest, today demand their 
insertion within the familial frame, the tradition, citizenship. See how far 
we’ve come! The new man, in the real present of the century, stood first of 
all, if one was progressive, for the escape from family, property and state 
despotism. Today, it seems that modernisation, as our masters like to call 
it, amounts to being a good little dad, a good little mom, a good little 
son, to become an efficient employee, to enrich oneself as much as possible, 
and to play the responsible citizen. This is the new motto: Money, Family, 
Elections. Even if the money is that of the net-economy, the family that of 
two homosexuals, the elections a great democratic feast, I can’t really see 
the political progress.

The century ends on the motif of impossible subjective novelty and of the 
comfort of repetition. This motif has a categorial name, obsession. The 
century ends in the obsession of security, under the rather abject maxim: 
it’s really not bad being where you are already, there is, and has been, 
worse elsewhere. Whilst what was alive in these hundred years placed itself, 
after Freud as after Lenin, under the sign of a devastating hysteria, of its 
activism, of its intransigent militancy.

Our duty, supporting ourselves on Lenin’s work, is to reactivate in 
politics, against the morose obsession of our times, the very question of 
thought. To all those who claim to practice political philosophy, we ask: 
What is your critique of the existing world? What can you offer us that’s 
new? Of what are you the creator?


1 A version of this text, dated April 7, 1999, and originally delivered in a 
series of lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie, will appear 
in Alain Badiou’s forthcoming The Century, in a bilingual edition with 
translation and commentary by Alberto Toscano and responses by Alain Badiou.

Translated by Alberto Toscano

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