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THE ABSOLUTE BETWEEN SET THEORY AND MAO ZEDONG: A SHORT

INTERVIEW WITH ALAIN BADIOU

Figure 1: THE VENUE ENTRANCE WITH CONFERENCE POSTER. PHOTO: ANITA DOBRI.

The Prague Axiomatic Circle organized a two-day conference on the mathematical philosophy
and ontology of Alain Badiou entitled “Alain Badiou: Thinking the infinite”. The speakers of the
conference were all lecturers and researchers on the forefront of either mathematics proper or the
philosophy of mathematics, as well as the philosophy of Badiou. Among them Tzu Chientho,
Oliver Feltham, Nick Nesbitt, Fernando Zalamea, René Guitart, Evelyne Barbin, Pierre Cartier,
Jana Berankova, Norman Madarasz and many others.

Alain Badiou (1937) is a French philosopher, one of French philosophy’s giants and most
remarkable thinkers, who first turned heads with reactivating concepts like “truth”, “universality”
and “ideology” all of which are seen as outdated in the current postmodernist zeitgeist. His body
of works spans the philosophy of mathematics, and within that his own mathematical ontology,
aesthetics, philosophy of art and the philosophy of politics (“political philosophy” is a term he
himself rejects and criticized on many occasions). Beyond all this he is the author of a number of
novels, dramatic plays, between 2006 and 2012 he retranslated Plato’s Republic from the
original ancient Greek, but he transposed the entire act into modern times where the characters
debate modern issues from a platonic point of view to show the readers how relevant Plato’s
thought still is.

Badiou’s other radical – in the true sense of the word, not how liberal commentators like to abuse
the term – trait is his unrepentant Maoism, although he criticized almost all concrete
manifestations of said political leaning. None the less he holds that the philosophical and social
thought of Mao Zedong still is capable of inspiring profound and fruitful possibilities if it is
approached from that decentralizing angle that Mao himself espoused towards the Shanghai
commune on the one hand and towards his own Communist Party of China on the other, when he
wrote his famous “Bombard the Headquarters!” large character poster that launched the Cultural
Revolution.

Therefore, Badiou in his political thought is specifically a Maoist, generally a communist. On the
level of ontology, he espouses mathematical materialism (beginning from The Concept of Model
and Theory of the Subject, 1969 and 1982 respectively), which is a materialism beyond
materialism. This mathematical materialism based on Badiou’s own mathematical ontology
rejects each and every possibility of a counted-as-One transcendental subject (like God or a
wholly finalized political identity for instance) and through at least six highly complex books
attempts to give a mathematical description of the statement that “all that exists is multiplicity:
the One is not, everything that exists is the set of sets of infinite sets – all that is, is multiplicity.”
This magnificent claim was first theorized in Badiou’s magum opus “Being and Event” around
which much of the conference was centered. Since most questions regarding his ontology were
answered during these two wonderful days, after a short time I steered our interview towards
current social issues.

Figure 2: ALAIN BADIOU, FERNANDO ZALAMEA, RENÉ GUITART. PHOTO: ANITA DOBRI.

In various books of yours, all the way from Théorie du Sujet, there is the term you use
“mathematical materialism”, which would go beyond dialectical materialism into a sort of
“ontological materialism”. Would you clarify these terms and how they relate to one
another?

I think first that there is no competition for me between dialectical, mathematical and ontological
materialism. It’s not a fight. In some sense I am myself on the side of dialectical materialism, but
I generally speak of material dialectics much more than dialectical materialism. What I have in
mind is to clarify in materialism the question of matter: what is matter in materialism? And I
think I propose to generalize the point to something more abstract and more precise than matter
as an entity, concept or even matter as a category of physics. When I speak of being as such, it is
not an idealistic conception for me. What these three terms have in common is all things that
exist in the concrete world. So, I am a materialist effectively, but mathematical materialism in
some sense, mathematics as a whole, for me is also the science of what exists and it is why my
conclusion is finally that mathematics is the study of all possible forms of multiplicities.
Naturally it is a science of the abstract forms of multiplicities, but in different situations we have
different realizations of all these forms. That is why I think my materialism is simultaneously
more general and more precise than the ancient form of materialism, where in some sense matter
was enigmatic.

Can this mathematical ontology be used in the social sciences as opposed to the very well-
known use of statistics as ideology or generally this narrow-minded use of mathematics as
simple statistics?

You know, what is the possible use of mathematical ontology in the different sciences in general?
Physics, first, and then social sciences and so on. The use is to dispose of the theory of all forms
of multiplicities, but in social science the forms of multiplicities are not the same as in nuclear
physics and so on. Certainly, we can observe that in social science we have some use of the
general forms of multiplicities and after that we have consequences, observations, statistics and
so on which go inside the certain multiplicities and give precise descriptions. It is why in
sciences that are not directly mathematical in nature we have use of mathematics, but not a
complete reduction to mathematics. It is normal, it is applied science to concrete situations. We
have all this in the space of mathematics in some sense, because mathematics speaks of all forms
of multiplicities, but we must confirm by different means the specificity of each of these. In my
own theory I claim that in some sense there is always some use of mathematics in science in
general, sometimes very important use like in physics. Finally, in social science, which was your
question, the use exists naturally but it must be compatible with some description that is not
mathematical in nature.

So, we are in Prague right now and this year is not only the 50th anniversary of the
May ’68 events, but also the Prague Spring. What is your take on the events that took place
in the city in 1968?

I think the Prague Spring was something really interesting for me, because it is an attempt to
transform the communist vision and the socialist state into something different and I think that
this general idea was a clear necessity in the sixties. It was clear that all the organizational forms
in Russia in the East and Far East became unacceptable and were at the end of their historical
existence. And you know that today even in Russia itself finally this format will be destroyed. So
in a sense the proposition of Dubček was to transform something inside the communist sphere of
influence and to prepare a new stage of that sort of the socialist state. In the context of the sixties
in some sense it was clearly a necessity to transform the socialist state. Finally, the repression by
the Soviet Union was a conservative and reactionary undertaking. If you see all that in the
becoming of history, which is finally is the most interesting vision, the result is vague, because it
was crushed, but the idea to propose a new vision of all that was a progressive vision and the
views of the reactionary camp today is a rehashing of the Soviet repression of the events.

Figure 3: ALAIN BADIOU, IVÁCSON ANDRÁS ÁRON. PHOTO: ANITA DOBRI.

You are a great reader and interpreter of Mao Zedong. What is your take on
contemporary China and the rule of Xi Jinping?

I think contemporary China is the result of the failure of the Cultural Revolution in some sense.
Mao had an idea, much as Dubček in a sense, but certainly in the other direction. It was the idea
that without a new movement, a new mass movement, we cannot go toward the future: the
situation is paralyzed. It was impossible to continue in the form that was the same form as in
Russia and the other social-bureaucratic states. And so, he takes on the responsibility to organize
a new mass movement of students and after that workers and it has been finally a failure because
of the defensive position of the party and so on. After that we have Deng Xiaoping who is in
some sense the Gorbachev of China so the present situation of China is the situation what I can
name state capitalism: capitalism in the form of the dictatorial state and it is the capitalism we
know because largely it has been the case in France since at least the second world war. That is,
capitalism in which the state is very strong. But China is a big capitalist state that is more and
more imperialist, because from capitalism to imperialism: this consequence is inevitable.

A few days ago, Macron declared that he wants to repair the church-state relation in
France which caused quite an uproar because one of the strongest traditions of the French
state is its secular nature, in other words the tradition of laïcité. What is your comment
regarding this declaration?

He said the relationship between the state and the catholic church was in a bad situation and so
he must create a new peaceful and constant relationship. I think it’s absolutely the scale of
Macron’s politics: a strictly and entirely conservative bourgeois politics. Inside of that sort of
bourgeois politics the relationship to the part of the public opinion that is on the side of the
church, is important. For the right in France the question of religion is always very important.
We have seen that when we have that law concerning homosexuality and so on. We have a
strong manifestation of the right wing and so Macron has this idea to know all sorts of problems
so as to have a peaceful relationship with the right wing of the public opinion. It is why I’ve said
all I’ve said concerning the catholic church over the years. It is also part of the very difficult
relationship of our government with all the Muslims in France. It was a choice on the part of
Macron that says that the strong relationship of the state with the catholic church basically means
that Muslims must accept to be a minority in France.

About a week ago Viktor Orbán won the elections again in Hungary. A few days ago, a
local right-wing newspaper that has strong ties to the government started listing people
that are supposedly employed by George Soros. What do you think, how the situation in
Hungary will play out in the long run?

I think the situation in Hungary is very nuanced in fact, because there is a clear majority behind
the semi-fascist government of Orbán. I think today it is very difficult to fight against that sort of
semi-fascism, nationalism and so on by the strict means of capitalist democracy. We must
oppose to fascism something much more interesting and fundamental to people than the western
form of democracy. So, I think that the strength of that sort of fascist right is in fact the price to
be payed for the weakness of today’s left.