The Summary of a Century

A review of Alain Badiou's "The Century"

The judgement of the 20th century has been a widely disputed topic for decades. In various ways, many have tried to describe this era living deep inside us. "The Century" by Alain Badiou is one of these large-scale attempts published in Hungary in Typotex' Radical Thinkers series, in early 2010. There's no doubt, the author born in 1936 is a radical thinker. A former Maoist, belonging to Althusser's circle and actively taking part in the 1968 events, Badiou follows Marxist values to this day, and has a significant place among today's dominant French thinkers as a politically active philosopher. Not only is he known as a philosopher, but also a dramatist and a critic. Despite all of this, his work hasn't been yet recognised in Hungary.

In this work, Badiou analyses 'the century' through thirteen chapters. To him, as a good philosopher, thought is the only standardizing aspect. He asks: "What did people think in the 20th century that is not a follow-up to previous ideas? Which thoughts are the ones that aren't inherited? What are the ideas they had that were previously unreasonable or unthinkable even?" (p. 14) His method is to question the century itself by narrowly analysing the era's literary and political works. That is, he tries to understand what "the century thought about its own thinking; how it determined the cognitive specifics of the relation that was formed for its own history of thinking." (p. 14) For the analysis, he picks works by numerous outstanding poets (eg. Mandelstam, Mallarmé, Brecht), disputed politicians (eg. Mao Zedong), scientific pioneers (eg. Freud) as well as painters (eg. Malevich).



According to Badiou, 'the century' was ruled by the passion for reality in every sense. As opposed to the 19th century, which he sees as the era of dreams, promises and romanticism, the 20th century was a time of forming and creating a new world, where people believed they could form reality. The author closely examines the key to understand the 20th century, that is, the process of rebuilding through destruction, which is an idea that drove many political ideologies and avant-garde art groups.

Chapter by chapter, Badiou changes his point of view to explain the manifestations of the passion for reality in art, politics and science. He puts emphasis on certain points that he believes are primarily important. One of these is the attemps to create a new kind of human. He expressively shows how the century relentlessly strived for the creation of the new man, passing the limits of good and bad. Citing another example, another such point is the relation of the One and the Two, which ultimately determined the ideas of 20th century movements. "In the 20th century, the common law was neither the One, nor the Many; it was the Two. It wasn't the One because there is no harmony, the harmony of simplicity, God's uniform power. It wasn't the Many because it wasn't about reaching the balance of powers, the harmony of aptitudes. It was Two. The world expressed in the modality of the Two excludes the possibility of uniform subordination as well as that of combinatoral balance. " (p. 72)



Although the author declares the 20th century as his object of analysis, he dwells long on the present. He believes today, the "era of restoration" is a time without ideologies that abandoned all ambitions that – as aresult of its passion for reality – the 20th century set out. Badiou's arguments contrasting the two centuries can be discussed in great lengths but he captures this opposition very well in the chapter examining art, titled "The Avant-Gardes". According to Badiou, "and so we return to classicism but without its tools. Everything has always already begun and it's needless to think that you can create new art or a new human based on nothing. This is how it is justified to say that the century has ended. For 20th century art and the formalisation of the avant-garde can be defined as an attempt to create non-classical art." (p. 244)

Just like all major summary works, Badiou's writing has its own faults. Perhaps because of the author's Maoist past, at one point,he defends the cultural revolution in lenght, (p. 113–115) opposing all who view it as just the party's inner strife of power. One could agree or argue with Badiou but his short historic detour doesn't fit the structure of the book well. Another weak point of the work is the uncritical usage of Marxist terminology. For instance, he inaccurately refers to both fascism and nazism as fascism. (p. 180-181) In other spots, the ambiguous arguments of the Marxist approach to history appear. The effect of Marxism can also be felt on Badiou's view of the era; he regards the history of past centuries a sequence of revolutionary and 'counter-revolutionary' eras.



Despite its faults, Alain Badiou's work is an excellent summary of the previous century. Answering his own questions, he succeeds in pointing out the efforts that formed the 20th century. The fact that the author writes about a past century that he was an active part of, living the passion for reality in the inside as well as the relation of the One and the Two, makes this work even more valuable. His versatility (being a philosopher, a writer, a critic, a political activist and a scholar of mathematics, all at the same time) clearly reflects in his work; he's able to show numerous complex phenomena in regards to the 20th century which have been hardly or not at all studied before.

To sum it up, Badiou analyses the 20th century using a comprehensive clear system. However, his interpretation is put behind an impenetrable barrier of his Marxistic views, thus allowing him to show 'the century' from a single point of view. Just as a window showing only a fragment of the whole landscape, Badiou's work is able to present only part of the era. His Marxism draws margins around his brilliant thoughts, similar to a windowframe. Still, it is a book worth reading even for this small portion of ideas because the author managed to include a world of original ideas in such a limited space, and his own barriers do say a lot about 'the century'. In a way, it is a must-read for those willing to dig deep and understand the 20th century in a learned way.


Badiou, Alain. "The Century". Typotex, 2010. ("Radical Thinkers" series), 321 pages

Translation: Zsófia Mihancsik