Petrograd, Shanghai

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By Pedro Ramos de Toledo*

Commentary on Alain Badiou's book on the two main revolutions of the XNUMXth century

Alain Badiou analyzes the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the Proletarian Cultural Revolution (PCR) of 1965 as experiences of popular action, which overflow the established forms of political action at that time and, therefore, propitiate the development of political novelties, new spaces that dissolve historically given conditions, in turn embodied in traditional forms of domination.

At stake is what Badiou called the “communist hypothesis”, ie, a political truth that is symbolically inserted in history and that points, through new forms of collective action, towards human emancipation (Badiou, 2010: p.248 ). This movement – ​​historical, political and subjective – operates through the dialectical relationship between two central concepts in Badiou's thought: the “event”, defined by the rupture of the normal order of bodies and languages ​​and which enables not only the creation of new possibilities , but the flowering of the possibility of possibilities; and the “State”, a system of chains that limits what is politically possible. As Badiou puts it: “The State is always the finitude of possibility and the event its infinitization” (Badiou, 2010: p.243). For the author, therefore, what matters less is the destiny of the States created by the revolutions of 1917 and 1949, and more their seminal events, that is, the emergence of new forms of collective action and the possibilities that generated – and resurrected – the struggle for radical equality as opposed to the “neolithic” configuration of the State, in which private property and the social division of labor remain as its main frontiers, determining what is possible.

Composed from past interventions, “Petrograd-Shanghai” is a booklet organized into four chapters, in which the author's reflections on the Russian and Chinese experience are interspersed with the analysis of two primary documents: the “April Theses” (1917), by Vladimir Lenin; It is “The Sixteen Point Decision” (1966), the elaboration of which was supervised by Mao Zedong. The edition reviewed here featured an introduction by Ivan de Oliveira Vaz, who briefly presents an overview of Alain Badiou's thought and the biographical and political roots of his political engagement.

in the first chapter “On the Russian Revolution of October 1917”, Badioue elaborates his reflections from the critique of what he calls the “Neolithic condition”, whose parameters were launched tens of thousands of years ago and which, even today, limit what is possible: the perpetuation of a class society supported by the existence of a State coercive, whose role is to guarantee unlimited private property. Despite the countless historical forms that different societies developed during the human adventure on earth, Badiou is categorical: “The truth is that we are Neolithic” (Badiou, 2019: 40). In this panorama, the author determines the universal condition of humanity – its unity – as the guiding thread that urges the birth of new ideas and practices, which aim at the realization of radical equality – revolutions. Each revolution brings with it not only the possibility of overcoming the Neolithic State, but resurrects the revolutions that preceded it, bringing to the field of political struggle the agenda of radical equality, the realization of human unity. It is under the consensus of the Neolithic State, which determines the finitude of possibilities, that revolutions and their leaders end up vilified. As Badiou points out: “When there is a “totalitarian” […] one has to automatically think that behind, poorly hidden, there is an 'egalitarian'.” (Badiou, 2019: 35).

It is from the overcoming of the Neolithic State, the reconciliation of humanity with itself, the realization of human unity that Badiou makes his judgment of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The Russian Revolution, as well as the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, sought establish the realm of radical equality, sought to overcome the Neolithic State. The author defines his thesis as follows: “the Russian Revolution showed, for the first time in history, that it was possible to succeed” . For those who look at the October 1917 revolution from the perspective of the failure of the Soviet state, Badiou considers that its importance does not lie in the fate of its historical unfolding, but in what is new, which overcomes the Neolithic State and points to the possibility of victory: “[…] The Russian Revolution showed the possibility of the possibility of a humanity reconciled with itself”. In short, the realization of the communist hypothesis and the affirmation of equality as the vital force of humanity, as opposed to the neolithic condition of capitalism, which limits the realization of human unity and traps us in an eternally present past, in which we are forced to inhabit.

What characterizes this “possibility of possibility”? We must return again to Badiou's thinking. The possibility of possibility is the founding element of the event, which overflows the limitations imposed by the State on what is possible. Badiou looks at the October 1917 Revolution from the perspective of the political novelty it entailed, ie the forms of collective action that established new possibilities and subjectively guided men to insert themselves in the narrative of history. In the Russian case, this novelty starts from the combination between a highly disciplined revolutionary vanguard and the creation of mass democratic assemblies, and ends up directing a revolution that aimed solely at changing the form of the State to create a completely new form of social organization. , in which “[…] the management of things that matter in common to men are decided by all those who work” (Badiou, 2019: p.47). According to the author, the Russian Revolution showed that the victory of a post-Neolithic world is possible, regardless of the fate that awaited it at the end of the 2019th century: “The Russian Revolution stands as an emblem of that living present that struggles against death and which, however past it may seem, is still against death, facing the future” (Badiou, 50: p.XNUMX)

The second chapter deals with the analysis of the “April Theses”, written by Lenin during the provisional government of Kerenski. For Badiou, this document makes it possible to understand the political novelty proposed by Lenin, defined by the confrontation between two categorizations of politics: on the one hand, politics as a set of processes that concern the State and its management; and on the other, the division of populations around what constitutes their objectives. It is from this reading that the author attributes to the October Revolution its character of a “political work”, a revolution within the revolution, which goes beyond the mere transformation of the form of power proposed by the February Revolution and proposes “to change the organization of society as a whole, entrusting the production […] to the management decided by all those who work” (Badiou, 2019: p.53). Badiou tries to demonstrate, from the detailed reading of each thesis, how Lenin understood, already in April, the limitations inherent to the provisional government, attached to the first conception of politics, confronting it from the perspectives of “April Theses” with the second definition. The various contradictions that emerged from the limitations of the provisional government in the face of the wishes of the huge popular layers were perceived with great sensitivity and astuteness by Lenin, allowing the Bolshevik leader to foresee the possibility of a radical reconfiguration of the State and society, as he expressed in the famous “theses”. Even before the events of October, the possibility of possibility, the communist hypothesis, was on the table.

The work continues through Badiou's analysis of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution and how that event overflowed the limits of the Party-State, ie the fusion between the representative organization of the masses and the bureaucratic-coercive apparatus that structures and determines what is politically possible. For the philosopher, the CPR is the result of the contradiction that emerges from a State that, nominally proletarian, ends up reorganizing the bourgeoisie within its administrative frameworks. On the margins of the 'State-Fact' in which party and State merge, the PRC allowed the outbreak of revolutionary action by the masses, ie the event that configures the political work of the revolution itself and which continues the class struggle. Badiou begins his reflection by listing three reasons that he understands to justify the PRC as a political novelty: the constant reference it was to militant action around the world from 1967 onwards; the saturation of the party-state form, overflowing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a delimited space for political action; and his typical example of thinking about history from politics, allowing subjects to consciously realize themselves, from participation in a political process, in the fabric of the historical movement (Badiou, 2010: 235).

For his analysis, Badiou establishes a chronological cut that differs from the traditional periodizations that deal with the PRC, focusing on the period that extends between November 1965 and June 1968. His criterion is the existence of mass political activity and the countless possibilities that emerge from it: new spaces, new slogans, new sociabilities and organizations. This uprising of possibilities feeds Badiou's hypothesis: the PRC was possible due to the insoluble split that was established within the PCC after the failure of the "Great Leap Forward", which placed two currents on opposite sides: a majority current, composed of the CCP reactionary cadres; and its minority counterpart, albeit endowed with political and historical legitimacy, led by Mao Zedong. Since such a contradiction could not be resolved through the rules of bureaucratic formalism, nor even through the Stalinist methods of purging, there remained only the political mobilization of the masses, outside the parameters of the Party-State, as a tool to impose changes in the command structure of the CCP.

Based on this hypothesis, Badiou elaborates, in chronological order, seven historical references with which he seeks to verify the character of political novelty of the RCP: the “circular in 16 points” of August 1966, which inaugurated the political rupture of Mao’s group with the apparatus bureaucratic of the CCP; the emergence of the red guards, from the spring of 1966, formed by young students and which would put in check the ways and decisions taken by the Chinese State in the conduct of the revolutionary process, demanding its reassessment and inciting the revolutionary struggle against the old ideas and old mores; the emergence of the Shanghai Commune, between January and February 1967, which inaugurated the entry of part of the labor movement alongside the Red Guards and the dismissal of the municipality of Shanghai; the seizure of power and the formation of revolutionary committees, in the first months of 1967, characterized by the objective breakup of the Central Power of the CPC based on the proliferation of the experience of the Shanghai Commune throughout the country; the Wuhan incident, considered by Badiou as the apotheosis of the PRC, which strained the unity of the People's Army almost to the breaking point and caused Mao to reassess the iconoclastic character of the more radical elements of the Red Guards; the entry of workers into universities at the end of July 1968, a moment that put an end to the independence of student organizations and their multiple sectarianisms, thus concluding the cycle of political innovations generated by the PRC. Badiou still reserves a space to discuss Mao's cult of personality, refuting the most common criticisms among western commentators by repositioning such cult from the representative role that Mao played with the youth as an incarnation of the proletarian party that was yet to come and whose genesis went through the class struggle with the PCC and its subsequent restoration. According to Badiou: “Mao designated the construction of socialism, but also its destruction”. (Badiou, 2019: p.85).

Reserving for reading “Circular in 16 points” In the last chapter of this work, Badiou sought to demonstrate, from the perspective left by the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the impossibility of emancipation – of overcoming the Neolithic condition – while political activity is limited to the Party-State. Every singularity that defines the revolutionary condition and that plays in the symbolic plane of History the communist hypothesis finds in the State-fact and in the party models the wall that prevents the transposition of its limits. The PRC proved to be a rich and brand new mass experience, doomed to failure in the face of the impossibility of articulating the new forms of sociability and political participation and the maintenance of State power. Badiou points to the RCP as the last revolution still dogmatically linked to the motif of classes, class struggle and party representation. The transition to new forms of political organization, which overcome the emptied form of the Party-State, is the only possibility that opens up for the emancipation of mankind. Without this horizon, only the Neolithic remains, whose late form is embodied in an increasingly atrocious, savage, unequal and predatory globalized capitalism. One hundred and one years before the publication of “Petrograd, Shanghai”, Aleksandr Blok, poet of the Russian Revolution, masterfully anticipated Badiou's epistemological rigor in poetic form: “When such intentions, hidden since time immemorial in the human soul, in the soul of the people, burst the paths that caged them and throw themselves into a flood stormy, breaking the dams, flooding the waste on the banks, this is called revolution”. (Blok, 2017[1918] p. 21)

*Peter Ramos of Toledo Master in History from USP.

Bibliographic references

BADIOU, Alain. “Petrograd, Shanghai: The Two Revolutions of the Twentieth Century”. Ubu Editora, São Paulo, 2019 (

_______,  “The Communist Hypothesis”. Ed. Verse, London, 2010 (

BLOK, Alexandr. “The Intelligentsia and the Revolution” in: GOMIDE, Bruno Barretto [org]. “October Writings: The Intellectuals and the Russian Revolution”. Ed. Boitempo, São Paulo, 2017 (

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