Photo by REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte, via Channel 4

Concluding rejoinder to Vangeesa Sumanasekara

“Philosophy is not a dialogue”– Slavoj Zizek

In the beginning was politics. Marx’s favourite figure in literature was Prometheus. The better known version of the legend is that Prometheus was punished by the Gods for stealing the secret of fire and giving it to humanity, but Plato tells us that the original version of the tale as told by Protagoras (who lived 2,500 years ago) was that Prometheus originally intended to steal the secret of politics for the benefit of humanity but failed to do so because it was the most ferociously guarded of the secrets possessed by the Gods. So he stole the secret of fire strictly as a second best. Zeus was to grant humanity the capacity for justice and law, later, but he kept for himself the secret of politics.

Readers will be glad to know that the dispute between Vangeesa Sumanasekara and me is really about politics, with philosophy as a medium of argument. The real line of demarcation between Vangeesa and me is also the central issue of politics and political philosophy: the State. He regards the state as a problem; indeed The Problem, while I have a more nuanced, one may say dialectical view: the State is both problem and solution, and which of these contradictory aspects predominates is decided by time and place. The issue of the State also places Vangeesa and me on two sides of the issue of Sri Lanka’s war. The two interrelated issues so central to political philosophy, the State and War, lead us to opposite conclusions with regard to the strategic perspectives for transformation is Sri Lanka and the world. Though neither of us is politically affiliated (as far as I know) I suspect that our debate is tangentially related to an ideological dispute at the heart of the JVP-FSP contradiction.

That said let me deal with the philosophical issues at hand. Let us grasp the bull by its horns. In order to evaluate whether or not I was way off the mark in describing the Sri Lankan military victory as a neo-Badiouian Event, let us examine what constitutes a Badiouian Event. What better authority than Alain Badiou himself and what better text than one he has entitled ‘Thinking the Event’?

“…Third, to throw light on the value of exception. The value of the event. The value of the break…I argue that a philosophical concept , in the sense that Deleuze speaks of it— which is to say as a creation— is always what knots together a problem of choice (or decision), a problem of distance (or gap), and a problem of the exception (or event)…” (‘Philosophy in the Present’, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, Polity , 2010, pp. 12-13)

“Finally, you do not have the hypothesis of a veritable event, you do not have the feeling of exception…” (Badiou, Ibid, p. 19)

Thus for Badiou, The Event is on a continuum with, clustered with, ‘the exception’, ‘the decision’ (which sound Schmittian to me!) and ‘the break’. To me there’s quite enough in there to warrant the description of the great victory of May 2009 as a neo-Badiouian Event than not.

Vangeesa accuses me of “Christianizing” Alain Badiou, possibly even indicating that he is a believer. I certainly did not do the latter, and as for the former, Vangeesa has to direct his criticism to far more authoritative philosophical source; a source whose stated view on the subject is completely at variance with the distance that Vangeesa attempts to place between Badiou and the Christian tradition. Slavoj Zizek says that:

“ Following Alain Badiou’s path-breaking book on Saint Paul, our premiss here is…instead of adopting…a defensive stance, allowing the enemy to define the terrain of the struggle, what one should do is to reverse the strategy by fully endorsing what one is accused of: yes, there is a direct lineage from Christianity to Marxism; yes, Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onslaught of new spiritualisms- the authentic Christian legacy is much too precious to be left to the fundamentalist freaks.” (Zizek, ‘Introduction: For Nobody and Nothing’, The Fragile Absolute, Verso, 2008, p xxix).

It is apposite to mention that the complete title of Zizek’s book from which I just quoted is ‘The Fragile Absolute or Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?’ (My italics –DJ). Vangeesa must surely know that the issue is not Christianity as faith, as religion, but that both Zizek and Badiou regard the Christian legacy as containing the philosophical foundation stone precisely of universalism, which any kind of Marxist, Communist or revolutionary perspective must base itself upon. Indeed Badiou and Zizek regard St Paul as the prototypical figure of the militant which the Communist tradition should return to.

Vangeesa uses the term ‘Christian Essentialism’ as a critique or cautioning, but fails to say where the phrase came from. He cannot be unaware that it is from a two part essay entitled ‘Christian Communists, Islamic Anarchists?’ in the International Journal of Zizek Studies and republished in Monthly Review, by Nathan Coombs (who holds a PhD in Political Philosophy and is now at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh), which also entails a critique of my perspective as contained in my book on ‘Fidel’s Ethics of Violence’. In it he wrote:

“Neither Badiou nor Žižek has actually explored this consequence directly, and indeed it would even be counter-productive to their philosophical and political aims to do so; yet it seems an almost inevitable development of their work that Christian essentialism should creep into a retrospective assessment of the global, revolutionary movement — a task that at least Dayan Jayatilleka seems to already have picked up upon.”

Vangeesa asks in what sense I am Badiouian. I don’t know, but then again where and when did I say I was? When I say that an event is ‘neo-Badiouian’, it doesn’t mean that I am Badiouian any more than my deployment of a concept of Trotsky’s or description of something or someone as ‘neo-Trotskyist’ would mean I am in any sense Trotskyist! The fact that my work has been discussed by some scholars as part of a discussion of Badiou or a larger discussion that has foregrounded Badiou only means that in the view of these critical intellectuals, there are confluences and correspondences in terms of the themes and problems that have concerned us— most notably Christianity, violence, the fate of Communism, etc.

Vangeesa uses within inverts, the phrase ‘philosophical company’, and goes on to assert that I am not in the company I think I am in and should instead regard Badiou et al as my ‘philosophical enemies’. The clear implication is that I have placed myself in exalted philosophical company. Now I have never placed myself in any “philosophical company”. I must confess that I have however been placed by several scholars in precisely such company. I also believe I am the only Sri Lankan to have been so placed!

A specialist on Badiou, Colin Wright, lecturer in Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham summarizes my views in his concluding paragraphs of his essay ‘The violence of the new: Badiou’s subtractive destruction and Gandhi’s satyagraha’ (Subjectivity, 2011 4, 9–28).

In an essay in the Routledge volume ‘The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms’, entitled ‘Marx, Engels and the Ethics of Violence in Revolt’, Prof Nick Hewlett discusses the topic by way of Sorel, Bloch, Sartre, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Balibar et al and concludes with a generous commendation of my work as effecting a breakthrough synthesis.

Dr Nathan Coombs places me in fairly decent ‘philosophical company’ in critical reviews of my work. In the long established journal ‘Radical Philosophy’ he opined:

“Here’s the problem: Jayatilleka works entirely within a subject-centred lexicon of authentic decision (Heidegger), commitment (Sartre) and fidelity (Badiou) that coincides equally – in his emphasis on the Christian basis of these philosophies in Castro’s ethics  – with the movement from Jacob Taubes to Badiou in establishing St Paul and Christianity as the foundation of communism. Yet the Christian predication of Castro’s ethics is precisely what undermines its own real-world universality.”(Radical Philosophy Vol 155, 51, May-June 2009)

Meanwhile in the Political Studies Review, journal of the Political Studies Association, UK (published by Blackwell) Coombs reiterated the ‘philosophical company’:

“Two contemporary trends in the scholarship of the left converge in Dayan Jayatilleka’s appraisal of Fidel Castro’s legacy. The first is the emerging perspective, from Jacob Taubes to Alain Badiou, that Christianity provides the foundation for the universalism and moral basis of communism. The second is the shift from the Second International’s emphasis on the scientific basis of historical materialism to the subject-centred philosophy of the existential movement: from Heidegger’s authentic decision, to Jean Paul Sartre’s notion of commitment, and finally arriving as the discourse of post-Marxism in Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou.”

Paul Chambers of the University of Bradford places me in the excellent ‘philosophical company’ of Alasdair MacIntyre, reading my contribution to some extent against him as it were, in a review in the Journal of Latin American Studies. Calling him “one of the most important moral-political philosophers of the last 30 years, Alasdair MacIntyre”, Chambers goes on to say that:

“Jayatilleka…at the level of theory implicitly posits Fidelismo as the kind of ethical-political-social theory/tradition that MacIntyre sees as the necessary intellectual framework for rational moral-political inquiry – for example, in his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990). In my view, Jayatilleka makes a strong case that Fidel Castro’s moral-political thought not only constitutes an important theoretical contribution to political philosophy but is itself also a moral-political tradition partly born of concrete political-social practice. This tradition takes ethics out of the liberal domain of a-historical morality and the problematic modern fragmentation and incommensurability of moral discourse diagnosed by MacIntyre, embodying not just a rival theory but also a rival mode of socio-political-military practice through which moral criteria regain rational purchase and can once again play a role in guiding social-political relations and the search for social justice.”(Journal of Latin American Studies. 41 (2009), Cambridge, December 2009.)

Let us conclude with the central question of the State. Vangeesa would note that in his generous yet characteristically sharp critique of Badiou entitled ‘The Violence of Subtraction’ in the anthology In Defence of Lost Causes’, (which he dedicates to his friend Badiou) Slavoj Zizek focuses precisely on the issue of the state as his line of demarcation.

As for my own view of the State in contradistinction to that of Vangeesa and his co-thinkers, I shall conclude by echoing Zizek. In the anthology ‘The Idea of Communism’ Slavoj Zizek is unambiguously explicit about the state and strategies for transformation, going on to criticise the Badiouian perspective. He declared that:

“Consequently, I want to propose two axioms concerning the relationship between the State and politics… If you do not have an idea of what you want to replace the State with, you have no right to subtract/withdraw from the State.” (‘How to Begin from the Beginning’, in ‘The Idea of Communism’, 2010: 219)

In his comradely extended exchange with Badiou in Vienna, Zizek disclosed even more explicitly that:

“By the way, I believe that the theory of civil society is completely mistaken. At any rate I should say that in the break-up of Yugoslavia just as in most other conflicts between the state and civil society, I was regularly on the side of the state.” (‘Philosophy in the Present’, Badiou and Zizek, 2010: 65).

In the attempt to break-up Sri Lanka as Yugoslavia was broken up, so was I —and so I remain.

[Dayan Jayatilleka is author of The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-Narrative from the South, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014 and Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, Pluto, London, 2007.]


This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.