[Marxism] Zizek on the Berlin Wall
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 10 06:37:53 MST 2009
NY Times, November 9, 2009
20 Years of Collapse
By SLAVOJ ZIZEK
TODAY is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During this time of reflection, it is common to emphasize the
miraculous nature of the events that began that day: a dream
seemed to come true, the Communist regimes collapsed like a house
of cards, and the world suddenly changed in ways that had been
inconceivable only a few months earlier. Who in Poland could ever
have imagined free elections with Lech Walesa as president?
However, when the sublime mist of the velvet revolutions was
dispelled by the new democratic-capitalist reality, people reacted
with an unavoidable disappointment that manifested itself, in
turn, as nostalgia for the “good old” Communist times; as
rightist, nationalist populism; and as renewed, belated
The first two reactions are easy to comprehend. The same rightists
who decades ago were shouting, “Better dead than red!” are now
often heard mumbling, “Better red than eating hamburgers.” But the
Communist nostalgia should not be taken too seriously: far from
expressing an actual wish to return to the gray Socialist reality,
it is more a form of mourning, of gently getting rid of the past.
As for the rise of the rightist populism, it is not an Eastern
European specialty, but a common feature of all countries caught
in the vortex of globalization.
Much more interesting is the recent resurgence of anti-Communism
from Hungary to Slovenia. During the autumn of 2006, large
protests against the ruling Socialist Party paralyzed Hungary for
weeks. Protesters linked the country’s economic crisis to its rule
by successors of the Communist party. They denied the very
legitimacy of the government, although it came to power through
democratic elections. When the police went in to restore civil
order, comparisons were drawn with the Soviet Army crushing the
1956 anti-Communist rebellion.
This new anti-Communist scare even goes after symbols. In June
2008, Lithuania passed a law prohibiting the public display of
Communist images like the hammer and sickle, as well as the
playing of the Soviet anthem. In April 2009, the Polish government
proposed expanding a ban on totalitarian propaganda to include
Communist books, clothing and other items: one could even be
arrested for wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
No wonder that, in Slovenia, the main reproach of the populist
right to the left is that it is the “force of continuity” with the
old Communist regime. In such a suffocating atmosphere, new
problems and challenges are reduced to the repetition of old
struggles, up to the absurd claim (which sometimes arises in
Poland and in Slovenia) that the advocacy of gay rights and legal
abortion is part of a dark Communist plot to demoralize the nation.
Where does this resurrection of anti-Communism draw its strength
from? Why were the old ghosts resuscitated in nations where many
young people don’t even remember the Communist times? The new
anti-Communism provides a simple answer to the question: “If
capitalism is really so much better than Socialism, why are our
lives still miserable?”
It is because, many believe, we are not really in capitalism: we
do not yet have true democracy but only its deceiving mask, the
same dark forces still pull the threads of power, a narrow sect of
former Communists disguised as new owners and managers — nothing’s
really changed, so we need another purge, the revolution has to be
What these belated anti-Communists fail to realize is that the
image they provide of their society comes uncannily close to the
most abused traditional leftist image of capitalism: a society in
which formal democracy merely conceals the reign of a wealthy
minority. In other words, the newly born anti-Communists don’t get
that what they are denouncing as perverted pseudo-capitalism
simply is capitalism.
One can also argue that, when the Communist regimes collapsed, the
disillusioned former Communists were effectively better suited to
run the new capitalist economy than the populist dissidents. While
the heroes of the anti-Communist protests continued to dwell in
their dreams of a new society of justice, honesty and solidarity,
the former Communists were able to ruthlessly accommodate
themselves to the new capitalist rules and the new cruel world of
market efficiency, inclusive of all the new and old dirty tricks
A further twist is added by those countries in which Communists
allowed the explosion of capitalism, while retaining political
power: they seem to be more capitalist than the Western liberal
capitalists themselves. In a crazy double reversal, capitalism won
over Communism, but the price paid for this victory is that
Communists are now beating capitalism in its own terrain.
This is why today’s China is so unsettling: capitalism has always
seemed inextricably linked to democracy, and faced with the
explosion of capitalism in the People’s Republic, many analysts
still assume that political democracy will inevitably assert itself.
But what if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself
to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal
capitalism? What if democracy is no longer the necessary and
natural accompaniment of economic development, but its impediment?
If this is the case, then perhaps the disappointment at capitalism
in the post-Communist countries should not be dismissed as a
simple sign of the “immature” expectations of the people who
didn’t possess a realistic image of capitalism.
When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the
large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the
freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come
together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of
simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological
indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.
As many commentators observed, the ideals that led the protesters
were to a large extent taken from the ruling Socialist ideology
itself — people aspired to something that can most appropriately
be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this
attitude deserves a second chance.
This brings to mind the life and death of Victor Kravchenko, the
Soviet engineer who, in 1944, defected during a trade mission to
Washington and then wrote a best-selling memoir, “I Chose
Freedom.” His first-person report on the horrors of Stalinism
included a detailed account of the mass hunger in early-1930s
Ukraine, where Kravchenko — then still a true believer in the
system — helped enforce collectivization.
What most people know about Kravchenko ends in 1949. That year, he
sued Les Lettres Françaises for libel after the French Communist
weekly claimed that he was a drunk and a wife-beater and his
memoir was the propaganda work of American spies. In the Paris
courtroom, Soviet generals and Russian peasants took the witness
stand to debate the truth of Kravchenko’s writings, and the trial
grew from a personal suit to a spectacular indictment of the whole
But immediately after his victory in the case, when Kravchenko was
still being hailed all around the world as a cold war hero, he had
the courage to speak out passionately against Joseph McCarthy’s
witch hunts. “I believe profoundly,” he wrote, “that in the
struggle against Communists and their organizations ... we cannot
and should not resort to the methods and forms employed by the
Communists.” His warning to Americans: to fight Stalinism in such
a way was to court the danger of starting to resemble their opponent.
Kravchenko also became more and more obsessed with the
inequalities of the Western world, and wrote a sequel to “I Chose
Freedom” that was titled, significantly, “I Chose Justice.” He
devoted himself to finding less exploitative forms of
collectivization and wound up in Bolivia, where he squandered all
his money trying to organize poor farmers. Crushed by this
failure, he withdrew into private life and shot himself in 1966 at
his home in New York.
How did we come to this? Deceived by 20th-century Communism and
disillusioned with 21st-century capitalism, we can only hope for
new Kravchenkos — and that they come to happier ends. On the
search for justice, they will have to start from scratch. They
will have to invent their own ideologies. They will be denounced
as dangerous utopians, but they alone will have awakened from the
utopian dream that holds the rest of us under its sway.
Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute
for the Humanities in London, is the author, most recently, of
“First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.”
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