[Marxism] A reason to support Zizek

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 11 07:53:14 MST 2009


(This is an article plucked from behind the firewall of the filthy 
rightwing social democratic journal Dissent written by the even 
filthier Alan Johnson, who used to edit the Eustonian rag 
Democratiya before it was absorbed by Dissent. Johnson has the 
god-damned gall to frame his attack on Zizek in terms of classical 
Marxism, like the devil quoting scripture. Most people know that I 
am no fan of Zizek (check this, for example: 
http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/fascism_and_war/zizek_lenin.htm.) 
But anybody who is attacked with such vehemence by Alan Johnson 
can't be all bad.)

Dissent Magazine, Fall 2009
The Reckless Mind of Slavoj Žižek
By Alan Johnson

In Defense of Lost Causes
by Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 2008 504 pp., $34.95

In a stream of writings and talks since 1989, the Slovenian social 
theorist Slavoj Žižek has blended Lacanian psychoanalysis and 
Hegelian philosophy with film criticism, cultural studies, and 
authoritarian Marxism to earn a reputation as “one of the most 
dazzling figures on the intellectual left,” in the words of social 
theorist Alex Callinicos. There are Žižek T-Shirts, Žižek YouTube 
pages, an International Journal of Žižek Studies, Žižek CDs and 
DVDs, even Žižek!, the movie. “He has travelled the globe like an 
intellectual rock star for the past twenty years, gathering as he 
goes an immense fan club,” says literary critic Terry Eagleton.

In Defense of Lost Causes has only increased Žižek’s cult status. 
This despite the fact that the book jacket shows a guillotine and 
the text attacks antitotalitarianism; rehabilitates “egalitarian 
terror,” “ruthless discipline,” and authoritarian communism; and 
is dedicated to the French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou.

The problem of Žižek for the democratic Left is this: Why has a 
pure example of what the late Hal Draper would have called the 
authoritarian and elitist strain of socialism-from-above found a 
comfortable home, even adulation, on the Left?

When I was an editor at the journal Historical Materialism, we 
interviewed Žižek. It was an astonishing exchange. “There are no 
‘democratic (procedural) rules’ one is a priori prohibited to 
violate,” he argued. “Revolutionary politics is not a matter of 
opinions but of the truth on behalf of which one often is 
compelled to disregard the ‘opinion of the majority’ and to impose 
the revolutionary will against it.” Our duty lay in “the assertion 
of the unconditional, ‘ruthless’ revolutionary will, ready to ‘go 
to the end,’ effectively to seize power and undermine the existing 
totality.” What would be the position of workers, after the 
revolution? “Lenin was right: after the revolution, the anarchic 
disruptions of the disciplinary constraints of production should 
be replaced by an even stronger discipline.”

Žižek knew much about pop culture but his history was shaky. 
Trotsky, he claimed, “went as far as proposing global 
militarisation … I am ready to assert the Trotsky of the universal 
militarisation of life….That is the good Trotsky for me.” (So much 
for Terry Eagleton’s bromide that “Žižek is by no means a champion 
of political terror.”) Actually, in 1919 Trotsky called for the 
temporary, emergency militarization of labor, and that was bad 
enough. He certainly never called for “the universal 
militarisation of life.” Žižek’s, one presumes, was a Freudian slip.

Learning nothing from the historical record concerning the use of 
“iron will” and “ruthlessness” in the pursuit of utopia, Žižek 
told the HM editors that revolutionaries must “act without any 
legitimization, engaging oneself in a kind of Pascalean wager that 
the Act itself will create the conditions of its retroactive 
‘democratic’ legitimisation.”

The interview was utterly depressing. Here was another case of 
“the reckless mind” described by Mark Lilla, another display of 
philo-tyranny. Žižek had capitalized the word “Act” and added the 
qualifier “Absolute.” He had denied the need for “any 
legitimisation.” He had sneered at “democratic deadlock.” And like 
all authoritarian utopians from Plato through Rousseau to Mao, 
Žižek divided society into two parts. Over there, the mass of 
ordinary human beings, socialized by the existing totality; 
benighted about their true needs; lacking the capacity, latent or 
otherwise, to emancipate themselves. Over here, the 
Philosopher-Kings, the custodians of the General Will who have 
escaped the conditioning of the existing reality. These escapees 
can merrily commit “Absolute Acts,” make “Pascalean wagers,” and 
with an “iron will” and “ruthlessness” set about organizing “the 
global militarisation of life.”

Stalinist Theory and the New Style in “Leftism”

Well, Žižek has now written up these thoughts into a 500-page 
book. The decisive theoretical influence on Lost Causes is the 
French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, who invites us to renew 
the communist hypothesis by resurrecting “the ‘eternal idea’ of 
egalitarian terror” that Žižek informs us is a compound of strict 
egalitarian justice, terror, voluntarism, and “trust in the people.”

Of course, Badiou’s totalitarian political category/fantasy of 
“The People” has nothing to do with actual people. They can be 
ignored, even abused, in the name of “truth.” One imposes the 
truth against the people in the name of “The People.”

This intellectual sleight-of-hand is made— sometimes with whip in 
hand, sometimes in the ponderous tones of continental 
philosophy—by all totalitarian theorists. It licenses Žižek to 
make two giant strides backward toward what Karl Marx called “the 
old crap.”

First, mixing up the people with “The People” allows Žižek to 
bracket reality. ‘‘For Badiou, ‘the time of the fidelity to an 
event is the future anterieur,’” he writes. In other words, “one 
acts now as if the future one wants to bring about is already 
here.” (The Left has been very quick to criticize the 
neoconservatives for thinking they could “make reality” but 
indulges the same thing in the new “leftism.”)

Second, displacing real people with the fantasy-category of “The 
People” allows Žižek to bracket democracy and the opinion of the 
majority. As Badiou’s hero Mao put it, “The people are a blank 
sheet of paper on which the Communist Party will write beautiful 
words.” In Lost Causes, Žižek quotes Badiou approvingly: “Today 
the enemy is not Empire or Capital. It’s called Democracy.” He 
then praises “The great philosophers, from Plato to Heidegger” for 
being “mistrustful of democracy, if not directly antidemocratic.” 
Žižek claims there is no difference between these three 
statements: “the Church synod has decided,” “the Central Committee 
has passed a resolution,” and “the people have made clear its 
choice at the ballot box.” That’s because the so-called democratic 
subject is nothing but a “violent abstraction. . . foreign to and 
incompatible with enjoyment,” while democracy itself is nothing 
but an “empty place.” (For Žižek, the Hollywood film The Matrix is 
best watched as a documentary. To imagine one can use democracy to 
change the world is to live wholly within an illusion, just like 
Neo did before Morpheus showed him that what he thought was 
reality was only the shimmering code of the matrix.)

Žižek’s book seeks to rehabilitate the idea of a violent lurch at 
utopia by depicting a liberaldemocratic West so inauthentic, so 
disgusting, and so imbecilic that it is worth any risk to 
transcend it. We need “an entirely different society” beyond “the 
space of European modernity” with its “miserable utilitarian / 
egoistic universe of market calculation,” “vulgar reality of 
commerce,” and “hedonist permissivity.”

With Badiou, Žižek indicts an atonal world lost in jouissance and 
the pursuit of happiness. The initially pro-Nazi philosopher 
Heidegger is praised for rejecting liberal democracy as 
inauthentic. In his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real (the 
title is taken from a line spoken by Morpheus in The Matrix), 
Žižek pleads for a world of “final victories and ultimate 
demarcations” and of “radical and violent simplification.” He 
craves “the magical moment when the infinite pondering 
crystallises itself into a simple yes or no.”

None of this has made the Left balk. In fact, as Adam Kirsch noted 
in the New Republic, “the louder [Žižek] applauds violence and 
terror— especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. . . the 
more indulgently he is received by the academic left which has 
elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult.”

So what explains the Left’s affaire de coeur? Some reasons suggest 
themselves. None are encouraging.

First, as a colleague at Historical Materialism (whom I suspect 
had little time for Žižek) put it to me, Žižek must be indulged 
because he breaks the taboo of a global emancipatory alternative 
to capitalism, and this allows one to address a whole range of 
questions that a procapitalist position, however democratic, would 
not. This kind of leftist wants to be democratic but, like St. 
Augustine, not yet.

Second, parts of the Left have lost their way. Žižek is the flag 
bearer for a new, openly antidemocratic and reactionary “leftism.” 
Under the banner “Down with Us!,” this Left-cum-Right wages a war 
of sorts on the West. Its high theory and low sensibility are 
important in the mass media, the arts, and the academy and in what 
we might call graduate-popular-culture. It then uses these 
institutions as a trelliswork to wrap Western political culture, 
and the Western mind, in thickets of Occidentalism, anti- 
Americanism, anti-liberalism, conspiratorial manias, and 
self-loathing.

This reactionary Left-cum-Right does nothing less than invert the 
historic identity of the social democratic Left. Social democrats 
inherited the glorious promises of the eighteenth-century liberal 
democratic or “bourgeois” revolutions. Their goal was the 
realization of the promise of those revolutions for everyone, even 
“the poorest he,” as the Leveller Colonel Rainsborough put it in 
1647. They insisted, whether they were revolutionaries or 
reformists, that the promises be extended to the economic and 
social spheres at home, to groups (“and she!” we remind Colonel 
Rainsborough), and to the rest of the world (hence the claim to 
internationalism).

The new reactionary Left, by contrast, offers a toxic mix of 
anti-Westernism (“Down with Us!” “Who are we to lecture anyone?”); 
cultural relativism; and a tolerance, or worse, for reactionary 
political forces—which it redefines as “the resistance” to “the 
Empire.” (“My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”)

The social democrat sang that democratic internationalism would 
“unite the human race.” The reactionary Left-cum-Right chants, “We 
are all Hezbollah now.”

Third, the Žižekian style of “leftism” is perfectly suited to our 
times. It is a fundamentally adolescent discourse; it drips with a 
vicarious fascination with violence and death; and it is 
fascinated by popular culture. One booster of Žižek says he “will 
entertain and offend but never bore,” a statement that reveals 
much about what counts in intellectual culture these days.

Like many adolescents of all ages, Žižek confuses inversion with 
profundity. In his book, politeness is brutality; tact is brutal 
insensitivity; the natural or commonsensical is nothing but 
internalized ideology; exchange is socially destructive; 
consumption is obscene (with the exception, one assumes, of his 
own consumption of airline travel, Hollywood DVDs, and mint tea); 
tolerance is fanaticism; the open society is no more than 
liberal-skeptical cynicism; and freedom, real freedom, is 
necessity and ruthless discipline.

As for Camus’s wonderful aphorism, “It is no sin to prefer 
happiness,” Žižek is not a fan. He finds death much more 
interesting, authentic, heroic, and meaningful than (mere 
bourgeois) life. Repeatedly, his gaze falls lovingly on death. 
Mao’s insouciance before the threat of nuclear war and Che 
Guevara’s willingness to risk nuclear war during the Cuban missile 
crisis are both praised. “There is definitely something terrifying 
about this attitude,” writes Žižek, “however, this terror is 
nothing less than the condition of freedom.” Robespierre’s 
“sublime greatness,” he tells us, lies in the fact that he “is not 
afraid to die.” Robespierre is applauded because he viewed his own 
eventual death at the hands of the revolution as “nothing.”

Comically, to my mind, Žižek invites his affluent and tenured 
readers to adopt the “proper attitude of a warrior towards death.” 
He praises the example set by a Zen priest, Yamamoto Jocho. “Every 
day without fail,” says Jocho, the warrior “should consider 
himself as dead. . . . This is not a matter of being careful. It 
is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.” Žižek praises those 
Japanese soldiers who, during the Second World War, performed 
their own funerals before they left for war. This “preemptive 
self-exclusion from the domain of the living” is not fascistic 
militarism. No, it is, rather, “constitutive of a radical 
revolutionary position.”

Žižek likes to play the tough. In his essay “The Leninist 
Freedom,” he cheers Lenin’s death threats against the (social 
democratic and Marxist) Mensheviks who, in 1920, criticized the 
Bolshevik attacks on democracy. Lenin replied (in Žižek’s 
account), “Of course, gentlemen, you have the right to publish 
this critique—but, then, gentlemen, be so kind as to allow us to 
line you up against the wall and shoot you!”

In this—and, I suspect, much else—Žižek is talking about matters 
he does not really understand. It was the resurgence of the 
Mensheviks in the spring of 1920 that lay behind Lenin’s thuggery. 
Their leader Julius Martov—a dedicated revolutionary since his 
Vilno days in 1893, and a better model for us, dare I suggest, 
than Zen priest Yamamoto Jocho—wrote that in early 1920, “wherever 
we [Mensheviks] could put up our candidate, regardless of the 
freedom to agitate, our candidates won.” In Moscow and Kharkov, 
Ekataterinoslav and Odessa, Kiev and Smolensk, the Mensheviks were 
winning seats to the Soviets, using the Constitution to challenge 
the Bolsheviks. Martov recorded that “here in the chemical factory 
they have put up Lenin against me as a candidate. I received 76 
votes, he 8 (in an open vote).” And that’s why Lenin made his 
move. He smashed up the Printers Union, a bulwark of Menshevism, 
launched a frame-up of the Mensheviks as “Polish spies,” and 
arrested the majority of their leaders and activists. Soon enough 
they were in prison or exile. And this is the bloody lost cause 
Žižek wants to rehabilitate. (Žižek even calls for “the 
reactivation of one of the figures of all 
egalitarian-revolutionary terrors, the ‘informer’ who denounces 
the culprits to the authorities.”)

Žižek is indulgent with intellectuals who flirted, or worse, with 
totalitarianism. Far from fearing the totalitarian temptation, 
Žižek urges us to embrace it as the “white intellectuals’ burden.” 
So he is keen to exculpate those who have done so. Heidegger, he 
declares, was great “not in spite of, but because of his Nazi 
engagement.” Michel Foucault’s support for the Iranian Islamists 
was a good thing because “what matters is not the miserable 
reality that followed the upheavals, the bloody confrontations, 
the new oppressive measures, and so on but the enthusiasm that the 
events in Iran stimulated in the external (Western) observer, 
confirming his hopes in the possibility of a new form of 
spiritualised political collective.” (In passing, note how badly 
Badiou’s fauxprofundity that “the time of the fidelity to an event 
is the future anterieur” turns out. It means never having to say 
you’re sorry, because [miserable] reality does not matter. Could 
political irresponsibility be more neatly justified?)

In this spirit, Žižek praises Kant’s initial reaction to the 
French Revolution—that its crimes did not matter compared to the 
enthusiastic response its Idea was generating all over Europe. 
What he does not say is that when Kant realized that the 
revolutionary terror had killed some thousands he amended his 
position. Žižek, by contrast, knows of the millions dead, but he 
wants a do-over.

This Žižekian enthusiasm for enthusiasm is another very old story. 
Jean-Paul Sartre famously refused to tell the French factory 
workers the truth about the Gulag for fear of “demoralizing” them. 
Žižek takes this kind of thing to the limit. Even the Maoist 
Cultural Revolution—which killed between four hundred thousand and 
one million people, according to Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s 
Mao: The Unknown Story—is redeemed because it “sustained 
revolutionary enthusiasm,” being “‘the last big installment in the 
life of this Idea.”

Apparently, Žižek was a dissident in his native Slovenia under the 
old Communist Party dictatorship. It’s hard to believe. He wrote 
in The Parallax View, “If we really want to name an act which was 
truly daring, for which one truly had to ‘have the balls’ to try 
the impossible, but which was simultaneously a horrible act, it 
was Stalin’s forced collectivisation in the Soviet Union at the 
end of the 1920s.” He praises Mao’s “tremendous achievement” of 
showing us how “the victorious revolutionary subject is a 
voluntarist agent which acts against ‘spontaneous economic 
necessity,’ imposing its vision on reality through revolutionary 
terror.”

It was the terrible consequences of imposing a vision on reality 
through revolutionary terror, and the intellectual roots of that 
totalitarian temptation, that formed the twin concerns of 
antitotalitarian thought. But Žižek mocks this tradition in the 
crude, bullying style of the Stalinist intellectual policeman, 
Andrei Zhdanov. “Anti-totalitarian thought appears in all its 
misery as what it really is, a worthless sophistic exercise,” 
writes Žižek, “a pseudotheorisation of the lowest opportunist 
survivalist fears and instincts, a way of thinking that is ... 
reactionary.” The antitotalitarians, he claims, were opposed to 
anyone who dared to “deconstruct [the] religious and moral 
foundations of our society”.

No. What the antitotalitarian thinkers really objected to was not 
social and ethical criticism of the liberal democracies but rather 
what the great Russian writer Vasily Grossman described in Forever 
Flowing: the “crazed eyes; smashed kidneys; [the] skull[s] pierced 
by a bullet; rotting infected, gangrenous toes; and scurvy racked 
corpses in log-cabin, dugout morgues.” Because they did so, they, 
not the thugs, despots, and fellow travellers that Žižek seeks to 
rehabilitate, will be forever the intellectual heroes and heroines 
of that century.

Adam Kirsch has pointed to the sheer weight and the troubling 
texture of imagery and example in Žižek’s writings concerning “the 
Jews.” We read of Jews “smashed into bloody pulp,” and that “all 
good films about the Holocaust are also comedies.” He illustrates 
the spontaneity of racism by reference to his own instinctive 
anti-Semitism. (Žižek describes his response to reading a tale in 
Janusz Bardach’s Gulag book Man Is Wolf to Man: “My immediate 
racist assumption was, of course: ‘Typical Jews! Even in the worst 
Gulag, the moment they are given a minimum of freedom and space 
for manoeuvre, they start trading—in human blood!”—honest, for 
sure, but why “of course”?)

When Žižek urges the revolutionary Left to ignore liberal qualms 
about terror he offers this exemplar: “To be clear and brutal to 
the end, there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering’s 
reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why 
he protected a wellknown Jew from deportation: ‘In this city, I 
decide who is a Jew!’ . . . In this city we decide what is left, 
so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency.” 
(The thuggish quality of the new style in “leftism” seems more 
Tony Soprano than Karl Marx.)

And what on earth are we to make of this sentence in Lost Causes?: 
“The only true solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ is the ‘final 
solution’ (their annihilation) because Jews ... are the ultimate 
obstacle to the ‘final solution’ of History itself, to the 
overcoming of divisions in an all-encompassing unity and flexibility”?

Žižek’s idea of revolution—“this magic moment of enthusiastic 
unity of a collective will”—is, in truth, more Mussolini than 
Marx. Revolution is etherealized as an eruption of the Lacanian 
“Real,” fantasized as a Badiouian “Event,” aimed at democracy 
itself and contemptuous of the will of the majority. In other 
words, Zizek’s theory of “revolution” is, let’s be blunt, 
fascistic. He writes: “[O]ne should thus posit a double equation: 
divine violence = inhuman terror = dictatorship of the 
proletariat.” We should learn from Robespierre that “just and 
severe punishment of the enemies is the highest form of clemency” 
and that “rigor and charity coincide in terror.”

And there stands the new “leftism,” arms folded, legs akimbo, chin 
jutting, lecturing on some balcony about divine violence and a new 
order. Žižek’s “lost cause” is the idea of revolutionary terror to 
impose a utopian order from above. He quotes the French 
revolutionary Saint-Just (“That which produces the general good is 
always terrible”) and adds this gloss: “These words should not be 
interpreted as a warning against the temptation to violently 
impose the general good on a society but on the contrary, as a 
bitter truth to be fully endorsed.” Could he be any clearer?

Back to Kolyma?

Žižek presents all this as some kind of Marxism. But whatever 
critical distance one takes from Marxism, Karl Marx made an 
enormous contribution to the democratic breakthrough of the 
nineteenth century precisely because his socialism was a kind of 
democratic extremism, aiming to extend to all the promise of the 
democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century. Marx did not 
seek to impose an idea by terror, but to pursue the interest of 
ordinary people by a politics of self-emancipation. Crucially, he 
and Engels believed, “The ‘idea’ always disgraced itself insofar 
as it was different from the ‘interest.’” The pair were 
contemptuous of the idea of a minority revolutionputsch, organized 
by a violent elite, to impose a new social order from 
above—Žižek’s “lost cause” —calling it “the old crap.”

Indeed, Marx rejected the views of the Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer 
precisely because the latter’s “conception of social 
reorganization [was] based on the antithesis between spirit and 
mass,” The Bauerites wrote, “In the mass, not somewhere else . . . 
is the true enemy of the spirit to be found,” the same baleful 
thought lodged deep in Žižek’s new “leftism.” Marx refused to 
follow Bauer, whose error, he argued, was to imagine that “the 
Spirit, or the Criticism, represents the organizing labor, the 
mass the raw material, and history the product”

Marx’s socialism was not an organic “ism” in which the 
individual’s moral status and rights were to be abolished in the 
name of “society” or “truth” or “progress” or “history.” 
Tocqueville’s charge that socialism sought a society of beavers 
not individuals did not apply to Marx, but it does describe Žižek, 
who, for example, praises the 1920s Russian avant-garde artists 
for (in his view) inventing a new Industrial Man “who gladly 
accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic co-ordinated 
industrial Machine.” We could decide to prefer Hal Draper’s Marx:

[For Marx] . . . the rights and privileges of the individual must 
not be subordinated to the glorification of state or communal 
collectivity, or to the maximization of its power, but, exactly to 
the contrary . . . the authority and rights of the organized 
collectivity or state are justified only insofar as they 
contribute to the full development of every individual’s 
potentialities as a human being. The beehive or anthill conception 
of collectivism is not socialism but the image of a new tyranny.

And that’s what the new “leftism” is selling—a new tyranny. 
Žižek’s lost cause should remain buried in the snows of Kolyma, 
that pole of cold and cruelty, along with the dead.

Alan Johnson is a professor in the Department of Social and 
Psychological Sciences at Edge Hill University in England. He is 
the founder and editor of Democratiya, and the editor of Global 
Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews (The Foreign 
Policy Centre, 2007).




More information about the Marxism mailing list