The Power of Nonsense

“The only ‘realistic’ prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’), respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical […]

“The only ‘realistic’ prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’), respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it!”

—Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek’s diagnosis of late capitalism is of genuine interest. His prescription is a disgrace.

Žižek is a spirited critic of the maladies of a form of life that has swept the globe since Thatcher and Reagan. He indicts its “excesses of individualism” and promotion of “social disintegration,” its ruinous combination of “(selective) private affluence” with “global (ecological, infrastructural) degradation,” and its hollowing-out of representative democracy. By treating these maladies as indicators of “what is wrong in the very structure” of the system Žižek has put back on the agenda of the Left the question of a global alternative to capitalism, warning that we are living through “the self-annihilation of humanity itself.” And as a cultural critic he can be brilliant in forcing us to adopt strange angles of vision on a vast array of familiar objects and mind-sets, high and low, so that we see them afresh as forms of meaning in the service of this system-in-crisis.

Žižek’s remedy however — his call for Terror and Dictatorship set out in the extract from the paperback edition of Living in the End Times reproduced in this issue of Jacobin — is another matter entirely.

Mark Lilla in his book The Reckless Mind predicted that the “extraordinary displays of intellectual philotyranny” that disfigured the twentieth-century left would not simply disappear just because the wall had fallen. So it has proved. Since 2000, Žižek has established his “New Communism” on two foundations. First, a system of concepts — Egalitarian Terror, the Absolute Act, Absolute Negativity, Divine Violence, the Messianic Moment, the Revolutionary Truth-Event, the Future Anterieur, and so on. Second, a human type and an associated sensibility — that ideologized and cruel fanatic, contemptuous of morality and trained to enormity that Žižek calls the “freedom fighter with an inhuman face.” In his passive-aggressive way, Zikek has even admitted what this so-called New Communism amounts to: “[Peter] Sloterdijk even mentions the ‘re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia,’ where, I guess, I belong.”

Žižek’s philosophy is, to be blunt, a species of linksfaschismus. This is true of its murderous hostility to democracy, its utter disdain for the “stupid” pleasures of bourgeois life, its valorization of will, ruthlessness, terror and dictatorship, and its belief in the salvific nature of self-sacrificial death.

When Žižek says he wants to “repeat Lenin” he is often misunderstood. He means he wants to do the kind of thing  Lenin did to Marxism, for good or ill, in 1914–1918: utterly recast it. Žižek is busy utterly recasting Marxism as a kind of linksfaschismus — an anti-capitalist radicalism that has been unmoored from self-emancipation, democracy, and reason and re-attached to Terror, Dictatorship and an eternal, absolute and universal “Truth” capable of being known only by an elite, and understood, he tells us, following Badiou, never as Istina (truth as adequacy to the facts) but always as Pravda — “the absolute Truth also designating the ethically committed ideal Order of the Good.”

Getting Marx Wrong

In “The Jacobin Spirit” Žižek “Marxified” his argument for terror and dictatorship by radically misconstruing what “Marx’s key insight” was. He claimed Marx understood political democracy to be a mere “democratic illusion” because without economic equality political democracy can only be a tool of the ruling class, a part of the state apparatus and therefore our “main enemy.” This gets Marx totally wrong. And getting Marx right is not merely an academic exercise. Looking back, what is at stake are those 100 million Communist corpses memorialized by Vasily Grossman in Forever Flowing, with their “crazed eyes; smashed kidneys; skull[s] pierced by a bullet; rotting infected, gangrenous toes; and scurvy racked corpses in log-cabin, dugout morgues.” Looking forward, what is at stake is the possibility of the Left creating more corpses.

Marx’s key insight did indeed concern the relation between the social question and political democracy, but rather than counterpoise the two as Žižek does, Marx’s revolution in thought was, precisely, to integrate them on the social ground of popular self-emancipation. Žižek denies the very possibility of self-emancipation, so can see only a clash between the social question and political democracy. He seeks to resolve that clash by using terror and dictatorship to impose “Communism.” That is what he means by “The Jacobin Spirit.” To elaborate:

From 1970 to 1990 the revolutionary socialist Hal Draper devoted himself almost exclusively to Marx scholarship. The main result was the four-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, two thousand pages of meticulous textual exegesis and analysis. Draper’s central argument: Marx did not abandon liberty and democracy to become a communist but became a communist in order to make real the promise of liberty and democracy. There was continuity from “his democratic views of 1842 [to] the revolutionary communism of his mature years.” Marx started out a “democratic extremist” unambiguously committed to freedom of expression and organization, the rule of law and democratic institutions, and viscerally opposed to the unaccountable power of the state and its core, the bureaucracy. What then forced a deepening (not an abandonment) of his democratic extremism was his insistence on treating the promise of freedom and democracy not in abstraction, as free-floating discourses, but in their external social relations here down on earth. Žižek’s claim that Marx saw democracy as “the ultimate enemy” inverts Marx’s actual insight — that the full promise of political democracy could only be fulfilled by the extension of democracy into the social and economic. This is how Hal Draper frames Marx’s journey:

Marx was the first socialist figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent expression of democratic control from below. He was the first figure in the socialist movement who, in a personal sense, came through the bourgeois-democratic movement: through it to its farthest bounds, and then out by its farthest end. In this sense, he was the first to fuse the struggle for consistent political democracy with the struggle for a socialist transformation. But it might be asked, wasn’t it the case that, in his course from bourgeois democracy to communism, Marx relinquished his early naive notions about political democracy? Not in Marx’s view.

Contra Žižek, Marx’s “key insight” was that it had become possible for the first time in human history to pose the relation between political democracy and the social question in a radically new way. Rejecting the Jacobin educational dictatorship that Žižek would have us rehabilitate, Marx grasped, as Draper argues, “the social dynamics of the situation under which the apparent contradiction between the two [i.e. political democracy and the social question] . . . is resolved.” Global capitalism, he understood, had created not just exploitation but also the material ground on which the relationship of the social question to political freedom might be resolved through a political process of popular self-emancipation.

The core or essential structure of any putative democratic Marxism is this theoretical and practical integration of socialism and democracy. The core of Žižek’s Marxism-as-Linksfaschismus is the theoretical and practical counterposition of socialism and democracy. Whatever the “Jacobin spirit” was for the Jacobins, for Žižek it is shorthand for the rehabilitation of Terror and educational dictatorship.

Žižek and Terror

“. . . there are no ‘democratic (procedural) rules’ one is a priori prohibited to violate. 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.”

—Slavoj Žižek

Žižek’s “Jacobin Spirit” is the latest in a long (and, lest we forget, sometimes genocidal) line of “socialisms from above.” The useful term was coined by Hal Draper to describe the tendency of socialists to think of socialism not as the act of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority (popular self-emancipation), but as “a societal rearrangement to be handed down to the grateful masses . . . by a ruling elite which is not in fact subjected to the masses’ control . . . or indeed, to be imposed upon the people from above, whether they are grateful or not.”

At the heart of self-emancipatory socialism is that long and open-ended social process that Norman Geras has called “interiority” — a practical process of maturation, or learning through doing. (It was in this sense that Eduard Bernstein was absolutely right to say “the movement is everything.”) This conception of socialism led Marx and Engels directly to a serious engagement with bourgeois democracy, a refusal of the anarchist rejection of politics, a loathing of terrorism, and a turn to political and industrial struggle to realize the promise of bourgeois democracy through a fight for the extension of equality from the civil to the social and economic spheres. In 1848-9 Marx looked to a dynamic process of popular political struggle in which the demand for liberalization would stimulate a drive for constitutionalism, a democratic political life and a government of laws, until this struggle in turn spilled over uninterruptedly to a revolutionary drive for democratization of social and economic life as such, popular control from below.

By contrast, Žižek’s “Jacobin Spirit,” by bluntly dismissing both political democracy as “the main enemy” and self-emancipation as a pipe-dream (and, we can note only in passing, by his bracketing of the centuries-long history of working-class struggle to “win the battle of democracy”!) leaves his “Revolutionary Truth-Event” completely dependent on the transformative power of violence.

Eduard Bernstein was the first to spot this danger.  He saw that the marriage of a speculative Hegelianism and a putschist Blanquism within the Marxist movement would transform Marxism, by tempting social democrats to give up the “solid ground of empirically verifiable facts” and embrace instead “derived concepts” and “arbitrary construction.” He foresaw that “all moderation of judgment [would be] lost from view” as “inherently improbable deductions” were embraced regarding “potential transformations.” And — here’s the rub — he grasped that this “almost incredible neglect of the most palpable facts” had to be partnered by “a truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force.” Oft dismissed as a superficial thinker, in fact it was Bernstein who most fully understood that beneath the externals of Blanquism (the absurd secret societies, the tragi-comic putsches) was a serious underlying political theory concerning “the immeasurably creative power of revolutionary political force and its manifestation, revolutionary expropriation.” Bernstein predicted that if this theory were allowed to spread it would become a “treacherous element” within Marxism itself, bending it into dictatorial shapes (1993:46). Prescient indeed. And things on this score only got worse in the twentieth century. Reading Žižek’s impatient and violence-soaked “Jacobin Spirit” one is reminded of Alain Finkielkraut’s observation that “the twentieth> century [fell] firmly into the clutches of [a] Hegelianism . . . that was no longer contemplative, inspired by the glow of twilight, but by the light of the morning, unrestrained and militant.”

So: Hegelianism as a philosophical Blanquism; unrestrained, militant, possessed of Truth, willing to force the pace of History, and eager to crack heads to impose it: that is Žižekianism. And, ironically, for all his displays of fealty, Žižek seems not even to know that back in 1920 Lenin attacked this very thing as an “infantile disorder” certain to lead to bloody defeats for the workers movement.

Lenin flatly rejected the ultra-leftist idea of “imposing” the revolution without popular support and participation. The “theory of the offensive” he considered to be “phrase-mongering and clowning” and he called its rejection of all compromises “childish.” Lenin warned against mistaking subjective desires for objective reality. (Žižek’s entire theory of revolution is premised on doing exactly that, knowingly, hoping that all will come out clean in the wash, as, in Žižek’s jargon, “An act proper . . . retroactively creates its own conditions.”) Warning against the use of “Left” slogans that only fence the revolutionaries off from the people, Lenin pointed out that the Russian experience in 1917 was very often “not applicable to present-day European conditions.” He pleaded that tactics be based strictly on “a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces in a particular state” and expressed a particular scorn for those who “want to create a new society, yet . . . fear the difficulties involved in forming a good parliamentary group” advising that “in Western Europe and in America, the Communists must learn to create a new uncustomary, non-opportunist, and non-careerist parliamentarism” in order to “help the majority of the working class to be convinced by their own experience that we are right.” And, note, Lenin wrote all of this in 1920 when it was still possible to believe that “the proletarian vanguard has been won over ideologically. That is the main thing.” Perhaps this Lenin, not Žižek’s cardboard Man of Action from 1917, is the one that bears repeating today.

Žižek and Educational Dictatorship

“When we are dealing with ‘strong truths’ (les vérités fortes), asserting them necessarily entails symbolic violence.”

—Slavoj Žižek, “The Jacobin Spirit”

“There is no more Vendée . . . According to the orders that you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands. I do not have a prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated all.”

—French General Francois Joseph Westermann writing in 1794 to the Committee of Public Safety about the massacres in Vendée.

I’ll give Žižek this. It was indeed Lenin who consummated the marriage of Hegelianism and Blanquism within the Marxist movement and who gave us a firstborn — an anti-democratic conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that he substituted for Marx’s democratic original. It was indeed Lenin who began the work of “Marxifying” arbitrary construction and the cult of force and who did the most to turn Marxism into an organized Blanquism.

When Hal Draper reconstructed the text and context of each and every use by Marx of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” he was able to establish that the ill-starred term was actually invented by Marx as a way to re-educate Blanquists away from Blanquism. Marx was trying to confront the Blanquist notion of revolution as elite putsch with his own theory of revolution as an open-ended process of popular self-emancipation. He did not have in mind a special dictatorial governmental form at all, but was only referring only to the class content of the state. Generally speaking, for Marx the “rule of the proletariat” meant the working class leadership of an “immense majority block,” while the governmental form of that rule was the democratic republic: popular control over the sovereign body of the state, universal suffrage, representative democracy, a democratic constitution, and truly mass involvement in political decision-making. Engels, in his 1895 critique of the Erfurt Program, linked (social) form and (political) content thus: “the working class can come to power only under the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Marx’s democratic conception was replaced by the Leninist doppelganger and “dictatorship of the proletariat” came to mean specially dictatorial governmental forms and policies. Plekhanov wrote it into the program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903 and Lenin adopted Plekhanov’s conception, albeit not as an emergency measure but in principle, as a mark of revolutionary virtue. It must be said, Lenin can sound very like Žižek: “The scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force. The term ‘dictatorship’ has no other meaning than this.” But as Draper mournfully pointed out, Lenin’s formulation was “a theoretical disaster, first class [with] nothing in common . . . with any conception of the workers state” held by Marx.

Žižek looks on this theoretical disaster and says, so to speak, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” “In a proletarian revolution, democracy has to be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat,” he writes. He thus rehabilitates what Marx called “the old crap” — Terror, Putsch and Educational Dictatorship to impose “Communism.” He treats us to much of what I think of as Higher Leftist Thuggery. He tells us that “just and severe punishment of the enemies is the highest form of clemency,” that “rigor and charity coincide in terror,” and so on and so forth. He thinks Saint-Just’s view, “That which produces the general good is always terrible”, is a good guide for us today. “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.” Like the Jacobins, Žižek also refuses “recourse to a majority vote.” Like Mao, Žižek also treats people as “a clean sheet of paper with no blotches” on which he will write his “beautiful words.”

Understood as an open-ended process of popular self-emancipation, our understanding of the contours of a post-revolutionary polity would be radically different. For a start, it can’t be just anti-capitalist, but must also be pro-freedom. (We have done anti-capitalist plus anti-freedom and we got camps — has Žižek learnt nothing?) Nor can it be an organicism that abolishes the individual’s moral status in the name of the “General Interest,” carried in trust by an educational dictatorship, in the name of Truth conceived as “the ideal . . . Order of the Good.”

Sneering at Marx’s trust in “some authentic working-class movement” as a silly pipe dream, and influenced by the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek urges on his readers a very odd kind of commitment. We are to have fidelity to the Eternal Idea of Communism understood as “a Kantian regulative idea, lacking any mediation with historical reality.” Žižek instructs us to “reconceive the idea of Communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization.” Žižek claims that “The Idea that ‘makes itself what it is’ is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself.” Sebastiano Timpanaro used to call this sort of thing a “spiritualist voluntarism.” And he noted that it was usually partnered by a “brutal ethics of force.” So it is with Žižek. In the name of fidelity to this Eternal Idea, Žižek would license much enormity. In “The Jacobin Spirit,” for example, he writes that anyone so much as “casting doubt” on the Eternal Idea must be dealt with brutally or else “the reign of Truth” (what a stupid phrase!) will never be secured. How many barbarities were committed in just that spirit during the twentieth century? How much shameful apologia, denial and intellectual corruption?

Back in the 1840s Marx saw the danger. He tried (and failed) to reorient socialism by linking it to the Interest and democracy and not the Idea and dictatorship. He argued, against Bruno Bauer, that the Idea would always disgrace itself insofar as it was different from the Interest. Marx wanted nothing to do with an elitist conception of politics “in which the Spirit, or the Criticism, represents the organizing labor, the mass the raw material, and history the product.” Žižek’s theory of revolution is exactly that: the Idea disgracing itself because it has become detached from the Interest and from democracy, from self-emancipation and from ethics, from reason and from historical reality, until it is left resting on nothing but will and violence.


In the twentieth century — aside from this little sect, that little journal — Marxism became unmoored from democracy and self-emancipation but refused to relinquish its goal of “Communism.” It became an organized Blanquism before the revolution, a bureaucratic collectivism after the revolution, and, at all times, a vehicle through which the “anonymous intentionality” of the totalitarian regime of thought and language was expressed (the term is taken from the indispensable French antitotalitarian social theorist Claude Lefort). Anonymous intentionality because while it could not reasonably be said of Marxists that the name of their desire was to create Kolyma, create it they did, again and again, across many continents. For Lefort, part of the explanation for this unintended consequence on such a spectacular scale was the power of the regime of thought and language common to fascism and communism to exert a tremendously powerful pull, an anonymous intentionality, on every individual who became its bearer.

Žižek is inviting us to become its bearer again: that is the meaning of his rehabilitation of Terror and Dictatorship. He wants us to pick up the ring of power. That is why he says, in a calumny against Trotsky, “I am ready to assert the Trotsky of the universal militarization of life . . . That is the good Trotsky for me.” It is why he gushes in admiration for Lenin’s firing squads, and for the “steely fourth Teacher,” Stalin. It is why he praises Mao, the architect of “the last big instalment in the life of this Idea.”

When Ernesto Laclau wrote back in 2000 that Žižek’s anti-democratic ideas would put the Left back half a century he was too generous. The “revolution” Žižek seeks — whatever fancy new language is deployed to camouflage this — is a Blanquist putsch to prepare an Educational Dictatorship. Engels dismissed that as “Crude Communism” 168 years ago.

Of course, some will say Žižek is a jester and should not be taken seriously. That would be a mistake. As Bertrand Russell once said, never underestimate the power of nonsense. There is a milieu out there in which red has met brown, left has met right, a conversation has started up, and the interlocutors are discovering they have more in common than they thought. This hybridity is not without precedent. From the 1920s to the 1940s Fascism in France was, in Zeev Sternhell’s words, “neither left nor right” but both. Left and right were united in their hatred of what they called “the established disorder” of materialism, parliamentary democracy and bourgeois society, as well as in their mutual “distaste for the lukewarm,” and fascination with “the idea of a violent relief from mediocrity.” Žižek’s own fascination with the idea of violent relief — the call for offensive violence against the “bourgeois state” (“the whole structure . . . must be annihilated”) was explicit in “The Jacobin Spirit” as was his yearning to then wield “centralized state terror” for “an Eternal Truth” — is gradually acclimatizing the Left to enormity. His spiritualist voluntarism and brutal ethics of force, his commitment to Terror and Dictatorship for Absolute Truth, not to mention his metaphysics (and creepy aesthetics) of violence, pain and self-sacrificial death, are similarly “neither left nor right.” Žižek senses this, but he does not care — “if this be linksfaschismus, so be it!” Nor it seems, does the Left. It should.

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