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Is democracy the enemy? A reply to Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek addresses Occupy Wall Street.

By Louis Proyect

October 31, 2011 --  The Unrepentant Marxist, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Although the content of Slavoj Žižek’s post in the London Review of Books blog ("Democracy is the enemy") is not so nearly as bad as the title, it still betrays the same kind of misunderstanding of the relationship between democracy and socialism that I addressed in my critique of “The Idea of Communism” conference held a couple of weeks ago in New York City [that featured Žižek:

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

To start with, the title is an obvious attempt to jar the liberal sensibilities of the London Review of Book’s readers. As a perennial Katzenjammer Kid of academic Marxism, Zizek relishes these types of formulations. It goes hand in hand with his embrace of Lenin, who unlike Gramsci or Walter Benjamin et al., will never be invoked at a Modern Language Association keynote address.

The first part of Zizek’s article actually makes some good points at the expense of the atrocious Anne Applebaum, a neoconservative at the Washington Post:

The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, "in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions". "Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square," she went on, "to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions."

"Global" activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: "We need to have a process!" Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.

So, Applebaum’s argument appears to be that since the global economy is outside the scope of democratic politics, any attempt to expand democracy to manage it will accelerate the decline of democracy. What, then, are we supposed to do? Continue engaging, it seems, in a political system which, according to her own account, cannot do the job.

Back in 2003 I had an occasion to write Ms. Applebaum one of my patented Lazlo Toth type letters:

My dear Anne Applebaum,

I realize that you have a lot invested career-path-wise in flogging Communism and might get carried away on occasion like a bull at the sight of a red cape. However, your review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism” in the London Telegraph seems to detach itself from the planet and fly off into the stratosphere. You start off:

“Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.”

I wasn’t aware that Salvador Allende was a murderer, or a communist. Is this your own heterodox interpretation or something that the neo-McCarthyite movement has cooked up while I wasn’t paying attention? I honestly can’t keep track of all the nutty things coming out of the Weekly Standard, the NY Post editorial page and David Horowitz’s website nowadays. It is like trying to keep track of car commercials during a football game. Can you refer me to an article that makes the case that Allende was rounding up free-market ideologues and throwing them into concentration camps or cutting off their noses? In sorry times such as these, a good laugh always helps.

I remember her rising to the bait and replying to me, but I can’t exactly remember what she said. Anyhow, I’m happy that Zizek took her on.

However, I am not so happy with his take on Marxism and democracy:

Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the "apolitical" network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by "extending" democracy: say, by setting up "democratic" banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the "democratic illusion", the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.

The thing that bothers me the most is that for all of Zizek’s constant references to himself as a kind of diehard Marxist-Leninist, as well as all of his academic credentials, you can never find him referencing what Marx or Lenin ever wrote about democracy. I am especially troubled by his claim that “Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc.”

Lenin on democracy

Did he ever consider why Lenin decided to get a law degree? It was in order to discover loopholes in the tsarist legal codes to help workers win the right to strike or to organise. Back in 1970 when I was in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party, a debate broke out in the branch between the majority led by Peter Camejo and a minority led by Larry Trainor, an old-timer from the James P. Cannon generation, over whether we should support the Shea Bill, described at the time by the Harvard Crimson:

The law, often known as the Shea Bill after its sponsor in the Massachusetts legislature, Rep. H. James Shea. Jr. (D-Newton), authorizes Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. Furthermore, it instructs Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refuse to fight on these constitutional grounds.

The minority made arguments similar to Zizek’s, accusing the majority of fostering “a democratic illusion” in a parliamentary system stacked against the working class. By urging a vote for the Shea Bill, we were supposedly building confidence in the capitalist state and undermining the anti-war movement, as if we urged a vote for Gene McCarthy or George McGovern. I have vivid memories of Peter Camejo getting up to explain how Lenin used to study the tsarist legal codes late into the evening to figure out a way to use the laws against the system. That was the way most of us in the SWP thought about such matters in the days before the group turned into something similar to the De Leonite Socialist Labor Party that, like Zizek, is all too fond of drawing distinctions between the communist goal of the future and just about every reform that is worth struggling for.

You can get a good idea of Lenin’s approach to these matters in his 1899 article “Factory Courts” that urged the creation of joint employer-worker bodies that would “examine cases and disputes arising in connection with the terms of hire, with the fixing of rates of pay for ordinary work and overtime, with the discharge of workers in violation of rules, with payments for damage to material, with unfair imposition of fines, etc., etc.” Such bodies were fairly common in Western Europe at the time and would obviously never affect what Zizek called “the social relations of production”. That being the case, why did Lenin urge their introduction into Russia? He explained:

The first advantage of the factory court is that it is much more accessible to the workers. To present a petition to an ordinary court, one has to submit it in writing (which often requires the employment of a solicitor); stamp duty has to be paid; there are long waiting periods; the plaintiff has to appear in court, which takes him and the witnesses away from their work; then comes a further period of waiting until the case goes to a higher court to be retried after an appeal by dissatisfied litigants. Is it any wonder that workers do not willingly resort to the ordinary courts? Factory courts, on the contrary, consist of employers and workers elected as judges. It is not at all difficult for a worker to make a verbal complaint to one of his fellow workers whom he has himself elected. Sessions of factory courts are usually   held on holidays or, in general, at times when the workers are free and do not have to interrupt their work. Cases are handled much more expeditiously by factory courts.

After enumerating other advantages, Lenin concludes with the most salient point:

Finally, there is one other benefit accruing from factory courts that must be mentioned: they get factory owners, directors, and foremen into the habit of treating workers decently, of treating them as equal citizens and not as slaves. Every worker knows that factory owners and foremen all too often permit themselves to treat workers in a disgracefully insulting manner, to rail at them, etc. It is difficult for a worker to complain against this attitude; it can be rebuffed only when the workers are sufficiently developed and are able to give support to their comrade.

The above paragraph is about as “Leninist” as you can get. Unlike Zizek’s Lenin, who comes across as a podium-pounding preacher for “communism”, Lenin’s focus was on organising workers so that they gain self-confidence in struggle, achieving victory by victory until they have enough of a sense of their own right to become a ruling class. When that day arrives, you will see the greatest flowering of democracy possible.

That being said, Lenin also believed in the need to expand bourgeois democracy. Why? It was a way for workers to press their own demands within the system. To sneer at workers running their own candidates, etc. is not only a slap in the face to what Lenin stood for, but Marx and Engels as well.

Marx and Engels

In 1847 Engels wrote an article titled “The Principles of Communism” that, among other things, answered the question “What is the attitude of the communists to the other political parties of our time?” It stated:

In England, France, and Belgium, where the bourgeoisie rules, the communists still have a common interest with the various democratic parties, an interest which is all the greater the more closely the socialistic measures they champion approach the aims of the communists – that is, the more clearly and definitely they represent the interests of the proletariat and the more they depend on the proletariat for support. In England, for example, the working-class Chartists are infinitely closer to the communists than the democratic petty bourgeoisie or the so-called Radicals.

I was also intrigued to see Engels urge communists to “continually support the radical liberal party, taking care to avoid the self-deceptions of the bourgeoisie and not fall for the enticing promises of benefits which a victory for the bourgeoisie would allegedly bring to the proletariat.”

One can only assume that Engels probably would have urged leftists in the US to support our own “radical liberal party”—the Greens before the Democrats took it over, or the Nader-Camejo campaign in 2004. Given the lack of motion in the working class, such formations are the only instruments existing today that can pose an alternative to the two-party system and even elect men and women to local office. Furthermore, if the Green Party hadn’t been sabotaged by the Demogreens, it is conceivable that as it gathered more and more momentum, it might have even elected people to Congress.

Can you imagine the impact Peter Camejo would have had if he had been elected to Congress? With only a Bernie Sanders there to pose as an “independent” critic of capitalist misrule, there’s not much of an alternative to conventional liberal politics.

Someone like Camejo would have used every opportunity to denounce the system from within, in the spirit of what Lenin urged “left Communists” (Zizek’s forerunners) in his famous article on Left-Wing Communism, the Infantile Disorder:

Even if only a fairly large minority of the industrial workers, and not “millions” and “legions”, follow the lead of the Catholic clergy—and a similar minority of rural workers follow the landowners and kulaks (Grossbauern)—it undoubtedly signifies that parliamentarianism in Germany has not yet politically outlived itself, that participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the parliamentary rostrum is obligatory on the party of the revolutionary proletariat specifically for the purpose of educating the backward strata of its own class, and for the purpose of awakening and enlightening the undeveloped, downtrodden and ignorant rural masses. Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.

Windbags, indeed.

[Louis Proyect moderates the MarxMail discussion list.]

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