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.]

Just saw this on MarxMail, which complements the above -- LP Fan Club secretary


By Louis Proyect

For reasons I don’t quite understand, anytime I write anything about Zizek, it generates exceptional traffic here. This may be because there is a lot of interest in Zizek or because he brings out the best (worst?) in me. I confess that Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding, but I do look forward to increased traffic on my blog in the hope that new readers will find other articles useful as well. The one below was written before I began blogging. You can find all my articles, both from that period and afterwards, at

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Posted to on January 31, 2004

An “In These Times” article by cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek titled “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” has been circulating on the Internet. Today, a link to it popped up on neoconservative Denis Dutton’s “Arts and Letters” website, obviously a sign that Zizek was doing the left no favors when he wrote this article. Dutton is like a vacuum cleaner sweeping up every hostile reference to Marxism that can be found in the major media and academic journals. Despite his obligatory genuflection to Lenin, Zizek’s Lenin serves more as a token of ‘epater le bourgeois’ rebelliousness rather than a serious attempt to make him relevant in the year 2004.

Zizek’s article is a discourse on freedom, having more to do with Philosophy 101 than historical materialism. In defending the idea of relative freedom versus absolute freedom, he cites some remarks by Lenin in 1922:

Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’

These rather blood-curdling words are interpreted by Zizek as a willingness on the part of the Soviet government to suppress criticisms that would undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution. In other words, Zizek’s Lenin favors shooting people who have ideological differences over how to build socialism, or so it would seem.

Without skipping a beat, Zizek amalgamates the execution of Mensheviks and SR’s found guilty of thought-crimes with the tendency in liberal societies to be offered meaningless choices between Coke and Pepsi or “Close Door” buttons in elevators that are not connected to anything. He concludes by saying:

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.

Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at:

If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the figurative sense) [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.

So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

In reality, repression of the SR’s and the Mensheviks had little to do with ideas about building socialism. In John Rees’s valuable “In Defense of October”, we learn that the infant Soviet republic faced the same kinds of threats as Cuba has faced since 1959. At the very time the White Army was slaughtering Soviet citizens and torching villages, foreign diplomats were organizing the nominally socialist opposition. R H Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic representative in Moscow, was instrumental in ensuring that Kerensky escaped from Russia after his unsuccessful military attempt to unseat the Bolsheviks. Rees writes:

Sidney Reilly, a British intelligence agent, was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Lockhart that he ‘might be able to stage a counter-revolution in Moscow. But, according to Reilly, one part of his plan was prematurely put into effect in August 1918: Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin twice at point blank range, bringing him close to death. Earlier Reilly had managed to establish himself as a Soviet official with access to documents from Trotsky’s Foreign Ministry. And another British agent, George Hill, became a military adviser to Trotsky.

So the concrete application of the death penalty during the civil war has more to do with preventing assassination attempts by people like Fanny Kaplan rather than preventing alternative ideas about constructing socialism from reaching the Soviet people, just as the execution of hijackers in Cuba recently had more to do with preventing innocent lives being taken by desperate criminals than enforcing monolithism. Of course, in the early 1920s such defensive measures were interpreted by liberals as exercises in thought control and social repression just as they are today in the case of Cuba. It is singularly depressing, however, to see Zizek–a self-proclaimed fan of Lenin (in the same sense really as a fan of David Lynch movies)–giving credence to such an interpretation while nominally defending Lenin.



Part misogynist, part racist, he deliberately quotes Lenin out of context in the most pernicious way, and boils the best hope for progress down to a vote for Obama. What a terrific contribution to the humanities!

Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 3, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

I am afraid he does bring the worst of you. ZZ is a circus clown, using Lenin like a big fake bald head to generate awe. And you are like a circus critic saying, “man! this bald head doesn’t look like a real bold head at all.” If you applied to him the type of reading that you do when you analyze films, I think the result would be a lot more enlightening. It’s good that you correct the misinformation about Lenin, and I do find that very educational, but at the same time, it fails as a critique because what you care about here doesn’t interest ZZ and doesn’t interest most people who listen to him.

Comment by Evildoer — November 3, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

[...] [...]

Pingback by Darwiniana » Zizek, Lenin, etc… — November 3, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

“Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding” Binh is absolutely right; Zizek is a product of the post-Soviet slump in the class struggle that is now coming to an end. It will also bring an end to the sort of space Zizek occupied, and this to some extent accounts to his polemic against “democracy”, here not limited to the critique of the formal bourgeois structure, but also extended to the mass struggle for a democracy in practice, one that seeks to correspond to the real material conditions of production. That of course requires a worker’s democracy, socialism.

While on the subject of trolls, Binh is absolutely wrong, however, to label as “ultra-left trolls” those who critically characterize sections of the U.S. left as part of an “official” , “Democratic Party Left”. Such a label is ridiculous on the face of it; it would be impossible to understand anything about the U.S. political scene – especially now – without understanding that there exists a structured Democratic Party Left (DPL) acting in a manner consistent with that structure. It doesn’t follow from that analysis that the independent left cannot ever “work” with the DPL on particular issues; that sort of direct, simplistic application of an abstract deduction upon practical situations *would* be variously ultra-leftist or sectarian.

But I’ll leave off here. It’s understood that Unrepentant Marxist has a purpose different from the Marxmail list (though that difference is not often clear to me), but I’d wish that more column space was expended on the present situation (Euro crisis, OWS etc) and less on “has-beens in their own time” like Zizek. The film/music reviews and the articles on the transition debates, etc., are fine though.

Comment by Matt — November 3, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

Louis you have adopted the correct (dare I say Leninist) strategy for dealing with trolls like Zizek: exploiting his idiocy for your own political ends and hopefully exposing people who follow him to Marxist politics.

Matt’s remark refers to a comment I left at Lenin’s Tomb regarding the folks who jumped at the opportunity to show their “revolutionary” credentials by slamming Angela Davis’ position on the Democratic Party in a post about her speech at an Occupy event:… I stand by my comment there because I don’t see how it is productive or useful to go after people on this question at this stage of the movement, especially when said people are not actually trying to co-opt the movement. Playing funeral music at a wedding helps no one.

Comment by Binh — November 3, 2011 @ 5:51 pm


"Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in".

I'm going to show that to my students as a needlepoint example of boneheaded literalism and philosophical ineptitude.

Of course, then we get the 'misogynist' and 'racist' cards thrown on the table. Easy, this politics stuff, isn't it? Where's the 'anti-Semite' jibe; that's allowed, too, isn't it?

Zizek is right, of course, when, in 'The Idea of Communism', he says we need to 'begin from the beginning'. Which means leaving the whole sad bunch of factional hacks like you lot, the SWP, the SEP and everyone else behind. The most constructive thing you could all do is dissolve your anachronistic little factions and your interminable 'correct interpretation' debates about what happened in the early 20th century - 'exactly what Lenin was talking about', indeed - and allow yourselves the freedom to move from 'what is' - which includes you lot and your little factions - to 'what is not'.

Which human being would put up with your fingers wagging at them and your shrill sub-intellectual condemnations of any incorrect thought? If you lot just disappeared the chances of some sort of socialistic sensibility arising in popular culture would be significantly increased.


I think the argument put forward by Badiou and Zizek focuses on ideological content of democracy. jairus banaji identified three facets of democracy, namely, (1) formal or constitutional democracy (2) culture of resistance and (3) desire for control. the focus on democracy is primarily on the first. of course they were important for the working classes and other marginalized and excluded peoples. but at the same in the last 20 years democracy has become an ideology, an element of neo-liberalism. I think Badiou and Zizek question this side of democracy, In this respect I think Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were also on Badiou and Zizek side.

For all his credentials as a theorist of social change Slavoj Zizeks’ uncanny take on the real culprit behind the capitalist debacle on managing a deepening crisis of global economy is like crapping out a game we thought he knew how to play and play better.

In his usual display of Marxist sensibility by quoting an ex-Maoist Alain Badiou, Zizek proudly claims that questions of political democracy are better left to the everyday non-discursive play of human freedom (Zizek described it as an “apolitical network of social relations”: see “Democracy is the Real Enemy,” London Review of Books, October 28, 2011), not to the political mechanisms of liberal capitalist democracy that ironical indeed encourages peaceful protests. Zizek observes: “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.”

Zizek is at lost here especially when he extended his observations on how the protesters of Occupy Wall Street can demand change from global capitalist system. To all likelihood Zizek wants the protesters to draw the fine line between illusion and a manageable phantasmagoric relation to the Real (the uncanny provenance of human freedom). The experience of this kind of freedom has a counterpart in Marxist literature, namely, ‘political democracy’. Zizek concludes his essay via a trademark recourse to his familiar Lacanian lens, warning the protesters not to demand the Real (as did, he argued, by the failed revolutionaries of May 1968 in France) for demanding even a taste of it is sure to fall into a trap disguised as enjoyment. Sure enough, the term he would have brandished though he must have realized it’s too omnipresent in his texts and speeches to call attention to, jouissance. Roughly speaking it means enjoying too much that enjoyment only strengthens the structural (social) and natural prohibition against its own expression.

By warning the protesters not to provoke the master (the global capitalist system) Zizek is arguing more or less that any unnecessary provocation can further deepen the crisis against which the protests were organized. For all its proverbial dependence on chaotic mode of production, capitalism cannot tolerate more disturbing protests. The most dangerous provocation lies in demanding a change of subjective space in the collective social domain between the master and the slave, between the 1 percent and the 99 percent relative to the income and wealth distribution pie. It must have occurred to Zizek that he sounds more Hegelian than Marxist especially in terms of his proximate warning against provoking another historical shift into nihilism where the only thing that changes is the subjective space, an extended internal time consciousness (realistically speaking, a ‘class’) inhabited and run by a triumphant subject-agency that has taken possession of a historicalGeist, in the case of Zizek’s warning, the prospect of the working class or the 99 percent of the world’s population, discriminated by property ownership, keeping a tight rein on capital. But he sounds more Lacanian when he conclusively shifts his argument from caution to prescription: “the formal gesture of rejection…is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content.” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, there is no way one can acquire the full comforts of the Real in terms of positive enjoyment that does not in any way reincribe the Real in its very essence as unfulfillable as an object of human desire. But where does Zizek want to see the protests leading?
He takes up Lacan to remind the protesters not to demand real transformation (as hysterics always do) through changing the subjective position of the master into that of the triumphant slave, recalling Lacan’s words to the revolutionaries of May 1968: “As revolutionaries you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one” (Democracy is The Real Enemy).

Zizek fires a shot at proverbial Marxist slogans of direct empowerment (such as workers’ council, etc.) in terms of brandishing a totem called political democracy that has seen better days. Zizek warns us against believing that democracy in capitalism can offer opportunities for empowerment which Marxism, from the First Internationalto Lenin, had taken advantage of in the interest of pursuing tactical goals for the working class though Marx and Lenin did not harbor any illusion that bourgeois democracy can put an end to the exploitative system of division of labor, property ownership and capital accumulation. Drawing on Louis Althusser the Slovenian thinker argues that bourgeois democracy is an integral part of the Ideological State Apparatuses, a type of public empowerment that guarantees freedom to own property and invest, and freedom to assemble and demand improvements of labor (at least in modern times), whereupon the tenacity of the new global capitalism rests. It suffices to say that the protesters themselves should make an effort to block the logical movement of history from political democracy (such as benefiting from higher wages, advantageous capital-labor compromises that help delay the pace of capitalist plunder of national and global economy, labor-related benefits, etc.) to direct ownership and control of the means of production, from capitalism to socialism. Zizek simply argues that any sense of freedom in capitalist order is false and illusory, that political democracy in capitalism is not historically transitory rather permanently inauspicious. More to the point, he argues against any sense of historical dialectics. History does not move. It is resistant to change.

But Zizek also argues that freedom can flourish within the “apolitical network of social relations,” outside of the sphere of the political, such as the family. Here, Zizek betrays his poor grasp of Marx. He believes that the family is impermeable to capital. The family plays an important role for Zizek, and unfortunately he likes to impress for Marxism as well—it ensures radical change needed to transform capitalism by transforming the ‘social relations of production’ which he mistakenly associates with the emancipatory apolitical promise of the family. But what family is he talking about? Is it the biological structure in which natural selection plays the game of the survival of the species or the modern social act of reproduction in the interest of one’s birthright, heirloom or legacy, defined by juridical terms of property ownership? None of these structures will satisfy the Zizekean alternative of the apolitical in terms of transforming the transcendent, that is, social relations of production precisely because these structures, the genetic and the social, are already inscribed within a specific economy which is always accompanied by the political as any potential to build and expand on a given material condition. It matters less if the political has been perfected by the human species: As long as there is culture pervasive in higher presumably reflexive life forms (which is rooted in self-preservation) the political is always a given possibility. The crux of the matter is that any effort to transcend the sociality of economic relations is bound to repeat the transcendentality of the political. This time it sounds totally deterministic.

But that is the closest thing to Zizek’s Lacanian hang-over (after taking an insufficient dose of Marxism, he must have gone on a free Lacanian binge). For Lacan the Real takes the place of the evolutionary bind which holds life hostage to the death instinct. Any sense of comfort that life takes in between is only a false illusion of freedom or enjoyment. But even that is suspect and Zizek should be the first one to deny that enjoyment (all the more, a false one) is attainable even in the synthetic landscape of experience where, if Kant was right, it is achievable by means of correct judgements. Nonetheless, it is also the ability to form correct judgement that Zizek to all appearances aimed to make a pitch for by warning the protesters of Wall Street not to demand the Master to relinquish his position. The best thing to do is to remain sufficiently hysteric, no more than that. That’s the correct judgement.

But let us give Zizek the benefit of doubt. Let us say he is imagining something close to the ancient understanding of social relations which flourished in friendship, in philia. But he can hardly be imagined imagining Plato, the Marxist that he claims himself to be, or the Lacanian that stands for his credentials (his mastery of the case studies and clinical experiences of Lacan who did a Humean trick to him, who awakened him from his Marxist slumber, the Lacan who had a very low opinion of philosophy as meaningless sophistry).

What can we still imagine of Zizek imagining he is a Marxist with due respect to his claim that he is?


We need to separate two issues here. Were Lenin and Trotsky and co. democrats? Now I find it incredible that any socialist who has studied the early years of the Russian revolution can still have the effrontery to argue that it all went wrong with Stalin. Lenin strongly supported the harshest measures against striking workers, revolting peasants and indeed dissident Bolsheviks. Was not the great Marxist Bogdanov arrested for a time, ironically demanding to be interrogated by Derzhinsky in person,their having been I think fellow prisoners in a czarist jail! Were not Kollontai's followers expelled from the Party? Did not Trotsky argue for 'the militarisation of labour.... during the transition from capitalism to socialism'" and claim that 'the road to socialism lies through the highest possible intensification of the state'? One recalls that Marx and Engels claimed socialism would lead to the withering away of the state! The so-called War Communism seems mostly to have meant no more than taking the peasants' grain at the point of a gun. We can contrast this absolute alienation of the Bolsheviks from the peasantry with the pro-peasant line of Mao, HO and Castro, whom Some, mostly Trotskyists, condemn as petty-bourgeois, peasant nationalists. One would think that if you claim to be a democrat you might like to address the revolutionary demands 0f those who make up 80 or 90 % of the population. Stalinism, I am afraid, is Leninism reductum ad absurdum.
Having said that, the attaintment of socialism has turned out to be no easy task. The writings of the likes of Pannekoek seem to me just too simplistic and utopian; with him all social contradictions are just swept away,which flies in the face of historical experience.After all, Red Rosa rightly criticised the bolsheviks' lack of democracy, but her 'socialist' opponents ended her freedom with a bullet in the head.
So we do need the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, but the good news is that this is democracy in its original meaning i.e. the rule of the poor or as we would say today the rule of the unpropertied. The problem with Zizek and others who go down the all too easy road of 'the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution' is that they fail to analyse why such betrayals keep recurring. How can one blame Stalinism for the apostasy of the likes of Kautsky or Plekhanov. History teaches us that eventually all socialist parties betray the revolution, and the Leninist party is no exception to this historical law. One recalls Mao's great paradox: where is the bourgeoisie in China? it sits on the Central Committee? Democracy is the only solution, but because Zizek has no concept of democracy he ends up spouting reactionary nonsense. Leave him to those who can claim to understand him;Marxists would do far better to study Aristotle's Politics if they want to understand democracy.

Zizek: too clever by half

By Noel Ignatiev

I forced myself to listen to an hour-and-half talk Slavoj Zizek made in Tel Aviv this past June in which he scarcely mentioned Zionism, focusing instead on the danger of anti-Semitism in Europe. For that “small omission” he was denounced by some for having sold his soul to Zionism. I don’t think that is the case at all.

I can easily reconstruct the thought process that led him to make that talk. He was invited to Israel to speak to Jewish leftists, people who have been involved in the struggle against the most reactionary policies of the Israel authorities. What, he asked himself, could he tell them that would not be preaching to the choir, that would give them something new to think about? Rather than denouncing the crimes of Zionism (about which he has spoken elsewhere) he chose to address a major concern of the people in his audience, which led him to discuss the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. It is important to note that he was not talking about the anti-Jewish sentiment that has arisen in the Arab world and among people active in anti-zionist struggles but about the resurgence of anti-Semitism among populist, neofascist movements, which he regarded as far more dangerous than the former and linked to the global capitalist crisis. In other words, he was trying to enlist progressive Israeli Jews in the struggle against capital by showing that capital, not anti-zionism, was the source of the danger to them.

Very well. In developing his anti-capitalist argument he made several statements that on their face seem outrageous, for example, that someone in the Congo would “sell his mother” for a chance to live on the West Bank. Now, probably some people in the Congo would sell their mothers and some would not, but his intention was to make his audience see that Zionism was part of global misery. (In his defense, he prefaced his remark about the Congo by saying he was about to say something provocative.)

Another example: he said Hitler was “not violent enough,” that Gandhi was more “violent” than Hitler because he dismantled the state, which was more than Hitler did. He is not the first to point out that Hitler abandoned the full National Socialist program in order to reach an accommodation with German capital, but it is one thing to say it as part of a serious analysis of currents in fascism and another to toss it off flippantly to a Tel Aviv audience. He is too clever by half.

As someone who sometimes makes provocative remarks in order to force people to take notice, I can relate to Zizek. The problem is, he stressed the wrong thing. What that audience needed to hear was not the evils of the capitalist system but why they should break with “progressive Jewish” politics, which oppose the “Occupation” while accepting the “Jewish State.” His provocation was enlisted in the service of bad politics.

CLR James once remarked that Marx didn’t babble. Zizek babbles, incessantly.

Grey is not radical, but has some useful insights here…

The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek
July 12, 2012
John Gray

Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
by Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 1,038 pp., $69.95

Living in the End Times
by Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 504 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Few thinkers illustrate the contradictions of contemporary capitalism better than the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. The financial and economic crisis has demonstrated the fragility of the free market system that its defenders believed had triumphed in the cold war; but there is no sign of anything resembling the socialist project that in the past was seen by many as embodying capitalism’s successor. Žižek’s work, which reflects this paradoxical situation in a number of ways, has made him one of the world’s best-known public intellectuals.

Born and educated in Ljubljana, the capital of the People’s Republic of Slovenia in the former Yugoslav federation until the federal state began to break up and Slovenia declared independence in 1990, Žižek has held academic positions in Britain, America, and Western Europe as well as in Slovenia. His prodigious output (over sixty volumes since his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, was published in 1989), innumerable articles and interviews, together with films such as Žižek! (2005) and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), have given him a presence that extends far beyond the academy. Well attuned to popular culture, particularly film, he has a following among young people in many countries, including those of post-Communist Europe. He has a journal dedicated to his work—International Journal of Žižek Studies, founded in 2007—whose readership is registered via Facebook, and in October 2011 he addressed members of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park in New York, an event that was widely reported and can be viewed on YouTube.

Žižek’s wide influence does not mean that his philosophical and political standpoint can be easily defined. A member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until he resigned in 1988, Žižek had difficult relations with the Party authorities for many years owing to his interest in what they viewed as heterodox ideas. In 1990 he stood as a presidential candidate for Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, a party of the center left that was the dominant political force in the country for the rest of the decade; but liberal ideas, aside from serving as a reference point for positions he rejects, have never shaped his thinking.

Žižek was dismissed from his first university teaching post in the early 1970s, when the Slovenian authorities judged a thesis he had written on French structuralism—then an influential movement in anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy claiming that human thought and behavior exemplify a universal system of interrelated principles—to be “non-Marxist.” The episode demonstrated the limited nature of the intellectual liberalization that was being promoted in the country at the time, but Žižek’s later work suggests that the authorities were right in judging that his intellectual orientation was not Marxian. Throughout the enormous corpus of work he has since built up, Marx is criticized for being insufficiently radical in his rejection of existing modes of thought, while Hegel—a much greater influence on Žižek—is praised for being willing to lay aside classical logic in order to develop a more dialectical way of thinking. But Hegel is also criticized for having too great an attachment to traditional modes of reasoning, and a central theme of Žižek’s writings is the need to shed the commitment to intellectual objectivity that has guided radical thinkers in the past.

Žižek’s work sets itself in opposition to Marx on many issues. For all he owed to Hegelian metaphysics, Marx was also an empirical thinker who tried to frame theories about the actual course of historical development. It was not the abstract idea of revolution with which he was primarily concerned, but a revolutionary project involving specific and radical alterations in economic institutions and power relations.

Žižek shows little interest in these aspects of Marx’s thinking. Aiming “to repeat the Marxist ‘critique of political economy’ without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard,” he believes that “the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough.” As Žižek sees it, Marx’s understanding of communism was partly responsible for this failure: “Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described.”

While he rejects Marx’s conception of communism, Žižek devotes none of the over one thousand pages of Less Than Nothing to specifying the economic system or institutions of government that would feature in a communist society of the kind he favors. In effect a compendium of Žižek’s work to date, Less Than Nothing is devoted instead to reinterpreting Marx by way of Hegel—one of the book’s sections is called “Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx”—and reformulating Hegelian philosophy by reference to the thought of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

A “post-structuralist” who rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language, Lacan also rejected the standard interpretation of Hegel’s idea of “the cunning of reason,” according to which world history is the realization by oblique and indirect means of reason in human life. For Lacan as Žižek summarizes him, “The Cunning of Reason…in no way involves a faith in a secret guiding hand guaranteeing that all the apparent contingency of unreason will somehow contribute to the harmony of the Totality of Reason: if anything, it involves a trust in un-Reason.” On this Lacanian reading, the message of Hegel’s philosophy is not the progressive unfolding of rationality in history but instead the impotence of reason.

The Hegel that emerges in Žižek’s writings thus bears little resemblance to the idealist philosopher who features in standard histories of thought. Hegel is commonly associated with the idea that history has an inherent logic in which ideas are embodied in practice and then left behind in a dialectical process in which they are transcended by their opposites. Drawing on the contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek radicalizes this idea of dialectic to mean the rejection of the logical principle of noncontradiction, so that rather than seeing rationality at work in history, Hegel rejects reason itself as it has been understood in the past. Implicit in Hegel (according to Žižek) is a new kind of “paraconsistent logic” in which a proposition “is not really suppressed by its negation.” This new logic, Žižek suggests, is well suited to understanding capitalism today. “Is not ‘postmodern’ capitalism an increasingly paraconsistent system,” he asks rhetorically, “in which, in a variety of modes, P is non-P: the order is its own transgression, capitalism can thrive under communist rule, and so on?”

Living in the End Times is presented by Žižek as being concerned with this situation. Summarizing the book’s central theme, he writes:

The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.

But to criticize Žižek for neglecting these facts is to misunderstand his intent, for unlike Marx he does not aim to ground his theorizing in a reading of history that is based in facts. “Today’s historical juncture does not compel us to drop the notion of the proletariat, or of the proletarian position—on the contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level beyond even Marx’s imagination,” he writes. “We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject [i.e., the thinking and acting human being], a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito, deprived of its substantial content.” In Žižek’s hands, Marxian ideas—which in Marx’s materialist view were meant to designate objective social facts—become subjective expressions of revolutionary commitment. Whether such ideas correspond to anything in the world is irrelevant.

There is a problem at this point, however: Why should anyone adopt Žižek’s ideas rather than any others? The answer cannot be that Žižek’s are true in any traditional sense. “The truth we are dealing with here is not ‘objective’ truth,” Žižek writes, “but the self-relating truth about one’s own subjective position; as such, it is an engaged truth, measured not by its factual accuracy but by the way it affects the subjective position of enunciation.”

If this means anything, it is that truth is determined by reference to how an idea accords with the projects to which the speaker is committed—in Žižek’s case, a project of revolution. But this only poses the problem at another level: Why should anyone adopt Žižek’s project? The question cannot be answered in any simple way, since it is far from clear what Žižek’s revolutionary project consists in. He shows no signs of doubting that a society in which communism was realized would be better than any that has ever existed. On the other hand, he is unable to envision any circumstances in which communism might be realized: “Capitalism is not just a historical epoch among others…. Francis Fukuyama was right: global capitalism is ‘the end of history.’”1 Communism is not for Žižek—as it was for Marx—a realizable condition, but what Badiou describes as a “hypothesis,” a conception with little positive content but that enables radical resistance against prevailing institutions. Žižek is insistent that such resistance must include the use of terror:

Badiou’s provocative idea that one should reinvent emancipatory terror today is one of his most profound insights…. Recall Badiou’s exalted defense of Terror in the French Revolution, in which he quotes the justification of the guillotine for Lavoisier: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”2

Along with Badiou, Žižek celebrates Mao’s Cultural Revolution as “the last truly great revolutionary explosion of the twentieth century.” But he also regards the Cultural Revolution as a failure, citing Badiou’s conclusion that “the Cultural Revolution, even in its very impasse, bears witness to the impossibility truly and globally to free politics from the framework of the party-State.”3 Mao in encouraging the Cultural Revolution evidently should have found a way to break the power of the party-state. Again, Žižek praises the Khmer Rouge for attempting a total break with the past. The attempt involved mass killing and torture on a colossal scale; but in his view that is not why it failed: “The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did not invent any new form of collectivity.” (Here and elsewhere the italics are Žižek’s.) A genuine revolution may be impossible in present circumstances, or any that can be currently imagined. Even so, revolutionary violence should be celebrated as “redemptive,” even “divine.”

While Žižek has described himself as a Leninist,4 there can be no doubt that this position would be anathema to the Bolshevik leader. Lenin had no qualms in using terror in order to promote the cause of communism (for him, a practically attainable objective). Always deployed as part of a political strategy, violence was instrumental in nature. In contrast, though Žižek accepts that violence has failed to achieve its communist goals and has no prospect of doing so, he insists that revolutionary violence has intrinsic value as a symbolic expression of rebellion—a position that has no parallel in either Marx or Lenin. A precedent may be seen in the work of the French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who defended the use of violence against colonialism as an assertion of the identity of subjects of colonial power; but Fanon viewed this violence as part of a struggle for national independence, an objective that was in fact achieved.

A clearer precedent can be found in the work of the early-twentieth-century French theorist of syndicalism Georges Sorel. In Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel argued that communism was a utopian myth—but a myth that had value in inspiring a morally regenerative revolt against the corruption of bourgeois society. The parallels between this view and Žižek’s account of “redemptive violence” inspired by the “communist hypothesis” are telling.

A celebration of violence is one of the most prominent strands in Žižek’s work. He finds fault with Marx for thinking that violence can be justified as part of the conflict between objectively defined social classes. Class war must not be understood as “a conflict between particular agents within social reality: it is not a difference between agents (which can be described by means of a detailed social analysis), but an antagonism (‘struggle’) which constitutes these agents.” Applying this view when discussing Stalin’s assault on the peasantry, Žižek describes how the distinction between kulaks (rich peasants) and others became “blurred and unworkable: in a situation of generalized poverty, clear criteria no longer applied, and the other two classes of peasants often joined the kulaks in their resistance to forced collectivization.” In response to this situation the Soviet authorities introduced a new category, the sub-kulak, a peasant too poor to be classified as a kulak but who shared kulak values:

The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of objective social analysis; it became a kind of complex “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying an individual’s “true political attitudes” hidden beneath his or her deceptive public proclamations.

Describing mass murder in this way as an exercise in hermeneutics is repugnant and grotesque; it is also characteristic of Žižek’s work. He criticizes Stalin’s policy of collectivization, but not on account of the millions of human lives that were violently truncated or broken in its course. What Žižek criticizes is Stalin’s lingering attachment (however inconsistent or hypocritical) to “‘scientific’ Marxist terms.” Relying on “objective social analysis” for guidance in revolutionary situations is an error: “at some point, the process has to be cut short with a massive and brutal intervention of subjectivity: class belonging is never a purely objective social fact, but is always also the result of struggle and social engagement.” Rather than Stalin’s relentless use of torture and lethal force, it is the fact that he tried to justify the systematic use of violence by reference to Marxian theory that Žižek condemns.

Žižek’s rejection of anything that might be described as social fact comes together with his admiration of violence in his interpretation of Nazism. Commenting on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s much-discussed involvement with the Nazi regime, Žižek writes: “His involvement with the Nazis was not a simple mistake, but rather a ‘right step in the wrong direction.’” Contrary to many interpretations, Heidegger was not a radical reactionary. “Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to communism”—indeed, during the mid-Thirties, Heidegger might be described as “a future communist.”

If Heidegger mistakenly chose to back Hitler, the mistake was not in underestimating the violence that Hitler would unleash:

The problem with Hitler was that he was “not violent enough,” his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, for he acted so that nothing would really change, staging a gigantic spectacle of pseudo-Revolution so that the capitalist order would survive…. The true problem of Nazism is not that it “went too far” in its subjectivist-nihilist hubris of exercising total power, but that it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent acting-out which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very order it despised.

What was wrong with Nazism, it seems, is that—like the later experiment in total revolution of the Khmer Rouge—it failed to create any new kind of collective life. Žižek says little regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been. He does make plain that there would be no room in this new life for one particular form of human identity:

The fantasmatic status of anti- Semitism is clearly revealed by a statement attributed to Hitler: “We have to kill the Jew within us.” …Hitler’s statement says more than it wants to say: against his intentions, it confirms that the Gentiles need the anti-Semitic figure of the “Jew” in order to maintain their identity. It is thus not only that “the Jew is within us”—what Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that he, the anti-Semite, is also in the Jew. What does this paradoxical entwinement mean for the destiny of anti-Semitism?

Žižek is explicit in censuring “certain elements of the radical Left” for “their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously condemning anti-Semitism.” But it is difficult to understand the claim that the identities of anti-Semites and Jewish people are in some way mutually reinforcing—which is repeated, word for word, in Less Than Nothing—except as suggesting that the only world in which anti-Semitism can cease to exist is one in which there are no longer any Jews.

Interpreting Žižek on this or any issue is not without difficulties. There is his inordinate prolixity, the stream of texts that no one could read in their entirety, if only because the torrent never ceases flowing. There is his use of a type of academic jargon featuring allusive references to other thinkers, which has the effect of enabling him to use language in an artful, hermetic way. As he acknowledges, Žižek borrows the term “divine violence” from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). It is doubtful whether Benjamin—a thinker who had important affinities with the Frankfurt School of humanistic Marxism—would have described the destructive frenzy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the Khmer Rouge as divine.

But this is beside the point, for by using Benjamin’s construction Žižek is able to praise violence and at the same time claim that he is speaking of violence in a special, recondite sense—a sense in which Gandhi can be described as being more violent than Hitler.5 And there is Žižek’s regular recourse to a laborious kind of clowning wordplay:

The…virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself.

It is impossible to read this without recalling the Sokal affair in which Alan Sokal, a professor of physics, submitted a spoof article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to a journal of postmodern cultural studies. Equally, it is hard to read this and many similar passages in Žižek without suspecting that he is engaged—wittingly or otherwise—in a kind of auto-parody.

There may be some who are tempted to condemn Žižek as a philosopher of irrationalism whose praise of violence is more reminiscent of the far right than the radical left. His writings are often offensive and at times (as when he writes of Hitler being present “in the Jew”) obscene. There is a mocking frivolity in Žižek’s paeans to terror that recalls the Italian Futurist and ultra-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Fascist (and later Maoist) fellow traveler Curzio Malaparte more than any thinker in the Marxian tradition. But there is another reading of Žižek, which may be more plausible, in which he is no more an epigone of the right than he is a disciple of Marx or Lenin.

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility. That there should be this isomorphism between Žižek’s thinking and contemporary capitalism is not surprising. After all, it is only an economy of the kind that exists today that could produce a thinker such as Žižek. The role of global public intellectual Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of capitalist expansion.

In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.

1 Slavoj Žižek, “Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century?,” Rethinking Marxism: a Journal of Economics, Culture and Society , Vol. 13, No. 3–4 (2001), p. 190. ↩
2 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View ( MIT Press, 2006), p. 326.
3 Žižek, The Parallax View , p. 328. ↩
4 “ I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it .” Quoted by Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman , October 29, 2009. ↩
5 “It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.” See Shobhan Saxena’s interview with Žižek, “ First they called me a joker, now I am a dangerous thinker ,” The Times of India , January 10, 2010