From Geneva to Moscow, via Manchester

The unacknowledged but pervasive tension and dishonest mingling of ultra-determinist historical materialism and hyperactive voluntarism/subjectivism has been shown to be a hallmark of the totalitarian turn in Leninism, Stalinism. According to Leo Kofler this particularly shows when things don’t go to plan

‚Das Hinüberschieben der Schuld für das Mißlingen der bürokratischen Pläne auf die Schulter von subversiven und renitenten Elementen, die von der Absicht besessen sind, den sozialistischen Aufbau zu stören, ist deshalb ein besonders interessantes Moment in der bürokratischen Ideologie, weil hier in vollstem Widerspruch zur mechanistischen, die Rolle des Subjektiven unterschätzenden Auffassung des Prozesses plötzlich und unvermittelt eine Überbetonung subjektiver Gegebenheiten zum Vorschein kommt. Ein solches Verfallen in kontradiktorische Extreme ist überhaupt charakteristisch für jedes nichtdialektische Denken.‘ (Kofler 1970: 64)

The assignment of guilt for the failure of bureaucratic plans to subversive and renitent elements possessed by a desire to undermine socialist development is a particularly interesting aspect in the bureaucratic ideology, because here – contradicting completely the mechanist view of history which underestimates the role of the subjective – suddenly and abruptly subjective factors are overrated. Falling into such contradictory extremes is characteristic of all non-dialectical thought

‘Non-dialectical’ here is to be understood as a view that is not capable to understand subjective factors as part of an objective reality and therefore objective reality as also constituted by subjective factors. While this was the starting position, in the Marxist tradition honest attempts to explain human freedom out of material conditions, rather than just conceding various degrees of influence (always asserting, of course, that ‘in the last consequence’, it’s material conditions that matter) are rare.

This non-dialectical approach has an unexpected ancestor in Calvinism. Sociologists tend to think of Jean Calvin as theologian whose world historical significance derives from the ironic consequences of his predeterminarianism on the mentality of early capitalist entrepreneurs, businessmen and workers. That excludes him from the ancestry of modern communism. Yet Calvin, spiritual leader of the moral commonwealth of Geneva, was a social revolutionary as well. And Calvinist Geneva – with its theocratic/republican rule and with its purges and show trials – was an inspiration to the English Puritan Revolutionaries under Cromwell. When Vladimir Putin recently justified his lack of enthusiasm for destructing Stalin statues by equating Stalin and Cromwell, he had a point despite the different scales of mass slaughter in the name of God and/or History.

Both in the Puritan and the Marxist-Leninist case we have ideologies that propose historical inevitability at the same time as understanding the realisation of what has been predetermined as a task to be carried out by individuals. Both currents saw themselves compelled to punish heretics and opponents in spectacular fashion, penalising them for what they could not help doing given their destined state as fallen or their historical role as class enemy. Compare Kofler’s statement on Stalinism to what the – sympathetic – biographer of Jean Calvin, Basil Hall has to say about the tension between predestination and the evil agency of Man:

If God is the principle of causation, is He not therefore the author of evil? God forbid, says Calvin, man sins not under the pressure of external constraint, but voluntarily, for his very nature leads him to sin, and, before God, men are none the less blameworthy since their nature is corrupt, and that is sufficient to condemn them. There is, however, a non sequitur here. Calvin has stated the metaphysical fact of divine causality at the heart of the universe, and then, when pressed to show where lies the origin of evil, he slips over into a psychological explanation: evil is willed by man, for it is his bias, and God is not concerned, save to use this evil disposition either to dominate it for His glory or as a means of punishment.’ (Hall 1956: 20f.)

It is tempting, but probably too farfetched, to liken the Marxist-Leninist triad of historical-materialist inevitability, authority of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin as its revelation, and Communist Party as its visible representation and agent in the world to the Calvinists doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the doctrine of the scripture and the doctrine of the church. Yet the task of the visible Church to persecute the ungodly mitigates the contradiction between predestined course of things and the human freedom to do evil in a similar way that the Party was to negotiate between the inevitable course of History and the inertia of the proletarians and the stubborn opposition of the class enemy.

‘Calvin was unique among Protestants in holding that the Church must manage her own affairs with the greatest possible independence of the temporal authority and yet maintain a real relation with that authority: he alone revived in Protestantism the old papal principle that the temporal and spiritual powers were like two swords in one sheath. New also was Calvin’s insistence on the Church’s public discipline for all members of the community and on the duty of the temporal authorities as Christian men to maintain this discipline even with legal penalties. This principle of discipline is the most characteristic element in Calvin’s Geneva: given the belief that God was sovereign, that man before God was nothing, and that to God was due all glory, it followed inevitably that all men must honour God in their doctrine and life – even if they have to be compelled to do so.’ (Hall 1956: 24f.)

The big question now is – what to make of this odd parallel. Is there an historical genealogy? This is unlikely beyond the notion that, according to Karl Löwith, modern historiography is very much a derivative of Christian soteriology, and Marxism is a theory that explicitly does not know any science but one: history. I would suggest looking for ironical links and elective affinities along similar lines as the Calvinist inspiration of capitalism. Could it not be that, as response to high capitalism of the Manchester variety, some of the soteriological traits not of Puritan theology but of capitalist praxis have seeped into the revolutionary superstructures of the Communist Party?

As Marx and Marxist theorists from Lukács to Adorno have exposed, the capitalist process presents itself as ahistorical, natural process, while at the same time presupposing a society of autonomous property-owning individuals. The counterfactual plausibility of this assumption can be gauged by looking at the readiness to accept, only a few years after yet another spectacular failure to predict a dramatic economic downturn, the forecasts and advice of economists. They are viewed like meteorologists – imprecisions and errors in the forecasts are not ascribed to the fact that as process constituted by human action “the economy” is fundamentally different from a physical process like the weather (although of course the meteorologists increasingly have to acknowledge the consequences of human action). It is all down to human error. Least of all reflected upon is the fact that the advice of economists themselves is an influence on economic and political action. That this is true for Marxist political economy has already been seen by Eduard Bernstein – and while the extent of influence of the works of economists like John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman on policymakers may be disputed, that there was such an influence is beyond doubt. The same social science that presents itself as analysis of a quasi-natural process also produces a priestly caste of spiritual guides advising on how to realise that natural process. A secular theology committed to a pair of mutually exclusive tenets of the quasi-natural, objective course of events in the reified hyper-subject “economy” and of full individual responsibility of economic subjects. The contradiction is solved undialectically yet elegantly: As harmony, balance and universal happiness are achieved by all individuals following their own (presumably naturally given) self-interest in a rational way by quasi-divine means (the market mechanism as invisible hand), there is a pre-established harmony between individual agency and historical process. Everybody getswhat they deserve – which is the same as everybody is what they earn.

What is more – the system can even stomach the fact that there are people who lack proper rationality or self-interest as they exclude themselves from the process and go to hell-on-earth, i.e. become penniless. It is only when the reprobate become too numerous that a more decisive counteraction is required – and then the total order of efficient production can be re-established by means of a Fascist apparatus.

Revolutionary Marxist leaders will have been exposed to the same impression of a natural process of economic development as anybody else, even though Marx’s work contains ample warnings against this optical illusion. The “vulgar economics” of which Marx spoke frequently found its mirror image in “vulgar Marxism” that interpreted the economic process of capital accumulation as taking a different course and producing different outcomes, but nonetheless reified it as an inevitable natural process nonetheless. And they can be forgiven as formulae like the one stating that capital transforms itself into an ‘automatic subject’ (Kapital verwandelt sich in ein automatisches Subjekt – the English version tones down to ‘assumes an automatically active character’) have beenmisunderstood as a structuralist credo by interpreters far from vulgar.

Against this background the possibility that there is a very zig-zaggy line from Calvinism-Cromwellism over enforcedly laissez-faire capitalism to Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism looks like a distinct possibility.

PS

The 17th century Puritan Richard Baxter’s account of Cromwell strikes me as fascinatingly analoguous to orthodox Marxists critiques of Leninism: Instead of trusting in the predestined/determined course of events, Lenin/Trotsky/Stalin felt themselves destined to accelerate history. And instead of trusting God’s plan, Cromwell and allies

‘thought that God had called them by successes to govern and take care of the Commonwealth and of the interest of all his people in the land; and that if they stood by and suffered the parliament to do that which they thought was dangerous, it would be required at their hands, whom they thought God had made the guardians of the land. Having thus forced his conscience to justify all his cause (the cutting off the king, the setting up himself and his adherents, the pulling down the parliament and the Scots), he thinketh that the end being good and necessary, the necessary means cannot be bad.’ (Baxter 1974: 88)

Baxter, Richard (1974): The Autobiography of Richard Baxter  (Edited by N. H. Keeble), London: J.M. Dent

Hall, Basil (1956): John Calvin, London: Historical Association

Kofler, Leo (1970): Stalinismus und Bürokratie: Zwei Aufsätze, Neuwied: Luchterhand

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Ziya Gökalp, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the two Emile Durkheims

All too often the political divides in Turkey are simplified into a crude division into a secularist/republican (Kemalist) camp and an Islamic/Islamist camp, with the only complication allowed for being the conflict around Kurdish minority rights. What has been long ignored was that both these camps share a set of outlooks that they inherited from the late Ottoman Empire and early Republican period and that they are close enough to lend plausibility to “Turkish Islamic synthesis” with which a group of right wing intellectuals sought to establish as a broad national compromise in the 1980s. What is also often ignored is that in both camps an increased exposure to globalised and cosmopolitan fields of practice has inspired the emergence of a more liberal outlook that found a room for manoeuvre in the interstices created by the deadlock between growing Islamist movements and Kemalist elites. The AKP had managed to secure electoral success not just by connecting to marginalised Islamic populations moving from central Anatolia to the big cities and by support from the new Islamic business elites – they also attracted to votes of liberal Muslims and anti-Kemalist secularists by unprecedentedly pro-European, pro-human rights and pro-Kurdish policies.

For some time now secular and religious liberals have been moving away from Erdoğan, citing an increasingly authoritarian style and morally prescriptive intrusions into personal lifestyles. Is he showing his true “Islamist” colours now? Partly – the intrusions around abortion rights and alcohol consumption certainly are religiously inspired. But the style and mis-understanding of “democracy” is that of his Kemalist predecessors. For post-Islamist Mustafa Akyol the problem is not that Erdoğan is “too Islamic” but that he is “too Turkish” (at 00:15 – comment starts around 00:13), referring to a certain paternalistic/collectivist and anti-liberal pattern that is enshrined in the legacy of Kemalist republican thought as formulated by Ziya Gökalp (and it may not be a total coincidence that it was a quote from a Ziya Gökalp poem that earned Erdoğan a spell in prison).  Erdoğan’s insistence that as elected leader he represents the people’s will and hence can ignore any protests very much is in the tradition of Kemalist principles devletçilik (statism) and halkçılık (populism). As Spencer (1958) analysed, these principles as developed by Gökalp have been inspired by a reading of Durkheim’s sociology – following a misunderstanding that remained common into the 1950s and 60s, namely that Durkheim proposed that in the absence of traditional religious bonds only a strong national identity as new conscience collective can safeguard the continuity of social life:

 ‘But it must be recalled that Durkheim gave complete priority to society and dismissed the worth of the individual. The Turks have retained this concept, and argued that collective action is not arbitrary and is not to be couched in Hegelian dialectic. Statism in Turkey is construed as the manifestation of the collective will.’ (Spencer 1958: 653)

That Durkheim was not only a methodological collectivist but also a political individualist has been too much to digest for most early and mid 20th century readers. But he certainly was, seeing the cult of human rights, a culture of individualistic humanitarianism, as residual religious glue that ideologically holds together a maximally diverse society. So both the masses commandeered by Erdoğan and the masses of protestors for Gezi could be said to be Durkheimians in a way. Which of the two Durkheimisms will prevail in Turkey remains to be seen – my money’s still on a cosmopolitan cult of the individual. One reason is that the powers of collectivist Durkheimism, both among the old Kemalist elites and in the new Islamic elites share Gökalp’s idea of economic/technological modernisation that is to leave the social/cultural core of Turkish or Muslim life unaffected:

‘… Westernization created serious difficulties for the Ottoman Turks, and solutions ranged from the Westernized constitutional guarantees of the Tanzimat era to the policies of resistance and isolation for Abdülhamit II. Ziya set himself the task of providing a sociological rationale for the acceptance of Western ideas by the Turks. The solution he proposed was both simple and naïve: given the organic unity and integrity of Turkish society and the spirit of  Turkish culture, the nation is in a position to accept Western civilization in full. At this point Ziya returned to an application of the distinction of Tönnies. Civilization is not culture, but a supercultural development. Nations can share in the same civilization, as he conceived it, but by doing so they may forfeit their cultural integrity. Hence the Turks must retain their culture, but at the same time take over the benefits of Western civilization (Duda 1948: 99). How this is to be done is not clear from Ziya’s writings.’ (Spencer 1958: 651)

This idea of technological Westernisation paired up with social conservatism has been tried and tested and failed in many places –  it has failed even where the social conservatism was pursued with much more rigour than in the Turkish case – as Elmusa (1997) shows for Saudi Arabia. The microelectronic revolution has sustained a leaderless resistance at Gezi that allowed the collective expression of people who, in the end, only shared the fervent commitment to each other’s individual freedom

 Everyone is enjoying the camaraderie and freedom. No one is being patronizing and everybody is wearing their colours of life free of restraint. While the Anticapitalist Muslims perform their prayers, atheists keep watch around them. The Kurds dance their halay, Alevis whirl in their ritual dance, semah, Turks chant military marches. Socialists, LGBTs, fans of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray teams roll up their sleeves together, have fun together and keep an eye on each other. Everyone’s freedom is guarded by everyone else.[1]

They are “Durkheimian” in that (like, by the way, old Marx) a) they are intuitively aware that all individuality is a social construct, is only possible as outcome of social interaction – they are collectivist in their methods and b) they are politically individualistic in that they not only care for their own rights of personal development and freedom of expression but that of everybody else as well.

Elmusa, Sharif S. (1997): ‘Faust Without the Devil? The Interplay of Technology and Culture in Saudi Arabia’, in: Middle East Journal, Vol.51, No.3, pp.345-57

Spencer, Robert F. (1958): ‘Culture Process and Intellectual Current: Durkheim and Atatürk’, in: American Anthropologist, New SeriesI, Vol.60, No.4, pp.640-57


[1] Burhan Sönmez: The Aesthetics of Resistance, translated by Duygu Tekgül, orig. in BirGün

Stonier’s “microelectronic revolution” – a forgotten concept?

I came across this more by accident (partly because I’m not greatly attracted to the author’s cosmic theories…), but Tom Stonier’s 1983 text on the “Microelectronic Revolution” not only predicts the crumbling away of the Soviet Empire when faced with the possibilities of new communication technologies, but also outlines the pattern that recently brought down a string of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. One would expect a revival – but so far Jaap van Till’s talk on the influence of social media on the progress and the obstruction of the revolutions in the Middle East is the only reference made to it I could find. What Stonier had to say nearly thirty years ago now sounds trivial (see the below quote), but given that this is decades before Twitter and Facebook… actually: it is before most people knew that there is such a thing as the internet, and given that it is written a good three years before Gorbachev ascended to power in the SU, this is quite amazing.

When it is no longer possible to control information flows from the centre,  it becomes almost impossible to  control public opinion.  The emergence of  a significant body of  public opinion opposing a regime on any specific issue, places an authoritarian regime in a predicament. Either it follows public opinion, or  it becomes repressive. In the first instance it cedes decision-making power, In the second, it alienates support.  (Stonier 1983: 145)

Not only that – while the Reagan administration was still sending the anti-Soviet Islamists in Afghanistan Stingers that they would later have to buy back dearly for fear of them being used in anti-American terrorist attacks, Stonier sees that for the next decades the major security threat will come from … Islamists. Now that may not such a great feat – but he also saw that in the end both nationalist and religious authoritarianism in the Middle East will encounter the same problems as the Soviet system before them. In my previous post I highlight the panicked reaction of religious authorities in Iran when confronted with oppositional music videos on Youtube… here’s waht Stonier had to say four years after the Islamic Revolution:

Some time early  in  the  next century even  the  Ayatollahs  will  be overtaken by the Communicative Era. The pace at which this will happen will depend on the policy stance the West adopts. This, then, becomes one of the major tasks for political scientists: to understand the impact of the new  microelectronic information technology on global society  and to develop a sound theory of political change on which political leaders can base their decisions. (Stonier 1983: 151)

Stonier, Tom (1983): ‘The Microelectronic Revolution, Soviet Political Structure, and the Future of East/West Relations’, in: The Political Quarterly, Vol.54, No.2, pp.137-51

The fatal attraction of Jacobinism: Žižek as Robespierre

07.24.2011

The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep.’ (Orwell 1990)

Totalitarianism is en vogue again, it seems, as the internationally acclaimed philosopher/psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek has become something of a academico-political star. So much so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do what I had decided to do after first reading his New Left Review article ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’ back in 1999 (a piece that I found not just incoherent and seriously confused, but also strangely irrelevant) – namely to ignore him as one given to Stalinist nostalgia. His subsequent political writing seemed to follow similar lines and confirmed him as staunch yet frivolous Leninist. Although Žižek keeps putting in disclaimers to the effect that he doesn’t really mean to promote old-style Bolshevism, I think Alan Johnson’s (2011) analysis of his revolutionism as Leninism/Blanquism holds and I am thus not burdened, here, with the task to argue this point. I fully recommend Johnson’s thorough and devastating paper. And just as if to confirm this analysis, Žižek now self-certifies as a Jacobin of the Robespierre school.

I will use this little piece to show up a few typical rhetorical devices in what I see as his neo-totalitarian rhetoric, but my main interest is to pose the question why it is so attractive to those who, traditionally, tend to be the first up against the wall after a revolution: left-leaning academics.

To begin with the particular piece in questions: the Jacobin Spirit. In short, the Jacobin spirit can be summed up as a claim that you do not need democratic legitimacy if you have “truth”. The core of the Leninist interpretation of the notion of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the dictatorship of a party elite in possession of the blueprint of history. The Bolsheviks were in possession of the truth of history (as they had the only valid, because Hegel-based, reading of Marx’s prophecy), so once they found that workers and peasants couldn’t be trusted with making the right (i.e. Bolshevik…) choices in the elections to the soviets, it was an easy call to abolish the radical-democratic principle that the soviet initially incorporated and transform it into a one-party closed shop. The truth of the working classes ranked higher than their majority will.

Žižek sides with the Jacobins against the Girondins on the decision to execute the King. The Girondins were not per se against putting the King on trial and, should this be the outcome, to death. What they suggested was a democratic process to establish a basis on which this could be done. Robespierre rejects this on the grounds summarised and defended by Žižek as follows:

“[The] minority has everywhere an eternal right: to render audible the voice of truth.” […] Robespierre’s response was that such an appeal to the people would effectively cancel the people’s sovereign will which, through the Revolution, had already made itself known and changed the very nature of the French state, bringing the Republic into being. What the Girondins effectively insinuate, he claims, is that the revolutionary insurrection was “only an act of a part of the people, even of a minority, and that one should solicit the speech of a kind of silent majority.” (Žižek 2011)

Where to begin? First of all: Of course there would have been an argument for not asking the People – and that is the notion that the People had already delegated powers to the Assembly and its members will act according to the will of the People because they will be subjected to another vote not so long in the future. But that’s not the point. The point is to act according to “the truth” – and the truth is the possession of a minority..

Robespierre’s answer was that the truth is irreducible to numbers (to counting); it can be experienced also in solitude: those who proclaim a truth they have experienced should not be treated as factionists, but as sensible and courageous people.

Crucially – although he is identified as “philosopher” (and be it as a “maverick” one) – he does not bother to enlighten us what “truth” is meant to mean here. It is also an example of wrong inference that is quite typical in his writing – a propagandistic trick that works by garnering the audience’s assent to a quite obviously true statement (truth is not an outcome of a democratic process and very often known only to a minority), and then draw a straightforward-looking conclusion while smuggling in a range of pretty strong extra assumptions (such as that knowledge of the truth gives you the right to make live/death decisions…). One assumption that Žižek makes here is of course this: Robespierre is indeed in possession of the truth. We’re not told what that particular truth is – but it certainly cannot  be a factual truth of any kind. Such factual truth can’t tell you what to do but only gives you the likelihood of what will happen if you act this way or that. This here is anormative truth, a moral truth. A truth only to be had in theology as formulated, say, in Catholic dogma… or in CP doctrine. Truth that cannot, due to its roots in God or Marx/Engels/Lenin, be doubted. Truth that doesn’t even need to be argued for because isn’t it obvious? Truth only the stupid and evil don’t see – as George Orwell acutely observed in his 1946 essay The Prevention of Literature:

‘The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that “the truth” has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of “the truth” and merely resists it out of selfish motives.’ (Orwell 1960: 162)

But, as Catholicism and Communism coexist: who’s got the true truth? In fact, “the truth” here is simply that: what people endorsed by Žižek as in the line of prophets decide it is. In this case: Robespierre’s truth of the anti-monarchist Republic (as opposed to the truth of the monarch by God’s grace). Now how does one make sure that nobody spots the logical error? Direct the audience to easy-listening analogies. Robespierre is a bit difficult to sell: we’re not tempted to side with the ancien régime, but there’s little understanding to be had for the Great Terror either. Same applies to Lenin – no sympathies for the Czar, but neither much understanding for the terror of the Cheka either.

So he quotes an example liberal/humanist democrats can hardly argue with: the French Resistance against German occupation. This, too, he says, is an instance of enlightened truth over majority will, because:

Before we dismiss these lines as “totalitarian,” let us recall a later time when the French patrie was again en danger, in 1940, when none other than General de Gaulle, in his famous radio address from London, announced to the French people the “strong truth”: France is defeated, but the war is not over; against the Pétainist collaborators, the struggle goes on. The exact conditions of this statement are worth recalling: even Jacques Duclos, second in command of the French Communist Party, admitted in a private conversation that, had free elections been held at the time, Marshal Pétain would have won with 90 percent of the votes. (Žižek 2011)

The way this is presented as just another case of the rule of an enlightened minority is breath taking. First of all: the Girondiste proposal was one in which the Republic applies the achievement it has made: democracy. The Republic was not defeated – it was in charge. The Republic after German occupation is, as de Gaulle said, defeated. Democratic choice is not an available option (which is synonymous with: the Republic is defeated, which is why the victory of the Jacobins over the Girondins meant that the Republic was defeated). Even had there been a vote: it would have been a vote at gun point. Not democracy. That are the “exact conditions” of De Gaulle’s statement. Democracy has been defeated. If we want it back, we must fight for it – and then de Gaulle will face the voters (unlike Robespierre; unlike Lenin). Democracy never is established by democratic choice – as that would presuppose what is to be established. But a democratic struggle must always aim to end in democratic choice.

But even so: if you had asked the French People in a referendum whether they would have liked their democracy back or would like to continue life under occupation (as opposed to: would they like to risk their lives in fighting an unequal struggle against the Nazi war machine) – the pre-war election results and the post-war election results give you a clue which way the decision might have been going.

But there’s more.

‘Even Jacques Duclos’, Žižek says. If even this Communist leader doesn’t trust the majority of the French people (and what do Communist leaders have to fear from majority votes) – who could contradict?

The cheek to cite Duclos! Jacques Duclos “second in command of the French Communist Party” sounds very much like a partisan leader… and fair enough – he did lead the PCF in resistance. But only after under his leadership the Party shamefully tried to negotiate its legalisation with the Nazi administration – and whose Party paper L’Humanité as late as 20th June 1941 accused de Gaulle of “killing the children of France for the sake of England’ (Pike 1993: 477). You see – when France was defeated this was partly due to the fact that Nazi Germany had it calm in the east, and that was due to an understanding with Comrade Stalin over how to chop up Poland. And with Hitler and Stalin being chums – would allowing the publication of L’Huma not be an appropriate reward for loyalty? Needless to say that the negotiations came to nothing (but apparently mainly because of Petain’s hurt feelings, not the Nazis’ ill will towards the PCF) – which further testifies to the analytical powers of this crown witness. It is fascinating to see someone who is so apparently economical with the historical truth ascribing the possession of the moral truth to historical actors…

This little exercise can be repeated on every single one of Žižek’s political texts. He really isn’t that difficult to take apart. So why do so many reasonably bright young academics adore his writing as if it were final revelation? Part of the answer we already have seen: seduction. It has often been noted that Žižek writes to offend – but he also writes to please. He writes to please those who would really like to offend and he provides them with cryptic reference texts that exude dynamism and power.

Among German academic youth in the 1930s the rationalism of the socialist and liberal left had a hard time competing with the muscular, authenticity-promising and self-reassured and at once cryptic and uncomplicated philosophy of Heidegger (whom Žižek rightly ordains a place in the chain of his prophets) – a style Žižek tries to copy. As the insightful Helmuth Plessner(2003: 279f.) observed,

‘In Heidegger youth encountered a sympathetic force of extreme working optimism. A clear programme and  a clear rejection of used-up notions of psychology and epistemology.  Nothing more of Consciousness,  Representations, Freedom, Personality, Values, Culture. […] As in Böhme, Fichte, Hegel there was the enchantment of a private language which retained nothing of the smoothness, agility and wealth of allusions of the language of education.’ (Plessner 1985: 279) This peppered with a ‘bitter activism of the heroism of being unto death’ reads ‘pre-fascist philosophy – cunning, evil and reckless’ (Plessner 1985: 280)

I would claim that Žižek banks on the model of Heidegger’s and other conservative revolutionary’s success. A private language always helps (as anybody involved with 1970s academic Marxism will know) – as whenever you make an outrageous claim you can retreat onto the position that your adversaries just don’t understand you (because: how could anyone?). In his latest piece he puts in a specimen as last and unquestionable reason why (total) violence is the only way:

why does the revolutionary Truth-Event entail violence? Because it is enacted from the symptomal point (or torsion) of the social body, from the point of impossibility of the social totality—its subject is the “part of no-part” of society, those who, although they are formally part of society, are denied a proper place within it. This is society’s “point of truth,” and to assert it, the whole structure whose point of impossibility this point is must be annihilated, suspended. (Žižek 2011)

Presented as if you couldn’t possibly argue with that… Yet, if you boil this down what remains is the claim that every instance of social exclusion merits the annihilation of the excluding society. Any social struggle for equal rights, recognition etc. only makes sense as total revolutionary struggle. Put like this, it can be tested against the achievements and failures of emancipatory movements past and present. But although he associates himself with sociological enquiry, Žižek doesn’t seem to acknowledge any of its results – partial successes are the opposite of success, sell-out, system-affirming.

It is also interesting that he doesn’t feel the need to enlighten the unsuspecting reader why these are, of all things, “points of truth” – and not simply: injustices. Also: the “social totality” – what is that supposed to mean? Clearly the man thinks in terms of nations in a very Hegelian way – as carrier substances of a spirit. No wonder he can so easily use concepts like “true France” and “true Germany” (pure and good spiritual entities embodied by a few individuals as opposed to the actual nation states with their institutions, economies, public lives, armies etc.). In short, building on an impenetrably coded, “deep” theory, Žižek liberates his readers to embrace very simplistic concepts, seemingly covered by a theoretical construction the reader does not need to understand. It is pleasant reading as it comes as a release: an intellectually justified démontage of the intellect. Hannah Arendt (whose study on totalitarianism is a nuisance for any advocate of revolution for its own sake) saw this as a central element of the ‘temporary alliance between elite and the mob’ which ‘rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.’ (Arendt 1967: 333). While resting on a command of a body of highly sophisticated (though often enough misguided) theoretical literature, the various movements translated (and thereby destroyed) this into simplistic and quite obviously misguided formula:

From this viewpoint it was rather gratifying to see that Bolshevism and Nazism began even to eliminate those sources of their own ideologies which had already won some recognition in academic or other quarters. Not Marx’s dialectical materialism, but the conspiracy of 300 families; not the pompous scientificality of Gobineau and Chamberlain, but the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; not the traceable influence of the Catholic Church and the role played by anti-clericalism in Latin countries, but the backstairs literature about the Jesuits and the Freemasons became the inspiration for the rewriters of history. (Arendt 1967: 333)

You don’t need to work your way through Lacanian psychoanalysis or Hegelian Marxism to follow Žižek – he always gives you a short summary of what’s the case (and although this more often than not doesn’t make much sense in itself, one can take it reassured that it’s backed by the vast and flawless structure of his theoretical work). There is something oddly attractive in this for the bored, unrecognised, enthusiastic young academic who works their way through the ossified intellectual systems, gnawing away some dead wood out of a overelaborated and dated thicket of dogma (nowadays the legacy of the postmodernists, poststructuralists etc.) – and would like to burn the whole wood down to make space for something bold and new. And a revolutionary explosion promises just that.

Left wing radicalism – with the exception of the hedonistic elements of the post-1968 movements that already recognised that violence can be fun – normally suppresses the emotionally liberating aspect of street fighting. As Theleweit showed in his study on the 1920s Freikorps and their ideological texts, the erotic rewards of fascism constituted a competitive advantage in the struggle of the totalitarian movements during the 1920s and 1930s.

What the texts cited have most clearly demonstrated is a refusal by fascism to relinquish desire – desire in the form of a demand that “blood must flow,” desire in its most profound distortion. In the German Communist Party (KPD) desire was never seen as the producer of a better reality; that party never so much as intimated that there might be pleasure in liberation, pleasure in new connections, pleasure in the unleashing of new streams. (Theweleit 1989: 189)

Žižek quite openly works towards a closure of that gap. He frequently invokes the struggles of the impoverished who allegedly are above the squeamishness of the middle class intellectual regarding hard discipline and immediate violence. But the poor don’t buy his books. Yet he fills lecture halls with mainly young middle class academics. It’s for them that he makes violence part of the fun that being a revolutionary is. And that’s much more worrying. As Orwell says

‘The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.’ (Orwell 1960: 172f.)

References

Arendt, Hannah (1967): The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Johnson, Alan (2011): ‘Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique’, in: Global Discourse, Vol.2, No.1 at http://global-discourse.com/contents/slavoj-zizek%E2%80%99s-theory-of-revolution-a-critique-by-alan-johnson-with-reply-by-paul-bowman/

Orwell, George (1990): Coming Up for Air, London: Penguin

Orwell, George (1962): ‘The Prevention of Literature’ (1945-6), in: Inside the Whale and Other Essays, London: Penguin, pp.159-74

Pike, David Wingate (1993): ‘Between the Junes: the French Communists from the Collapse of France to the Invasion of Russia’, in: Journal of Contemporary History, Vo.28, No.3, pp.465-85

Plessner, Helmuth (1985): ‘Deutsches Philosophieren in der Epoche der Weltkriege (1953)’, in: Helmuth Plessner: Schriften zur Philosophie (Gesammelte Schriften IX), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp.263-299

Žižek, Slavoj (1999): ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’, in: New Left Review, I/238

Žižek, Slavoj (2011): ‘The Jacobin Spirit’, in: Jacobin, No.3,http://jacobinmag.com/summer-2011/the-jacobin-spirit/

PS (25th July 2011)

Of course Žižek’s rhetorics don’t find favour all across the radical left – and I guess being involved, like these anarcho-syndicalists, with actual struggles around living conditions, dignity and self-determination etc. immunises against the intellectualist lure of the totalitarian world… http://ideasandaction.info/2011/04/zizek%E2%80%99s-jacobin-spirit/

PPS (10th September 2011)

In the meantime Jacobin Spirit has given Alan Johnson a space to reply to Žižek – a sound rejection of Linksfaschismus and a strong warning of “the power of nonsense”http://jacobinmag.com/summer-2011/the-power-of-nonsense/