Re-booting Communism Or Slavoj Zizek and the End of Philosophy – I

Zizek - the postmodern Lenin?
Zizek - the postmodern Lenin?

Today, 13 March, a whole galaxy of philosophers and theorists got together for a three-day conference “On The Idea of Communism” under the auspices of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London University. The Conference opened to a jam-packed hall where all tickets had sold out (no jokes, this was a ticketed show where the likes of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jean Luc-Nancy, Toni Negri, Jacques Ranciere, Terry Eagleton and many many others are to perform on the ‘idea of communism’). The huge Logan hall with a capacity of about 800-900 was so packed that the organizers had made arrangements for video streaming in another neighbouring hall – and that too was half full! Very encouraging in these bleak days.

The conference began in the afternoon with brief opening remarks by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. Badiou made his general point (see below) about the continuing relevance of the ‘communist hypothesis’. Staid and philosopherly. And then, Zizek. Clearly, in the five brief minutes he spoke, he was the star – a rock star playing to the gallery and the gallery responding to him as it would to Michael Jackson (who, one of the organizers said was being given a run for his money by the communist conference, or so the Guardian said!). As a matter of fact Zizek and his audience seemed already tied in a bond of performing for each other. This once post-marxist but now relapsed marxist philosopher-theorist thundered, gesticulating with every word he spoke: “We must resist the temptation to act. We must refuse being told that children are dying of hunger in Africa or in the slums of India, for this is the philosophy of the present times. They don’t want us to think.” And he went on, amidst cheers from a hysterical audience, “We must do, you must do what Lenin did in 1915, after the war broke out, after th failure of  the Social Democratic parties. He went to the library and started to read Hegel’s Logic. And this conference should be our moment of reading Hegel’s Logic. How much polemic is compressed in this one statement was of course evident only to Zizek followers, for he was not just making the simple point about reading and thinking as opposed to mindless ‘doing’ that is the mantra of our times; he was also polemicizing against all kinds of anti-Hegelians: Althusserians, postmarxists like Laclau and Mouffe, poststructuralists, Deleuzians and so on.

The background to the conference  is an ongoing exchange between Alain Badiou and Zizek on the idea of communism. Badiou’s piece which kickstarted this debate appeared in the New Left Review shortly after Sarkozy’s electoral victory in France. In itself a very ordinary piece, it seems to have quickly become a major reference point for Left-wing discussions as it argued – courageously in this day and age – for the continued relevance of the communist idea.  Badiou argued in this piece that Communism (or what he calls the communist hypothesis whose history stretches from the revolt of Spartacus to the present) was still relevant today. It was relevant however as a regulative ideal, not as a programme and that many of its earlier beliefs (like the party-form) had become redundant. Enter, at this point, the priest of Ljubliana, the new postmodern Stalin. Zizek, it may be recalled, rapidly reinvented himself after his initial post-marxist forays into theory. He took up cudgels on behalf of Marxism and revolution, claimed to ‘repeat Lenin’ and unabashedly claimed that the Truth of Marxism is only visible from the truly proletarian standpoint! Lest I be misunderstood, I quote here from the man himself: “Lenin’s wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided.” This could well be said of Islam or Hindutva – that its ‘universal truth’ can only be articulated or grasped through the partisan standpoint of the believer. And this is merely one of the many such statements that Zizek has made including his infamous ‘plea for Leninist intolerance’.

How could this Zizek accept the mild philosopherli-ness of Badiou’s position? So, he entered into a debate with Badiou. Communism as a mere horizon, without a programme? Isn’t this a mere Kantian regulative ideal? Truth to tell, Badiou’s piece itself is pretty orthodox, philosophically speaking, but Professor Zizek would have none of that. Communism is a programme, he had proclaimed. And the backdrop for the present conference was set up.

Today’s sessions had three presentations: Michael Hardt of Empire and Multitude fame, Bruno Bosteels, editor of Diacritics and Peter Hallward. Hardt’s presentsation was the only one that actually dealt with the ‘real world’ of contemporary capitalism and spoke about the new conflicts between two forms of property – material and scarce property versus immaterial and reproducible property. Hardt argued that some passages in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts also talk about conflict between two forms of property – immobile like land versus the new capitalist property embodied in the commodity form. He underlined the need to understand the political econ0my dimensions of contemporary transformations as also to recognize how capitalism was once again bringing forth its own ‘grave-diggers’. For an otherwise sophisticated presentation, it was strange that Hardt did not find it necessary to even refer to what happened to the earlier grave-diggers and whose grave was eventually dug! Partly this was the consequence of the atmosphere that prevailed there in a mehfil of the faithful.

Other presentations were disappointing. Bruno Bosteel’s because it was an orthodox restatement of the marxist-leninist position, despite repeated gestures to philosphers’ like Delueze, Agamben or Foucault. Peter Hallward’s entire presentation was fixated on the experience of the French revolution and Rousseau, Saint-Just and the Jacobins.  At the end of the day, one marvelled at this discussion on communism in the twenty-first century which could conduct itself entirely with reference to a certain textual tradition and a certain European history. The idea of communism, if it has to have any relevance at all, can hardly be elaborated without reference to the ‘real movements’ of our times. The conference also displayed virtually no awareness of the fact that in our times, issues were much more complicated than mere capital-labour conflicts. Take for instance the new Left wing formations in South America where the indigenous leadership has led the re-emergence of the Left, representing interests of indigenous people, cocoa growers and on issues such as water privatization. Islam and Empire constitute yet another pole of the contemporary which was far away from the minds of both the speakers and the audience who asked questions (except one questioner). At which point I turned to take a look at the composition of the audience. Not one black in the audience. Some sprinkling of East Asians (four of five) and some South Asians in similar numbers.

The question then: Does this composition say something about the direction in which our thought is going? Does the radicalism of the white liberal have anything to offer to the non-white? Some years ago I had heard Alain Badiou speak in Princeton. There the audience was not communist. And it was not a ticketed show but free. There were Palestinians, north Africans and many others in the hall and Cornell West on the dias. Badiou, the French radical philosopher found himself beseiged after his talk  – during the question answer session. Badiou had spoken grandly of why “9/11 was not an Event because it did not enunciate anything new” – a particularly Badiouan notion of event this. Half an hour into his talk, he was smuggling in old universalisms into his exposition, representing 9/11 as Evil. A woman student, possibly Palestinian, got up to ask him why then was Osama bin Laden considered a hero among a large number of people across the world. (By the way, I had been told just a few days ago by Sinclair Thomson of New York University, who had just returned from Bolivia that pictures of bin Laden and Che Guevara could be seen together in many places in the Bolivian capital.) Badiou, ably assisted by Cornell West tried in vain to answer her,  giving rise to more and more questions in the process till someone asked: “What then does your universalism say regarding this complete lack of ability to understand the other?”

No such questioning or interrogation was possible today. It was a comfortable gathering of similar people – brought up in the same traditions. The only other person who was to attend but was not allowed to because he had a single-entry visa in the US (so Zizek informed the audience) was Wang Hui from China. One wonders however, what a single token presence of Wang Hui could have done to the direction of the conference. (Jean Luc Nancy could not eventually attend as he was unwell.)

At the end of the first day, it already seems that for all the sophisticated philosophical language that was being used, most participants simply wanted to re-boot the machine – as though it was just an initialization problem! Maybe the software itself needs rewriting? That thought seems far from most people gathered for the conference.

31 thoughts on “Re-booting Communism Or Slavoj Zizek and the End of Philosophy – I”

  1. Really interesting and useful account, thank you!
    I was sitting at home regretting missing out. It sounds a little less essential than I thought, but still really interesting. If you manage to blog today also I’d be really grateful for one! Cheers


  2. Thanks, great write-up, great blog. Much appreciated. Please excuse me for taking something out of its context, but could you elaborate on this question further;

    “Does the radicalism of the white liberal have anything to offer to the non-white?”


  3. Hi Henry,
    Thanks for your comment. I think this sentence should be read contextually. The thing is this: We have all learnt our marxism and radical theory from the West – initially via Russia and Lenin but also more directly. And it certainly had its importance. At some point however, things began to diverge and we have yet to come to terms with that. The non-white, non-western world was also the world outside capitalism and modernity, in a sense. That theory had to undergo major transformations if it had to be able to speak to that experience – everything that western radicals (marxism included, and Zizek’s statements in the conference are a perfect example) had to say was and could only be experienced as a Lack by us. Our modernity was deficient, our capitalism was retarded and therefore our proletarian was still marked with the reactionary ‘petty bourgeois’ stamp of the peasantry. We were condemned to live in the perpetual past. What Evo Morales’ statement (see my subsequent post) pointed to and what Zizek in his wisdom ridiculed, was the simple fact that our lives are not simply constituted by negativity. We emphatically do not live in the past. This is our present. Marx’s discussions of the Russian peasant communes and the well known episode of his letter to Vera Zasulich underlined this aspect. Marx was able to see that all of ‘mother earth’ did not have to become capitalist private property for socialism to be possible. That the spirit of the commune, in fact, represented something very vital that was lost in the complete victory of the figure of the possessive individual.
    In India we have had for over two decades now, a major debate on secularism that shows that – and it is now widely accepted – our secularism far from being a ‘lack’ actually has much greater resilience in terms of living in diversity and plurality (even if that secularism may not remain classical secularism anymore).
    To cut a long story short, Evo Morales, Chiapas or the struggles in India and Nepal, indeed elsewhere, show that we might better be able to theorize our present predicament only if we disentangle from the ‘radicalism of the white liberal’ (which is but a short hand expression). We might then be able to see that for instance in the context of the ecological crisis, we still have an advantage. We can move towards a more ecologically sustainable and equitable system by building what we have not yet destroyed. I do not know whether this brief comment makes any sense. It is just an attempt to compress too much into a couple of paragraphs:)


  4. Again, thankyou for your response. I appreciate the constrictions of this format for conveying such complex ideas, so I think you did rather well here ;)

    You (and I assume ‘you’ mean to be representative of the ‘non-white’, ‘non-western’ world here) are in theoretically the greener fields of the other side. As such I can only wish you good luck and say I have every faith in you. BUT, let us hope for collusion in the future.


  5. Henry, I do not ‘represent’ anybody. It is once again the difficulty of this format that I used the shorthand ‘we’ (for the non-west). But we (you and i) do collude in different forums: WSF was one of them but many others like antiwar rallies and so on. All that I have said is simply to say that theoretically, we must cease to be apprentices…That fault has been ours. The very specific point in that sentence quoted byyou also referred to the exchange in the Princeton meeting: mere assertion of universalism was of little use in understanding the highly overdetermined Palestine situation and left the questioners to Badiou puzzled and wanting. Towards more collusion, then…


  6. given aditya nigam’s visceral hatred for communist thought, one wonders what he was doing at a meeting on “On The Idea of Communism”. may be the spectre of communism still haunts him ;-) nigam dwells only in the theoretical confines of delhi, without any contact with indian reality. we hope he continues his travels to far and away !


  7. Lalonfakir, given that you are a baul, immersed in the bhakti of God, one wonders what you do reading Kafila! Reading such blasphemous/ anticommunist stuff will soil your pure heart.
    And by the way, arguments should be met with arguments. Do make one if you have one.


  8. why does mr nigam want people of colour in the audience? he is missing the precise point about the universal. is he trying to marry post-colonialism with liberal multi culturalism?


  9. Thank you for this witty and informative summary, which, together with your second post, is the best thing which I’ve read on the conference. I am also very happy to have found this blog as a result of it.


  10. Let me say something else while I’m here as well. A question, really, more then a comment, and not a question that I am sure I know the answer to. Imagine you are an activist, who desires to instrument certain changes in political structures, the way a society functions. What is your first step, what do you do? And what is the role of philosophy, theory, and labels, in what you do?

    Let’s say you armed, for example, with the concepts that Zizek and Badiou and the others at Birkbeck have given you. And not only the concepts, but also the manners and stances, the positions and takes, the demeanors and attitudes, which also themselves confer certain ways of thinking about politics, how it does, about political change, how it is achieved. What is your first step, what do you do? Where do you focus your energies?

    The critique of this conference – and not only this conference – that I see, and which I read from your reports, is that it is not really equipping people for understanding the true contours of their situations, for understanding how to negotiate with those situations, in order to change those situations.

    It seems sterile to me, more to do with bulwarking patterns of militant self-regard then activating lines of flight (Deleuze) or opening up productive avenues for exploration and negotiation – avenues that seem to me to require a profound local knowledge, and the tools for interpreting that knowledge, rather than gigantic abstractions and banners, or the semantic politics of the academy… This is my understanding, which is doubtless very flawed and partial.


  11. stereogramm22, I entirely agree with your comment. I think you have reallly hit the nail on the head. Though I would not agree with one point implicit here – a suggestion that the activist world is in some ways better equipped to understand the real situation than is intellectual activity (if ‘academic’ stands in for that). If on the other hand, ‘academic’ really means the highly professionalized domain of the academy with all its demands – then I do agree with you; that can sometimes become really pointless:)


  12. The term “academic”, as I understand it, means the professional academy… I certainly agree that intellectual activity (use of brain) in general is clearly very important to performing any activity…

    Whether there is in fact a “world” of activists or activism I think is open to question… But there is, I think, a world of academic militancy, governed by its own passwords and protocols, shibboleths and games…

    What I resist is the idea that the figure of the Intellectual, patterned after someone like Sartre, should be recognized as the rightful director of political activism, and its ultimate reference point.

    On these terms, I’m very interested in Gandhi, who I’m sure you know much more about than me, but who seemed to me to have a very different, and indeed, very effective approach…


  13. Further: Zizek on the Today Program:…00/7954680.stm

    He strikes me as talking some sense here. He says that the crisis of capitalism is also a “moment of truth” for the left.

    I am tempted to say that the best thing to come out of this crisis might be the dissolution of both the Left and the Right, which both seem to me both anachronistic and narrow (the terms come originally from the seating plan for the French revolutionary assembly) and increasingly senseless concepts, given the complexity of the contemporary political environment.

    The idea of the “the idea of communism” was probably in the end to try and figure out what the Left still stood for… But from the reports which I’ve read, it seems that the truth is, that it stands for nothing – and that this very term “left” might now need to be sacrificed (in the spirit of total dialectical irony – read Hegel, says Zizek) to allow for some new political possibilities to emerge…


  14. Once again, I agree broadly. Except that the meanings of these terms have now acquired a kind of valence that is sometimes useful – though very often not. Many kinds of politics in contemporary India would be difficult to put in either the Left or the Right slot (say, Dalit politics which is truly beyond Left and Right).:)


  15. “Except that the meanings of these terms have now acquired a kind of valence” –

    Exactly! Valences distributed along the lines: Good/Evil (The Left looks at the Right) or Realist/Naive (The Right looks at the Left) and other misleading moralizations…


  16. Many kinds of politics in contemporary India would be difficult to put in either the Left or the Right slot (say, Dalit politics which is truly beyond Left and Right).:)
    I’m afraid this is another way of saying that dalit politics is not sufficiently qualified to fit into the left agenda..means it is still kept at the fringe , outside the elitist and brahmanical- leftist discourse on liberation. If it were otherwise, it would have automatically been part of the Marxist/Left discourse in India! Describing it as something beyond Left and Right is definitely a discredited representation of dalit politics casting it far away from the main stream of the domain of political discourse..Dalit politics starts from the Ambedkarite critique of Hinduism and it is very much part of progressive leftist discourse..on the contrary, it has nothing to do with the right, except by way of facing the brutalities of non socialist brahmanism mostly ogether with that of the “socialist” brahmanism.
    Dalit politics cannot be reduced to the present day realpolitiking of BSP delikning with its left traditions of anti-caste and reformist struggles in howsoever little ways.


  17. Venugopalan,
    Our desires are one thing and real, actual politics is another – and it depends on what you mean by ‘Left’. Was it such a comfortable inhabitation of the Left by Dalit politics (and I mean not individual intellectuals)? After all, we have to recognize that BSP is single-handedly responsible for bringing Dalit politics into the ‘cognitive map’ of Leftists. And yet, Leftists are so embarrassed at the mention of BSP that they do not want to ‘reduce’ Dalit politics to BSP. We also have to ask why most intellectuals who have had an earlier Leftist past have had to abandon it to stake out a Dalit political position: Udit Raj (formerly SFI), Chandrabhan Prasad (CPI-ML groups), Kancha Ilaiah (ditto), Ashok Bharti, Rajni Tilak (CPI-ML party unity) and so on.
    But even apart from this purely empirical response, one might wager that Dalit politics is a rejection of class politics – which I presume, is one of the ways you will define Left politics, won’t you? At least the Old Left. So please do not impute to me the desire to keep Dalits out of ‘Left’; I am merely recognizing a part of our contemporary reality.


  18. Dear Aditya Nigam,
    Your characterisation of dalit politics reiterated or even before that, I didn’t mean anything like personal motivation to exclude dalits.
    It is part of experience of many a non dalit empathizer of dalit movement , being accused of ‘co-opting’/hijacking the dalit agenda. Here, on the contrary,one gets a feeling of being blamed for delinking dalit politics from the Left!
    My point here however, was about attempting to go beyond the mutually exclusive ways in which the authentic spokespersons of dalits / leftists negotiate the political times and spaces.
    If we can see forces of Left and Right arrayed on each side of neo-liberalist and global capitalism elsewhere, what is so exceptional here? If caste continues as so exceptional a phenomenon in India, it only means that the Left has not properly addressed the socio-economic ramifications of caste and the “real left” would sooner or later be largely emerging from dalit politics , displacing the brahmanical caricatures of both left and dalit, and defying the twin institutions of caste and gender appended to Hindu-ism / brahmanism in a peculiar way.
    Mayavati’s recent sarvajan shift might be a softer bargain for power but it still leaves behind many a struggle for self respect waged by the rural poor (largely dalits) plus women belonging to all castes (whom Gita and other scriptures of Hindu had categorically kept out of power.


  19. Dear Venugopalan, Apologies for having misunderstood your comment. I entirely agree with what you say. Also with your implicit critique of Mayawati’s current stance…


  20. zizek is coming to our keralaon this jan 9th/..dear is too easy to make an arguement.from other’s positions..and iam no doing that/ leave zizek./your reference to ‘grave diggers’ is your strong point/.. The’desiaribility” of a particular path of social transformation-maoist,,gandhian,,castroist..classical leninist-..some re thinking has to be done on this/ revolution wins..with its own gravediggers? Can we substitute ‘failed revolutions.with” actually exsisting” movements.?. Some ‘weak, mild marxism is the need of the hour. Some pleasant version…without throwing angry epithets against others.. Paul hirst when questioned about his change’frm althusserism’uttered”facts changed”..hirst.derrida?althuser.deluize’levinas?satre,charu majumdar/ everyone who influenced me..left this wretched earth!yes, no clarity here on changed situation..stalin once proclaimed.. ”Clarity the fore most thing” and lakhs decayed in gulags! So keep your chin up with your ambiguities..luv &regards joy


  21. I agree with you tnjoyi on most of what you say. But I celebrate the fact that all the father figures are dead and gone. At last, may be, we will be forced to think for ourselves. And yes, I also fully agree with you that some kind of Left (I suppose that is what you mean by some form of ‘weak, mild marxism) is the need of the hour. In fact, a strong Left intervention is required but my submission is that Zizek is a far cry from that for he has simply put an end to every bit of re-examination of 20th century experience of socialism/marxism that was hesitatingly going on. More importantly, on certain key issues that concern us in the third world, his ‘leftist pleas for Eurocentrism’ or defense of the Christian ideal make no sense whatsoever. What if you are neither European or Christian? I am sure you will agree that we need to work strenuously to develop our own critiques and theories – indeed our own marxisms.:)


  22. Aditya ,

    Shall try to be there tomorrow at Stein . Hope the program still stands.
    In my view , the questions that should be asked are more basic:
    1. Why at all Marxism ? OR socialism for that matter?Is it just a reaction to the inequities and injustices of Capitalism or it possesses intinsic strengths?
    2. If so, what are these? Why did the God fail?
    3. Has he thought of a 3rd path – a path arising out of a typically partisan viewpoint rooted in concrete realities , not an Absolute Truth as Christian theologists masquerading as Marxists would want us to believe?


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