The Žižekian Counter-Revolution

[Slovenian Lacanian-Marxist-Hegelian philosopher and cultural theorist, Slavoj Žižek is visiting India currently and will be delivering a few lectures here. This post is prompted by his visit. Interested Delhi-ites can catch him speak on

4 Jan 2010. 5 p.m. on
“Ideology in the Post-ideological World: The Case of Hollywood”
at Sarai-CSDS. 29 Rajpur Road, Civil Lines, Delhi
5 Jan 2010. 7 p.m.
“Tragedy and Farce”
Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi]

imaaN mujhe roke hai jo khiNche hai mujhe kufr
ka’aba mere peeche hai kaleesa mere aage

[Faith holds me back when infidelity beckons/
Behind me, the Kaaba; before me, the Church]

It is difficult to miss the immense subversiveness of the  dilemma encapsulated in Ghalib’s couplet above.  This dilemma of the believer is produced by the constant threat of corruption – the Kaaba behind the believing Muslim holds him back from indulging in, or falling prey to, the infidelities and temptations that always lie in wait.

Substitute Marxism for Kaaba  and ‘postmodernism’ for Church, and you have the perfect Žižekian incarnation of this classic Ghalibian dilemma: Not quite at home in the Faith (Lacan, jouissance, surplus-enjoyment, the Real…) and yet, not able to leave it either, for the fear of what might befall one deserting the Order. Faith is the anchor that holds one back from committing all kinds of blasphemies. Nevertheless, the seductions of infidelity force our philosopher to turn for sustenance precisely to the philosophers and ideas he mistrusts: unlike most members of the Marxist faith, he repeatedly returns to Nietzsche, Heidegger, to Derrida, Foucault, Laclau and Deleuze. He takes over their language and makes himself at home in it. Is there a hidden jouissance in thus frequenting this forbidden territory?

Thus he can in one breath defend the entire heritage of Marxism (from the 1917 October revolution to ‘revolutionary terror’), and at the same time claim that the attempts to trace the moment of the Fall (the Late Engels, Lenin’s deviation from the classical path, Stalin’s perversities and so on) must be rejected: ‘the Fall is to be inscribed in the very origins’ (Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes Verso 2008: 175).

Some years ago, Slavoj Zizek wrote a series of essays advocating a passionate ‘return to Lenin’ and a ‘reassertion of the politics of Truth’ [Slavoj Zizek (2001), ‘Repeating Lenin’ and Zizek (2002) ‘Can Lenin Tell Us About Freedom Today?’]. He set up his argument in opposition to those who ‘dismiss the politics of Truth’ as ‘totalitarian’ and argued for the need to ‘break out of the deadlock’ created by the post-Marxist and postmodernist endeavour to ‘relegate politics to the domain of doxa.’ The breaking out of this deadlock, he argued, must involve the reassertion of the ‘politics of Truth’ and must take the form of a return to Lenin (2001:1). He has since then, continued his journey along this path with ever-growing zeal, defending  ‘totalitarianism’ or what is just another name for it, ‘revolutionary terror’, often with its proper name – the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.  In more recent work (Zizek 2008) he moves his defense of these themes into the sublime:

‘anti-totalitarian thought appears in all its misery as what it really is, a worthless sophistic exercise, a pseudo-theorization of the lowest opportunist survivalist fears and instincts, a way of thinking that is not only reactionary but also reactive in Nietzsche’s sense of the term.’ (2008: 4).

And in case anyone misses the ‘true meaning’ of this claim, let me underline that the reference to ‘lowest opportunist fears’ and reactive politics is a direct reference to so-called ‘identity politics’ – race, caste religion and so on.  Thus he says:

‘In contrast to this approach, Badiou and others insist [and Zizek wholeheartedly endorses] on the fidelity to the One which emerges and is constituted through the very political struggle of/for naming and, as such, cannot be grounded in any particular determinate content (such as ethnic or religious roots)’ (Ibid: 5).

Any careful reader of Zizek’s can see that the insistence on ‘fidelity to the One’ is an insistence on the Universal – One that emerges from a global, overdetermining struggle that subsumes every other struggle, namely the struggle against Capital. Thus he claims that

‘This book [2008] is unashamedly committed to the “Messianic” standpoint of universal emancipation. No wonder then, that to the partisans of the “postmodern” doxa the list of lost Causes defended here must appear as a horror show of their worst nightmares…’ among which he includes ‘the revolutionary terror from Robespierre to Mao; Stalinism; the dictatorship of the proletariat…’ (Ibid: 6)

Before our very own partisans of the Universal start rejoicing at the emergence of this new Messiah who has descended to destroy all the pagan worshipers of particularity, it is worth pointing out that Zizek openly gives specific content to this ‘One’ – the Christian ideal [The Fragile Absolute – or, why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For? Verso 2000] on the one hand and Eurocentrism[‘A Leftist Plea for ‘Eurocentrism’] on the other. Thus he claims:

‘Yes, there is a direct lineage from Christianity to Marxism; yes, Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onsalught of new spiritualisms – the authentic Christian legacy is much too precious to be left to the fundamentalist freaks’ (2000: 2).

What is left in this Marxism then, for those pagans who populate large parts of the Afro-Asian world, or for those in the Muslim world is not a matter of concern to our philosopher. Slavoj Zizek thus emerges before us as the new Messiah calling for a new Crusade against infidels.

So for instance, the Christian Marxist Messiah expresses his profound discomfort with what he calls Mao Tsetung’s  ‘pagan’ insistence on struggles, splits and divisions. This is how he reads Mao:

‘One should be very precise in diagnosing, at the very abstract level of theory, where Mao was right and where he was wrong. Mao was right in rejecting the standard notion of “dialectical synthesis” as the “reconciliation” of the opposites, as a higher unity which encompasses their struggle; he was wrong in formulating this rejection, this insistence on the  priority of struggle, of division, over every synthesis or unity, in terms of general cosmology – the ontology of the “eternal struggle of opposites” –  this is why he got caught up in the simplistic, properly non-dialectical, notion of the “bad infinity” of struggle. Mao clearly regresses here to primitive pagan “wisdoms” on how every creature, every determinate form of life, sooner or later meets its end…'(2008: 185)

To Zizek, the significance of Lenin lies in his ‘unconditional will to intervene in the situation’, not – as he puts it – in the pragmatic sense of ‘adjusting theory’ to reality but by ‘adopting the unequivocal radical position’ [note the definite article] from which alone, he argues, it is ‘possible to intervene in a way that it changes the coordinates of the situation’ itself (2001:2). Zizek in fact claims that ‘freedom is “actual” precisely and only as the capacity to “transcend” the coordinates of a given situation…that is, to redefine the very situation within which one is active’ (2001:3).

Zizek’s insistence on the ‘revolutionary’ will to intervene and the will to change the coordinates of a given situation may seem to provide a much needed corrective in today’s world, where radical politics has been gripped by a fatalistic frame of mind, always having to choose the ‘lesser evil’ in any given situation, or simply acting in a pragmatic way. This is a frame of mind that is evident on the Old Left, practically all across the world – and India is no exception. The Old Left’s responses to globalization, for example, or its relationship to the social struggles of the last two decades amply illustrate this frame of mind. The need to recover the radical impulse of Leninist practice therefore cannot be overstated in such a situation. I have on earlier occasions critiqued certain aspects of Lenin’s politics, namely his vanguardism and the totalitarian implications of his interventions but that should not detract from an appreciation of some other aspects of his life-work. Lenin’s sense of politics as deeply contingent and conjunctural, his emphasis therefore, on what he called the ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ – all these are aspects that have much to tell us about ‘the political’ as such.

However, there are two problems in the way Zizek proceeds to recuperate this impulse. First, as a reading of Zizek’s essays and subsequent writings will show, his entire argument is predicated upon the absolutization of a certain reading of Lenin in revolutionary times, torn from all historical-political context. In saying this, I am not suggesting that Lenin should always and only be read in his context. Rather, my point is that Zizek abstracts Lenin from all historico-political context and from politics as such. Moments of apocalyptic revolutionary ruptures that take shape around specific constellations of global and national forces, we know, are extremely rare in history. For the most part, there are dispersed logics at play, rarely fusing into that explosive, countrywide – or worldwide – unity that becomes the occasion for a revolutionary intervention of the kind that Zizek talks of. In such contexts, this ‘Zizekian-Leninist’ imagination simply does not work.

As a matter of fact, Zizek really misses the whole point of the Leninist ‘will to intervene’ itself: Lenin repeatedly points out that revolutionaries cannot simply call a revolutionary situation into existence or create it out of nothing; they must always act upon a given situation. We need only recall Lenin’s assertion in the context of the collapse of the Second International that ‘to the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation’ and that not every revolutionary situation need lead to a revolution (‘The Collapse of the Second International’, Collected Works, Vol. 21, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p. 213). One of the critical conditions for a revolutionary situation to arise, in Lenin’s view, is that of a ‘considerable increase in the activity of the masses’ as a consequence of which they are drawn into ‘independent historical action’ (Ibid: 214). Lenin implicitly makes a distinction here, between a revolutionary situation and a non-revolutionary situation. And we know that a Leninist intervention is predicated upon a certain specific kind of configuration of forces and antagonisms, called ‘overdetermination’ by Althusser, where different conflicts coalesce into an explosive unity. We also know that Lenin’s own response after the defeat of the 1905 revolution and especially after 1908, was to wait for the ‘new revolutionary upsurge’.

Second, more fundamentally, the legacy of Lenin itself needs to be considered afresh today – both in terms of its relevance for the present and in relation to the fate of ‘actually existing socialist’ societies. Zizek confronts neither. Surely the political practice of the communist movement has revealed suffcient reason for the understanding that the ‘politics of Truth’ that he identifies with Lenin, leads to totalitarianism. The ontological and epistemological privilege – in relation to access to the Truth – granted to the ‘working class’ in the Marxist tradition, and its transference to the ‘vanguard’ in the Leninist schema, has been discussed often enough. It has been convincingly shown to lead to an authoritarian, if not totalitarian mind-set. (We have seen it happen repeatedly in practice, even in India, even within a largely democratic set-up). Within the history of Marxism, there is clearly a larger body of work – and other political currents – that make a strong critique of the vanguardism of the Leninist framework. These range from Rosa Luxembourg to council communism. Lenin and Leninism constituted only one tendency within the history of marxism and the radical Left. It was a tendency that was responsible, eventually, for destroying all  heresies and heterodox voices critical of the ‘Church’. And all these tendencies existed long before anybody had even dreamt of some demon called ‘postmodernism’. To attribute all internal critical, heterodox tendencies within marxism to postmodernism is to refuse to face the fact that the defeat of 20th century marxism was not the outcome of any conspiracy; it is to refuse to face up to the fact that it was its own infirmities that led to its collapse.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Soviet socialism, one of the important things that happened, if haltingly and hesitatingly, was an attempt to cast a fresh look at the entire history of marxism and communism. Even within the most hidebound sections of the Left, there was an attempt to acknowledge the immense diversity of marxist theory and practice with a relatively greater degree of openness – though not always to the degree one would have liked to see. The sum and substance of Zizek’s intervention has been to institute a counter-revolution in Marxist thinking that was in the process of a renewal of the radical emancipatory project.

The Zizekian intervention seeks to put an end to all questioning and doubts and institute in their place a Messianism that directs all its critque outwards.

And why not? After all, his declared model is the Church and St Paul. This is a point that Zizek makes repeatedly: his understanding of Marxism’s history is modelled on his reading of the history of Christianity where Lenin is to Marx what St Paul was to Christ, for it was they who gave institutional form to their ideas. His open and unabashed ‘defense of the Christian ideal’ and Eurocentrism, goes hand in hand with his defense of Lenin. Lenin, in Zizek’s hands, is truly the banner of a counter-revolution that seeks to put a stop to all attempts to re-examine the history of marxism on the one hand and to clamp down on whatever postcolonial theory since Edward Said has managed to achieve, by way of disturbing/ challenging the hegemony of Western/ European thought. Indeed, he has also lately been working overtime to rid the white European Left of all ‘guilt’ by vigorously arguing that s/he should ‘unashamedly’ swear by Marx’s early writings on India [‘British Rule in India’ and ‘Future Results of British Rule in India’ (1853)] where Marx notoriously described colonialism as the ‘unconscious tool of history’. This he does by completely disregarding that other episode in Marx’s engagement with the East – his study of the peasant communes in Russia and his Ethnological Notebooks. In other words, even in relation to Marx’s own intellectual development, Zizek intervenes in a counter-revolutionary fashion, restoring to Marx his earlier Eurocentric self, ironing out all the ambiguities, doubts, confusions and quests and replacing them by one single, self-serving narrative that is meant to salvage the European Leftist of from his/her bad conscience.

For the time being let us bracket the larger philosophical question of the vantage point from where Truth becomes available – if there is one at all, that is. Zizek fails to even ask the necessary political questions about the totalitarianism of the former socialist states. One can certainly pick out phrases and statements by him condemning Stalinism and its perversities but neither he, nor his friend-philosopher Alain Badiou, care to tell us how their own advocacy of ‘revolutionary terror’ is any different from Stalinism.

In relation to the relevance of Lenin’s legacy to the present, the point that Zizek completely ignores (he is certainly not unaware of it), is that many of the responses within the Left that he criticizes are not merely born in academies; they are responses in real politics, to very real situations, and point to very fundamental antinomies of radical or Left politics in the contemporary world. There are two sets of practical questions involved here. One, that relates to the metamorphosis of revolutionary movements into reformist parties. This is a very real problem and one cannot but sympathize with Zizek when he rails against the proponents of the so-called ‘third way’ in contemporary Britain and Europe. But is it enough, today, to simply bemoan the fading away of the revolutionary dream?  Isn’t it necessary to ask why all revolutionary/radical currents are continuously haunted by the inevitable threat of ‘reformism’? Witness the pathos of contemporary communist and marxist parties which are arduously engaged in ‘building capitalism’ – from People’s Republic of China and Vietnam to West Bengal in India. Must revolutionary/radical movements always choose between the option of becoming reformist bourgeois institutions on the one hand, and remaining marginal revolutionary sects akin to the Anabaptists awaiting their millennium, on the other?

The other set of questions of course, are those that relate to the explosion of what is disparagingly called ‘identity politics’ by marxists and by Zizek – feminism, anti-racism, Dalit politics, movements of sexual minorities.

It is mere self-delusion to believe that either so-called identity politics or the ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ is a fiction invented in the academy by a Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida or a Laclau. Postmodernism, at best, names a critical symptom of our times and to credit it with inventing it is to really ‘miss the point’ (to use a Zizekism).  The exhaustion of the great narratives of emancipation of modernity and the emergence of anxieties around identity are very real issues in the contemporary world. The collapse of socialism too, we might do well to remember, was not orchestrated in the French academy but has its roots in the real practice of politics. The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is whether all this has any relationship to the very theory and politics of the Marxist Left.  How can we then return to Lenin without asking any questions about the actual fate of that ‘politics of Truth’ and its totalitarian implications? There is of course, another question lurking here: was the break with bourgeois politics inaugurated by Leninism, really a break in any fundamental sense? Was there any serious attempt either to rethink the entire question of new socialist institutions, or was there eventually, a surrender to the fundamental premises of bourgeois society, as seen for instance in the institution of one-‘man’ management in industry, in the primacy of the productivist imagination, and so on? Did the ‘utopian spark of Lenin’ that Zizek talks of manage to hold out against his cold realist sense? In retrospect, was not Lenin’s failure to think through new forms, a consequence of the fact that his and his comrades’ minds were set solely on the capture and retention of state power?

Zizek does not leave room for any doubt that despite his protestations to the contrary, he is resurrecting some old Leninist themes, though in a peculiarly metaphysical fashion. This is not in itself surprising given his fascination with Hegel. Even though he claims that ‘to repeat Lenin does not mean a return to Lenin’ but ‘to accept that Lenin is dead, that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it that is worth saving’ – it is precisely what he does not do.  Lenin today, says Zizek, seems like a figure from another time, that his notions belong to an epoch to which we can no longer relate. Having said this, his poser to us is remarkable: ‘What if our impenetrability of Lenin is a sign that there is something wrong with our epoch? What if the fact that we experience Lenin as irrelevant, ‘out of sync’ with our postmodern times, imparts the much more unsettling message that our time itself is ‘out of sync’…?”  Who can miss the clear attempt to deify Lenin here and assign to him a relevance beyond all times? The recourse to ‘Hegelian dialectics’ of course comes in handy for Zizek on such occasions as it makes it possible to claim ‘X’ and cancel it at the same time, and so, all through his arguments, Zizek makes excessive performative use of such ‘dialectical’ flourishes. I am not sure, however, that this rhetorical flourish offers anything more than a false sense of certainty and relevance to many sectors of the Left who have lost their moorings. In terms of its knowledge function, there seems to be nothing here, or in the footnote that he appends to this astonishing passage. In this note too, he simply states, with equal rhetorical flourish that ‘at a more general methodological level, one should also turn around the standard pseudo-Nietzschean view according to which the past we construct…is a symptom, an articulation of our present problems…what if, on the contrary, we ourselves – our present – is a symptom of the unresolved deadlocks of the past?’

Tantalizing though this  question of the relationship of ‘the past’ with our present is, we cannot go into it here. However, it is necessary to underline that if we are dealing with a certain failure of the Leninist/Marxist project, any attempt at a renewal of that egalitarian project that wishes to make it speak to our times, must squarely adopt an approach that:

(a) tries to understand actual practices on the ground, rather than lament that these practices and the times they inhabit, cannot ‘comprehend’ the greatness of Lenin (or any other prophet, for that matter)

(b) avoids assigning at all costs, a metaphysical priority to some a priori Truth and its supposed Subject, over the present ‘times’ and the different kinds of practices that mark them.

Zizek in fact, minces no words when he claims that ‘in a concrete situation, its universal truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly partisan position.’ Notice the reference to ‘a concrete situation’: If Lenin has to have a relevance beyond all context and if all ‘times’ are to be judged with reference to their ‘penetrability of Lenin’, what is the meaning of this reference to any ‘concrete situation’? What is the meaning of its ‘universality’ in that case? Of course, we can see lurking behind this reference an invocation of an old Hegelianism. We know that in Hegel, the ‘concrete universal’ is critical to the very idea of the Universal – it is the particular that is precisely not particular but announces the presence of the Universal (the Universal being self-particularizing). In other words, in Hegel, the ‘concrete universal’ is a moment in the self-development of the Absolute Idea. Interestingly, in another essay (‘The Ongoing “Soft Revolution”‘, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2004) this metaphysic is extended to the very idea of Capital itself: ‘More than ever, capital is the concrete universal of our historical epoch. That is, while it remains a particular formation, it overdetermines all alternative formations, as well as all noneconomic strata of social life’ (2004: 294). With this formulation, despite references to ‘our historical epoch’, Zizek now institutes capital virtually as an ontological category.  Everything that seeks to challenge it and transform it, is eventually defeated by it. Thus Zizek:

Modern technological domination is inextricably intertwined with the social form of capital, it can only occur within this form, and, insofar as the alternative social formations display the same ontological attitude, this merely confirms that they are, in their innermost core, mediated by capital as their concrete universality…’ (2004: 295, emphasis added).

With this we have a perfect pseudo-explanation of the defeat of marxism – and a highly metaphysical one at that. It also happens to be a profound regression from Marx himself, for Marx relentlessly located the explanation of such questions in the domain of the socio-historical, displacing them from the realm of speculative philosophy. Zizek takes us back to good old Hegel, as if the Marxist episode never happened.

The second part of Zizek’s breathtaking sentence above is that this universal truth of the concrete situation can only be articulated from a thoroughly partisan position. What might be that partisan position? Witness the following:

‘Yes, assuming the proletarian standpoint is exactly like making a leap of faith and assuming a full subjective engagement with its Cause; yes the ‘truth’ of Marxism is perceptible only to those who accomplish this leap, not to neutral observers.’

I have argued elsewhere that this is an argument that can be made for any religious/theological position – that its ‘universal truth’ is only available to believers! The Truth of Islam or the Truth of Hinduism can only be understood by ‘making a leap of faith and assuming a full subjective engagement with its Cause’! The banality of this claim should thus be evident. Clearly, there is no argument here but a series of assertions and it would, once again, be impossible to find in Marx himself, a support for such metaphysical nonsense. However, the moves are clear and unambiguous. For my part, I do think it is important to read and re-read Lenin today – not as a prophet, as Zizek does but as a revolutionary, thrown into a specific conjuncture, trying to navigate his or her way through an uncertain situation. It is there that Lenin excels, leaving behind all those who preferred to stick to text-book notions of socialist revolution.

It is difficult to engage here with Zizek’s prophetic and might one say, almost fanatical mode. What I do wish to question is the straightforward connection that he seeks to draw between ‘Truth’ and ‘Action’: the will to intervene, it seems, is solely predicated upon the having access to the Truth, which becomes available only on the condition that one assumes the proletarian standpoint. What that undefined proletarian standpoint is, Zizek of course, does not explain. Is it the standpoint of the actually, empirically existing ‘proletariat’ – ‘empirical class consciousness’ as Luakcs would say? Is this proletariat really governed by an undivided and unified collective will? Can he demonstrate how one is to understand the actual fragmentation of the working class, in the face of that posited unified will? Zizek, the great Hegelian, will have none of this empirical nonsense:  The ‘Rational Will’ is not tainted by the ‘actually existing’ individual wills. It simply is, in and of itself. From this emerges Zizek’s metaphysical conception of the ‘proletarian standpoint’ and this can only be cognitively available to the revolutionary intelligentsia, armed with the magic wand of Leninist Marxism? Recall a similar move made by Lukacs in his celebrated work History and Class Consciousness, from an equally avowedly Hegelian position, where he continuously counterposed ‘facts’ to ‘tendency of the total development’, that is the logic of the totality.  The difference between ‘fact’ and ‘tendency’ with an absolute priority to the logic of the totality [the ‘tendency’] became crucial for Lukacs, in order to extricate Marxism from its first major crisis. The Zizekian gesture merely repeats that old logic.

But let us return, however briefly, to the relationship between Truth and political action. How and why do people act? Let us stay with the Marxist legacy that Zizek cherishes and just sample a few of Lenin’s own statements:
1.    In What is to be Done?, Lenin talks of the importance of organizing ‘nation-wide’ exposures, for only that, he claims, will make the party a vanguard of the revolutionary forces. The ‘overwhelming majority’ of non-working class exposers [agitators]…are sober politicians and level-headed businessmen’ who will come to the proletarian party with their complaints ‘only when they see that these complaints can really have effect, and that we represent a political force.’
2.    In the same text, while discussing the question of ‘amateurishness’, he recalls that the ‘entire student youth of the period (1894-1901) was absorbed in Marxism.’ And he then goes on to add that, they ‘were not only, or not even so much absorbed in Marxism as a theory, but as an answer to the question: “what is to be done?”; as a call to take the field against the enemy.’
3.    In a text written in the interregnum between the two revolutions, he writes: ‘At the present moment we cannot say for certain whether a mighty agrarian revolution will develop in the Russian countryside in the near future. We cannot say exactly how profound the class cleavage is among the peasantry…’
4.    In an appeal, in the same period, to the soldiers of all belligerent countries: ‘No, brother soldiers, it is time we opened our eyes, it is time we took our fate into our own hands. In all countries, popular wrath against the capitalist class, which has drawn our people into the war, is growing, spreading and gaining strength.’

We could actually go on multiplying the quotes but this small sample will do. What exactly is Lenin saying?

In (1) above, it is the eventuality that the Social-Democratic party manages to emerge as a political force, that Lenin expects, will make other strata come towards it; when they are convinced, in other words, of its political efficacy, its capacity to provide them with some security from Czarist repression. More importantly, we could add, it is not enough for the revolutionary forces to be politically efficacious; it is equally necessary for the other strata to perceive that they will protect their interests.

In (2), he recalls how the students came to Marxism in an earlier era, not because of the Truth that it represented but as a call to take the field against the enemy. We can produce instance upon instance of revolutionaries in India and many other countries, joining communist parties out of this kind of a similar call ‘to take the field’. To them, Marxism was not the repository of some absolute truth. Most of them had not even read Marxist texts when they ‘became marxists’. It was the revolution in Russia and the stories that filtered in about a new kind of movement that had transformed the old power structures of oppression that brought them to Marxism. As Mao once put it in a memorable phrase, ‘it was the salvoes of the October revolution that brought Marxism to China.’

In (3), it is the sharpening of the ‘class cleavage’ that will motivate the peasantry. Here again, it is worth noticing that this ‘sharpening of class cleavages’ is not a purely ‘objective’ fact. It is only when the peasants are able to see that there is an irreconcilability of interests with the landlords, that the antagonism assumes a revolutionary form. In our own time, closer home, we have seen hundreds of poverty stricken cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra commit suicide rather than move into political action against the government.

In (4) it is upon popular anger against the war, not any objective datum of oppression, that Lenin’s expectations of the new revolutionary upsurge hinge.

Where is ‘Truth’ in all this? Zizek’s obsession with the Truth, one might venture to add, is a characteristic of the speculative philosopher and the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ alone.

11 thoughts on “The Žižekian Counter-Revolution”

  1. Zizek, in one the videos streamed in you tube is seen trying to make sense of ‘ being a revolutionary’ in the contemporary world.
    While Marxists the world over are desperately in need of such exercise in introspection, others might not feel themselves compelled to the same extent to be on the side of ‘politically correct’.

    In this video Zizek explains how the traditional leftists turn blind eyes to real humans suffering and often boast of inflicting injuries to the ‘enemy’.
    Zizek emphatically premises his Marxist- Lacanian ideas on many things- modernity, furtherance of the spirit of Italian-European renaissance, universalism and so on.

    As long as Capitalism as a world order has emerged in theory and practice as euro centric and continues to be so, how can you defeat this otherwise?

    Could Periyar, Ambedkar Phule, or even Gowtham Budhha have helped getting out of this ‘euro centrism’ as far as the sources of the trouble remain global hegemony of capitalism and the devastation & deprivations caused by it? As long as the economic and non-economic factors of coercion and violence remain overdetermined by huge conglomerates of capital and militaristic regimes presiding , how could a ‘politics of identity’ sans claims on ‘political correctness’ help but exasperating ?

    Post modernists having rejected ‘mega narratives’ once and for all, seem rather less bothered to give up their freedom; ie, what they enjoy in the fields of identities, micro structures of power,so on and so forth.

    I like to take along both.
    The mega and the micro narratives about my predicament as a human being, I consider are equally relevant and indispensable!
    I would like to keep the freedom with myself,to express as a Marxist, a feminist and an Ambedkarite and a Buddhist!
    Zizek or no Zizek!


  2. As Zizek arrives in Kerala, he will be disinfected from all postmodern plagues of fantasies and will be absolutely ‘sanitized” and therefore he shall speak on simple, plain but years old topic: Whither Left?
    Zizek surely must feel at home as he lands in Kerala where repeating Leninism is a regular routine. Here Zizek will find that he is only repeating the standard thesis of the Marxist appartchiks. In that sense he fits best to the intellectual milieu of Kerala. Kerala intellectuals despite their affinities to new political movements can also make sure that they did not lag in their convictions or in theoretical understandings.
    Chomsky, a follower of the anarchist Bakunin whom the Marxists deplore so much, after his arrival to Kerala in early 90s camping has then been camping in the “left” crowd; the Left which certainly has no “uncertainty” about where it is heading.
    No need of any surprise if Zizek is offered the Kochi corporation chairman ship as he has referred to CPM ruled Kolkotta corporation sometime back!!


    1. ” No need of any surprise if Zizek is offered the Kochi corporation chairmanship as he has referred to CPM ruled Kolkata corporation sometime back!! ”

      Nagarjuna,this really beats me. To be fair, we cannot trivilise or be dismissively judgemental about the persona of Zizek’s ideas, much less ignore the subversive potential of his varied cogitations. Though I do in some sense marvel your gut-feel about how sanitising, it might be for Slavoj Zizek while he takes a dip in Kerala’s muddy back waters!!!

      At the end of the day, I would still think we (here in India) might be needing some attitudanal fix because Zizek is certainly not talking some trivial stuff here. His politics may be a non-starter but the critical tenor and audacity of his philosophical argumentation is unquestionably unique and compelling.

      The trouble often really is that we ( here, I mean people like you and me) might think we have done with exorcising the ghost of “communism”; just about the time when people like Zizek still wants us to return back and get re-started with greater zest and venegance. I am sure the intelligentia in India will have much to give back as well as borrow from Zizek.

      I still have no clue what actually transpired at Kochi meet, where he was expected to deliver a lecture.

      Any clue/links?


  3. Despite being ill-educated about philosophy and more so on Zizek (I got to know of him only a few months ago as the author of one of the books Navayana had published in India) I am daring to share some thoughts on Aditya Nigam’s posting.
    Aditya why do you see Zizek the “incarnation of [the] classic Ghalibian dilemma” i.e. of being rooted in faith and tempted by infidelity, as a problematic position. In the couplet you have quoted Ghalib celebrates this state of being. The next couplet in this ghazal is so clearly self-congratulatory:
    aashiq hooN, pe maashooq_farebee hai mera kaam/ majnooN ko bura kehti hai laila mere aage
    (I am your lover but beloved my dealings are full of deceit/
    Laila slights Majnu when I am there – please forgive my translation)
    To put it more prosaically why can’t a marxist, flirt with post-modernism if he/she wants to?
    The couplet has helped me crystallize my thoughts in the metaphor of faith and infidelity. I refuse to pit the one against the other, rather true to the “Ghalibian” tradition I would indulge and explore the infidelities. And if I do get seduced I would accept it as part of my faith.
    I must confess to being seduced by Zizek in the readings, listenings and seeings of him that I have been doing since I have known of him. Yet I do recognize, as pointed out by Nivedita at the Zizek talk at Habitat Centre in Delhi, that there are at least two Zizeks’ inhabiting his body. The one says a lot of sensible and insightful things, such as the critique of twenty-first century capitalism, made more devastating by not having to resort to the evil of “Mr Moneybags” but to the logic of the capitalist system. However it would in my mind be wrong to reduce the other Zizek/s to a simple reincarnation of twentieth century socialism, or as a “Zizekian intervention [that] seeks to put an end to all questioning and doubts and institute in their place a Messianism [to radical Marxism] that directs all its critque outwards” as Aditya puts it.
    To my mind the other Zizek is a blur of many shifting personalities difficult, I would say impossible to place in a single category. This, or rather these other Zizeks will make provocative comments and then dismiss them as a joke. He will pepper his presentations (and books) with male locker room anecdotes and then admit to the tendency to male chauvinist humour. In loose comments he will voice personal prejudices, likes and dislikes, unmindful to the import with which his listeners will take them and, more importantly remain deaf to the fact that the senseless laughter a significant section of his audience gives him is similar to what a stand up comic gets.
    For this Zizek needs the occasional scold, such as the one that Nivedita so masterfully gave him at the Habitat Center. Credit goes to Zizek that he took the scold and then engaged with it by defining his positions more sensibly.
    I am not attempting a defense of Zizek here, as any attempt on my part to do so, to use Zizek’s joke, would be like “pissing against the wind”. I am just calling for a more textured reading of this self-confessed monster.


  4. Joseph,
    I do not find the Ghalibian position problematic at all; it is his celebration that I too celebrate. And in fact, in one of the subsequent couplets of the same ghazal he swings decisively in favour of kufr, leaving us in little doubt as to his inclinations:

    go haath ko jumbish nahiiN aaNkhoN meiN to dam hai/
    rahne do abhii saaGar-o-miinaa mire aage

    [What if the hands have become lifeless, my eyes can still see
    Let the wineglass and flagon remain before me]

    My problem with Zizek is that his inclination is repeatedly towards an attempt to resolve the dilemma in favour of Faith (defense of all the old articles of faith that I have discussed above). But as Nivedita hints, whether he succeeds in thus resolving it, is of course another question. Maybe it is better to put it the way she has – there are indeed two Zizeks:)
    That said, let me also say here that I find him quite charming and have really enjoyed listening to him speak and see him perform.


    1. Excuse a slight divergence I wish to introduce in the line of critical arguments I see here in Kafila on Slavoj Zizek.

      It is my view that many friends from India (especially those otherwise fairly well-versed in nuances of political theory, economics, history and literary theory) who have sought to look at Slavoj Zizek critically have not yet made a proper estimation of the methodological cues, Zizek draws from the largely unfamiliar (especially in India) domain of revisionist psychoanalytic practice of Jacques Lacan. This despite Slavoj Zizek’s candid admission in many of his written and spoken works that his ideas are very much based on the Lacanian psychoanalytic insights, that have indeed, substantially revised many of Sigmond Freud’s ideas.

      These are essentially based on the Lacanian triad of consciousness into “REAL” “SYMBOLIC” and “FANTASY” and crucial to Ziziek’s own theoretical formulations, understanding and exposition of many of his ideas.

      Zizek’s relationship to his reader/audience (left intellectuals, in particular) is primarily that of an analyst and analysand. This however, is a relationship of infinite regression (breaking up even Zizek’s own identity as a “Real Zizek” and “Other Zizek”) as much of infinite progression – where his rather queer espousal of “revolutionary terror”, ethical enigmas of defending Leninism and Joseph Stalin etc is naively fused with prospect of utopian communism, way beyond “actually existed socialism”, denounced as “one of 20th century’s worst totalitarian excesses”. (BBC Hard Talk Interview)

      The mode of his analysis, his key arguments (as signifiers), the symbolism and imagery deployed (ranging from old world uncorrupted communism to perversity of Hollywood cinema) and his discourses on capitalism, global recession and “possible communism” no doubt draw on a rich repertoire of philosophical writings (Hegel, Neitzsche, Heidegger) political experiences, cultural and literary productions. They are however, firmly hinged on the application of core Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts of “trauma”, “continuity”, “signifiers” “object”. “subject”,
      “jouissance” “image”, “language” “dream” etc.

      Zizek’s rather unorthodox understanding and use of the “mechanisms of transference” drawn from a wide array of cognitivist explanations and theories (Daniel Dennett, et al), philosophical anthropology (like juxtapositions of Kant), theology (St Paul) further result in a cathartic and engaging discourse positioned for either outright “rejection” or at best “constructivist accetance”.

      He has quiet openly said that he is not bothered by those who consider him a “joker”, but his challenge to be rather at all accepted. There is here certain “messianic” tone to the boldness of his pronouncements and an implicit claim to “reveletary knowledge” that if it realised (by the analysand) could open new vistas for triggering global events of “epochal” significance.

      Zizek would surely be not content with anything less.


  5. Vijayendra, it is not the business of anybody who reads Zizek to know all the theoretical and psychological roots of Zizek (his childhood traumas for instance – the favourite of all psychoanalysis). As Zizek himself would say, You are what you do (and let me add, what you say). He also told us over a longish conversation that he actually began as a Heideggerian. I suspect that too must have left a remainder in his subsequent formation. I also doubt whether scholars in India (or anywhere else, for that matter) would lose anything in not being able to map all the elements in the gestalt of any philosopher. Alas, this was what poststructuralism liberated us from – the constant need to go further and further back (and deep) into the roots. We read and can only read Zizek as a text that comes to us as a text.
    Finally, I am not sure how accurate your astounding assumption about the ignorance of Indian scholars about Lacan is – I can think of some who are familiar with him, though I confess that I am not. And no apologies for that. Did Lacan have to ever confess to his ignorance, or otherwise, of Mimamsa, Vedantism, Buddhism or Islam? Is it the burden of every attempt to do theory in the postcolonial world that it must pass through all of the Western tradition?


    1. Aditya, I mentioned in the preamble to my comment, that I thought my intervention was a bit of a digression from the main thread of discussions, you’ve started with “The Zizekian Counter-Revolution”. I will though, independently come back with my comments on it , in a separate posting.

      While we are still on this point, I agree one could possibly approach Slavoj Zizek’s texts, without recourse to Jacques Lacan or his school of psycho-analysis. I would however, still see this as a sort of self-imposed limitation, rather than see it as an issue of “right to say” what one wants, under paradigmn of deconstruction. To the contrary, a deconstructivist approach would actually suggest, as I understand it, that one must comprehend the nuances of different constitutive/componential elements in the composition of a text, rather than rip them apart in isolation or to mutual exclusion.

      Here I like to highlight two key points, I had tried to make:

      Firstly, Jacques Lacan’s contribution, according to Zizek is not just some standard psychoanalytic theory to be practiced at the couch. Rather he clearly sees Lacan as having made a radical epistemological departure of a foundational nature and as having provided new anchor-points to envision philosophy. Lacan’s ideas are thus, contingent to a revolutionary reconstition of universal mediating categories and structures – of time and being; of knowledge and cognition; of language and images; of symbols, signs and meanings; of human volition and indeterminacy; of memory, dreams and desires and so on and forth. Succinctly put, Lacanian psychology is to Slavoj Zizek, what German idealism (Hegel) was to Karl Marx.

      Secondly and more pertinently, my point was that Zizek may be actually putting himself in the role of a “analyst” who is simply treating his readers/audiences/critics/commentatorts as mere “analysands”, by only provocatively and perhaps articulately mirroring/shadowing lost hopes, unresolved political, social traumas, unrealised dreams, utopias, broken threads of historical reasoning and political legitamacy and therein reconstructing his discourses without himself committing/compromising to any definitive subject positions. To be fair, there are lately indications though, that Zizek is begining to identify key suture points for the shaping of new radical political subjectivity.

      My problem with Zizek is however not about his quest for a universal discourse but his assertion that universal singularity that he talks about is the only possible one. There never was or there ever will be any singular previleged point for appropriating the claim to universal singularity You’ve asked, if Jacques Lacan would ever confessed to his ignorance, or otherwise, of Mimamsa, Vedantism, Buddhism or Islam? Perhaps, if he had practiced psychoanalysis in India, I am sure he would have done so. Post-coloniality has to confront the Western traditions to arrive at its own universalising moments.

      But before we get there, are’nt we here also unwittingly getting pushed to a precipice, where we should now be confessing to rather our ignorance of the home-spun philosophical traditions and of attempts at their deconstruction by hundreds of new schools of thought.


  6. Dear Vijayendra,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that this way of reading is a self-imposed limitation (for me at least). And this arises from one simple fact, my intellectual project is not one of understanding Zizek’s entire oeuvre any more than it is of understanding that of any other philosopher – Western, Chinese or Indian. My project, on the other hand, is to find a way of dealing with my contemporary without having to pay obeisance to the entire canon of Western theory. You will see that I do unproblematically situate myself at the confluence of many western theoretical currents – marxist, feminist, poststructuralist etc. I do not feel called upon to explain why I do that. But at the same time, I think we have reached a dead end because theory or philosophy to me is not about abstract speculation. If all its references are to a specific culture and experience then it seems to me to be very very limited: Assumptions about ‘Evil’, about redemption, about Oedipus (despite Deleuze and Guattari’s devastating critique), or in political theory about the state and sovereignty and pastoral power, just to name a few – all go back to specific cultural and historical experiences and traditions of theorization. Many of these concepts have no parallel even today in many parts of the world.
    I think that in order to do theory today, those who live in the global south face the challenge of renewing theory/philosophy by taking up precisely the Kantian imperative of ’emergence from self-incurred immaturity’ and thinking for themselves. This means, first and foremost, ending (as Vivek Dhareshwar once put it) our apprenticeship with western theory. I am not saying that everyone should do this, but this is where I am coming from.
    However, I think our great advantage is that we have enough of a relationship with both Western and many non-western intellectual traditions – one we have inherited with our socialization and the other we have learnt in school. We (and this is a self-inflicted agenda for myself) must try to use this advantage to the best result.
    I must also confess that I am also a bit tired of this claim to the universal that so many on this and the other Zizek thread (The Two Zizeks) have seem to make as if those who critique it want to wallow in their own particular identities. To the gung ho warriors of universalism, all I have to say is that you have yours, others have theirs. Like you want the world to become ‘enlightened’ the Enlightenment way, Islam and Christianity want to convert you to their way – they do not become any less universalist for that.
    Your problem with Z’s universalism is that he thinks his is the only Universalism – well that is precisely the problem with universalism.


  7. Aditya, it is rather refreshing and assuring for me to read your responses to my comments and let me tell you that I do share some of your broader concerns, approaches and attitude to the challenges of theory. I will try and keep coming back on this and other threads from time to time.

    Elsewhere, in my comment in response to Nagarjuna, I have mentioned about the need for a “attitudanal fix”. For instance, as you rightly say, it is not necessary for us to sieve through every possible post-modern thinker or some theory, that might get produced in the West and then qualify our acceptance/rejection of it, by confronting ourselves with its oveure and nuances of emergence.

    We need to rather chart out an independent epistemological journey, as a society, culture and civilisation and reconfigure the cognate categories of recieved wisdom – including ones such as what is state, society, culture, modernity, secularism, rationalism, democracy, science, philosophy, logic, language, technology etc. In fact, Indian rennaisance/enlightenment, if ever there will be one, rests on this non-trivial challenge and impending process of intellectual discovery and dystopia.

    To be able to appropriate this space, we may however need to perhaps shed our proclivities for political correctness and instead try to locate the coordinates for a fresh ‘return to the political” in as yet uncharted aqnd untested terrains. (hope we get there sooner before Ms. Chantal Mouffe makes a lecture tour !!! ) It is indeed, high time we turn the gaze from outside to inside and see what we really have and where we are headed.

    Though having said that, I am still of the view we are here under no less perplexing/intimidating circumstances. I only take some satisfaction in the fact that intellectual and philosophical traditions in our society have so far demonstrated far greater resilience in comprehending/confronting any level or geneology of existential conflictuality and complexity. This probably we will owe to our inherently open-ended but intrinsically well-knit systemic philosophical schools of thought which unwittingly co-habit our everyday life.

    This counter-factual reality is however, no more plainly self-evident, for it is taken-for granted and even appears tautological at times. It however, needs to be now recalled through critical discursive expeditions. The terms of this discourse mandate that we here not only tap into many social fissures and poitical sutures but also anchor ourselves in an embeded understanding of the cognitive and topological grids of our cumulative historical and cultural experience.

    In the parlance of popular cultural discourse, we still have this legendary “Indian juggad” – with its widely divergent and often wildly contradictory attributes of being at once adaptive, accretive, assimilative, accumulative, adumbrative and lately even agile in a counter-hegemonic context of making room for its survival in a global and diasporic context. This ingenious ” juggad” from India veritably straddles many a time-zones of its medieval and modern and contemporary history; the tectonic plates of cultural memory and experience and extravaganzas of religious life. This juggad is, however not a sociological arche-type but is a universal genome that is pervasive.

    The burden of my critical thinking is to only ask if we can be little disingenuous about this and attempt new trajectories of being. I see this impulse gaining some ground and girth, as we try to disentangle from Zizekian parallax errors.


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