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April 04, 2005


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Well, yeah, why ignore the argument?

Mr. Kaplan says:
Zizek is saying there is a basic difference between the two that results from the fact that Communism was a failed emancipatory project. It's clearly this that he wants to debate; but this position, the failed emancipatory project, is one that Zizek’s respondents seem not to address or even recognise. It’s really not too difficult to grasp. You might think its nonsense. Fair enough. But don’t pretend you don’t get it.

And here you are again - ignoring the essence of this whole thing for some vague (to me at least: I am not a philosopher, I am just your obnoxious IT guy) chatter. Really, why not face the issue head-on?


Rich Puchalsky

John Holbo: "Isn't it more plausible to assume liberals who disagree with Zizek just plain think they see something wrong with what he says? And isn't it fair [...]"

But JH, plausibility and fairness are liberal values. There you go again, insisting that the discussion be conducted with reference to liberal terms. To truly answer Zizek without, as Mark Foreman says, the "insistence that Zizek should speak their language and make himself intelligible to them,", you should simply declare Zizek to be a priori wrong and then collect a number of scattered examples of him acting like a fool which you insist are not chosen for their factual or logical content. Actually, the wedding pictures are a good start to a properly Zizekean answer.

abb1, if it will make you happy, everyone will dutifully repeat that Communism was a failed emancipatory project. So what? That might have meaning in connection to an argument that failed emancipatory projects are better than fascist oppressive projects, even if they kill more people. But Zizek is explictly not making that argument, or any argument. Remember, he writes: "The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion explicit or implicit that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat." Zizek isn't trying to get us to compare them rationally, because by his assertion, that makes Communism look worse. (I disagree with him there). All Zizek is saying is "Four legs good, two legs bad", illustrated with a lot of sickening recycled propaganda about prisoners writing Stalin nice letters from the Gulag.

Mark Kaplan's "For the Liberal both fascism and communism are equally distant from the only yardstick that matters, Liberal democracy." is nonsense, a straw man. It is possible to believe that the word "totalitarian" has some meaning without thereby insisting that all totalitarian systems are equally bad or that liberalism is the standard of all value.


abb1, I am facing the issue head-on. The argument you cite is a side issue. (I know Kaplan thinks it's front and center but I think that shows he's confused about what the issue is.) The problem isn't with the argument, it's with Zizek's deployment of it. He seems to want to insist that there is something about liberalism that makes liberals incapable of accepting the possibility that communism might be better than fascism. Since that clearly isn't the case (why should this be an impossible thought for liberalism?), he's using this argument to construct a strawman argument against liberalism.

Actually since it isn't clear this is what Zizek is saying, there are sort of a lot of 'ifs' here. What he actually says is a priori false is that both communism and fascism are bad.


Also, I think Rich is right that it isn't clear this really is Zizek's argument. (A good piece of evidence is that in the op-ed he says that if we accept that communism and fascism are equally bad, we will be driven to think that communism is worse. Why that would be, I don't know. But it doesn't square with Kaplan's reading.) But I'll let that go.


It's also pretty clear that at least soviet-style communism had stopped being a "failed emancipatory project" by the early 30's. While those that came after Stalin were not the mosters he was, it will take quite a lot of energy to make their actions into a plausible attempt at an "emancipatory project." I say this as one who mostly has sadness for what's come after the USSR, at least in Russia, and from talking to people who live there.

Adam Kotsko

Give this a couple more posts, and this five-paragraph editorial by Zizek will have had more commentary written on it than some books of the Bible.


Yes, I'm rather embarrassed about that, Adam. That's why I genuinely am interested in the more general question of Zizek's (alleged by me) disengagement with liberalism and the (alleged by others) perverse refusal of liberals to engage with Zizek.

Rich Puchalsky

John: "I think Rich is right that it isn't clear this really is Zizek's argument."

I prefer to take Zizek at his word. He says he's not rationally arguing; I believe him. Of course, you can insist that people must make a certain choice, based on a succession of images followed by your declaration that the conclusions you don't like are a priori wrong -- rather like one of those "Choose Life!" American anti-abortion commercials. But that isn't an argument, it's propaganda.

I thought that most interesting part of the comment thread on the last go-round of this was the part towards the end with the discussion of neoliberalism. I'm not sure whether people like abb1 really understand that to a Zizekian, all liberals are neoliberals -- that George W Bush and John Holbo really have the same politics in all important senses of that word, and that neoliberal politics is in turn equated with every evil in the world. It's a simple, Manichean worldview, and its message is really nothing more than "Choose Life!".

Bruce Williams

(1) 'Plausibility' a liberal term? Then yah boo to 'emancipatory'.

Who decides which words are part of which system of belief? When does a word in common usage such as 'plausible' get set in political concrete? I would say that it doesn't, ie that it makes sense to speak of plausible - but opposing - arguments. Of course there may still be other good reasons for preferring one of the arguments to the other.

(2) Do I gather from abb1 (& others) that a worthy goal justifies the means and the actual outcome? What was that about the road to hell?


"The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion explicit or implicit that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat."

I think rationally is not a correct word here; he means something like qualitatively. Lol, it does become quite talmudical discussion indeed.

Anyway - yes, like Bruce said, I think it's a question of whether the underlying ideology matters; to what extent the idology is the real motivation is not necessarily that important. Rich, you can't deny that until 1990s the USSR (failed communist project) didn't have institutionalized private ownership of the means of production; just like we can't deny that Iraq (likely to fail liberal project) had more or less democratic elections this January.

I hear all the time people trying to equate liberal atrocities with fascist atrocities (e.g: Bush=Hitler) being scorned for 'false moral equivalence'. Why, then, would it be wrong to suggest that there is no moral equivalence between communism and fascism either?

PS. Let me just make clear that I am not trying to justify Stalinism or any sort of revolutionary Marxism here.


Damn, not qualitatively but quantitatively. Sorry.

Rich Puchalsky

abb1, why are you picking out new words for Zizek? Zizek is explicitly anti-rational in his other writings. Why else do you think that he calls on the absurd?

As for talmudism, I often hear remarks like Adam Kotsko's -- "Give this a couple more posts, and this five-paragraph editorial by Zizek will have had more commentary written on it than some books of the Bible" -- whenever something is being criticized and its defenders have no answer that they wish to provide. You'd think that someone interested in Zizek would welcome ever-expanding comment threads, but instead they want to save -- what, exactly? Time and energy? Valuable database space on Holbo's server? What kind of failure do they think is involved in Zizek's essay sparking so much reaction? Is it the purpose of public policy essays to remain genteelly ignored?

As for Iraq being a "failed liberal project", I see that you too subscribe to the idea that liberalism = neoliberalism. I'm not going to defend American conservatism's actions as though I approved of them, even though it would simplify your ideological classification scheme.

Lastly, no one whose writings have been quoted here except Zizek has said that a rational comparison of communism and fascism would have communism looking worse. I don't believe that there is a moral equivalence between them; I have no hesitation in saying that fascism was worse. But so what? That doesn't mean that I agree with Zizek in any important way, or that I appreciate his Stalinist propaganda.


Hi Rich,
Since the previous Zizek post here, I've read at least a half dozen of his pieces. They didn't stike me as absurd or anti-rational, but rather as familiar (because I grew up in a communist country) Leninist ideas. In one piece he reflects on Bush 2004 victory along the lines of 'the worse the better'; in another piece he's trying to defend the 'freedom is the recognition of necessity' thesis and quoting from Lenin. Sure, it is unusual these days, but not necessarily irrational, I don't think it is.

The Iraq war, I think, is as much a caricature of liberalism as Stalinism was caricature of marxist communism. A lot (if not most) of liberals supported the war and many still do; and I don't think it's because they were anxious to grab those oil fields. OTOH, the lefies and conservatives (e.g. Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Harry Browne) consistently opposed it and hated it from the beginning. Clearly it's liberalism run amok. Shit happens.

Finally, if you concede that fascism is worse, then that's it; I have nothing else to argue here.

Adam Kotsko

Rich, I think the problem is that at this point, I have no real interest in arguing with you in particular. "For a Zizekian"? Come now! You throw around stuff like that, then you act like it's insufferable snobbishness (typical theory type!) for us "Zizekians" to kindly request that you actually read more than this little essay.

And the move of saying that "Zizek's people are doing just what they accuse liberals of doing" by psychologizing my snide little remark about the disproportionate amount of attention this article has received -- that's an example of my least favorite comment box conceptual maneuver. And in this particular instance, more than a little ridiculous.

Just putting that out there.

Rich Puchalsky

Dude, it is typical theory snobbishness. You seem to think that you can make snide little remarks and have no one call you on them, and redefine large groups of people together under the rubric "liberal", then object when others have the effrontery to call a defender of Zizek a Zizekian.

Feel free to not argue with me in particular; feel free to argue with Holbo, who I see from the post above does not share your view that this subject has been exhausted, and who has read all of the Zizek that you could desire. But I notice once again that you don't seem to have much to say to him directly.


Rich, may I say that I think Adam was being good-natured enough in his comment that the op-ed now bears a surprising burden of commentary.

Adam, I would be genuinely curious whether you think my critique of Zizek as unhealthily disengaged from liberalism has merit.

Rich Puchalsky

abb1, I think that your analysis of the Iraq war as "a caricature of liberalism" suffers from a critical ambiguity about what liberalism means. On the one hand, you're classing GW Bush as a liberal. On the other, you're classing European social democrats as not liberals -- otherwise it would be clear that most liberals were against the war. Your list of "lefies and conservatives (e.g. Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Harry Browne)" who consistently opposed it also seems to have some odd exclusions and inclusions; so Pat Buchanan is a true conservative while most Republicans are liberals? Where is Hitchens on your list? Is the libertarian Ron Paul really a conservative (or leftie, I suppose) rather than a liberal? I'd like to know who, exactly, I'm supposed to be defending.

Adam Kotsko


I think Zizek wants to cut straight to what he sees as the hegemonic form of liberalism -- that is, namby-pampy multiculturalism. There is an argument to be made that he has assessed the situation incorrectly, but I don't see a reason why his approach is bad in principle, that is, why he needs to deal with every academic variety of liberalism when most of them have no real political representatives, though you're certainly right that he does not address them.

He's trying to theorize a political way forward, so he's going up against the form of liberalism that seems to him to stand most in the way of that (mainly because it has totally given up any reference to socialism as an ideal). His appeal to the revolutionary tradition certainly runs the risk of being dismissed out of hand, and maybe he'd be better served by attempting to theorize a really robust kind of liberalism.

His approach is at least worth a try, in my opinion.


I don't classify Bush as a liberal (as I wouldn't classify, say, Beria or Molotov as 'communists'), I'm only saying that the Iraq project is essentially a liberal project.

The list was supposed to be a list of conservatives only, if I wanted to come up with a list of lefties, I'd have there Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Howard Zinn, etc.

As far as the Europeans - at first I felt that you have a point there, but, hey, what about Blair? And he is still the leader of his party. You can't be more liberal than Blair. Unless you're right that I don't understand what liberalism is. Which is a possibility, certainly.


Puchalsky: "You seem to think that you can make snide little remarks..."

Puchalsky: 'bb1, if it will make you happy, everyone will dutifully repeat that Communism was a failed emancipatory project'

RP has done little but make 'snide remarks' in lieu of argument, the above being an obvious instance. He insinuates that abb1 is mindlessly intoning some party line, whereas he, presumably, uses reason and evidence. How original. This is straight from the playbook, but let's not pretend RP is engaging in anything called interpretation. He seems to be an all too obvious example of that failure to extend interpretative generosity mentioned in the original post. I must day, with the exception of him, comments on this site are remarkable free of snideness, obfuscation and polemic.

Rich Puchalsky

Thanks for the clarification, abb1. It's not that I don't think that you understand what liberalism means, it's that the word has all sorts of different meanings, and I thought that you were slipping from one meaning to another mid-argument.

In any case I think that there's a fundamental contradiction between saying that "Bush is not a liberal" and saying "the Iraq project is essentially a liberal project". The Iraq project was conceived, justified, and carried out under the control of the Bush coterie. If you find convincing an argument that Beria was not a Communist and that therefore the purges were not Communist, then surely the same applies to Bush and Iraq. If, on the other hand, you are saying that the liberal political system enabled Bush to carry out the Iraq project, in the same way that the Communist system enabled Beria and Stalin, then you've moved back to the meaning of liberalism as a political system rather than as a political philosophy. Under that second meaning, Bush is a liberal, because he supports and benefits from the U.S. political system.

You're right about Blair. But if you admit the Europeans, then it becomes even clearer that a majority of liberals (I'm using a third meaning of the term, the one that means "both US-liberals and European social democrats") disapproved of the war, since Great Britain is a minority of Europe and since even within GB, most Laborites disapproved of the war.


Rich, I think you probably do have a point about European liberals, although I am not familiar with this subject. I think the term 'liberal' often means pretty much the opposite in Europe to what it does in the US.

As far as Bush (or, let's say, 'the Bushies') go, I think I disagree. Let's say for example that am a cynical opportunist who wants to make a monetary profit or obtain political power or to have sex with a lot of women (while being physically unattractive like Beria). So, I organize (or join) a project. It can be a liberal project or a communist project or a nationalist project. I, cynical opportunist without any political ideology, will become a leader, rally real liberals or nationalists, maybe achieve some of their goals to some extent. It's irrelevant what motivates me, the project will be unmistakably nationalist or communist. I think this happens all the time.


Now, see Rich, that last post was much better.

Rich Puchalsky

abc, feel free to call me on my own snide remarks. I argue heatedly, and I certainly do sometimes/often step over the line.

abb1, I realize that we're dragging out the thread on a tangent, but I can't resist one more reply. If we can't use the apparent politics of its leaders to classify a project, or the structure of the political system that supports it, then all we can use is a judgement of whether the project's goals match the abstract goals of a political theory. Is it really true in this case that the Iraq war's goals are liberal goals? No more so, I would say, than that the Stalin / Beria project's goals were Communist goals. It is quite true that Communism didn't set out to say "let's kill all the kulaks!", nor does liberalism set out to say "let's wage aggressive war and convert the world to 'democracy' by force!". The argument that Communism leads inevitably to Stalinism is typically a structural one involving centralization of power. Arguing that the Iraq war is an expression of liberalism similarly relies, I think, on an argument that liberalism equates to neoliberalism, and that the structure of neoliberalism is instable towards imperialistic projects.


Well then down with the structuralists! (although the second distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism begs for more definition, RP). Also, Zizek has been writing for a good while before the Bush Coup (talk about straw men).

But to pull something down from Holbo's initial comments:

"(A good piece of evidence is that in the op-ed he says that if we accept that communism and fascism are equally bad, we will be driven to think that communism is worse. Why that would be, I don't know. But it doesn't square with Kaplan's reading.)"

Well, might it be because capitalism shares elements of fascism, and the two are not so easily severed? Remember all those intellectuals in Paris who were three-ways torn?

Just my two cents.


Capitalism tends to turn into fascism because it 'shares elements' with it, unless we artificially lean it in the opposite direction? is that the argument, Shannon? I must say 'shares elements' is a pretty vague basis on which to erect a quite strong claim like this.


no, not "turn into"...only that the two are not so easily severed, and one must take into account, to some degree, the contemporary discourse. that which would rather sloganize fascism as pure evil (and if communism is in the same boat...) than examine it's historical context, etc. seems simple enough, no?


It is quite true that Communism didn't set out to say "let's kill all the kulaks!", nor does liberalism set out to say "let's wage aggressive war and convert the world to 'democracy' by force!".

I think there is a radical variety of revolutionary marxism that calls for a dictatorship of the proletariat, red terror and all that - in order to make a quick transition, shortcut to the worker's paradise. Similarly, the Iraq war in part represents a radical variety of liberalism: using armed struggle to quicky replace tyranical regime with democracy and capitalism - shortcut to the worker's paradise. That's how I see it, anyway.

Steve Callihan

According to Zizek, the October Revolution went bad not because it was bad in itself, but because its originary positive impulses were corrupted, subverted, hijacked, turned back onto themselves, drawn down into and by the pull of the vortexial spiral of revolutionary violence. Nazism, on the other hand, is bad in itself, not a revolution, but a negative reaction to the revolutionary moment. In revolutions, what was formerly repressed must be spit out in the moment simply because what made the revolution necessary, decades of spite, now liberated, commands it. While the consequence of this impulse might be evil (even a necessary evil), in that it is a violence that does not spare the innocent, and its aftermath even worse, the impulse, itself, is simply human. Zizek is correct in noting that "Nazism displaces class struggle onto racial struggle and in doing so obfuscates its true nature." Social antagonism between the classes is displaced onto the outsider (Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Negros, Socialists, etc.). Nazism makes revolution unnecessary by displacing the repressed social enmity that would normally be aimed at and spent upon their superiors (the rich and powerful) by their inferiors (the poor and the weak), if given the chance, onto a convenient scapegoat. This I think draws the distinction, not that revolution is a good in itself, and thus better on that account, but that a fascistic reaction of the sort that took place in Germany, Argentina, Chile, etc., is something that is bad in itself, and thus worse on that account.


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