« Begging the Question, the Properly Wittgensteinian Way | Main | Harry Potter & Alphaville »

March 17, 2005


David Moles

The idea that we can solve (and ought to be solving) everything by "applying fundamental cognitive insights" sounds awfully Ayn Rand. As does, for that matter, the idea that examining one's beliefs for flaws is epistemologically inappropriate.

(Too bad we can't put the two of 'em in a jar and shake it to make 'em fight.)



Are the on-line passages at CI excerpts from the publication (Vol 29, No. 3)?

I am trying to get ahold of the entire exchange.


Timothy Burke

I would like a sympathetic interpreter of Zizek to help me through reading the above passage. I have read almost no Zizek, because I've been uncertain about whether there's any payoff to doing so.

Is Zizek arguing, as a matter of fact, that other writers and political actors who make the strongest case for the equvalence of fascism and communism are doing so as part of a grand rhetorical or argumentative strategy which is ultimately intended to end with downplaying the evil of fascism and playing up the evil of communism? If so, why not just say it like that, put it in the form of an argument that would point to evidence?

Or am I imposing far too banal and humdrum a reading? Is Zizek instead saying something completely different, and if so, what is it? For example, is he saying that an argument about whether fascism or communism was worse (or even whether they are equal) is always inevitably a silly one, even if made without some hidden instrumental agenda?

Or am I not meant to try and make final or comfortable arguments about what he's saying?

If it's the first case, then Zizek's only problem is that he expresses himself poorly, though the argument in the first case is a pretty banal, shopworn one in both its general mode and its empirical particulars. If it's the second case, then I think much of John's critique hits the nail on the head. If it's the third, we're back in Ye Olde Judith-Butler-Defends-Herself territory.

If John's characterizations are apt, then I think the way you have to read Zizek here (and some other similar theorists whose work I know better) is that this is less an argument and more a statement of affinity with an already-constituted audience, the point being not to persuade but instead to affirm a community or habitus of thought. If one is "in", it is valid; if one is "out", it's of no use.


I think what Zizek is saying is that Stalinism was a perversion of the ideals & aspirations of the communist program (which has it's roots in the enlightenment), & Hitler was a natural outgrowth of the anti-enlightenment roots of fascism. Soviet terror & undemocratic behavior was recognized in the beginning as a betrayal of it's ideals, but justified as a necessary response to an extraordinary situation. Fascism, from the beginning, gloried in terror & being anti-democratic. It's, of course, debatable; but the case can be made that part of the rot that led to the fall of the Soviet Union was the disconnect between it's stated ideals & it's reality.

Adam Kotsko

I think the tendency that Zizek points out is very real. I have seen numerous examples of it, including an Atlantic Monthly piece castigating liberals for being harder on Hitler than on Stalin, when in fact Stalin had more people killed. I don't know if Zizek is calling for armed revolution per se; I don't think he has any clear idea what the agent that would carry out revolution would look like or what it would take to create it. The issue here is whether the aspirations of communism can be justified -- and beyond that, if the (perhaps justified and understandable) negative reaction to the horrors and injustice of Real Socialism ultimately end up siding with the very worst injustice, that is, the loss of the idea of economic justice as a whole.

The discussion of economic justice in our society is virtually nowhere, and while Bush is hardly a fascist, it's clear that many of those whose economic standing is negatively affected by Bush have decided that other aspects of his program are desirable -- that is, there is something appealing about a hierarchical, regimented society with strictly enforced sexual mores, etc. (this is what Tim Burke seems to be saying a lot lately -- don't just dismiss right-wing politics out of hand -- and he's quite right).

Some might say that social democracy is the way to economic justice that uses the existing parliamentary system and state power to forward those ends without revolution. Zizek himself took part in such movements in Slovenia and might still be a propagandist for the Social Democrats in his country. But that movement itself is endangered if we choose to make communism the ultimate evil instead of fascism, because then we throw out the baby of aspiration for justice with the bathwater of the gulag (something that is, I'll admit, very tempting). The propaganda that "liberals" are all crypto-communists, the very conflation of "left/liberal" in popular discourse, is the sign of the danger here -- the whole logic of society has shifted so that all of a sudden we're debating (what?!) whether senior citizens should be shielded from penury.

I'm sure we could quibble with the specifics of his analysis and with his (often quite annoying) style of delivery and rhetorical stance, but I find his basic case quite convincing. And I don't think that Berlusconi counts as wanting "fascism with a human face" because -- duh -- he's not actually living under fascism, like Vaclav Havel et al. were living under Real Socialism. It's not a valid comparison to make. If you can draw out people in the Nazi period who were disillusioned with the betrayal of the Nazi ideal -- who were true believers but didn't follow Hitler down into the black hole, I'd be interested to hear. The impression I get is that you either instinctively figured out what was going on and rejected the movement as a whole, or else you just kind of went along with it. In fact, you have a hard time getting apologies out of people -- there are people who lived through the 80s as unrepentant fascists, and I've never heard of any of them claiming, "National Socialism was a great idea but Hitler took it way too far."

Adam Kotsko

"if the (perhaps justified and understandable) negative reaction to the horrors and injustice of Real Socialism" -- strike the "perhaps" there. Good Lord! Of course it's justified and understandable to react negatively to the horrors and injustice of Real Socialism. I was in the middle of writing a different sentence and forgot to take out the "perhaps" when it changed into what it now is.

ben wolfson

So it's necessary to proclaim fascism worse than communism for purely strategic reasons? Because otherwise, people might conclude otherwise (equally bad, or communism worse), and then how would you stir people towards goals that, while laudable, are associated with communism?

Adam Kotsko

Zizek seems to take the position that proclaiming both equally bad is effectively already equivalent to proclaiming communism worse. That is, the "equally bad" thing won't hold up to scrutiny -- you have to choose. So calling it a priori is probably an exaggeration, but he does think that it's decided more on a conceptual level than on the level of simple empirical fact (body counts, for instance) and that on a conceptual level, it's simply impossible to say that both are equally bad. He does actually have reasons for thinking this, which he does sometimes spell out. I don't think it's just sheer question-begging.

Aeon J. Skoble

I'm leaving work for the day, so perhaps it's foolish of me to get into a comments discussion, but this from commenter ES above:
"I think what Zizek is saying is that Stalinism was a perversion of the ideals & aspirations of the communist program (which has it's roots in the enlightenment), & Hitler was a natural outgrowth of the anti-enlightenment roots of fascism."
seems to me mistaken. Communism, just like fascism, is anti-enlightenment. Both are "historical" theories of social progress which view enlightenment liberalism as a necessary stage in human history, but a wrong one - one to be surpassed by the stage which embodies the true realization of our natures. Communists and fascists disagree about what _that_ is, but they both scorn enlightenment liberalism.

ben wolfson

If I have a choice, then I can choose "equally bad". If I won't hold "equally bad" because it doesn't hold up to scrutiny, then whichever I hold to be worse should also accord with scrutiny—it won't just be a choice.

Jacob T. Levy

I have to admit that Adam hasn't persuaded me at all. That is, he's told me there's a position there and sketched what it looks like-- but I knew that already. The old, standard, "Communists as misguided children of light, Nazis as children of darkness" story. I know what it looks like and have seen arguments for it. But: is this an argument for it? Supposing that one weren't already signed up-- what's the point of entry into the argument? That there might be coherent expressions of the view (including Adam's own articulation of it!) doesn't affect whether Zizek's expression of it is coherent. That one could have non-question-begging premisses for the argument doesn't affect whether this argument is question-begging.

Rich Puchalsky

I like the way that Zizek grumps about how Communism gets a raw deal in the court of public opinion even as he writes about how good people need to be shot. Quoting from Holbo:

"We may gather preliminary inklings from a Brecht poem,“The Interrogation of the Good,” freshly translated by Zizek to emblematize his position.The poem narrates the fate of a “good man,” for he cannot be bought, is honest,speaks his mind,is brave,and does not seek his own advantage. Unfortunately,he is (one infers)some sort of liberal democrat,hence a hindrance to
some or other revolution. Hence:“You are our enemy.This is why we shall /Now put you in front of a wall.But in consideration /of your merits and good qualities /We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you / With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you /With a good shovel in the good earth ” ((pp.150 –51)."

Adam Kotsko may want to explain how this kind of thing is going to lead to greater discussion of economic justice in our society.

Adam Kotsko

Jacob, I would remind everyone that there are synthetic judgments a priori and that much of Zizek's early work deals with the German Idealist tradition. I will completely concede that Zizek's argument, based solely on the evidence provided by the five-paragraph article cited above, is a question-begging article; but simply arguing that something is true on an a priori basis is not the same as question-begging.

And Rich, I still don't think that Zizek is advocating mass murder. Really. Maybe he'll say something in the future that will make me change my mind, but for now, those kinds of things take place within a polemical context. Right now, in the US, there's a lot of discussion of torture and such-like and when torture is justified, etc. People are dying all around the world as the US defends us against evil. What Zizek says in such moments is (on the surface level) maybe we're targetting the wrong people because (on the more conceptual level) maybe we've got the wrong idea of what evil is. Not that killing people is good or that terrorists are A-OK or anything of the sort -- but maybe there are some good upstanding members of society whose good upstanding pursuits are effectively doing more to quench any kind of hopeful future than any terrorist could hope to do through some ultimately futile attack.

Now obviously you don't have to accept it, and it's not just plainly obvious (although Zizek is certainly tired of a certain parody of postmodernism or liberalism that front-loads the argument with "of course I might be wrong about this... my position as a white male Roman Catholic who lives in a house with three cats means that I miss certain things, etc."). But even if in particular cases (such as, I'll allow, this article, or the book On Belief) he really sucks and ends up being really unpersuasive, and even if he does have some annoying bad habits -- his philosophical style does not consist solely of dogmatic question-begging. It just doesn't. I've read a whole lot of this shit, and he does actually make plenty of reasoned arguments, even if his organizational skills are somewhat lacking. Tarrying with the negative is perfectly well organized, as is The Ticklish subject -- but when he's writing shorter books or articles directed toward a smaller audience, sometimes he just rants and rambles. That's unfortunate, but it doesn't discredit his entire philosophical project or render him some kind of radical anti-rationalist anti-Enlightenment Romantic.

In my opinion at least. I might be wrong.

Rich Puchalsky

Adam, I have no opinion on the question of whether Zizek is question-begging. And I don't believe that he is really advocating mass murder. I do believe, though, that it's a bad idea to write approvingly about the need for the revolution to shoot a few good people if what you're really concerned about is what people think about the historical record of Communism.

Note that I'm not saying that Zizek should hypocritically hide his views for P.R. purposes. Rather, I'm saying that his impulses (I won't call them arguments), as discernable in these brief snippets, appear to coincide with the worst stereotypical ideas about the left. His writing is full of phrases slammed together -- "a priori false", "it is necessary to take sides", defining all alternatives as meaning what he says they must mean -- that bring to mind the propaganda of various vanguard parties. If he really cares about the public image of the left, he should get some new impulses.


What's the problem, people? Zizek's argument is that Fascism and Communism are fundamentally different, and that their fundamental difference is such that, for liberals, Fascism should be seen as the greater evil.

Here's the first description of the difference.

In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included ... Under Stalin, all people were, theoretically, equal.

In those ellipses, examples are provided to illustrate the point. I don't get the "no argument" response.

The second key difference:

Nazism displaces class struggle onto racial struggle and in doing so obfuscates its true nature. What changes in the passage from Communism to Nazism is a matter of form, and it is in this that the Nazi ideological mystification resides: the political struggle is naturalised as racial conflict, the class antagonism inherent in the social structure reduced to the invasion of a foreign (Jewish) body which disturbs the harmony of the Aryan community. It is not, as Nolte claims, that there is in both cases the same formal antagonistic structure, but that the place of the enemy is filled by a different element (class, race). Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism.

In short: Nazism, because of its rejection of the theoretical equality of all people, and because of its claims that differences between people aren't the result of changeable "class" but fixed (and heritable) "biology," is inimical to liberalism in a way that Communism is not.

The use of "a priori" in the last paragraph is pretty mystifying though. But the argument there seems pretty clear anyway: if you forget the fundamental difference between Fascism and Communism, then typical measures of "badness" will lead you to think that Communism was worse; but that's only if you forget.

Timothy Burke

I don't think I'm convinced that the argument, made more clearly by Ogged and Adam, requires Zizek's formulation of it. I buy the argument that the casual conflation of communism and fascism as equivalent totalitarianisms just because they killed lots of people is a really bad one, but not because I think it's important for liberals to keep clear why fascism was worse. I buy it because it's empirically wrong, because it glosses the details of historical experience for the purpoze of constructing a lazy, generic political category. But by that standard, I'm not even particularly happy with collapsing Stalinism and Maoism, or Nazism and Italian fascism.

I'd also say that if we're to see Stalinism as a perversion of certain kinds of admirable projects of universal rationality, why shouldn't we see Nazism as a perversion of certain kinds of admirable projects of anti-Enlightenment romanticism? Or a perversion of certain kinds of conceptions of the bureaucratic state? And so on. The equivalence problem turns around and bites this discussion in the ass, really. Once you say, "Stalinism was not the proper end of the project from which it descended", it becomes very hard to not extend the same courtesy to fascism or Nazism. And yet we rarely do: instead everybody, especially liberals, go looking for the historical boojums under fascism's bed and end up chasing out everybody from Wagner to Descartes, depending on who is doing the looking. The form of the argument used to exempt Stalinism from its history becomes one which is difficult to keep contained to Stalinism save by doing what even Adam says Zizek isn't willing or able to do: you can only do it if you can clearly articulate why a revolutionary tradition is the demonstrably right way to march forward into the future, even now.


I'll respond at length later. At short: ogged's argument can't be Zizek's, because ogged is making a liberal argument. He is saying that communism is, in its ideals, more conformable to liberalism than fascism. Ergo, fascism is worse. I think this takes a bit more work, but OK. But Zizek rejects the devil of liberalism and all his works. So Zizek's argument can't involve seeing which measures up higher on the liberal stick.

peBird, you've got it. Critical Inquiry volume is: 29 (Spring 2003). The Harpham piece is entitled "Doing the Impossible: Slavoj Zizek and the End of Knowledge". Zizek's reply is: "A Symptom - of What?"

Adam Kotsko

I find the whole "blame Intellectual Figure X for Nazism" to be beyond tedious. That heads in a direction that I'm not willing to go -- that is, assuming that Nazism was the inevitable and easily predictable result of Wagnerian opera or Cartesian subjectivity (I've read way too many arguments for the latter in particular).

Are there people on the right who are trying to figure out "what went wrong" in European fascism in the 1930s-40s? Is there a lot of soul-searching? Maybe Berlusconi would count as that, and sure, there's a certain virtue to trains that run on time (as I am learning through living in the city). I suppose one could say that Nazism is the outgrowth of nationalism (with which Descartes had very little to do), the perversion of that ideal that led to good things in its non-evil forms -- I tend not to think that nationalism was a very virtuous idea to begin with, however.

And now nationalism is making this huge resurgence. And coincidentally, everyone's trying to symmetrize Stalinism and Nazism. (Officially, Zizek's job at the University of Ljubljana is to research nationalism.)

Adam Kotsko

John, I really think that Zizek sees himself as an Enlightenment figure. The trick of claiming that he undercuts himself every time he uses a liberal (i.e., Enlightenment) argument is not going to work. He's criticizing "liberalism" as the word is understood in contemporary politics, not the concept of liberalism that one would find in a dictionary of political philosophy. (I'm sorry, by the way, that I didn't think of this particular criticism earlier.) If we're talking about the "liberalism" of the Democratic Party, then there's a lot to critique and you might even agree with some of those critiques -- but if we're talking about liberalism properly-so-called, it's just the air we breathe. It's almost impossible to think outside the terms of liberalism -- and as one who believes that, for instance, Lacan represents a decisive and productive development in the theory of Cartesian subjectivity and that Kant and Hegel represent the peak of humanity's philosophical knowledge, Zizek isn't even really trying to do so.


OK, another quick thought.

Adam writes: "If you can draw out people in the Nazi period who were disillusioned with the betrayal of the Nazi ideal - who were true believers but didn't follow Hitler down into the black hole, I'd be interested to hear."

I think a prominent example might be Heidegger. Now I don't want to say this is right, because I just am incompetent - through ignorance of the facts - to judge the whole Heidegger case. But we all sort of understand it's possible outlines. Heidegger may have been attracted to the blood and soil Ursprunglichkeit of the whole business. The romanticism of it. At least he regarded it as a potential bulwark against elements of modern industrial European life he loathed.

Another example: the somewhat aristocratic, Junker officer corps of the Wehrmacht contained lots of men who favored a strong, nationalist, militarized Germany, who - to put it mildly - disapproved of Hitler's mode of realizing the ideal. As per upstream in the thread, Hitlerian fascism can be regarded as a perversion of healthy Nationalism. [UPDATE: In case it isn't obvious, I'm not personally enamoured of a model according to which nations run best when imbued with the spirit of select, upper-class Prussian families with a tradition of honorable military service. It's just a case that meets Zizek's technical specs, ergo functions as a counter-example.]

My point being to establish, experimentally, the symmetry Zizek says cannot be established; not to try to get you all sympathetic to the betrayed Romantic-nationalist promise of Nazism in retrospect.

joe o

I am not sure I buy Zizek's argument either but it is interesting how much postwar European identity really is based on anti-Fascist unity. He brings this up in the last paragraph and it is pretty much unconnected to the rest of his argument.

It could be the case that communism is comparable to nazism on the liberal yardstick, but the consequences of admiting this in Europe are too dire. If turns out the only way to maintain European unity and avoid nationalistic wars is too keep fearing the nazi bogeyman, they should keep fearing the nazi bogeyman. I doubt that is the case, but you never know.

Anti-Fascist unity is not something we would need to protect with a "noble lie" in the US. Counting up the bodies is a non-stupid way to compare nazism and communism here. Killing people with good intensions is still killing people.

Are there people on the right who are trying to figure out "what went wrong" in European fascism in the 1930s-40s?

Hell yes. Perhaps not many public intellectuals, but there's a groundswell out there.

For some reason -- certainly not the historical record -- fascism is seen as efficient, which is an Enlightenment value. (Perhaps it shouldn't be.)

[rummaging] Ah, here's a good quote from my bete noire, Jerry Pournelle:

"The communist system is based on Rousseau's ideas of the general will. The Marxists say that we'll just eliminate all the classes but one. So I still think that fascists are considerably less enemies to traditional Western civilization than communists, so long as we clearly distinguish between German national socialism and Ibero-Italian fascism. Mussolini not only made the railroads run on time, he built them. Whatever you want to say, Italy would probably be better off under him than it is under whatever the hell it has now."

I'd love/hate to see sales figures comparing Pournelle to Zizek in the US. I'm pretty sure more people in Congress have read the former.


Whoops, Adam's and my comments passing like ships. I agree that Zizek sees himself as indebted to elements of the Enlightenment. But this is always true of Romantic or counter-Enlightenment philosophy. It is always an attempt to think through some piece of rationalism to the irrational beyond. Rationalist philosophy can aspire to purity (though that's not always a good idea); irrationalist philosophy always has to be a mixture of reason and unreason, or it won't be recognizable as philosophy. There needs to be a sort of daemonic riding of the horse of reason until it drops dead from exhaustion, at which point you do a Dionysian dance on its Apollonian carcass. Or you make a leap of faith. Or something. (I am making it sound bad. Actually, I have the highest respect for a large number of writers who do something of the sort. I am not dismissing counter-Enlightenment thought.)

The liberalism point puzzles me. It strikes me that Zizek is quite strongly and explicitly rejecting all forms of liberalism and practical liberal democracy - classical, contemporary and otherwise. He doesn't like Kerry, he doesn't like Locke, or Mill, or Rawls. He sees no value in valuing negative liberty. He isn't so big on rights either. But if you can't see the negative liberty point, to some small degree, you're no liberal. His conception of liberty is resolutely positive. He can be connected to liberalism to the extent that, say, Rousseau can, maybe. A Romance of the General Will. But hauling Zizek even that far in the democracy direction seems pretty strained, and when you get there it's still fundamentally illiberal. Please show me that I'm wrong, that Zizek has an ounce of liberal sympathy in his bones.

It's not that I'm unwilling to engage seriously with anti-liberal political theory, by the by. So that if I show Zizek is anti-liberal, I win. But Zizek just seems about as anti-liberal (in all senses) as they come. if I'm wrong about that, then I'm missing something big.


I know this is diverging somewhat from the discussion thus far, but I was wondering about this line in John's post ...

Not to turn the tables of a priori falsehood too neatly, but do the inadequacies of this dogmatic stance need rehearsal?

How does this line and the paragraph that follows keep from just turning the tables of a priori falsehood too neatly. Zizek/Chesterton (that's just bizarre) say "we have to take our view to be the right one." John responds that this can't be the case in a way that doesn't strike me as less dogmatic. His argument becomes one about what a "modern" person can believe, but I suspect that Chesterton in particular would just respond that he chooses not to be what you mean by a "modern" person. I don't see why Zizek/Chesterton can't keep pushing you to the point where a basic choice has to be made: either to accept that one's views are right or that one's views may be wrong. To say that the latter is self-evident does seem simply to turn the a priori table the other way.

Put another way: John asks how fallibilism can be a fallacy. Isn't this one of the oldest paradoxes in the book, though? The proposition "All my beliefs are fallible" is false if it is true. Unless the fallibilism itself is fallible ... which is the conclusion that I think Chesterton and Zizek are primarily trying to provoke.

I'm asking these questions mainly for the sake of argument. I agree with that fallibilism works better than infallibilism. But I don't think Chesterton's saying that it doesn't. I think he's just pointing out that at some point, the epistemic indecision has to stop. He would probably be happy to meet John on the street, if only because he would have found someone who really believes that fallibilism is right, and cannot imagine believing otherwise.


I deliberately peppered that post with typos to prove that deep down I am a fallibilist. I know I'm not wrong about that. Or were the typos just because I'm tired? Wait: I'm a fallibilist, so I'm supposed to say that.

Adam Kotsko

A lot of his remarks on democracy are strategic things. He has said before -- critiquing the Frankfurt School -- that obviously one would prefer to live in the US rather than under Stalin. Obviously. And he also thinks that the liberal view on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are correct; even in his article on "The Liberal Waterloo," I believe, he says that.

Yet it's clear to him on one level that democracy really isn't the priority it's supposed to be, since it was a commonplace back before the elections that the US would not tolerate election results that led toward a Shiite theocracy, for instance, or (in a more recent example he doesn't cite) that the US is so hostile toward Chavez. So democracy is good out there in the world of forms, but parliamentary democracy as it stands, right now, is an adjunct to capital. So he's saying, basically, that if leftists make democracy an unconditional priority, they're basically going to be led down unproductive roads -- for instance, maybe supporting the ridiculous Iraq War.

The problem is liberal naivete in assuming that the conflict of ideas within the procedures of democracy is what produces the most important decisions, when in reality it's money -- but they can't play the "money" card because then they'll sound like commies.

I really do think he's talking primarily about people like Clinton or Kerry and not especially concerning himself with John Stuart Mill or John Rawls. I can't even think of a place where he refers to either of the latter.

Gene O'Grady

I'm way over my head in this discussion but didn't want to let that stop me from making two observations:

(1) While I believe it's true there were no sort of decent but flawed people that came out of Nazism (the examples alluded to seem to be conservative military or academic types) that's not so true of the broader Italian Fascist movement (with which I certainly have no sympathies), with people like Italo Balbo and Arnoldo Mussolini.

(2) In regard to the statements about a remembered anti-Fascist heritage being essential to post-War European unity it occurs to me that something similar was true of the Catholic Church in its renaissance from the late fifties (really earlier) until the mid-eighties, and the troubles since then have to do with the decline of that shared experience. The Second Vatican Council, which Americans like to think of as being about "modernizing" the Church seems from a European perspective like the (temporary?) triumph of the anti-Fascist post-integralist part of the Church. And John XXIII was not just a charismatic peasant he was a quite sophisticated diplomat whom Mussolini demanded that the church keep out of Italy.

Apologies if this is hijacking the discussion.

Adam Kotsko

Man, my grammar skills are falling apart.


Caleb, I guess I don't think I'm doing what I'm accusing Zizek is doing, i.e. just lazily assuming his opponent's position is wrong to save himself the bother of argument. I'm assuming that the argument against his position is obvious enough that I would bore you all by actually stating it. But here goes: Saying 'let's just believe the RIGHT thing and not bother with a lot of frustrating arguments about what the right thing might be' is useless, theoretically and in actual practice, because people just plain don't agree about the right thing. We can't just stipulate ourselves past the stubborn lump of disagreement about good, right and the ends of life that liberalism attempts to confront, then declare liberalism to be an unnecessary attempt to address this lump. Why should Zizek be the lucky thinker who chances to have all and only correct beliefs, so we can use him as an infallible touchstone of truth and right? So we're back where we started.

Adam writes: "I really do think he's talking primarily about people like Clinton or Kerry and not especially concerning himself with John Stuart Mill or John Rawls. I can't even think of a place where he refers to either of the latter." I sort of agree, but this strikes me as an absurd way to engage with liberalism. The fact that Z. dismisses liberalism, philosophically, without even considering liberal thinkers or arguments is a symptom of the problem, not an excuse for what he says. Zizek would be mortally offended if someone felt they could dismiss Marxism on the basis of the history of Russia in the 20th Century, and who never even mentions the existence - let alone considers any of the writings of - one Karl Marx. Zizek's philosophy needs to be in competition with liberal philosophy, otherwise the whole thing is just too unclear. (Don't ask whether Zizek is better than Rawls, ask whether he is better than Clinton. That makes no sense to me.)

I guess I can see that there is some grand strategy to it. (But note that, per the passage I quote, one thing he deplores is pragmatic strategizing in politics.) But, then again, I just can't. Ultimately there is a faith in Truth-Events that will transform the situation. But nebulous faith in Truth-Events is hope; hope is not a plan. If you've got no plan, you've got no strategy.


For what it's worth, I think Z. is pretty explicit about his relationship w/ liberalism in various sections of Glyn Daly's Conversations with Zizek. Notably, there is the following exchange:

"We in the West – we Western liberals that is – already presume the authority of neutral judgment, but we do not accept the Other as such. We implicitly introduce a certain limit. We test the Other against our notions of human rights, dignity and equality of sexes and then, to put it in slightly cynical terms, we say we accept those of our your customs which pass this test. We already filter the Other, and what passes the filer is allowed. But what is allowed is this relatively insignificant and superficial aspect which doesn't bother anyone. What we get at the end is a censored Other. The Other is allowed but only insofar as it passes our standards. So again this logic of respect for the Other cannot be the ultimate horizon of our ethical engagement" (123-24).

In a paragraph, Z. encapsulates what he feels he is fighting against, w/ regard to liberalism, as a political and philosophical animal.

He goes on to add later:

"I do not accept as the level of a modern left the so-called identitarian struggles of postmodern multiculturalism: gay rights, ethnic minority demands, tolerance politics, anti-patriarchal movements and so on. . . . To avoid any misunderstanding, I am not opposed to multiculturalism as such; what I am opposed to is the idea that it constitutes the fundamental struggle of today" (p. 143).

Here, Z. echoes the final sentence of the first quote: The important thing to note, however, is the final sentence re: "this logic of respect for the Other cannot be the ultimate horizon of our ethical engagement." Insofar as liberalism takes tolerance / respect as its ultimate horizon (and this is, he would probably argue, the ethical corrolary of negative liberty), Z. stands opposed to it -- though not necessarily the fruits of its labors. Insofar as most of Z.'s major philosophical works painstakingly deal with the 19th-century roots of modern liberalism -- namely, the shortcomings he sees in Kant's sense of freedom -- I really do not think the fundamental criticism that can be levelled at him is question-begging.

Now, Mills, Rawls, & co. may indeed diverge from Z.'s critique of Kant, and perhaps even offers a corrective to the inadequacies of his understanding of liberalism, but this hardly points toward a fundamental fallacy in his argumentation, nor necessitates their "a priori" dismissal.


You're right, John, that was boring. Sorry everyone.


Thanks, Brad, that was helpful.

However, it doesn't really quite answer my question because I don't understand how - consistent with the sorts of things he frequently says - Zizek can tolerate any significant degree of liberalism or pluralism. How can he NOT be duty-bound to hammer everyone who disputes the fundamental correctness of his cognitive insights with the iron glove of the correctness of his fundamental cognitive insights? Since he isn't prepared to argue that his cognitive insights are correct - he isn't prepared to engage in philosophical debate with opponents, or in political negotiations aimed at pragmatic accommodation - this doesn't look to me like a situation that can possibly be resolved except through violence or coercion.

As to the critique of liberalism, I wrote a bit about this in my "Philosophy & Lit" paper: Zizek's main critical point is that liberalism pretends to be tolerant but really it is obliged to subtly or explicitly shut down certain avenues of (anti-liberal) freedom. The problem with this, which relates to Zizek's failure to discuss philosophical liberalism, is that liberals know all this already. Mill makes Zizek's point with more acuity and clarity than Zizek, I think. Folks after Mill's time have only gotten more theoretically sophisticated about it, not less.


Of course, the fact that liberals know about certain potential problems with liberalism does not magically transform them into non-problems.


I'm not being funny, but I have to say I find that passage from Zizek crystal clear and can't really think of a way to summarise it that's not less clear than the original passage.

Because Communism was the system of government for a lot more of the world than Fascism, and because Communist governments were put in place in two newly industrialising nations right at a point in historical development which has been associated with megadeaths (both the UK and USA got through their industrial revolutions with massive loss of life, albeit mainly of brown people) and continued for half a century, the death count of Communism is much, much higher than the death toll Fascism managed to stack up in eleven-and-a-half years as the government of two industrialised European nations.

Hence, the argument "both Fascism and Communism were illegitimate forms of government" is always going to invite the response "but Communism killed a lot more people", and any attempt to calculate relative hazard ratios (a la the Lancet study in Iraq) is going to fall apart on the intrinsic difficulty of the task. Furthermore, the actual use of the "Stalin versus Hitler" argument is, in its actual use, never innocent. It is, ten times out of ten, made by people who hope to gain some rhetorical support from the conclusions they invite for either an attack on whatever political proposition they think they can get away with identifying with Stalin, or a rehabilitation of fascism. (I'm also not convinced by John's "human face" argument; "democratic socialism" (even "libertarian socialism") is not an oxymoron but "democratic fascism" is. Fascism commits you to a much stronger, nastier and more specific set of principles about the relationship between the individual and the state than does Communism).

Zizek's making the (debatable, but not utterly implausible) point that the moral judgement of "fascism versus communism" has to come down to the question "can you be a good person and believe in communism - yes - can you be a good person and believe in fascism - no". This is an argument of the form "P, therefore P", which does not beg any questions. Some philosophers, as David Stove says, are always arguing and some aren't, and there are good and bad ones of both types.

Stove gives the example of Santayana, who, in general, just says what he thinks there is and pokes gentle fun at anyone who thinks there is more or less. That's what Zizek does, more or less. That's a perfectly honest way to do philosophy as long as you are prepared to have gentle fun poked back at you yourself, and as far as I can tell, Zizek is. "Oh, come off it", is a highly valuable tool of moral epistemology, which ought to be used more in all sorts of important debates.

Adam Kotsko

(I hope my huge number of responses here isn't getting annoying.) Zizek takes "postmodernism" to be the latest development in liberalism. He does, in fact, engage with thinkers in that tradition (who are closer to hand than, say, Mill or Rawls, since he is working in the Continental/Lacanian tradition). Postmodernists/ Postcolonialists/ Multiculturalists/ P.C.-ists share with liberal politicians their lack of attention to class conflict.

I bet that Zizek would be more interesting if he would go after some of the more sophistocated liberal theorists -- but a lot of the postmodernists can only be effectively critiqued through parody. I also wish that he would actually read some New Testament scholarship that's happening today, rather than, say, Bultmann. Perhaps one day we shall both get our wish!


Re: "Since he isn't prepared to argue that his cognitive insights are correct - he isn't prepared to engage in philosophical debate with opponents, or in political negotiations aimed at pragmatic accommodation - this doesn't look to me like a situation that can possibly be resolved except through violence or coercion."

I just don't get this, John. Maybe it is because I don't necessarily like his popular pieces, and rarely read them. Maybe it is I unduly read what he has said (in the past, when he played the role of a good academic) to whatever it is he is doing now as a semi-public intellectual, and tend to read the latter through the lens of the former, but I simply do not see a failure to engage in philosophical debate. I admit that he often too easily reverts to the 'this is what I think, deal with it' mode, citing Deleuze's unwillingness to 'dialogue' as sufficient warrant; but this is typically done when his opponents refuse to interact with the theoretical apparatus that structures his arguments, as are most evident in Tarrying With the Negative and The Ticklish Subject.

Z. would certainly admit that debate only goes so far, and that he will fight for the truth of what he thinks is the case, but this does not necessarily preclude his participation in debates with the likes of J. Butler and E. Laclau, or engagements with J. Bentham and G. Deleuze. (Indeed, one could even cite the debate in this thread alone as proof of his conviction.) The fact alone, though, Z.'s position has changed significantly since The Sublime Object of Ideology seems evidence enough that he is not locked in a regressive echo chamber.


Zizek argues everything. I don't know how one can simply say that all he does is assert. Yes, it's true that he relies on his readers already knowing Lacan, and to a lesser extent Kant & Hegel.
To assert that all Zizek does is assert seems like the greatest assertion of all.

As Brad notes immediately above, the problem is with his commentators simply not reading him. Why shouldn't he tell them to learn a bit and actually read his work before pontificating?

As to giving a positive value to the liberal pragmatism Zizek critiques in this quote, well, unless one is going to say that we currently live in the best of all possible worlds, then the problem has to lie with liberalism. And the root of this problem has to lie with the smug holier-than-thou air that liberals give off, the way they can prattle on about human rights while effectively guaranteeing that nothing fundamentally changes.

Well I don't think this is the best of all possible worlds. Liberals suffer from a failure of the imagination. And whenever they see someone willing to imagine, that is, willing to think, they immediately come down with charges of 'totalitarianism'. That's why Zizek says that to this charge, we must differentiate between totalitarianisms.

All roads do not lead to Auschwitz.


Rich Puchalsky

RIPope, are you seriously claiming that Holbo's opinion about Zizek is invalid because Holbo simply hasn't read him?

And, by the way, liberals don't claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds. They do claim that we live in a better world than the one under Communism.
If when "they see someone willing to imagine, that is, willing to think" they immediately come down with charges of totalitarianism, perhaps that's because what that particular person is thinking is an already imagined and discredited system instead of something new.


Forgive me, I haven't read the comments, but as to the original post, I'm not sure what is to be gained by pulling a fairly random passage out of Zizek and asking if it's 'question begging'. Pretty much any decontextualised passage from a complex thinker will appear as outrageous question begging. Not everything lifted out of context will appear this way, especially if it agrees with the presuppositions of the reader.

Zizek tends to assume familiarity with his other work, it's true. And he tends to cut and paste passages from his longer works as articles (the passage quoted from 'Two Totalitarianisms' is more or less lifted from 'Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?'. But if you're prepared to get to grips with his work as a whole, you'll find the arguments.


Here is an example of how liberalism today functions as a closed system. Apparently, liberalism has always already answered all questions, imagined all futures, and provided the proper way to live. It already knows what its critics are thinking, can already predict --and thereby work to stifle-- any imagining of another future.

If when "they see someone willing to imagine, that is, willing to think" they immediately come down with charges of totalitarianism, perhaps that's because what that particular person is thinking is an already imagined and discredited system instead of something new.

David Moles

"But if you're prepared to get to grips with his work as a whole, you'll find the arguments."

Okay, as a layman (writer, programmer, background in history and a bit of linguistics), I have to ask: What is it about philosophy and/or Theory that makes it okay to say "You're not expected to understand this particular piece, and not qualified to criticize it, unless you've read everything else I've ever written?" Most disciplines won't let you get away with that, but in this area it seems to be standard operating procedure.

Michael Palaeologus

I think it is clear that Zizek is an ironic anti-liberal, and hence a slippery fish (but a tasty one).

Re. the 'both bad' argument - what ogged said way above - substitute race for class struggle and you displace politics - hence no possible room for progress. It is, btw, the exact same argument Foucault uses in contrasting a 'symbolics of blood' (race argument anachronistically resurfacing with facism) and an analytics of sexuality. Agamben takes the argument further but that is a whole other ball game...


'What is it about philosophy and/or Theory that makes it okay to say "You're not expected to understand this particular piece, and not qualified to criticize it, unless you've read everything else I've ever written?"'

1. I'm not saying it's true of ALL theory.

2. It surely makes sense to you as a general rule of thumb that if, say, you were reading Heidegger, you wouldn't just pick up one of his later texts and expect to understand terms which are there presupposed but which had been rigorously argued elsewhere.

3. What might make it 'ok' is that it might, in some instances, be true. e.g. Zizek's use of a term like 'the Big Other' is explicated endlessly in the early works. Later on he pretty much presupposes it rather than repeating already well rehearsed arguments. Now, what is wrong with that???

4. Zizek's certainly not saying it and has anywhere said it.


sorry: 4. Zizek's certainly not saying it and hasn't anywhere said it.


'the problem with this, which relates to Zizek's failure to discuss philosophical liberalism, is that liberals know all this already.'

Again, I find this curious. I remember at university, when I would argue against Rorty's relativism, his advocates would repsond to my arguments with 'don't you think Rorty isn't aware of these criticisms?', as if this was somehow meant to close off the debate. As an 'argument' it amounted to no more than 'Look, Richard's really very clever, trust him'.

David Moles

K, you're not saying it's true of all theory (and I really did mean Theory with a capital T, by the way) but I've run across the same claim made by various people about various writers (and occasionally BY various writers) quite often over the last few years.

As regards your Heidegger example, I would expect his later texts to at least recapitulate the definition of the term and point you to where you can find the argument. If philosophers are going to insist on defining new terms, that's the least they can do. (Note: I haven't read Heidegger, so I have no idea whether or not he does this.)

From the outside, the impression I get is that rather than contribute to the advance of a shared discipline, it's as if in philosophy the strategy is to go for a sort of vendor lock-in, where no one can understand what you're writing now unless they go back to the beginning of your career and read everything you've written in chronological order. Weirdly, this doesn't seem to happen in physics or economics or even (to the same extent) psychology.


Well philosophers construct systems of thought. To understand one passage, then, one must understand the system. And each (real) philosopher has their own system, so to approach it one must immerse oneself in the whole of it. If that's too much to ask, then that's too much to ask. But then just don't read it, and don't pull a passage out for everyone to sit around and roast over the fire. Again, it's as if everyone knows they SHOULD read Zizek, that he is in fact extremely important, only to read him is to have your world thrown askew. Which most would rather not do. So they have to act hysterically - "please, don't read him!"

Liberals do, DE FACTO, claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. They 'claim' this by saying that everything else is dangerous and to be avoided. So it's a negative claim (to along with negative liberties...).

Zizek engages with Marxism because there is a promise there that has not been realized. The whole story hasn't been told. Liberals, instead of simply equating Marxism with Stalinism, should take a closer look...

David Moles

See, this is what I'm talking about. Who exactly are the liberals we're talking about here? It's obviously a much more restricted set than the one implied by the ordinary meaning of the word -- even exclusive of the way the American Right uses it.

Obviously I'm out of my league. I'll shut up now.

Jacob T. Levy

Again, it's as if everyone knows they SHOULD read Zizek, that he is in fact extremely important, only to read him is to have your world thrown askew. Which most would rather not do. So they have to act hysterically - "please, don't read him!"

Well, since I sort of started this by reading some Zizek (the Stalinism-Naziism piece and the Havel piece) and being appalled, both at the sheer moral depravity and at the lack of any apparent philosophical depth-- unlike in, say, Heidegger, or Schmitt, where I recognize the seriousness of the project and the importance of the critique of liberalism despite the associated (ro my mind) moral shortcomings-- I take some exception to this. There are people who I know I should read more of, in part for the potency of their critiques of my settled views. I should read more Heidegger. I should read more Habermas. I should read more Hegel, for that matter. So far, I can say with complete confidence that I have not been afflicted with any belief that I should read more Zizek, or any fear that doing so would throw my world askew.

RIPope makes a more extended related claim at greater length in his post at CPROBES: The fact that Zizek annoys people is itself a symptom of his rightness; both psychoanalysis and Marxism are analyses of the resistance to themselves; disagreement is itself always proof of the original position, which after all predicts such pathology. This is an old game among both Freudians and a subset of Marxists and racialists and lots of others trying to discredit the business of arguing with them. 'Most everyone else has long since said: you're making your claim non-falsifiable and hence empty, and making a claim that couldn't possibly be generalized because lots of incompatible theories annoy people and purport to be true on that basis. Now, maybe one of them's ultimately right; but no one of them can show anything at all about its rightness by using this argument.

Liberals do, DE FACTO, claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. They 'claim' this by saying that everything else is dangerous and to be avoided.

While I kept thinking that Adam and Brad were doing a better job reconstructing Zizek's essay than Zizek had done in writing it, RIPope seems to have Zizek's argumentative strategy reproduced pretty faithfully. This is false and even silly. It would require that liberals think at least the following: 1) that the world is perfectly liberal as it is, that there is no need for serious and dramatic reform in a liberal direction, or 2) that the only reasons to criticize some set of political means (say, the murder of a few tens of millions of people) is because of a disagreement about ends. I believe, and I'll bet John's with me here, that 1) the world, the status quo, is in moral need of massive and widespread change to become liberal, that the status quo simply isn't "liberalism," and 2) that even if some alternative arrangement of the world to be an improvement on the status quo, its dependence on murder of tens of millions of people as a means counts as a reason not to pursue it.

Liberals, instead of simply equating Marxism with Stalinism, should take a closer look...

And yet Zizek's piece was about the moral evaluation of Stalinism, warning about how terrible it is to think bad thoughts about it. Similarly,

If when "they see someone willing to imagine, that is, willing to think" they immediately come down with charges of totalitarianism

Well, I plead guilty to thinking about totalitarianism when the topic at hand is Stalinism. I don't do so with respect to every radical political imaginary that I happen to disagree with-- Green theory, for example, or neo-Thomism. But when someone maintains that their preferred political imaginary is at risk from the criticism of Stalinism, well, yep, worries about the relationship of that imaginary to totalitarianism spring to mind.

I also note that, as best as I can tell, RIPope at CPROBES, and Jodi who seems to endorse his post, are describing a pretty different relationship to liberalism from the "we Western liberals" that Brad quotes Zizek as claiming to belong to. From the CPRROBES post, titled "Why Zizek matters, or why liberal heads must roll":

If we are going to achieve change, we must, more than anything, fight the liberals. As Badiou notes, there is no greater evil than sitting on the sidelines while thinking oneself to have a Beautiful Soul - like just about all fackin' baby boomers today. Liberal policy-tinkering and overly-pragmatic decision-making (i.e. forever waiting for the latest poll results) are this greatest evil.

The sixties were in this sense the greatest catastrophe of the human species and the planet.

There is a promise in communism that's simply not there in Nazism or liberalism. There is no evil ín-itself in the notion of communism like there is in liberalism (fundamental aquiescence to the injustices of capitalism) and Nazism (pretty obvious I think - to say that Nazism could be considered simply a perversion of Romanticism is rather dubious, I dare say). So, to not make a choice for communism is to ensure our annihilation, however good one might feel about it (`oh aren't I a great person, I'm against all violence, all evil [while in fact I'm them most evil of them all]')...

Now, this does mean that, unless liberals are willing to think and to confront and acknowledge the truth of their own positions, we'd have to accept a little bit of violence. But what's worse, violence against a few or the absolute violence of global Holocaust, a giant and stupid sacrifice to what's left of our God?

And, oddly enough, this prompts me to worry about RIPope's potential enthusiasm for revolutionary mass murder, prompts me to doubt that he is recognizably one of "we Western liberals," prompts me to think thoughts about totalitarianism.

The two Zizek pieces I've read don't sound as extreme as this. But they sound more like this than they sound like Adam's comments...

Rich Puchalsky

"Here is an example of how liberalism today functions as a closed system. Apparently, liberalism has always already answered all questions, imagined all futures, and provided the proper way to live. It already knows what its critics are thinking, can already predict --and thereby work to stifle-- any imagining of another future."

That was in response to my suggestion that since Zizek has explained what he's thinking -- warmed-over Communism -- maybe we really don't need to treat it as a brand new idea that someone is imagining. Jodi's claim is quite sweeping in its totalitarian implications. According to her, any alternative to liberalism must equate to her favored one, so that any argument against Zizek must become an argument against all possible alternatives. Zizek's questions are "all questions", his future is "all futures", and needless to say, knowing what he is thinking (or, at least, what he wrote) means that you know what all critics of liberalism are thinking. It's a virtual deification.

RIPope joins the church, as, well, its pope:
"Liberals do, DE FACTO, claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. They 'claim' this by saying that everything else is dangerous and to be avoided."

Once again, this only makes sense if Zizek's beliefs == "everything else". Claiming that it is dangerous and stupid to glamorize revolutionary executions as Zizek does *must* mean that you're saying that every alternative is dangerous.

Rich Puchalsky

Jacob T. Levy writes: "So far, I can say with complete confidence that I have not been afflicted with any belief that I should read more Zizek, or any fear that doing so would throw my world askew."

What Jacob is writing about is a kind of defense that I've seen used by other Theory types. It goes in stages:

1) How can you possibly say anything about Theorist X unless you read his basic works and don't rely on the brief snippets that you've seen? (Note that there is never an explanation of how the brief snippets are unrepresentative or out of context).

2) You've read the basic works? But you didn't read the extended ones. Why, you only read his early works (or his late ones -- whichever aren't the ones that the person has mentioned).

3) You've read just about all of his major works? But this other person who agrees with you hasn't. Why, I don't understand how anyone could disagree with Theorist X without reading him (and start over).

The thread has already gone to stage 3, I think.


Before anything else is said, I'd like, if possible, an answer from the liberals here to these questions:
Do you acknowledge, along with a majority of scientists, that the planet is facing imminent catastrophe (and, moreover, that this catastrophe is already being felt by many of the less-privileged around the world)?
If so, do you really think the solution is simply more and 'better' liberal education?

Would it not make far more sense to acknowledge that it is precisely this feel-good liberalism which has CREATED this situation?

Jacob T. Levy

If so, do you really think the solution is simply more and 'better' liberal education?

Would it not make far more sense to acknowledge that it is precisely this feel-good liberalism which has CREATED this situation?

Ah, but I subscribe to this oppressive bourgeois unselfconscious thing known as "logic," which has this prematurely antifascist thing called "the fallacy of the false dichotomy," which says that it's possible for some given phenomenon to be neither the cause of nor the solution for some other phenomenon.

And that's even before we get to the casual thought that "liberalism" just equals "more and better liberal education," or the meaning of the phrase "feel-good liberalism..."

Jacob T. Levy

(Sorry. Getting snotty. I'll stop now.)

Rich Puchalsky

RIPope has questions for "the liberals here". Well, I'm a liberal and I'm here, so I'll give my own answers.

RIPope, I agree with you about the imminent catastrophe. I'm not entirely sure which of the many possible ones you mean, but based on the "majority of scientists" bit, I'll guess that you are referring to global climate change, something that is indeed already being felt by many of the less-privileged around the world.

So what is the solution? Well, it isn't going to be "more and 'better' liberal education", there I agree also. But I also know that the solution is not going to be falling back into fantasies of Communist revolution, something that will surely discredit a real problem by associating it with the remnants of a failed idea. When Adam Kotsko wrote earlier about how it was too bad that people weren't talking more about social justice these days, he seemed to think that maybe they would more if the left wasn't so discredited. Well, social justice is not the exclusive province of leftists. In fact, leftists were the ones who damaged the idea by associating it with their own totalitarian solutions. We're not going to get it back by going back to more of the same.

So, has "feel-good liberalism" created this situation, as you ask? No, except insofar as "feel-good liberalism" means "all current political systems, including Communism" (for the Chinese are, of course, a major contributor to global climate change). On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for the idea that it's the failure of leftism that created this situation. You created a situation where you arrogated all communal values to yourselves, denying that anyone else could have them, and then proceeded to fail miserably on the world stage. The last thing we need is for you to keep insisting that yours is the only alternative.


To be sure, liberalism has not directly/overtly caused the global catastrophe, but it has implicitly been working towards it for many years. The "greatest evil" Badiou talks about is precisely this sitting on the sidelines while pretending to be doing good work. It's for this reason that I call it "feel-good liberalism" (in Lacanese, it is the position of the Beautiful Soul). Because one talks about equal rights one feels as though one has done one's part. I'm afraid there is a lot more work to be done.
(China is not Communist, titled so or not. No country pimps off its workers for global capitalism like they do, so they are closer to the opposite of communism...).

Zizek argues (in a Hegelian way) that the failings of liberal democracy - i.e. the fact that we will imminently witness global catastrophe(s) - are not simply a result of failed realizations of its promise but a direct result of the notion itself. And this is why it must be abandoned. The reason is that liberalism cannot fundamentally rein in the forces of capitalism. It cannot, on its own, prevent the destruction of the planet.

Now, I would fully concur that Zizek does NOT offer a solution to the problems of socialist government. Perhaps that would be too much for one thinker.

But that's not his purpose, for his role, I think, is to get others to begin thinking along this path, to Realize the truth of the world situation for ourselves.

The analyst should never 'give' the 'answer' to the analysand.

It is up to the analysand to figure it out h/imself.

joe o

China is still Communist. It isn't a liberal country. They fricking control how many kids you can have.


Well I didn't exactly say they were liberal, now did I?
Merely that if Communism's chief defining point is the workers revolution, pimping out one's workers to brutalizing foreign capitalists seems just about as anti-Communist as one can get...


Four points occur to me.

The first is that it seems entirely valid, even essential, to judge a regime by the extent of its murderousness. Murder is the worst thing, except perhaps for extremely prolonged torture: Stalin and Hitler did plenty of both, anyway. So political systems that commit themselves to a hell of a lot of murder and torture are bad.

Second, Nazism and Stalinism, and Maoism, all offered up a shining-light-on-the-hill vision of the wonderful world that would come into being once all the "necessary murders" and tortures had been done. I'm not sure if this difference in rhetoric would have made me care overmuch, about the choice between being tortured or murdered by the KGB or the SS, say.

Third, in any case, the Communist and Nazi visions of the wonderful world that would come into being, once all the right people had been tortured or murdered or both, seem unappealing and not worth a single life. Both re-envisaged human life, once everything was in place and all the enemies were killed, as a sort of 1930s boarding school with lots of communal activity, a carefully controlled library, and plenty of prefects ready to dob you in to the real powers. Both kinds of heaven would only arrive after death, as with the Christian one; but in the Stalinist and Hitlerian cases the deaths were other people's.

(I wouldn't like the Christian heaven either, much, as I understand it. And Christianity likewise has enough death to its name that I sometimes wonder how people can associate themselves with it.)

Fourth, Zizek wants Fascism to remain an exclusive evil because it has been successfully used for a long time as an alibi for Stalin's murders, and that alibi is now, rightly, coming unstuck. The obvious thing is to reject both forms of murderous police state, with utter abhorrence for the thing itself and utter contempt for their apologists. Like Zizek, among others.

RIPope also seems a bit cheerful (on his own site) about "a little bit of violence", which it appears should be directed against liberals. Fortunately, certain aspects of RIPope's style of argument and self-presentation, as with Zizek's, mean that neither would ever be in a position to indulge their daydreams. Which perhaps is as they want it. Dream on ...

As for the implicit assumption that some sort of authoritarian government would be better from an environmental perspective than "liberal" systems, that seems surprising, given the environmental records of the authoritarian/totalitarian states.



Since there has been quite a bit of activity in this thread, let me just say that I've read but don't have time to respond today. Busy. Thanks for contributing.


'Note that there is never an explanation of how the brief snippets are unrepresentative or out of context'. Well, I think that 'brief snippets' are by definition out of context. As for unrepresentative, Mr Levy seems to have read two newspaper articles from a rather large corpus of work. If he were to read a more academic Zizek texts- for example, Tarrying with the Negative - he would indeed find a rather different style of writing and of argumentation which would certainly problematize the picture he currently has.

In fact, the point was not that these texts was 'unrepresentative' but that they presupposed arguments and points worked though elsewhere. If you hadn't been quite so eager to get in a polemical point about so-called 'theory-types', you might have seen this.

It's true that some of Zizek's text are dense and theoretical argument, others contain more than a soupcon of calculated provocation. Nothing is gained from confusing the two.

'in Lacanese, it is the position of the Beautiful Soul'

Shouldn't that be Hegelese?


Please excuse grammatical and other errors in the above.

Rich Puchalsky

K writes: "As for unrepresentative, Mr Levy seems to have read two newspaper articles from a rather large corpus of work."

K, look through my comment about the three stages of Theory-defense above. Your comment is a fine example of stage 3. Levy was more or less agreeing with a point made by Holbo. Are you seriously claiming that Holbo hasn't read Zizek? Or are you just seizing on the participation of someone who hasn't read as much Zizek -- something which is inevitably going to happen within a blog comment section -- as an excuse to sneer at points that you can not answer?

K adds: "In fact, the point was not that these texts was 'unrepresentative' but that they presupposed arguments and points worked though elsewhere." But Levy said that he read two newspaper articles. Why was Zizek writing newspaper articles that presupposed arguments and points worked through elsewhere? What is the point of writing a newspaper article that no one will be able to understand unless they read several books that introduce it?

I suggest that Zizek's problem is not that his work is so complex that he can't boil it down into a newspaper article. I suggest that his problem is that people understand his work all too well, and that his admirers need to throw up a fog of banal excuses and attempted distractions for anyone who doesn't already agree with Zizek when they read him.

Julian Elson

I don't think, empirically, that global warming will be a catastrophe. I think it's bad (though communist regimes have shown less regard for the environment than liberal ones, whether capitalistic "communist" regimes like modern-day China or Brezhnevite, ordinary communist regimes like the USSR or East Germany), and I think that global warming will typically reduce our standards of living and qualities of life (though, undoubtedly, there will be a *few* places where it will be good). I think we should be doing more to stop it. I don't think, though, that it will lead to massive death and destruction on the scale, for instance, of the crushing of the Kulaks or the Shoah.

I can't predict the future, of course, so I'm willing to acknowledge the [small] possibility that it will be a total catastrophe, which is all the more reason to work against the types of political regimes that have bad environmental records, like Republicans and Communists.

Rich Puchalsky

Julian, I'd guess we largely agree, and I don't mean to turn this into a discussion of global climate change, but I think that you are underbilling the risk of catastrophe. There is a tendency to treat "total catastrophe" as something on the order of a runaway greenhouse effect, as happened on the planet Venus, and then to correctly say that this is highly unlikely. But catastrophe need be nothing more than, say, a severe ocean level rise that slowly floods out most of Bangladesh and indirectly kills tens or hundreds of millions. To say nothing of the indirect effects of all the environmental stressors that global climate change will involve. No one really know what will happen if most coral reefs disappear or if the balance point between fish and jellyfish tips further.

For a dated (1997) but readable description of one of these issues, sea level rise, try the

sea level rise FAQ

If the West Antarctic ice sheet goes, I think the results will be catastrophic by anyone's definition, except perhaps those who think that all catastrophies must happen, as in movies, over the course of an hour or a day.

Rich Puchalsky

That link didn't work. I'll try to
write it without HTML:


Adam Kotsko


The article is intelligible as it stands. Ogged has shown this decisively. But if you're going to discuss "Zizek," rather than "this article by Zizek," you're going to have to read more than just this article. And it's hardly just a power play for readers of Zizek to say, in response to objections to particular points, "Well, if you're interested, he works out this point further in Book X."

There is a certain point of reading below which you just cannot discuss any thinker, Theory-oriented or not, and the honest thing is to focus on discussing the particular works at hand.


Adam, this isn't so crucial that we need to worry about it forever and ever, but it seems clear to me that ogged is misreading the final paragraph. The argument can't be that communism is better than Fascism because it is more liberal (or less illiberal), because Zizek isn't a liberal. The final paragraph gives us Zizek's position, not a hypothetical position he would take if he were a liberal.

Rich Puchalsky


Of course the article is intelligible as it stands. If you go back and re-read what I wrote, you'll see that I say just that -- the article is intelligible as it stands. It's only when people start disagreeing with its message that some of Zizek's defenders here start to say that you can't disagree because you don't really understand it.

Intelligibility is a different matter from Holbo's original question of whether Zizek is arguing or not; I have no opinion about that. It is possible to have a non-argued set of assertions that are perfectly intelligible.

And I disagree with you about our supposed inability to discuss "Zizek" rather than "this article by Zizek". Why is Zizek writing newspaper articles if they misrepresent his current positions so badly?


I read some Sartre letters and essays a few years ago that deal with this exactly subject. Don't remember much, though.

I think dsquared got it right. Stalinism was indeed atrocious and dreadful, but one can imagine a decent person being a communist, the ideology itself is not wicked, rather it's utopian; nice idea, too bad it doesn't work.

Fascism, on the contrary, is a dreadful idea that, in fact, does work.


Cheerful about murder, me? Hardly. While I am dead serious of the need for liberals to seriously question the conditions of their own position, I think it is a bit odd that people are reading blog entries in a literal fashion. Why there wouldn't be an acceptance of a certain level of polemic or satire in blogs strikes me as bizarre, and perhaps, once again, symptomatic of liberal hysteria to anything which makes them think (on the very conditions of their thinking)!

Laon writes: "The first is that it seems entirely valid, even essential, to judge a regime by the extent of its murderousness. Murder is the worst thing, except perhaps for extremely prolonged torture: Stalin and Hitler did plenty of both, anyway. So political systems that commit themselves to a hell of a lot of murder and torture are bad."

OK, but mass murder on a planetary scale is OK?

Sure... dream on, all the way to the open grave...


'Why was Zizek writing newspaper articles that presupposed arguments and points worked through elsewhere? What is the point of writing a newspaper article that no one will be able to understand unless they read several books that introduce it?'

In fact, I wouldn't necessarily disagree with this. It is perhaps a legitimate criticism of Zizek. As I pointed out earlier, the article quoted is lifted from a book called 'Did Someone Say Totalitarianism'. It makes much more sense in that book than in the LRB. Zizek's tendency to cut and paste from his books can be rather counter-productive.

As for this stuff about 'Theory-types,' its just polemical flim flam, designed to imply that your interlocutor is in thrall to tribalistic jargon etc as opposed to yourself, operating by the clear light of reason.

At the end of the day, the statement 'Zizek doesn't argue' is just false. That he doesn't argue in particular articles is of course another matter,


I've just re-read this entire thread, and, taking Adam's advice, went back and read the particular work at hand.

One source of confusion here, I think, is the way that Zizek bookends his theoretical discussion of Communism and Fascism with a historical argument about changes in post-war European identity. We have a philosophical argument couched within a historical argument, but without a clear explanation of how those arguments are related.

I think there are two articles here. You can see one just by reading the first paragraph and then skipping to the last. You can see the other by reading everything in between. At least some of the disagreements on this thread may have stemmed from thinking that those two articles are at all related.

If I'm right, Zizek bears a large share of writerly responsibility for the disconnect between those two points. So I'm sympathetic with the argument of Holbo and others that the entire body of the article seems like one long parenthetical digression. Yet if we accept that the theoretical article is a digression from the historical one, perhaps a more comprehensible interpretation of the historical article would be this:

In contemporary European politics, comparing Communism with Fascism is a rhetorical tool used by right-wing politicians. Part of the reason they use that tool is to recuperate nationalist ideologies and memories in formerly Fascist countries. (Enter Berlusconi.) If Europeans oppose these right-wing movements, then "here one has to make a choice" -- not between two mutually exclusive political imaginaries, but between two actually existing political options that are current at odds: resurgent forms of nativism and nationalism versus an integrated European identity.

If this is the point of the last paragraph, then all the musing about the political imaginaries of Communism and Fascism is still a monumental case of misdirection. And I think Zizek's decision to intervene in an essentially political argument by rehabilitating the "Enlightenment" rationalism of Stalinism is highly questionable if not insidious.

But in my re-reading of the article, I don't find Zizek saying that we must always choose Communism over Fascism because comparing them always leads to apologies for the latter. (Even one of Adam's early comments seems to interpret Zizek's point this way.) Rather, I find him to be saying that "here" -- in Europe in 2005 -- we must emphatically reject Fascism as "worse" than Communism because the alternative ("here," remember) "tends tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil."

Zizek can grant, it seems to me, that posing Communism and Fascism as the only alternatives is a false dichotomy in a theoretical sense. But what he's saying is that this false dichotomy is historically at the center of post-war European political debates. And as long as it is, then "here" "we" -- Europeans, not philosophers -- must choose.

Not sure I've added anything new here, but I wanted to join Adam's attempt to get back to the article itself. Mainly because I haven't read anything else by Zizek.

Adam Kotsko


I'll admit that I'm starting to get lost in where this discussion is heading and what's at stake.


I'm not especially sure about the efficacy of psychologizing the arguments of people with whom one is in active discussion. I suppose it is biblical, however -- God tells the prophet, "You have to tell them, even though they won't listen to you. If you make the effort to tell them, their blood is on their own head; if you don't tell them, it's on theirs."


Oh, and I forgot to say ... If my interpretation of the historical article in fact gets Zizek's point right, I think his point is fatally undermined by the fact that the original proposal discussed in the opening paragraph was favored by politicians from ex-Communist countries. By a sleight of hand, he switches to Berlusconi at the end, but his argument against Berlusconi seems to depend on the fiction that critiques of Communism in Europe are only coming from politicians who are trying to rehabilitate nationalism in post-Fascist countries.


Adam, as these comments attest, I think 'psychologizing' the issue is necessary. Why there should be so much bother about someone one isn't really taking the time to read anyhow bespeaks a certain hysteria that goes beyond what's happening here, to a larger cultural logic. And that's really my enemy.
I think there is an awful lot at stake here, no matter how much liberals might like to pooh-pooh such an 'assertion'.


Well, at least in the US, the fact that US lesbian-rights liberal intelligenzia is - politically - a notably harmful force, that's hardly a controversy.


Again, the point is that if you really believe there to be planetary catastrophe around the corner, one can't be satisfied simply with more rights for more minority groups.
The point is, and it is perhaps not the easiest to grasp (and psychoanalytically there SHOULD be a lot of resistance to it), that it is PRECISELY our smug liberal satisfaction of guaranteeing more rights for more groups WHICH EFFECTIVELY ALLOWS FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PLANET.
This is what's so insidious about it, that it thinks it to be doing good (which on ONE level it no doubt is), while effectively guaranteeing the greatest evil of all.


Well, I do understand that active liberal advocacy is politically advantageous for the wingnuts.

But how does guaranteeing more rights for more groups allow for destruction of the planet? If it was explained upthread, what's the timestamp of that comment?


Rich Puchalsky

Adam writes to me: "I'll admit that I'm starting to get lost in where this discussion is heading and what's at stake."

Well, as always the discussion is heading in many different directions. But I can try to make a special summation of where I disagree with what you wrote in particular.

Zizek, in the particular articles that started this thread, is attempting to act as a public intellectual. I think that this is inarguable; he's writing newspaper articles that deal with the proper response to problems of current European identity. So he has to be evaluated in this context as a public intellectual, not as an academic philosopher who can't be judged unless all of his main works are read.

So what's at stake gets back to a comment of yours early in this thread: "The discussion of economic justice in our society is virtually nowhere [...]". Is Zizek as public intellectual really helpful, if your concern is public discussion of economic justice?

I would say that he isn't. His writing involves defense of Communism, implicit defense of Stalinism, and the claim that liberalism is both the cause of economic justice problems and incapable of solving them. This does active harm to the cause of public discussion of economic justice, because if the only way to get economic justice is totalitarian-inflected Communism, then we aren't going to get economic justice. If the only alternative to global climate change, say, is the adolescent fantasy of revolutionary execution that Zizek glamorizes and that RIPope echoes here, then people shrug their shoulders and start to look for ways to live with global climate change.

I don't know whether you consider yourself to be a liberal or a leftist. As a liberal, I've heard this BS from leftists for a long time. Zizek's stuff isn't that different from old-style Trotskyite propaganda, say. Well, the leftists lost, they had their world-historical chance and they failed. There is particular reason to let them keep going with the same old holier-than-thou totalitarian nonsense.

Rich Puchalsky

It's probably obvious from context, but "particular reason" should be "no particular reason" above.

I will add that the definitional vagueness about liberalism only adds to the harm that Zizek does with his false dichotomy. If you read his defenders here, you'll see liberalism as described as encompassing just about everything except for Zizek-approved forms of leftism.


To be honest I am getting a bit dizzy scrolling here for the timestamp, but in any case I have been articulating it over several posts at CPROBES.
The point is that while it IS necessary to fight for more minority rights, we mustn't stop there. Too many liberals think they've done a good day's work by simply fighting for rights. So what I'm trying to get at is that we mustn't let ourselves feel good
- there is far too much work to do.

At the same time, we must fight the inevitable liberal pooh-poohing of anything that stretches the limit of the known. "Oh, revolution you say? That reminds me of grad school, that reminds me of adolescence, that's so passe". This is, of course, classic liberal resistance. And the point, again, is that it makes one feel comfortable, with a certain smug satisfaction.

So long as we maintain this smugness, we are effectively guaranteeing that our very real problems will not be addressed or dealt with. So, in this sense, liberal smugness is our enemy.



Are we reading the same article?

When Z. states that "It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism.", is this in your view a "defense of Communism, an implicit defense of Stalinism?" If so, how so?

I think Z.'s point is that if we allow the equation of Communism with Facism, then just as nothing in the Facsist realm can be seriously discussed as having merit, then nothing in the Communist realm will be unable to discussed as having merit. This is not anywhere near the same as saying that we need to rehabilitate really existing socialism, or as you say "the leftists lost, they had their world-historical chance and they failed." Who then won? Liberals?

I find the article straight-forward with little need to have read anything else of Z. to get. I understand the implications to many liberals is to seriously disrupt their view of Stalinist Communism, but Z. makes it clear that "We should also admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism."


the way to solve economic justice problems - why does it have to be either liberalism or Stalinism? Why not trade-unionism, for example? It's neither liberal nor totalitarian.

I haven't heard about this Zizek guy until today, but seems to me, one should be able to attack liberalism (as being unable to solve problems), defend communism (as not being as bad as Nazism) while advocating (or having in mind) some third solution to the inequality problem.

Rich Puchalsky

abb1, I don't support that false dichotomy. I think that it's clear that there are many different suggested solutions for economic justice problems: liberal ones, leftist ones, anarchist ones, others yet to be invented, etc. I'm pointing out that Zizek is implicitly setting up a false dichotomy between liberalism -- which he equates to pretty much all modern systems, and which is his presumed cause of economic injustice -- and Communism.

peBird asks: "Are we reading the same article?" and asks how I can read it as a "defense of Communism, an implicit defense of Stalinism." Try the following quotes, peBird:

"Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition"

"In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included."

"Consider the fact that, on Stalin’s birthday, prisoners would send him congratulatory telegrams from the darkest gulags"

"We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the dissident Communists who risked their lives fighting what they perceived as the ‘bureaucratic deformation’ of socialism in the USSR "

"the unhelpful comparison between Communism – a thwarted attempt at liberation"

"its excess is an unmistakable sign that, in contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was a case of an authentic revolution perverted."



The quotes displayed contrast Stalinism with Nazism to demonstrate their lack of equality.

My question is still, how do you get from a distinction of Stalinism and Nazism to a defense of Stalinism?

Adam Kotsko

Rich, Thanks for laying it out so clearly. The main point where I would disagree with you is that I think you leap too quickly to the conclusion that Zizek is defending Stalinism as such. I don't see that in his broader work -- and though that may admittedly bias my interpretation of this particular article, I don't see it there either. He is walking a fine line, to be sure, but I don't think he crosses to an advocacy of Stalinism.

John, Why can't Zizek say that Communism is closer to the Enlightenment ideal? I'm not sure that failure to adhere to the tenets of actually existing liberalism (in its popular or more theoretically sophistocated forms) necessarily excludes faithfulness to the Enlightenment ideal. I'm reading Derrida's Spectres of Marx right now, and D. is reviewing the ways in which Marx points out over and over again the ways in which capitalism amounts to obscurantism -- i.e., it is anti-rational and anti-Enlightenment, even if it was only made possible by the Enlightenment. (Surely the stock-market bubble of the 90's, for instance, was not a triumph of the Enlightenment!) So, granting that for the sake of argument, why is it incoherent for Zizek to claim that the liberalism that "resigns itself" to capitalism and attempts to forge a "capitalism with a human face" is in fact a betrayal of the Enlightenment ideal?

I don't mean that you have to accept his premises, but it isn't simply a self-undermining argument in the way you read it as being.

Rich Puchalsky

peBird, there are any number of ways to "distinguish" between Stalinism and Nazism, if that is all that you want to do.
But Zizek isn't distinguishing -- evenhandedly "demonstrat[ing] their lack of equality" -- he's picking out particular historical factoids and interpretations to make an apologetic for Stalinism. Note that he's not comparing Communism to Fascism rationally, he explictly denounces that: "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." He's just putting out little propaganda bits, like the disgusting "congratulatory telegrams from the Gulag". It's tired old stuff, complete with "bureaucratic deformation", the betrayal of the poor idealists, etc.

Rich Puchalsky

Adam, I'm glad that I was able to clarify what I meant. The Stalinism bit may be a bit of a distraction, since it's such a hot button; I think that my comments would be the same even if Zizek had defended Communism without saying a word about Stalinism. You just can't disentangle Communism from its historical results at this point.

I have a question for you; you mention "actually existing liberalism". Would you mind explaining which parts of the current world scene constitute actually existing liberalism? I'd like to know if you mean "all of neoliberalism and its broadly defined associated power structures" -- which, according to RIPope, includes China -- or something else. Are the social democratic countries of Europe, say, just another variety of actually existing liberalism, or not?

Adam Kotsko

I just mean self-declared liberal countries and institutions, in the broad sense, insofar as they really exist in the world (i.e., not simply in terms of their stated ideals). Including China in that simply because they are opening up to investment and are part of the global market does not strike me as particularly convincing. There are significant differences, of course, between the US and Europe, for instance -- just as one could have made fairly obvious distinctions between Soviet and Maoist forms of Communism.

I'm using the term "actually existing liberalism" as an explicit parallel to "actually existing socialism" (or Real Socialism), which was formerly applied to the Soviet bloc (not sure whether Far Eastern commie countries were ever really included in this designation). Implicit in this parallel: Liberalism has not yet lived up to its promises; perhaps some structural reasons for this must be sought, beyond individual or collective failures of will.


What's the 'Enlightenment ideal'? All three are Enlightenment ideals, roughly: Capitalism for Liberte, Communism for Egalite and Fascism for Fraternite.


Rich - I understand how the tone of the article might offend - although I admit it doesn't offend me. I agree that it is a polemic and meant to inflame. But I think his conclusion is to the point:

"Berlusconi ... his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives’ call for the prohibition of Communist symbols."

It's a mischaracterization to view this article as an apology/defense for Communism, it's rather stating the danger inherent if we allow the conflation of the two "ism"s.


Rich, BTW:

"You just can't disentangle Communism from its historical results at this point."


This is what Z. is getting at with "We should also admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism."

Rich Puchalsky

Adam, thanks for your explanation of what you mean by actually existing liberalism. Since you refer to the US and Europe as having varients of it, in the same way as there were Soviet and Maoist varients of Communism, I'll take it to mean "the basic political-economic system of most of the world, embodying some form of avowed capitalism and some form of more or less symbolic democracy".

Note that liberalism, by this definition, has very weak competitors on the world stage. Since it subsumes US-liberalism, modern conservatism, European social democracy, and the various crony-capitalism governments and more or less single-party democracies, all that is left are Communism, theocratic Islamicism, the odd dictatorship, and various proposed political systems that control no actual territory as of yet.

I trust that everyone can at this point see what I meant by the dangers of the dichotomy that is being set up. If liberalism automatically equates to lack of economic justice, and liberalism is defined as above, where else on this list are you to turn for economic justice? I would guess that theocratic Islamicism would be out for most non-Muslims, so that leaves Communism.

The problem is that, given the existing record of liberalism, and the existing record of Communism, almost everyone will choose liberalism. It doesn't matter how much you talk about the coming catastrophes or the past massacres of liberalism. Communism's record is worse in every area. So by insisting that Communism, or even Marxism in general or socialism in general, owns social justice, you doom social justice.

And of course, if you ever become willing to admit that there are significant distinctions between various forms of "liberalism", the whole thing collapses. Social justice is not the exclusive province of the varients of Marxism, and it never was.

US-liberals, and European social democrats, should remember what the days of "no enemies to the left" really got us. There aren't enough leftists remaining to even make useful allies against rampant conservatism, and there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't call out Zizekian BS as soon as we see it.

Adam Kotsko

I would note, for the sake of fairness, that Communism for the most part has only been tried in countries that were not yet very industrialized and that were already very poor. One could assume that communism would absolutely ruin a prosperous country such as the US, but there's no real field data. The one chance for a really prosperous socialist experiment (Cubt) was, at very least, put at a severe disadvantage by US sanctions.

We do know, however, that neo-liberalism, when applied to poor, underdeveloped countries, leads to massive devestation and starvation in the vast majority of cases. It is no coincidence that Haiti, the poorest nation in the W. Hemisphere, is also the most "open" to trade according to neo-liberal standards. (By neo-liberalism I mean "the Washington Consensus" -- the kind of thing that keeps Third World nations from developing infrastructure and social services and promises that "trade" will magically cause those things to appear.) Neo-liberalism "works" (barely) in the US only because we're already really rich and thus able to absorb the ridiculous waste associated with radical free-market, and because we allow ourselves to depart from the orthodoxy; neo-liberalism isn't really applied in Europe, aside from the UK, and even in the UK it's nowhere near as far along.

Insofar as Europe plays a role in imposing the "Washington consensus" on the rest of the world, it is part of the problem, even though its internal economic arrangements are far superior in my opinion. (I cannot imagine a short-term way to either move the US closer to the European model or to come up with a way to actually develop poor countries in a peaceful way. In fact, the US seems to hate any leader of a poor country who tries to do anything for the people, as evidenced by the rumors of a possible assassination of Hugo Chavez.)

So this either complicates or oversimplifies. I don't know. In any case, the dichotomy that Zizek proposes isn't "the neo-liberal order" vs. "everything else," because there's only a negligible "anything else," as you note. I don't know how you can claim that Zizek is simply proposing a return to Soviet-style communism -- he's trying to find a way to reactivate the communist ideal while avoiding the mistakes (hence, theorizing Stalinism so that we can tell "what went wrong"). In essence, he's trying to figure out how we can stop just talking about this stuff on our damn blogs and actually do something.


Adam - I think your comment clarifies and simplifies greatly.

If one takes the view of equating Fascism with Communism, then of course Cuba should be overthrown. We could then expect a Carribean Las Vegas - probably with a new Law and Order CSI - Habana, but really gruesome, on the order of Nicaragua and Columbia. All in the name of the long march of democracy.

Zizek writes a simple polemic - for gods sake, lets not get drawn into a theoritical "rational, liberal" discussion about equating the two - its not even close, and as a result we get a thread a mile long.

Adam Kotsko

Right now I'm just doing my part to get to 100 comments.

Did you mean "clarifies and simplifies greatly" in a positive or negative way?

Rich Puchalsky

Adam, thanks for the response. But really, if anyone thinks that all "liberals" from George W. Bush to Gro Harlem Brundtland are part of one big Horowitzian network of neo-liberalism, it's not surprising that they might feel discouraged about their ability to actually do something. At some point, one has to realize that this kind of label is really an excuse, or a slur, not a category. It's like those US-libertarians who go around calling everybody else a statist. OK, so every country and every major political party from the German Greens to the U.S. Republicans is "statist" in comparison to the non-existent US-libertarian ideal. So what? So every union organizer and every union-busting CEO is equally a "liberal". Again, so what?

I know that leftist ideas have been so universally rejected that the list of non-leftists has grown to include almost everyone. But that doesn't mean that all non-leftists are the same. All countries pretty much have to participate in the same current world finance system, yes; that is the state of globalization that we currently are in. That doesn't mean that everyone approves of it or isn't working to change it, or that it can't be changed.

Lastly, theorizing Stalinism so that we can tell "what went wrong" is a staggeringly needless activity. Liberal political theory has some quick and easy theories about what went wrong. Namely, having a system with no institutional checks on power means that the system lasts only until someone decides to grab personal dictatorial power, and this inevitably happens wherever it can happen. Is Zizek really going to figure out a theory better than "power corrupts"? All of the socialist parties that survived learned this lesson, and they are all social democratic now.


Adam - certainly in a positive sense. The more I think through this (and I just saw "Downfall"), the more I realize that there is an a priori argument to not conflate the two political systms.

The point of theorizing Stalinism is not to "tell what went wrong" as much as to tell "what really happened". It is anything but needless. I suppose it's only needless if you already know the answer. Please inform.

If the best you can you is "power corrupts", then you are more of a liberal than I gave you credit. I don't know what Zizek will figure out and neither do you.


Hello, I’m new to the thread.

I agree that the article under discussion is poorly written. But as to the larger issues discussed here, I think Zizek’s thinking on the commie/fascist dichotomy (and much of his corpus) is in concord with the final paragraph of Eric Hobsbawm’s recent piece in the Guardian:

"The belief that the US or the European Union, in their various forms, have achieved a mode of government which, however desirable, is destined to conquer the world, and is not subject to historic transformation and impermanence, is the last of the utopian projects so characteristic of the last century. What the 21st needs is both social hope and historical realism."

The comments to this entry are closed.

Email John & Belle

  • he.jpgjholbo-at-mac-dot-com
  • she.jpgbbwaring-at-yahoo-dot-com

Google J&B

J&B Archives

Buy Reason and Persuasion!

S&O @ J&B

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Squid and Owl. Make your own badge here.

Reason and Persuasion Illustrations

  • www.flickr.com

J&B Have A Tipjar

  • Search Now:

  • Buy a couple books, we get a couple bucks.
Blog powered by Typepad

J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)