We need Zizek’s ‘Thatcher of the left’ like a fish needs a bicycle

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek hopes fervently for a “Thatcher of the left”, and pays homage to strong leaders, in the New Statesman this week. I think the opposite: we need a movement to turn the world upside down without such leaders and their potential for authoritarianism and hierarchy.

Zizek, regarded as a leading “left” intellectual, explains his point with reference to Winston Churchill’s approach to military decisions: to boil down the experts’ rot-in-hellanalysis into “a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’”. Such a “gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master”, Zizek writes. “The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis.” Thatcher “was such a Master, sticking to her decision which was at first perceived as crazy, gradually elevating her singular madness into an accepted norm.”

In passing, I’d argue that this is an idealised, one-sided portrayal of Thatcher. Yes, she was more ideological and dogmatic than other Tory leaders, but she didn’t fight all her battles at once – even if she talked about them. Yes, she laid waste to British industry and sought revenge on enemies “without” (Argentina) and “within” (the miners) – but for all her ranting about curbing the state, budget expenditure grew year after year and she postponed most privatisations.

Working class communities last week celebrated not only her passing, but also that they have outlasted her, whatever their scars.

But Zizek’s main point is not about Thatcher. It is that we need someone on the “left” who can “repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction”. He counterposes such a “Master” to “active participatory democracy” – which he distrusts, but which I think is socialism’s heart and soul.

The demands and democratic aspirations of popular protests around Europe “form a kind of ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system”, Zizek argues. But the worst thing of all, he writes, is any notion of direct (i.e. participatory and active, as opposed to parliamentary) democracy. The “myth of non-representative direct self-organisation” is “the last trap, the deepest illusion”, that is “the most difficult to renounce” – but renounce it we must.

Zizek doesn’t unpack what he means by “leadership”. To my mind, many qualities that word might imply are not only necessary for the success of any movement of social transformation, but are also inconceivable without a development of direct, participatory democracy: decisiveness and initiative (without which no group of demonstrators ever broke through a line of police or soldiers, and no group of activists ever convinced their workmates to strike); strategic thinking (without which large-scale, long-term struggles and transformations are inconceivable); the ability to theorise (without which no movement can prosper).

Why would such qualities have to be brought together in one strong leader? And how to resist the danger, of which the history of all 20th century revolutions provides depressing evidence, of leaders becoming authorities … and worse? Zizek doesn’t say. Neither does he try to refute the generations of communists – from the Levellers, to the Chartists, to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and William Morris, and to many more in the 20th and 21st centuries – who have seen as the motive force of change the working class and wider sections of society downtrodden under capitalism.

Zizek gives two reasons for needing a “Master”. First, while there can be “ecstatic moments of group solidarity” during revolutions, they “don’t last”. “The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace.”

Well, millions of people who do meaningless, dispiriting and uncreative things to earn a living might not want to “pursue their work in peace” in the way that a university-based philosopher can. It is presumptious for Zizek to speak on

Drinks at Easington miners' welfare

Marking Thatcher’s demise at Easington miners’ club, Co. Durham

their behalf. As for wanting “an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice” … I don’t see what is “left wing” or radical about that. To my understanding, socialism is about superceding the state.

Zizek’s second argument is that “the Master” is important as a counterweight to “our ‘democratic’ sensitivity”. Quoting Alain Badiou, Zizek argues that to transcend illusions in representative (i.e. parliamentary) democracy, “appeals to direct self-organisation are not enough: a new figure of the Master is needed.”

It’s an old, old argument: people are incapable of taking decisions and implement them collectively; they need someone to do it for them. “Socialism from above”, which overlaps with such “big leader” syndrome, has been battling against “socialism from below” since the early 19th century (or even since classical times, depending on how you count). The clash of these “two souls of socialism” was summed up brilliantly in 1966, in this article by Hal Draper.

The Master, recycled

Rather than Zizek’s idealised, future “Thatcher of the left”, let’s look at really existing “Thatchers of the left” who have confronted Thatcher and the other neo-liberal leaders, in their heyday in the 1980s and since.

Zizek mentions Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, “a strong charismatic leader if there ever was one”, and argues that for the “attempts to develop modes of direct democracy (local councils, cooperatives, workers running factories)” in Venezuela, “the reference to a leader is necessary”. Why? It is these grass-roots movements, not Chavez, that contained the germs of transformative social change. Socialism is about developing such movements (which can and do sometimes push forward such leaders as Chavez) – it is not about telling them they need “a leader who allows them to pull themselves out of the swamp” (as Zizek describes Chavez).

Such “socialists from above” as Chavez or Fidel Castro are best understood in historical context. They arrived on a political scene dominated by “socialism from above” in its most terrible, criminal form – that of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the founder of the Chinese “Communist” state Mao Zedong. Stalinism and Maoism influenced, in myriad ways, the statist ideology of Castro’s Cuba, Che Guevara’s militarism, Chavez’s rule in Venezuela and many 20th century “liberation movements”.

And there is a consistency in Zizek: in an introduction to a recent edition of some of Mao’s writing, he makes clear that his “socialism from above” not only favours big leaders who “allow” people to pull themselves from swamps, but also acknowledges, as a “condition of freedom”, terror that may destroy millions of human beings. This point is repeated, in similar words, in Zizek’s book In Defence of Lost Causes.

“One should repeat Mao, reinventing his message to the hundreds of millions of the anonymous downtrodden”, Zizek writes. He describes as “radical” the cruelty with which Mao implemented the “great leap forward” of 1958-61 – which, Zizek writes, was the main cause of a famine that killed tens of millions of people. During the famine, “Mao knew exactly what was happening, saying: ‘half of China may well have to die’. This is the instrumental attitude at its most radical: killing as part of a ruthless attempt to realise a goal, reducing people to a disposable means.” This was a “rational strategy”, as opposed to the “irrational” character of the Nazi holocaust, Zizek claims.

Further on, Zizek quotes Mao on his readiness to engage in nuclear war with the USA if necessary. “It is all too easy to dismiss these lines as the empty posturing of a leader ready to sacrifice millions for his political goals (the extension ad absurdam of Mao’s ruthless decision to starve tens of millions to death in the late 1950s)”, Zizek writes. “The other side of this dismissive attitude is the basic message: ‘we should not be afraid’. Is this not the only correct attitude apropos of war? […] There is definitely something terrifying about this attitude. However, this terror is nothing less than the condition of freedom.” (I have quoted the relevant passages more fully in the endnote below.)

Terror is the “condition of freedom”; a “ruthless decision to starve tens of millions to death” is “rational”, as though that makes it somehow better than the Nazis’ killings; emancipation is achieved by big leaders and men with guns, not by collective, participatory democracy. This is where “socialism from above” leads, and there is nothing new about it.

Such justifications of Stalinism were served up endlessly by its apologists throughout the 20th century. To try to impose it on social movements now, after the Stalinist elite has largely disappeared, is not radical. It’s not clever. And I don’t believe it will work.

Some conclusions

Slavoj Zizek might want a “Thatcher of the left”, but surely doesn’t want to be one. I reckon his popularity, at least in the universities, is not a matter of “big leader” syndrome, but rather of “big thinker” syndrome: the “left” looking for someone to do its thinking for it. To my mind this shows the huge distance we still collectively have to travel in order to develop truly emancipatory ideas.

A collective effort is needed to renew, for the 21st century, fundamental aspects of socialist thinking, including our understanding of the relationship between socialism and feminism; of hierarchy, political authority and the state in the aftermath of Stalinism; of work, technology, the labour process and the transition beyond capitalism; and of the relationship between humanity and its natural environment, and how that might evolve in such a transition. (I started the People & Nature site in the hope of contributing thoughts on the latter two issues.)

Clearing out of the way the remnants of Stalinist ideology and “socialism from above” is a precondition to making serious progress on any of this. How can we fish-bikeengage in any sort of creative thinking about human liberation, as long as there linger ideas that liberation depends not on active, participatory democracy but on a “Thatcher of the left”? Let alone recycled Maoism that sees mass killing of ordinary people as a necessary part of the process. GL.

Endnote: Zizek on Mao

“In China under the Japanese occupation, patriotic unity against the Japanese was the predominant thing if communists wanted to win the class struggle – any direct focusing on the class struggle in these conditions went against class struggle itself.” (from Zizek’s introduction to Mao Tse-tung, On practice and contradiction (London: Verso, 2007), p. 6. Zizek’s italics).

“If one is to believe Mao’s latest biography [Zizek says in a note that he is referring to Mao: the unknown story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (London: Vintage, 2007)] he caused the greatest famine in history by exporting food to Russia to buy nuclear and arms industries: 38 million were starved and slave-driven to death in 1958-61. Mao knew exactly what was happening, saying: ‘half of China may well have to die’. This is the instrumental attitude at its most radical: killing as part of a ruthless attempt to realise a goal, reducing people to a disposable means – and what one should bear in mind that the Nazi holocaust was not the same: the killing of the Jews was not part of a rational strategy but an autotelic goal, a meticulously planned ‘irrational’ excess (recall the deportation of the last Jews from Greek islands in 1944, just before the German retreat, or the massive use of trains for transporting Jews instead of war materials in 1944.) This is why Heidegger is wrong when he reduces the Holocaust to the industrial production of corpses: Stalinist communism was that, but not Nazism.” (p. 10).

“[…] this is the way one should repeat Mao, reinventing his message to the hundreds of millions of the anonymous downtrodden, a simple and touching message of courage: ‘Bigness is nothing to be afraid of. The big will be overthrown by the small. The small will become big.’ The same message of courage also sustains Mao’s (in)famous stance towards a new atomic world war: [He then quotes Mao, who wrote: ‘We stand firmly for peace and against war. […] [but] we are not afraid of it. […] If the imperialists insist on launching a third world war, it is certain that several hundred million more will turn to socialism, and then there will not be much left on the earth for the imperialists.’  Zizek then continues:] It is all too easy to dismiss these lines as the empty posturing of a leader ready to sacrifice millions for his political goals (the extension ad absurdam of Mao’s ruthless decision to starve tens of millions to death in the late 1950s) – the other side of this dismissive attitude is the basic message: ‘we should not be afraid’. Is this not the only correct attitude apropos of war? ‘first, we are against it; second, we are not afraid of it’? There is definitely something terrifying about this attitude – however, this terror is nothing less than the condition of freedom.” (pp. 27-28).

And Zizek on Trotsky …

“Here, I am ready to assert the Trotsky of the universal militarisation of life, the Trotsky of the Red Army. That is the good Trotsky for me. It is interesting how those Western Marxists who perceive these aspects of Trotsky usually draw the conclusion that this proves that Stalinism was an objective process, that if Trotsky had won he would simply have been another Stalin … No, I think his logic was not Stalinist; it was another logic of Terror.” (“Interview with Slavoj Zizek”, Historical Materialism, vol. 7 (2000), p. 196).

19 Responses to We need Zizek’s ‘Thatcher of the left’ like a fish needs a bicycle

  1. Clay Gold says:

    This is ideology on top of ideology. It doesn’t matter what Zizek thinks, or what whoever wrote this thinks (I don’t see a name) or what my next door neighbour thinks. What matters is what happens; what gets done.

  2. tompainesghost says:

    What is peculiar about Zizek’s New Statesman article is not so much his totalitarian tendencies but why it should be published in an avowedly leftish, Fabian journal. I can only surmise that it’s because he has two z’s in his name, making him exotic for an English-reading intellectual public; because he name-drops Churchill, Duclos, Marx, Lubitch, Enron, Ayn Rand, Deleuze, Lippmann, Alain Badiou, and Arthur Rimbaud, all in the same article; and he has such a variety of asides and digressions it’s hard to follow his main point, which Gabriel deals with impeccably.
    His academic superstar status seems to be based on the same type of performances. Of course, he latched on to the Occupy movement when it was popular, making an appearance in New York to make a non-statement before an adoring, if baffled crowd, then writing more interminable articles about how we “lack the language to articulate our unfreedom.” Tell that to workers in Bangladesh or Yorkshire, and see how helpful that can be.

    Clearly Zizek is hostile to any kind of mass movement that would interfere with his academic status and comfortable privilege. That is why he would prefer a “left” counterpart to Thatcher, “a leader who would repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today’s political elite …” Above all, he abhors any kind of democratic change that would change his own presuppositions.
    The true opposite to Thatcher is not another left dictator but the movements of the oppressed throughout the world that, one way or another, will overturn the elitism of the super-rich and their hangers-on, like Zizek.

  3. Gabriel Levy says:

    Clay, I hear your point. As for the author, it’s me. WordPress identifies the author on the front page of the blog, and as usual I signed off with my initials. Gabriel.

  4. Tommy Beavitt says:

    The thing is, Žižek is a philosopher not a wishful thinker so he describes the world as it as rather than as we would wish it to be.

  5. Tommy Beavitt says:

    Tompainesghost, do you think it is the job of an avowedly leftish, Fabian journal to publish only easily digestible left wing propaganda that has the capability to unite “the workers” into a mass movement? In which case, it would seem that you actually agree with Žižek’s main point; after all, what use is a propagandised mass movement that is not led? Or do you think that people should think for themselves? – in which case you also agree with Žižek because that is his main point as well.

  6. Tommy Beavitt says:

    Of course there is a paradox here but what’s a philosopher to do – leave the dissemination of paradoxes to the neoliberals?

  7. tompainesghost says:

    Tommy: I don’t share your apparent assumption that a mass movement of workers depends on propaganda or a single leader or party to bring it into being. I’m just pointing out that there are movements of people throughout the world already in existence, in one way or another resisting the outcome of neoliberal policies, and this is the opposite of what Thatcher stood for. And I don’t see much evidence that Zizek’s main point is that people should think for themselves. In fact, he’s very good at obscuring his main point, which is usually support for authoritarian rule.

  8. Gabriel Levy says:

    Tommy, you say Zizek is a philosopher, describing the world as it is. But that’s the thing … he doesn’t describe the world as it is! In fact his piece showed little interest in what Thatcher actually did, what Chavez actually did, what actually happened in the 20th century revolutions, etc. He was clearly writing about how he thinks the world will be changed … and I think his view of that is reactionary and wrong.

  9. Dave Hookes says:

    Remember Zizek made the notorious remark “That the problem with Hitler was not that he was radical but that he was not radical enough..” nuff said

  10. Tommy Beavitt says:

    @Gabriel, when I advance the claim that Žižek is a philosopher who “describes the world as it is”, I do, it is true, make certain assumptions. For example, I assume that what we call “the world” cannot be described in terms of empirical science but that any description of it must take into account the dialectical nature of the relationships that comprise it. I’m pretty sure that Žižek makes a similar assumption: this is why I consider him a philosopher rather than merely a wishful thinker.

  11. Tommy Beavitt says:

    @tompainesghost, similarly, when I make the assumption that “a mass movement of workers depends on propaganda or a single leader or party” to realise its aspirations I base this assumption on the apparent denial that most of those who purport to represent such a mass movement are in concerning the dialectical nature of the relationships that comprise the world in which any such mass movement can be realised. I think that Žižek is trying to problematise this and I very much appreciate his efforts in this direction.

  12. tompainesghost says:

    Tommy: A mass movement of workers can realize its aspirations, or some of them, even if it should have leaders who are in denial about the nature of the dialectical relationships within the world. That is because the world in which such a mass movement is realized – that is, in which it exists — can indeed be apprehended empirically. A dialectical understanding of complex phenomena such as social movements in fact bases itself on the descriptions of empirical science in order to elucidate connections and relationships within the world. Zizek’s constant changes of direction or topics are not the same thing as a dialectical understanding of the world, and he is furthermore an unreliable guide to problematizing the relation of mass movements, the world, and leaders because his argumentation is fundamentally dishonest.

  13. Tommy Beavitt says:

    @tompainesghost at some point we are probably going to have to simply agree to disagree here. I simply can’t agree that Žižek’s argument is fundamentally dishonest – in my view his contribution is a rare incidence of honesty in a fundamentally dishonest world! I take your point about a dialectical understanding of complex phenomena being based on the descriptions of empirical science. If it weren’t for the actual nature of the dialectical relationships that make up our political world this would, of course, be true. Unfortunately (depending on your perspective), “the descriptions of empirical science” have been cornered by the neoliberals; they are, in every sense, a “bourgeois science”. So, to insist on their veracity is to insist on the fundamental rightness of the way that our world is currently ordered: that is by the prerogatives of international capital. Nothing wrong with that, of course: many people feel that the neoliberal world order serves their interests very nicely thank you very much! It’s just that it is, in my opinion (and, I believe, in Žižek’s), fundamentally dishonest to argue that referring to “empirical science” in such terms does anything other than to reinforce the dominant neoliberal world order and certainly doesn’t represent any “mass movement of workers” or any other such quaint historical fantasy.

  14. TimGopsill says:

    There was a parallel angle on this question when the left alternative Sunday paper the News on Sunday was launched amid the roaring climax of Thatcherism in 1987. Many left journalists were attracted to the slogan “the left wing Sun”, the concept of a tough hard-hitting but fun and lively tabloid. The leading group recruited one of the modish advertising agencies to promote the launch, which came up with the slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”. You take the point.

    This did a least have the effect of awakening the buried political instinct of many and revolting enough of them to get it dropped. Others of us asked such questions as, what is the socialist version of racism?

    The paper collapsed fairly quickly, not for the reason generally and unurprisingly accepted by media commentators that it was a victim of “a commitment to political correctness and ideological purity at the expense of news values”, to quote one of them (fraid so), but obviously because it failed to meet the expectations of the tens or hundreds of thousands of people yearning for something to read on a Sunday that wasn’t stupid, prurient and insulting.

    There were some good people on the paper (I wasn’t) but in the panic over declining sales the paper fell decisively into the grip of straightforward thoughtless, reactionary Labourite hacks, supposedly to rescue it. I daresay Zizek would have contributed to its columns had he been around at the time.

  15. tompainesghost says:

    Tommy: Let’s leave aside Zizek’s dishonesty. However, I have to point out that it is actually the neoliberals who reject the descriptions of empirical science – such as the scientific consensus on global warming. Does insisting on its veracity reinforce or resist the dominant neoliberal world order? What I think you are suggesting is that there is a parallel universe of, on the one hand, the way the world is currently ordered, and on the other the “actual nature of the dialectical relationships that make up our political world” which is only discernible by those who refuse to admit any truth in the descriptions of empirical science. But that is the distinction between those belonging to the reality-based community and those who “create their own reality” (to quote Karl Rove).

  16. Tommy Beavitt says:

    I agree that, to the extent that Žižek is intellectually allied to anything, he is with those who, like Karl Rove, insist on “creating their own reality”. I don’t think that Žižek’s philosophy can be used as the base for a “mass movement of workers” or anything like that. In many ways, for all its populism, his is an elitist philosophy and perhaps it is thus dishonest of Žižek to claim that he is allied with “the Left” (whatever that means these days).

    However, this doesn’t in my view decrease the “truth value” of Žižek’s philosophy. It’s not Žižek’s fault if “the masses” prefer to remain anaesthetised by the cold comforts of neoliberalism.

    I can’t agree, however, that the statement that “it is the neoliberals who reject the scientific consensus on global warming” has any truth value. The assumptions underpinning this statement, which are shared by a majority on the Left in the UK, include the absurd idea that the economic conditions claimed by the “scientific consensus” to have created the atmospheric effects of climate change have been imposed on the masses against their will by a cynical elite. Preposterous! If the elite were really that cynical (which I admit some may be) they would decimate the mass population every few years and solve the problem at a stroke! The fact that they have generally (in the last 60 years in the west, at least) refrained from this course of action is testament to the masses’ success in advancing what they perceive to be their interests, which includes, however, the problem of anthropogenic global warming.

    So what’s a philosopher to do? Join with a cynical elite in generating propaganda for the masses that will allow their opinions to be more easily controlled via a “scientific consensus”? Or join with an (arguably even more cynical) “alternative elite” that is able to see that ultimately this is as futile a course of action as any other?

    I don’t argue that Žižek is “right” or that cynicism is (necessarily) a virtue. But I do argue that it is the job of philosophers to problematise rather than concoct propagandistic “solutions” designed to further anaesthetise mass opinion. To this extent, in my opinion, Žižek is one of our most successful philosophers.

  17. Tommy Beavitt says:

    PS. If it’s not already clear from the above, I think that insisting on the veracity of the “scientific consensus on global warming” reinforces the dominant neoliberal world order. But then so do most things.

  18. Comhive says:

    Having not read Lacan or Hegel, I might be missing something in Zizek’s thinking. But his whole outlook seems to be rooted in his inability to share Marx’s hope that the working class could emancipate itself. As he said to The Guardian:”I am utterly pessimistic about the future, about the possibility of an emancipated communist society.” (15/7/11)

    Zizek, therefore, seems to be hoping for a new authoritarian leader, a new Lenin, who will, somehow, emancipate humanity from above. This is a clearly completely contradictory and utopian outlook. But it still offers hope for some contemporary intellectuals who’ve given up on the idea that the working class could ever lead a genuine communist revolution.

    For rather more hopeful, and less utopian, approaches to humanity’s communist future see:

    ‘Political Consciousness and its Conditions at the Present Time’ – Hillel Ticktin


    ‘Change the World without Taking Power’ – John Holloway

    ‘Sex and the Human Revolution’ – Chris Knight


    ‘Is Revolution Back on the Agenda?’ – Mark Kosman


    ‘Crisis in the Class Relation’ – Endnotes


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