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’ analysis 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
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.
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 engage 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).