The Reckless Mind of Slavoj Žižek

The Reckless Mind of Slavoj Žižek

In Defense of Lost Causes
by Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 2008, 504 pp., $34.95

In a stream of writings and talks since 1989, the Slovenian social theorist Slavoj Žižek has blended Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegelian philosophy with film criticism, cultural studies, and authoritarian Marxism to earn a reputation as “one of the most dazzling figures on the intellectual left,” in the words of social theorist Alex Callinicos. There are Žižek T-Shirts, Žižek YouTube pages, an International Journal of Žižek Studies, Žižek CDs and DVDs, even Žižek!, the movie. “He has travelled the globe like an intellectual rock star for the past twenty years, gathering as he goes an immense fan club,” says literary critic Terry Eagleton.

In Defense of Lost Causes has only increased Žižek’s cult status. This despite the fact that the book jacket shows a guillotine and the text attacks antitotalitarianism; rehabilitates “egalitarian terror,” “ruthless discipline,” and authoritarian communism; and is dedicated to the French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou.

The problem of Žižek for the democratic Left is this: Why has a pure example of what the late Hal Draper would have called the authoritarian and elitist strain of socialism-from-above found a comfortable home, even adulation, on the Left?

When I was an editor at the journal Historical Materialism, we interviewed Žižek. It was an astonishing exchange. “There are no ‘democratic (procedural) rules’ one is a priori prohibited to violate,” he argued. “Revolutionary politics is not a matter of opinions but of the truth on behalf of which one often is compelled to disregard the ‘opinion of the majority’ and to impose the revolutionary will against it.” Our duty lay in “the assertion of the unconditional, ‘ruthless’ revolutionary will, ready to ‘go to the end,’ effectively to seize power and undermine the existing totality.” What would be the position of workers, after the revolution? “Lenin was right: after the revolution, the anarchic disruptions of the disciplinary constraints of production should be replaced by an even stronger discipline.”

Žižek knew much about pop culture but his history was shaky. Trotsky, he claimed, “went as far as proposing global militarisation … I am ready to assert the Trotsky of the universal militarisation of life….That is the good Trotsky for me.” (So much for Terry Eagleton’s bromide that “Žižek is by no means a champion of political terror.”) Actually, in 1919 Trotsky called for the temporary, emergency militarization of labor, and that was bad enough. He certainly never called for “the universal militarisation of life.” Žižek’s, one presumes, was a Freudian slip.

Learning nothing from the historical record concerning the use of “iron will” and “ruthlessness” in the pursuit ...