Writing in this week?s New Statesman, the “rock-star” Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj ?i?ek is once more banging the drum for the new authoritarian leftism. We are told to ?resolutely reject the liberal-victimist ideology that reduces politics to avoiding the worst, to renouncing all positive projects and pursuing the least bad option.? Instead, he invites us to embrace ?a destructive negativity, which does not end in a chaotic void but reverts (and organises itself) into a new order, imposing it on to reality.?
The Italian leftist political philosopher Norberto Bobbio knew well this kind of left authoritarian talk. In his 1994 essay “In Reply to My Critics,” he pointed out that we left-reformists were not half-hearted (“Socialism can become a reality through conscious and intelligent human action,? he wrote); we were chastened.
My experience of both public and private life has taught me that “for the most part,” the solutions provided by people who avoid clear-cut “either-or” approaches are, if not better, then at least less imperfect. I am a convinced democrat, so convinced that I continue to defend democracy when it is inefficient, corrupt and risks plunging into one of two extremes: either war of everyone against everyone else or rigid order imposed from above. Democracy is where extremists do not prevail (and if they prevail then democracy is finished. This is also the reason why the extreme wings of a pluralistic political spectrum on the right and left are united in their hatred of democracy, albeit for opposing reasons.
Democracy and its ally reformism can make mistakes because democratic procedures themselves make the correction of mistakes possible. Extremists cannot afford to make mistakes because they cannot turn back. Mistakes made by democratic and reformist moderates can be put right, those made by extremists cannot, or, at least, can only be put right by shifting from one extreme position to another.”
Bobbio looked back on a century of left-wing enormities. Egalitarian terror in pursuit of heaven produced hell on earth. Only if we stare into the face of those enormities, take their full measure, and understand the footholds our theory provided for enormity, will we then earn the moral right to rescue the emancipatory project. And in this task we would do well, Bobbio argued, to employ some of “the most salutary fruits of the European intellectual tradition, the value of enquiry, the ferment of doubt, willingness to dialogue, a spirit of criticism, moderation of judgment, philological scruple, a sense of the complexity of things”.
?i?ek draws on some other European intellectual traditions to dare us (in the dreamy and festive spirit of a child playing a game) to rehabilitate what Marx called ?the old crap??enlightened despotism and egalitarian terror.
In the New Statesman ?i?ek writes as a Pauline-Christian-Atheist but more usually he adopts the posture of a Tough Guy-Blanquist-Bolshevik. Interviewed in the journal Historical Materialism he wore his authoritarianism as a badge of honor (again, it must be said, rather like a child). ?Revolutionary politics? he told us, ?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.?
Bobbio identified four rules of the game: equal and universal adult suffrage, civic rights that assure the free expression of opinions and the free organization of currents of opinion, decisions taken by a numerical majority, and guarantees of the rights of minorities against any abuse on the part of majorities.
So the question is: which is it to be?Bobbio?s ?democracy and its ally reformism? or ?i?ek?s revolutionary truth?
Photo: Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool (Andy Miah / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons)