Democracy and Revolution

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Democracy and Revolution in the Thoughts of Marx and Zizek

Alan Johnson:

"In “The Jacobin Spirit” Žižek “Marxified” his argument for terror and dictatorship by radically misconstruing what “Marx’s key insight” was. He claimed Marx understood political democracy to be a mere “democratic illusion” because without economic equality political democracy can only be a tool of the ruling class, a part of the state apparatus and therefore our “main enemy.” This gets Marx totally wrong. And getting Marx right is not merely an academic exercise. Looking back, what is at stake are those 100 million Communist corpses memorialized by Vasily Grossman in Forever Flowing, with their “crazed eyes; smashed kidneys; skull[s] pierced by a bullet; rotting infected, gangrenous toes; and scurvy racked corpses in log-cabin, dugout morgues.” Looking forward, what is at stake is the possibility of the Left creating more corpses.

Marx’s key insight did indeed concern the relation between the social question and political democracy, but rather than counterpoise the two as Žižek does, Marx’s revolution in thought was, precisely, to integrate them on the social ground of popular self-emancipation. Žižek denies the very possibility of self-emancipation, so can see only a clash between the social question and political democracy. He seeks to resolve that clash by using terror and dictatorship to impose “Communism.” That is what he means by “The Jacobin Spirit.” To elaborate:

From 1970 to 1990 the revolutionary socialist Hal Draper devoted himself almost exclusively to Marx scholarship. The main result was the four-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, two thousand pages of meticulous textual exegesis and analysis. Draper’s central argument: Marx did not abandon liberty and democracy to become a communist but became a communist in order to make real the promise of liberty and democracy. There was continuity from “his democratic views of 1842 [to] the revolutionary communism of his mature years.” Marx started out a “democratic extremist” unambiguously committed to freedom of expression and organization, the rule of law and democratic institutions, and viscerally opposed to the unaccountable power of the state and its core, the bureaucracy. What then forced a deepening (not an abandonment) of his democratic extremism was his insistence on treating the promise of freedom and democracy not in abstraction, as free-floating discourses, but in their external social relations here down on earth. Žižek’s claim that Marx saw democracy as “the ultimate enemy” inverts Marx’s actual insight – that the full promise of political democracy could only be fulfilled by the extension of democracy into the social and economic. This is how Hal Draper frames Marx’s journey:

Marx was the first socialist figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent expression of democratic control from below. He was the first figure in the socialist movement who, in a personal sense, came through the bourgeois-democratic movement: through it to its farthest bounds, and then out by its farthest end. In this sense, he was the first to fuse the struggle for consistent political democracy with the struggle for a socialist transformation. But it might be asked, wasn’t it the case that, in his course from bourgeois democracy to communism, Marx relinquished his early naive notions about political democracy? Not in Marx’s view.

Contra Žižek, Marx’s “key insight” was that it had become possible for the first time in human history to pose the relation between political democracy and the social question in a radically new way. Rejecting the Jacobin educational dictatorship that Žižek would have us rehabilitate, Marx grasped, as Draper argues, “the social dynamics of the situation under which the apparent contradiction between the two [i.e. political democracy and the social question]…is resolved.” Global capitalism, he understood, had created not just exploitation but also the material ground on which the relationship of the social question to political freedom might be resolved through a political process of popular self-emancipation.

The core or essential structure of any putative democratic Marxism is this theoretical and practical integration of socialism and democracy. The core of Žižek’s Marxism-as-Linksfaschismus is the theoretical and practical counterposition of socialism and democracy. Whatever the “Jacobin spirit” was for the Jacobins, for Žižek it is shorthand for the rehabilitation of Terror and educational dictatorship.


When Hal Draper reconstructed the text and context of each and every use by Marx of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” he was able to establish that the ill-starred term was actually invented by Marx as a way to re-educate Blanquists away from Blanquism. Marx was trying to confront the Blanquist notion of revolution as elite putsch with his own theory of revolution as an open-ended process of popular self-emancipation. He did not have in mind a special dictatorial governmental form at all, but was only referring only to the class content of the state. Generally speaking, for Marx the “rule of the proletariat” meant the working class leadership of an “immense majority block,” while the governmental form of that rule was the democratic republic: popular control over the sovereign body of the state, universal suffrage, representative democracy, a democratic constitution, and truly mass involvement in political decision-making. Engels, in his 1895 critique of the Erfurt Program, linked (social) form and (political) content thus: “the working class can come to power only under the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Marx’s democratic conception was replaced by the Leninist doppelganger and “dictatorship of the proletariat” came to mean specially dictatorial governmental forms and policies. Plekhanov wrote it into the program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903 and Lenin adopted Plekhanov’s conception, albeit not as an emergency measure but in principle, as a mark of revolutionary virtue. It must be said, Lenin can sound very like Žižek: “The scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force. The term ‘dictatorship’ has no other meaning than this.” But as Draper mournfully pointed out, Lenin’s formulation was “a theoretical disaster, first class [with] nothing in common…with any conception of the workers state” held by Marx.


Understood as an open-ended process of popular self-emancipation, our understanding of the contours of a post-revolutionary polity would be radically different. For a start, it can’t be just anti-capitalist, but must also be pro-freedom. (We have done anti-capitalist plus anti-freedom and we got camps – has Žižek learnt nothing?) Nor can it be an organicism that abolishes the individual’s moral status in the name of the “General Interest,” carried in trust by an educational dictatorship, in the name of Truth conceived as “the ideal … Order of the Good.”

Sneering at Marx’s trust in ‘some authentic working-class movement’ as a silly pipe-dream, and influenced by the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek urges on his readers a very odd kind of commitment. We are to have fidelity to the Eternal Idea of Communism understood as “a Kantian regulative idea, lacking any mediation with historical reality.” Žižek instructs us to “reconceive the idea of Communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization.” Žižek claims that “The Idea that ‘makes itself what it is’ is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself.” Sebastiano Timpanaro used to call this sort of thing a “spiritualist voluntarism.” And he noted that it was usually partnered by a “brutal ethics of force.” So it is with Žižek. In the name of fidelity to this Eternal Idea, Žižek would license much enormity. In “The Jacobin Spirit,” for example, he writes that anyone so much as “casting doubt” on the Eternal Idea must be dealt with brutally or else “the reign of Truth” (what a stupid phrase!) will never be secured. How many barbarities were committed in just that spirit during the 20th century? How much shameful apologia, denial and intellectual corruption?

Back in the 1840s Marx saw the danger. He tried (and failed) to reorient socialism by linking it to the Interest and democracy and not the Idea and dictatorship. He argued, against Bruno Bauer, that the Idea would always disgrace itself insofar as it was different from the Interest. Marx wanted nothing to do with an elitist conception of politics “in which the Spirit, or the Criticism, represents the organizing labor, the mass the raw material, and history the product.” Žižek’s theory of revolution is exactly that: the Idea disgracing itself because it has become detached from the Interest and from democracy, from self-emancipation and from ethics, from reason and from historical reality, until it is left resting on nothing but will and violence.


In the 20th century – aside from this little sect, that little journal – Marxism became unmoored from democracy and self-emancipation but refused to relinquish its goal of “Communism.” It became an organized Blanquism before the revolution, a bureaucratic collectivism after the revolution, and, at all times, a vehicle through which the “anonymous intentionality” of the totalitarian regime of thought and language was expressed (the term is taken from the indispensable French antitotalitarian social theorist Claude Lefort). Anonymous intentionality because while it could not reasonably be said of Marxists that the name of their desire was to create Kolyma, create it they did, again and again, across many continents. For Lefort, part of the explanation for this unintended consequence on such a spectacular scale was the power of the regime of thought and language common to fascism and communism to exert a tremendously powerful pull, an anonymous intentionality, on every individual who became its bearer.

Žižek is inviting us to become its bearer again: that is the meaning of his rehabilitation of Terror and Dictatorship. He wants us to pick up the ring of power. That is why he says, in a calumny against Trotsky, “I am ready to assert the Trotsky of the universal militarization of life…That is the good Trotsky for me.” It is why he gushes in admiration for Lenin’s firing squads, and for the “steely fourth Teacher,” Stalin. It is why he praises Mao, the architect of “the last big instalment in the life of this Idea.”

When Ernesto Laclau wrote back in 2000 that Žižek’s anti-democratic ideas would put the Left back half a century he was too generous. The ’revolution’ Žižek seeks – whatever fancy new language is deployed to camouflage this – is a Blanquist putsch to prepare an Educational Dictatorship. Engels dismissed that as “Crude Communism” 168 years ago." (