Slavoj Žižek, a bogus Marxist who counterposes “authentic emancipatory politics” to imperialist barbarism1
28/12/2015 by socialistfight
We hasten to assure the reader that Slavoj Žižek is as far from genuine Trotskyism as Margaret Thatcher was from Socialism.
By a Facebook team of Gerry Downing, Josie Mirek, Christopher Newcombe, Dmytriy Kovalevich and Thomas Smitherman
Part One: Slavoj Žižek’s ‘Marxism’ by Gerry Downing
On 8 May 2014 Slavoj Žižek published an article in the London Review of Books, Barbarism with a Human Face: Lenin v. Stalin in Kiev. It was a sophisticated attack on Marxism by using some correct arguments to make the reactionary, pro-imperialist points in the last paragraphs.
Žižek is a famous ‘Marxist’ philosopher and general savant on the modern world so we must take his words seriously. Wikipedia says of him:
“Žižek’ unorthodox style, popular academic works, frequent magazine op-eds, and critical assimilation of high and low culture have gained him international influence and a substantial audience outside of academia in addition to controversy and criticism. In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek on its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him “a celebrity philosopher,” while elsewhere he has been dubbed the “Elvis of cultural theory” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.” Žižek’s work was chronicled in a 2005 documentary film entitled Zizek! A scholarly journal, the International Journal of Žižek Studies, was also founded to engage his work.”
Slavoj Žižek, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavoj_%C5%BDi%C5%BEek
This piece had as its purpose the defence of the Maidan coup in Kiev of February 2014, the rubbishing of the struggle against it by the people in Eastern Ukraine and portraying of Russia and Vladimir Putin as the main enemy. But before we go into the details of that it is necessary to take a brief look at the Žižek’s political character and his social values to assess the quality of his Marxism.
Žižek marries “Lacanian psychoanalysis with Hegelian philosophy” Wikipedia tells us. Lacanian psychoanalysis basically tried to develop Freud and take the unreconstructed (by Marx) Hegel so that the mysterious workings of the unconscious mind had no real material basis at all. Moreover this is a totally illegitimate ‘marriage’. Lacan’s unconscious is not Hegel’s unconscious. Noah Horwitz points to the real nature of the problem:
“their reading of Lacan via German Idealism and German Idealism via Lacan risks transforming Lacanian psychoanalysis into a discourse of self-consciousness rather than a discourse on the psychoanalytic, Freudian unconscious. In this manner, the very scandalous rupture that Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis affected in thought and in culture (that it thinks without and for me) is in jeopardy of being foreclosed through a return to German Idealism’s discourse of self-consciousness. Here, Lacan functions as a screen in order to rehabilitate the theses of German Idealism that psychoanalysis itself put into question.
In particular, the risk is that Lacan will be transformed into that ultimate German Idealist, Hegel. Slavoj Žižek … (asserts) that Lacan’s unconscious reveals itself to us in parapraxis, or “slips-of-the-tongue.” We are therefore, according to Lacan, alienated from language through the revelation of our desire (even if that desire originated with the Other, as he claims, it remains peculiar to us). In Hegel’s unconscious, however, we are alienated from language whenever we attempt to articulate a particular and end up articulating a universal… Hegel’s argument implies that, at the level of sense-certainty, we can never express the true nature of reality. Lacan’s argument implies, to the contrary, that speech reveals the true structure of a particular unconscious mind.”
Academic journal article Philosophy Today, Contra the Slovenians: Returning to Lacan and Away from Hegel, By Horwitz, Noah, https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-835171781/contra-the-slovenians-returning-to-lacan-and-away
You might be forgiven for thinking that in the real world people learn from their mistakes, or from practice and ‘slips of the tongue’ (Freudian or otherwise), ‘sense certainty’ and the ‘nature of reality’ (ideas in our heads) are always tested and solved, if at all, by this theory getting tested in practical activity. Lacan is a step back from Freud and Žižek is just more confusion.
In developing a thesis of ideology and its function, Žižek makes two intertwined arguments, we are told:
“He begins with a critique of Marx’s concept of ideology (as described in The German Ideology) in which people are beholden to false consciousness that prevents them from seeing how things really are. Žižek argues, continuing Althusser that ideology is thoroughly unconscious; and that ideology functions as a series of justifications and spontaneous socio-symbolic rituals which support virtual authorities.
However, the Real is not equivalent to the reality experienced by subjects as a meaningfully ordered totality. For Žižek, the Real names points within the ontological fabric, knitted by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms and that may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance.
Drawing on Lacan’s notion of the barred subject, for Žižek the subject is a purely negative entity, a void of negativity (in the Hegelian sense), which allows for the flexibility and reflexivity of the Cartesian Cogito (Transcendental Subject). Žižek claims that though consciousness is opaque, following Hegel, that the epistemological gap between the In-itself and For-itself is immanent to reality itself: that the antinomies of Kant, quantum physics, and Badiou’s ‘materialist’ principle that ‘The One is Not’, point towards an inconsistent (“Barred”) Real itself that Lacan conceptualized prior.”
From this we may conclude that Žižek borrowed his idealism from Hegel but rejected his dialects, that he borrowed the weak side of Freud as analysed by Lacan; women’s oppressions was not an essential part of the human psyche but the product of the social relations of production, and moreover those at a particular stage of their development, the early to middle 20th century. And if “ideology is thoroughly unconscious” how will human liberation ever occur? Can we ever study “distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, we are told, demolished Lacan in their famous book (for the academically informed) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972). Wikipaedia tells us:
“Deleuze and Guattari analyse the relationship of desire to reality and to capitalist society in particular; they address questions of human psychology, economics, society, and history. Anti-Oedipus is divided into four sections… In the third section, Deleuze and Guattari re-write Karl Marx’s materialist account of the history of society’s modes of production as a development through “primitive,” “despotic,” and “capitalist” societies and details their different organisations of production, “inscription” (which corresponds to Marx’s “distribution” and “exchange”), and consumption. In the final section, they develop a critical practice that they call “schizoanalysis.” “
Marxists tend to be a bit weary of academics who “re-write Karl Marx’s materialist account of the history” and discover there not the struggle of classes but “a development through “primitive,” “despotic,” and “capitalist” societies” – knowing that who is “despotic” is never those who rain down hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on defenceless civilians but the local tyrant who does not respect the “democracy” of the USA to impose its finance capitalists and transnational corporations on every nation on the planet.
In a preface written for the English-language edition, Michel Foucault describes Anti-Oedipus as a contribution towards the fight against fascism—he suggests that it may be called “an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life.
“The book attempts to track down “all varieties of fascism, from the enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives.” Thus, it is concerned “not only [with] historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini,” he stresses, “but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploit us.”
So the alternatives to Lacan and Zizek as just as bad if not worse. Foucault’s reference to the “fascism in us all” – is simply a Catholic guilt trip down the road of original sin and flagellating the body to drive out the Devil. Have you no understanding of political categories at all, Michel Foucault? And the Anti-Oedipus authors themselves give a bit more of the God stuff here:
“Deleuze and Guattari address a fundamental problem of political philosophy: the contradictory phenomenon whereby an individual or a group comes to desire their own oppression. This contradiction had been mentioned briefly by the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” That is, how is it possible that people cry for “More taxes! Less bread!”?
There speaks the ideology of petty-bourgeois reactionaries using God and guilt tripping to defend capitalism. They are misusing the limited understanding of social question of the great pantheist philosopher of the 17th century to repeat the same mistake in the 21st century. Have these four centuries passed in vain for human understanding?
But let us move on to the political issues raised by the article itself.
Part two: On “Barbarism with a Human Face: Lenin v. Stalin in Kiev” (see below)
By that Facebook tram
Again and again in television reports on the mass protests in Kiev against the Yanukovich government, we saw images of protesters tearing down statues of…
Josie Mirek: He’s asserting that communism is worse than Nazism! “The point of these arguments is to assert that a moderate fascism was a justified response to the communist threat (a point made long ago by Ernst Nolte in his defence of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism). In Slovenia, the right is advocating the rehabilitation of the anti-communist Home Guard which fought the partisans during the Second World War: they made the difficult choice to collaborate with the Nazis in order to thwart the much greater evil of communism.”
Josie Mirek: He nearly gets things right at times, leading people into a false sense of security and consensus but then he goes and takes his arguments in altogether the wrong direction e.g. trying to justify the Maidan coup and NATO’s agenda. “The Maidan protesters were heroes, but the true fight – the fight for what the new Ukraine will be – begins now, and it will be much tougher than the fight against Putin’s intervention. A new and riskier heroism will be needed. It has been shown already by those Russians who oppose the nationalist passion of their own country and denounce it as a tool of power. It’s time for the basic solidarity of Ukrainians and Russians to be asserted, and the very terms of the conflict rejected. The next step is a public display of fraternity, with organisational networks established between Ukrainian political activists and the Russian opposition to Putin’s regime. This may sound utopian, but it is only such thinking that can confer on the protests a truly emancipatory dimension. Otherwise, we will be left with a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs. Such geopolitical games are of no interest whatever to authentic emancipatory politics.”
AUTHENTIC EMANCIPATORY POLITICS??!!
Christopher Newcombe I think Chomsky sums him up. https://youtu.be/o_Nz03cROXA
Gerry Joseph Downing: Thanks, Christopher Newcombe , I’ve listened to the clip and Chomsky makes no real attempt to answer the questions put to him by the presenter. He says the man has no influence, there is no content to his work, he is not interested in having a debate with him or a conversation about him. It seems obvious to me that Chomsky is out of his depth here, he just does not have the theoretical capacity to confront him so he says that it is not necessary, Angela Davis is a better person to discuss with because she has more relevant things to say.
But Zizek is able to quote from modern philosophers, from Lenin and from Marx in a way that seems to make a coherent narrative. For instance the way he uses Lenin above is authentic up to a point against Stalin and then the essence of his political outlook appears; he is using Lenin to make him appear as if he was a bourgeois liberal against Stalin, who was simply an imperialist expansionist thug on the question of the Ukraine. So he was to a degree but he also defied western imperialism, albeit in his own interests and for his own corrupt motives. But he did defy and fight against them as did Putin, Gaddafi, Saddam and Assad. We know they all did this in order to reach a compromise with Imperialism on more favourable terns, they had absolutely no concept of defeating imperialism in the sense of wiping it out. Only Lenin and the Bolsheviks and genuine Trotskyism today have that political concept and programme.
But in so far as they fight western imperialism, and the USA is still the global hegemon, we must support them critically but not politically.
Because Zizek has such an influence on intellectuals and students and because this influence prevents that layer from becoming genuine Marxists we must ‘deconstruct’ him in detail and expose his preventions. I can do some of it, but it would take someone who has studied modern philosophers in far greater detail than I have to complete the task. But I am certain that Chomsky is wrong to avoid it. After the physical strike struggles and the political struggles that arise from these class conflicts the philosophical, ideological class struggle is the third vital arena of struggle we absolutely cannot concede to Zizek and his likes as Chomsky does.
Christopher Newcombe: I don’t condone Chomsky abstaining from debate with Zizek, but I do think he’s right that Zizek is ultimately vacuous. Those who rate him highly seem mostly mesmerized by his encyclopedic referencing act.
Thomas Smitherman “Ukrainian culture and language were revived”
—Ukrainian culture is a construct largely in its infancy in the Early Bolshevik period rather than being “revived”. Let me be clear that I do not mean that this is simply a region of Russia, I mean there was no long-standing literary Ukrainian language. Ukrainian and Russian are both dialects of Old East Slavic – there was no conscious Ukrainian language until the 19th century! Southern Russia (ethnolinguistically ‘Ukrainian’ according to the last tsarist census) and modern-day Ukraine have a dialect continuum – the native ‘Ukrainian’ of Kharkiv is quite close to the ‘Russian’ of Rostov and far from the ‘Ukrainian’ of Lviv which is more similar to Polish.
As for Ukrainian culture, this is an area that has had many national identities. The term Ukrainian itself is relatively recent and note the once popular Rusyn identity and language (with more restrictive borders) have almost been obliterated. Again, the point is not that there is no ‘Ukrainian culture’ but that it cannot be revived since it was relatively recently launched.
“The golden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia – where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted – but the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was ‘indigenisation’”
—It is extremely difficult for me to understand how to separate Leninist and Stalinist positions on national self-determination to this degree. The Bolsheviks fought against Ukrainian nationalist militias in the Civil War, including left-wing groups. The federative nature of the USSR was mapped out by Lenin and not drastically altered under Stalin. Secession was in practice hardly encouraged, not least in the last bastion of Menshevism – the Caucasus. The Ukrainian language was not suppressed under Stalin; one could merely argue it was not promoted to the central administrative language of the Ukrainian SSR – but again, the Ukrainian language is not standardised. The Crimea was not gifted to the Ukraine under Lenin or Stalin but by Khrushchev.
“In the most conspicuous case, in 1939, the three Baltic states asked to join the Soviet Union, which granted their wish”
—The fact this was hardly consensual nor influenced by Marxist theory does not mean the goal was to recreate the tsarist empire rather than … a stronger defensive position in the emarging war in Europe.
“Putin recently used the term Novorossiya (‘New Russia’) for the seven south-eastern oblasts of Ukraine, resuscitating a term last used in 1917.”
Dmytriy Kovalevich: One of the main points of our complicated situation is that from the one side: the composition of urban and rural population significantly differed (up to the point that in XIX Ukrainian language and culture were seen not as an ethnic but as rural phenomena). And the tensions between cities and rural areas have always been, unfortunately. Sometimes the tensions took the form of anti-Semitic pogroms (the most brutal – in 1749 in the town of Uman). But from the other side: while moving even from central Russia to West Ukraine you cannot identify a line of division – there is no such line. The spoken language and culture of neighbouring regions is the same. The language and culture definitely differ between central Russia and West Ukraine but you cannot identify a strict line, while the state as an institution demands to draw such a strict line (as a border, at least).
This is, by the way, the ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine’s urban population of 1926 (the proportion significantly changed since the policy of ‘indigenisation’ which was rather a ‘nation-building project’).
One of the main points of our complicated situation is that from the one side: the composition of urban and rural population significantly differed (up to the point that in XIX Ukrainian language and culture were seen not as an ethnic but as rural phenomena). And the tensions between cities and rural areas have always been, unfortunately. Sometimes the tensions took the form of anti-Semitic pogroms (the most brutal – in 1749 in the town of Uman). But from the other side: while moving even from central Russia to West Ukraine you cannot identify a line of division – there is no such line. The spoken language and culture of neighbouring regions is the same. The language and culture definitely differ between central Russia and West Ukraine but you cannot identify a strict line, while the state as an institution demands to draw such a strict line (as a border, at least).
This is, by the way, the ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine’s urban population of 1926 (the proportion significantly changed since the policy of ‘indigenisation’ which was rather a ‘nation-building project’).
Thomas Smitherman: “The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis”
—That’s only true if you restrict your understanding of the neo-fascist right to the far right movements in EU countries. There are neo-Nazi groups, usually much smaller, with links to Pravy Sektor and/or Svoboda. Who do you think provides foreign volunteers to the Azov Batallion?
“Their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.”
—Greece has a rich man’s problems? The Ukraine, by joining the EU, will only inherit the problems of a rich country, and not become a mere colony? 1,000 issues are just glossed over here.
“Can we think of the Ukrainian protesters’ reference to Europe as a sign that their goal, too, is ‘to reach the standard of an ordinary Western European civilised country’?”
—The paragraph ending with this line has weird racist overtones.
All the ranting about nationalism in East and West Europe as a pagan Asiatic tribalism reacting against Christian and then Enlightenment values exists in an idealist vacuum where economic globalisation is not a factor.
Zizek begins to build up a decent point about the dual threat to Ukrainian sovereignty and then ruins it by pinning the oligarchic capitalist label mainly on Russia (and Hungary?!), ignoring the nature of major EU and eurozone institutions.
There is no recognition of the right to national self-determination for Crimeans.
That’s the end of my non-theoretical notes, Gerry, if you wish to use any.
Barbarism with a Human Face: Lenin v. Stalin in Kiev
Again and again in television reports on the mass protests in Kiev against the Yanukovich government, we saw images of protesters tearing down statues of Lenin. It was an easy way to demonstrate anger: the statues functioned as a symbol of Soviet oppression, and Putin’s Russia is perceived as continuing the Soviet policy of Russian domination of its neighbours. Bear in mind that it was only in 1956 that Lenin’s statues started to proliferate throughout the Soviet Union: until then, statues of Stalin were much more common. But after Krushchev’s ‘secret’ denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Stalin’s statues were replaced en masse by Lenin’s: Lenin was literally a stand-in for Stalin. This was made equally clear by a change made in 1962 to the masthead of Pravda. Until then, at the top left-hand corner of the front page, there had been a drawing of two profiles, Lenin’s and Stalin’s, side by side. Shortly after the 22nd Congress publicly rejected Stalin, his profile wasn’t merely removed but replaced with a second profile of Lenin: now there were two identical Lenins printed side by side. In a way, this weird repetition made Stalin more present in his absence than ever.
There was nonetheless a historical irony in watching Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statues as a sign of their will to break with Soviet domination and assert their national sovereignty. The golden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia – where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted – but the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was ‘indigenisation’. Ukrainian culture and language were revived, and rights to healthcare, education and social security introduced. Indigenisation followed the principles formulated by Lenin in quite unambiguous terms:
The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.
Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediately after the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued that small nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressive forces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour of an unconditional right to secede.
In his last struggle against Stalin’s project for a centralised Soviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right of small nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake), insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities that composed the Soviet state – no wonder that, on 27 September 1922, in a letter to the Politburo, Stalin accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’. The direction in which Stalin was already heading is clear from his proposal that the government of Soviet Russia should also be the government of the other five republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia):
If the present decision is confirmed by the Central Committee of the RCP, it will not be made public, but communicated to the Central Committees of the Republics for circulation among the Soviet organs, the Central Executive Committees or the Congresses of the Soviets of the said Republics before the convocation of the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets, where it will be declared to be the wish of these Republics.
The interaction of the higher authority, the Central Committee, with its base was thus abolished: the higher authority now simply imposed its will. To add insult to injury, the Central Committee decided what the base would ask the higher authority to enact, as if it were its own wish. In the most conspicuous case, in 1939, the three Baltic states asked to join the Soviet Union, which granted their wish. In all this, Stalin was returning to pre-Revolutionary tsarist policy: Russia’s colonisation of Siberia in the 17th century and Muslim Asia in the 19th was no longer condemned as imperialist expansion, but celebrated for setting these traditional societies on the path of progressive modernisation. Putin’s foreign policy is a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line. After the Russian Revolution, according to Putin, the Bolsheviks did serious damage to Russia’s interests: ‘The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the south-east of Ukraine.’
No wonder Stalin’s portraits are on show again at military parades and public celebrations, while Lenin has been obliterated. In an opinion poll carried out in 2008 by the Rossiya TV station, Stalin was voted the third greatest Russian of all time, with half a million votes. Lenin came in a distant sixth. Stalin is celebrated not as a Communist but as a restorer of Russian greatness after Lenin’s anti-patriotic ‘deviation’. Putin recently used the term Novorossiya (‘New Russia’) for the seven south-eastern oblasts of Ukraine, resuscitating a term last used in 1917.
But the Leninist undercurrent, though repressed, persisted in the Communist underground opposition to Stalin. Long before Solzhenitsyn, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2011, ‘the crucial questions about the Gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it).’ This internal dissent was a natural part of the Communist movement, in clear contrast to fascism. ‘There were no dissidents in the Nazi Party,’ Hitchens went on, ‘risking their lives on the proposition that the Führer had betrayed the true essence of National Socialism.’ Precisely because of this tension at the heart of the Communist movement, the most dangerous place to be at the time of the 1930s purges was at the top of the nomenklatura: in the space of a couple of years, 80 per cent of the Central Committee and the Red Army leadership were shot. Another sign of dissent could be detected in the last days of ‘really existing socialism’, when protesting crowds sang official songs, including national anthems, to remind the powers of their unfulfilled promises. In the GDR, by contrast, between the early 1970s and 1989, to sing the national anthem in public was a criminal offence: its words (‘Deutschland einig Vaterland’, ‘Germany, the united Fatherland’) didn’t fit with the idea of East Germany as a new socialist nation.
The resurgence of Russian nationalism has caused certain historical events to be rewritten. A recent biopic, Andrei Kravchuk’s Admiral, celebrates the life of Aleksandr Kolchak, the White commander who governed Siberia between 1918 and 1920. But it’s worth remembering the totalitarian potential, as well as the outright brutality, of the White counter-revolutionary forces during this period. Had the Whites won the Civil War, Hitchens writes, ‘the common word for fascism would have been a Russian one, not an Italian one … Major General William Graves, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an event thoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks), wrote in his memoirs about the pervasive, lethal anti-Semitism that dominated the Russian right wing and added: “I doubt if history will show any country in the world during the last fifty years where murder could be committed so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than in Siberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak.”’
The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, giving the lie to the official Russian presentation of the Crimean referendum as a choice between Russian democracy and Ukrainian fascism. The events in Ukraine – the massive protests that toppled Yanukovich and his gang – should be understood as a defence against the dark legacy resuscitated by Putin. The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision to prioritise good relations with Russia over the integration of Ukraine into the European Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reacted to the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they are still to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EU would just make Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, sooner or later to go the same way as Greece. In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.
Should we, then, simply support the Ukrainian side in the conflict? There is a ‘Leninist’ reason to do so. In Lenin’s very last writings, long after he renounced the utopia of State and Revolution, he explored the idea of a modest, ‘realistic’ project for Bolshevism. Because of the economic underdevelopment and cultural backwardness of the Russian masses, he argues, there is no way for Russia to ‘pass directly to socialism’: all that Soviet power can do is to combine the moderate politics of ‘state capitalism’ with the intense cultural education of the peasant masses – not the brainwashing of propaganda, but a patient, gradual imposition of civilised standards. Facts and figures revealed ‘what a vast amount of urgent spadework we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West European civilised country … We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves.’ Can we think of the Ukrainian protesters’ reference to Europe as a sign that their goal, too, is ‘to reach the standard of an ordinary Western European civilised country’?
But here things quickly get complicated. What, exactly, does the ‘Europe’ the Ukrainian protesters are referring to stand for? It can’t be reduced to a single idea: it spans nationalist and even fascist elements but extends also to the idea of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté, freedom-in-equality, the unique contribution of Europe to the global political imaginary, even if it is in practice today mostly betrayed by European institutions and citizens themselves. Between these two poles, there is also a naive trust in the value of European liberal-democratic capitalism. Europe can see in the Ukrainian protests its own best and worst sides, its emancipatory universalism as well as its dark xenophobia.
Let’s begin with the dark xenophobia. The Ukrainian nationalist right is one instance of what is going on today from the Balkans to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from Central Africa to India: ethnic and religious passions are exploding, and Enlightenment values receding. These passions have always been there, lurking; what’s new is the outright shamelessness of their display. Imagine a society which has fully integrated into itself the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, the right to education and healthcare for all its members, and in which racism and sexism have been rendered unacceptable and ridiculous. But then imagine that, step by step, although the society continues to pay lip service to these axioms, they are de facto deprived of their substance. Here is an example from very recent European history: in the summer of 2012, Viktor Orbán, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister, declared that a new economic system was needed in Central Europe. ‘Let us hope,’ he said, ‘that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival … Co-operation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.’
The irony of these words wasn’t lost on some old Hungarian dissidents: when the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the 1956 uprising, the message repeatedly sent by the beleaguered Hungarian leaders to the West was that they were defending Europe against the Asiatic communists. Now, after the collapse of communism, the Christian-conservative government paints as its main enemy the multicultural consumerist liberal democracy for which today’s Western Europe stands. Orbán has already expressed his sympathy for ‘capitalism with Asian values’; if the European pressure on Orbán continues, we can easily imagine him sending a message to the East: ‘We are defending Asia here!’
Today’s anti-immigrant populism has replaced direct barbarism with a barbarism that has a human face. It enacts a regression from the Christian ethic of ‘love thy neighbour’ back to the pagan privileging of the tribe over the barbarian Other. Even as it represents itself as a defence of Christian values, it is in fact the greatest threat to the Christian legacy. ‘Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote a hundred years ago, ‘end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.’ Doesn’t the same hold for the advocates of religion too? Fanatical defenders of religion start out attacking contemporary secular culture; it’s no surprise when they end up forsaking any meaningful religious experience. In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end up flinging away freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. The ‘terrorists’ may be ready to wreck this world for love of another, but the warriors on terror are just as ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture to defend it. The defenders of Europe against the immigrant threat are doing much the same. In their zeal to protect the Judeo-Christian legacy, they are ready to forsake what is most important in that legacy. The anti-immigrant defenders of Europe, not the notional crowds of immigrants waiting to invade it, are the true threat to Europe.
One of the signs of this regression is a request often heard on the new European right for a more ‘balanced’ view of the two ‘extremisms’, the right and the left. We are repeatedly told that one should treat the extreme left (communism) the same way that Europe after the Second World War treated the extreme right (the defeated fascists). But in reality there is no balance here: the equation of fascism and communism secretly privileges fascism. Thus the right are heard to argue that fascism copied communism: before becoming a fascist, Mussolini was a socialist; Hitler, too, was a National Socialist; concentration camps and genocidal violence were features of the Soviet Union a decade before Nazis resorted to them; the annihilation of the Jews has a clear precedent in the annihilation of the class enemy, etc. The point of these arguments is to assert that a moderate fascism was a justified response to the communist threat (a point made long ago by Ernst Nolte in his defence of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism). In Slovenia, the right is advocating the rehabilitation of the anti-communist Home Guard which fought the partisans during the Second World War: they made the difficult choice to collaborate with the Nazis in order to thwart the much greater evil of communism.
Mainstream liberals tell us that when basic democratic values are under threat from ethnic or religious fundamentalists, we should unite behind the liberal-democratic agenda, save what can be saved, and put aside dreams of more radical social transformation. But there is a fatal flaw in this call for solidarity: it ignores the way in which liberalism and fundamentalism are caught in a vicious cycle. It is the aggressive attempt to export liberal permissiveness that causes fundamentalism to fight back vehemently and assert itself. When we hear today’s politicians offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, and triumphantly asking the rhetorical question, ‘Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their rights? Do you want every critic of religion to be put to death?’, what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer: who would want that? The problem is that liberal universalism has long since lost its innocence. What Max Horkheimer said about capitalism and fascism in the 1930s applies in a different context today: those who don’t want to criticise liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.
What of the fate of the liberal-democratic capitalist European dream in Ukraine? It isn’t clear what awaits Ukraine within the EU. I’ve often mentioned a well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t be more apposite. Rabinovitch, a Jew, wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: ‘Two reasons. The first is that I’m afraid the Communists will lose power in the Soviet Union, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communists’ crimes on us, the Jews.’ ‘But this is pure nonsense,’ the bureaucrat interrupts, ‘nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!’ ‘Well,’ Rabinovitch replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’ Imagine the equivalent exchange between a Ukrainian and an EU administrator. The Ukrainian complains: ‘There are two reasons we are panicking here in Ukraine. First, we’re afraid that under Russian pressure the EU will abandon us and let our economy collapse.’ The EU administrator interrupts: ‘But you can trust us, we won’t abandon you. In fact, we’ll make sure we take charge of your country and tell you what to do!’ ‘Well,’ the Ukrainian replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’ The issue isn’t whether Ukraine is worthy of Europe, and good enough to enter the EU, but whether today’s Europe can meet the aspirations of the Ukrainians. If Ukraine ends up with a mixture of ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchs pulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary) is today. (Too little attention is drawn to the role played by the various groups of oligarchs – the ‘pro-Russian’ ones and the ‘pro-Western’ ones – in the events in Ukraine.)
Some political commentators claim that the EU hasn’t given Ukraine enough support in its conflict with Russia, that the EU response to the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea was half-hearted. But there is another kind of support which has been even more conspicuously absent: the proposal of any feasible strategy for breaking the deadlock. Europe will be in no position to offer such a strategy until it renews its pledge to the emancipatory core of its history. Only by leaving behind the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of égaliberté alive. It is not the Ukrainians who should learn from Europe: Europe has to learn to live up to the dream that motivated the protesters on the Maidan. The lesson that frightened liberals should learn is that only a more radical left can save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy today.
The Maidan protesters were heroes, but the true fight – the fight for what the new Ukraine will be – begins now, and it will be much tougher than the fight against Putin’s intervention. A new and riskier heroism will be needed. It has been shown already by those Russians who oppose the nationalist passion of their own country and denounce it as a tool of power. It’s time for the basic solidarity of Ukrainians and Russians to be asserted, and the very terms of the conflict rejected. The next step is a public display of fraternity, with organisational networks established between Ukrainian political activists and the Russian opposition to Putin’s regime. This may sound utopian, but it is only such thinking that can confer on the protests a truly emancipatory dimension. Otherwise, we will be left with a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs. Such geopolitical games are of no interest whatever to authentic emancipatory politics.