Last weekend I mentioned two keys to appreciating Slavoj Zizek, the popular but controversial Marxist philosopher. First, I said that his philosophical stance is one of defensive advocacy rather than constructive theorizing, that he is best understood as a self-appointed “lawyer for Marxism”. Second, I said that Slavoj Zizek can best be understood within the context of the startling history of the country he is from — by which I refer to both Slovenia, the country he is from now, and Yugoslavia, the nation in which he was born.
I’d like to discuss both points in more depth, and explain why I think these approaches to Zizek’s work help in understanding the fervency of his ethical mission.
Zizek is a philosopher who doesn’t mind giving himself labels; he is a Lacanian, and he is a Marxist. By calling himself a Marxist, Zizek damns himself to many readers. I would guess that nine out of ten of my own friends and acquaintances would react with anger and disbelief to the idea that any serious modern political philosopher could advocate Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Zizek surely loses a lot of readers by adopting this label so boldly (undoubtedly, he gains a few too).
This boldness is itself an expression of his philosophical mission. He is arguing that Marxism remains possible in the 21st Century, and by holding up the Marxist “flag” and marching proudly forward, he is encouraging other political philosophers who might also nurture hopeful thoughts about Marxism to stop cowering in fear. After reading many of his writings about Marxism, I’m not at all sure that Slavoj Zizek actually desires a Marxist world, but I am sure that he thinks Marxist ideology deserves a better place at the table than it currently holds.
He’s right about this, because Marxism has been a gigantic presence in recent world history, and yet the Marxist legacy is currently denigrated into simplistic cliche. The cliche goes something like this:
Communism was a failure. Capitalism is the opposite of Communism. Therefore, Capitalism is a success.
I’ve heard variations of this equation many times. It’s a sloppy formulation, though unfortunately many people take it extremely seriously.
It’s not very perceptive to say that Communism was a failure in the 20th century. Every major government in the world — communist governments, fascist governments, monarchist governments, democratic governments — took part in the twin orgies of murder and genocide known as World War One and World War Two. This suggests that every political system in the 20th Century was a failure. These wars, and the atmosphere of poisonous political paranoia that they generated, also dominated the political discourse of the 20th Century so completely that no other ideology had any chance to take root and grow. The only political ideology that was tested in the 20th Century was the ideology of militarized nationalism. That ideology, not Marxism, is the ideology that failed.
Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union was a terrible representative for Marxism for several decades of the 20th Century, and Slavoj Zizek is harshly critical of Stalin, and of the psychological cycles of enduring violence that enable tyrannical Communists like Stalin and Mao Zedong. Zizek has a right to stand for Marxism without standing for Stalinism or Maoism, and he proudly does so. When Zizek writes about Marxism, he tends to adopt a humorous tone that is grimly wistful — a literary tone reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He does not appear to claim to know how a Marxist government could possibly function in the real world, and as a Freudian/Lacanian psychologist he is forced to demonstrate often that he knows the odds are tough.
But an ethical philosopher doesn’t need to know how to translate a philosophy into practice in order to stand up for that philosophy. Perhaps one thing that drives Zizek’s manic intensity as a writer is that the complex legacy of Karl Marx is so often dragged through the mud. Much of Zizek’s writing is about standing up for a downtrodden idea. This brings us to the second point I made about Zizek last week, that his work can best be understood in the context of his national history, because the country Zizek was born in is also, today, nothing but a downtrodden idea.
If you want to appreciate Zizek’s often enigmatic essays, you must read the fascinating, terrible, beautiful, violent history of the Balkan lands — Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia — that once united to form the nation of Yugoslavia. This ancient territory has gone by many names — to the Romans, it encompassed Dalmatia and Illyria — and in the religious wars of the past millennium these lands were often caught in the grind between three warring giants: Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman Turkey. The three giants meddled in or invaded the Balkan territories constantly, often ostensibly on behalf of their respectively Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim religious missions, but also to spread their imperial reach and wealth.
After the fall of Napoleonic Europe in the early 19th Century, the diverse Balkan lands continued to attract foreign invasion, and a series of regional proxy wars led towards increasing Austro-Hungarian influence. But the incipient nationalism of the various South Slavic peoples within the Austro-Hungarian empire led to bitter, ruinous conflicts, culminating in the assassination that led to the beginning of World War One — the act of a small band of Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo.
After Austria-Hungary collapsed at the end of this four-year war, the Balkan nations united for the first time ever as Yugoslavia — the land of the South Slavs. But Yugoslavia now became the target of the rising Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s imperial attentions, and remained war-torn even during the “peaceful” years between World War One and World War Two, during which it was invaded and brutally dominated by Hitler’s Germany.
At the end of World War Two, Yugoslavia emerged as a Communist nation with a powerful and independent leader, Josip Tito, who refused to follow the global leadership of Josef Stalin.
Born in 1949, roughly four years after the rebirth of Yugoslavia amidst the European wreckage of World War Two, young Slavoj Zizek found a way to become an outspoken intellectual in a communist country. It has become a commonplace “fact” that communist nations suppressed their freethinkers, but Zizek managed to pursue a brazen academic path and protest openly against the leadership of his Yugoslav homeland without going to jail or having his legs broken or seeing his family killed. This helps to explain why, unlike many of my fellow Americans who invariably imagine the distant legacy of communism to amount to nothing but totalitarian oppression, Zizek is able to represent the possibility of a communist government that did not destroy its brazen intellectuals, and sometimes even nurtured them.
Yugoslavia’s communist government collapsed in the late 1980s, ahead of the vanguard of Soviet Union satellites that also fell. But the post-Yugoslavian nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia did not fare well. There can be little doubt that most post-Soviet Eastern European nations like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are better off outside the Iron Curtain, but Yugoslavia had never really been inside the Iron Curtain, and the decade following the fall of European communism was a horrific disaster for the Balkan lands. The post-Yugoslavian nations, freed of communism, now fell into “ethnic cleansing” — a new word for the old idea of genocide — during the long and painful Bosnian wars.
Zizek’s beloved city of Ljubjlana, Slovenia was spared the massacre, but one can only imagine how the dream of united Yugoslavia — a once-optimistic multi-ethnic nation, now disappeared forever — echoed in Zizek’s head as he watched the horrors of the post-Marxist wars destroy innocent lives and families in lands that had until recently been his own national home.
In the introduction to his recent book Living in the End Times Zizek complains that he is always credited with self-contradictory positions:
… for being a covert Slovene nationalist *and* an unpatriotic traitor to my nation, for being a crypto-Stalinist defending terror *and* for spreading bourgeois lies about Communism … So maybe, just maybe, I am on the right path, the path of fidelity of freedom.
A look at Zizek’s history helps to illuminate these contradictions, as the contradictions are Zizek’s primary cultural legacy. He comes from a different land. It’s overly reductive to describe Slavoj Zizek as a Yugo-nostalgist — however, the contradictions that electrify Zizek’s philosophical essays are the contradictions that are inherent in the history of Yugoslavia, a country that has now disappeared into the misty memories of time.
Today Zizek is perhaps the most famous political philosopher in the world who was born in a powerful country that no longer exists. Talk about an existential crisis …