New Communism, Old Totalitarianism


Alan Johnson has a bracing roundup in the May-June issue of World Affairs of the latest in communist theorizing. Entitled The New Communism: Resurrecting the Utopian Delusion, it begins so:

A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of “new communism.” A worldview recently the source of immense suffering and misery, and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism, is mounting a comeback; a new form of left-wing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity but aspires to political power.

Johnson argues that the latest ” flirtation with the notion of left-fascism” needs to be taken seriously. He focuses on leading proponents ” Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and the French philosopher and ex-Maoist Alain Badiou,” but includes as well the work of

the authors of the influential trilogyEmpireMultitudeCommonwealth, the American Michael Hardt of Duke University and the Italian Marxist Toni Negri; the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo (who recently declared that he has positively “reevaluated” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion); Bologna University professor and ex-Maoist Alessandro Russo; and the professor of poetry at the European Graduate School (and another ex-Maoist) Judith Balso. Other leading voices include Alberto Toscano, translator of Alain Badiou, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths in London, and a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism; the literary critic and essayist Terry Eagleton; and Bruno Bosteels from Cornell University.

Extracting from the writing of many, Johnson successfully captures a characteristic vatic logorrhoea that is heightened by the convergence of Marxist rhetoric and contemporary theorizing.  In our current state, people are

“excluded from their own substance” – Zizek.

But a new communism will be

“an egalitarian discipline of anti-property, anti-hierarchy and anti-authority principles” – Bosteels.

It will lead to

“a world that has been freed from the law of profit and private interest” – Badiou.

The philosophical vacuity rises far above even these formulations, however, to mystical heights of baggy rhetoric.

Gianni Vattimo sees a communist future in “an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, [or] a positive ‘realistic’ model according to traditional political methods.” Instead, Vattimo thinks that “communism must have the courage to be a ‘ghost.’”

Jean-Luc Nancy ups Vattimo.

The common means space, spacing, distance and proximity, separation and encounter. But this ‘meaning’ is not a meaning. It opens precisely beyond any meaning. To that extent, it is allowed to say that ‘communism’ has no meaning, goes beyond meaning: here, where we are.

Beyond this hall of verbal mirrors, says Johnson, or maybe as its ground, (or as Zizek might like to formulate it, where the idea is excluded from the substance of the word, the word from the substance of the world),

the refusal to face up to the criminal record of actually existing communism as a social system, let alone stare into that abyss until one’s politics and theory are utterly reshaped by it, tells us that the new communism remains within the orbit of leftist totalitarianism.

For so it is for Badiou that

failure is nothing more than the history of the proof of the hypothesis.

One needn’t read into all this, however; the new communists are frank about their allegiances and intent. Johnson quotes Zizek from Living in the End Times:

The only “realistic” prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (“human rights,” “democracy”), respect for which would prevent us from “resignifying” terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus [left-wing fascism], so be it!

According to Johnson,

Zizek argues that the mistake of the left was to accept “the basic coordinates of liberal democracy (‘democracy’ versus ‘totalitarianism’)” and suggests that we “fearlessly . . . violate these liberal taboos,” adding, “So what if one is accused of being ‘anti-democratic,’ ‘totalitarian’ . . . ?”

Johnson is quoting here from the in-your-face entitled Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? in which Zizek, I’ve written,

attempts to render empty and harmless the concept of totalitarianism, [calling it] a mental “stopgap” inhibiting thought. It is a device used by “conformist liberal scoundrels”… for the purpose of “blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement.”

I have another favored citation to offer, from Zizek’s preface to The Zizek Reader, one that reveals Zizek’s intellectual attractions as well the now long-noted guiding spirit of communism in practice.

[W]hat I find theoretically and politically engaging in the religious legacy is not the abstract messianic promise of some redemptive Otherness, but, on the contrary, religion in its properly dogmatic and institutional aspect.

The Soviet edifice, and within, Zizek as court jester theorist.

Before he’s shot.

And a ruthless clerk takes power.


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4 thoughts on “New Communism, Old Totalitarianism

  1. Re Zizek: with all that is said about him, I am still not absolutely sure that he isn’t a fraudster determined to make it as good as possible, simply riding on the wave of cheap publicity. Which wave is artificially heightened from time to time by another scandalous outburst. I suspect that while the others you mention may really mean what they write and say, Zizek is just a trickster.

    Of course, a malign one, I haste to add, but still a fraud.

    1. I have not felt sure either, but if you watch Zizek arguing with David Horowitz – when was the last time I wished for a mutual KO? – on Julian Assange’s The World Tomorrow, he appears to genuinely believe what he says. His joke about Assange in a Gulag cell about five minutes from the end, however – he is a jokester – suggests to me that he knows he safely theorizes a revolutionary method he will never see in action.

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