Slavoj Zizek has built up a reputation as a respected “Marxist” academic and is seen as somewhat of a “rock star” on the left. However, his recent attempts to translate his theories into concrete policies for a possible future SYRIZA government in Greece reveal that there is nothing revolutionary in his thinking. He is in fact providing academic credibility to a modern reformist current and has become an apologist for the shift to the right on the part of the leadership of SYRIZA.
At the 6th Subversive Festival held in Zagreb in May Slavoj Zizek held a public debate on the role of the European left together with Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA. Zizek gave the reasons why he supports SYRIZA and the expectations he has of the party. He also put forward specific proposals on the political direction that SYRIZA should take. Following an attack on Zizek by New Democracy in Greece, the Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia interviewed him where he repeated his views regarding SYRIZA.
The aim of this article is not to deal with the overall philosophical ideas of Zizek. In this article we will limit ourselves to dealing with some of the specific proposals that Zizek suggests SYRIZA should take up. We believe that there is nothing new in what Zizek raised in the debate with Tsipras. In fact, although he tries to cover his positions with a left rhetoric, his basic position on Greece comes straight from the Stalinist tradition of Popular Frontism, even including the old idea of forming an alliance with a so-called “progressive”, or as he puts it “patriotic”, bourgeoisie, as will become clear from the quotes we provide later in this article.
Zizek believes that SYRIZA is a new and unique phenomenon. He claims it is different from the radical movements of the past such as the movement led by Mandela in South Africa or the movement around Lula in Brazil. He says that these all came to power promising radical changes, but once in government only succeeded in carrying out limited reforms and essentially served the interests of global capitalism. He also claims SYRIZA is different from what he defines as the “radical left” that supports clear revolutionary principles but doesn’t attempt and doesn’t want to take the responsibility of power, thus condemning itself to certain failure.
Zizek claims that SYRIZA differs in the fact that while it is a truly radical left party with principles, it also has the additional quality of speaking the voice of reason in a European political environment that is gradually going mad. Zizek believes that the austerity measures being adopted all over Europe are dogmatic and based on fairy tales. This is what he said in the debate with Tsipras:
“Something very dangerous is going on now in Europe… I think that the European political elite is progressively losing its ability to rule. In other countries, even in the United States, with all the compromises, and so on... Obama, is somehow doing it... Europe, on the other hand, is losing its compass... The leaders don’t know what to do. The task ahead of SYRIZA is not some kind of crazy radical measures, but simply, in a very pragmatic way, which will have very radical consequences, to bring rationality, to give people hope, to stabilise the situation…” [Our emphasis]
And he goes on to say,
“…what I’m saying is that we should become more attentive to the irrationality that is deeply embedded in our daily reactions, the ideological irrationality of today’s global system... Krugman once gave an ingenious answer when he explained that even if we had known 10 years ago that the 2008 financial crisis would happen, we would still have done nothing to stop it. This is the tragedy of today’s capitalism. Even if you are fully aware you will still follow your illusions…”
Here we see how Zizek merely repeats an idea that is present throughout the reformist left in Europe: that the cuts in welfare spending are not necessary even from the point of view of capitalism, but an irrational ideological fixation of the European bourgeois politicians. Instead of explaining that, given the fundamental inner contradictions of a system based on profit, the bourgeois have no other policies to offer; instead of explaining that within the confines of capitalism there is no way out, he presents the situation as one where the European bourgeois have all gone mad and are behaving “irrationally”. From this it flows that a solution within the confines of capitalism is possible.
We have to ask the question: what is it that makes the European bourgeois – and reformist – political leaders act so “irrationally”? The European political leaders are currently acting within the context of the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism. It is this crisis that determines their policies and behaviour. Zizek, who has many times referred to this crisis in other speeches and also in some of his writings, this time does not seem to pay any particular attention to the concrete material conditions, nor does he provide an analysis of the class struggle that flows from them. All we need is some “rationality”, and he sees SYRIZA and its leader Tsipras as the bearer of this logical thought.
For Marxists this is an idealistic way of seeing things. Capitalism is certainly an irrational system, from the point of view of the real needs of humanity. But so long as it exists, what pushes it forward is the quest for profit on the part of all the capitalists. That which produces profit is logical and rational for the capitalists, that which does not is illogical and irrational!
Basing ourselves on the concrete analysis of the contradictions of the system, we pointed out a long time ago [see A Socialist Alternative to the European Union, By Alan Woods, 1997] that European unification that the bourgeoisie of Europe was attempting to achieve – albeit being the only road for them as they could not compete with the other economic blocs across the globe – could not be achieved. This, we explained, was because competition between the states that make up the European Union – states that are on very different levels of development – inevitably becomes ferocious when the share of the market of each of these declines rapidly in times of crisis.
Germany is at the heart of the European Union and has a double role as partner and competitor of the other EU member states. In the past economic growth was maintained in Europe by expanding credit to unheard of levels. So long as the economy was expanding, and the banks and big corporations were making big profits, debt was allowed to expand. But now debt has reached such levels that even the powerful German economy cannot shoulder all the European debt. It would be quite “irrational” for it to do so. The German ruling class is also not willing to consent to an uncontrollable printing of money as this would lead to massive inflation at a later stage of the crisis and such inflation would certainly be unmanageable. At the same time the ruling classes of Europe are presenting the bill to the poorer layers of society, thus putting at risk the social peace that was achieved in the post-war period. By attempting to achieve economic equilibrium they are destabilising the relations between the classes.
Thus we can see that what the ruling classes in Europe are actually facing is a real dilemma: they must cut spending in an attempt to reduce debt, but by doing so they are merely cutting further the market. Their policies flow from this situation and not from some ingrained “neoliberal” ideology. The serious strategists of the ruling class can clearly see this. The reformist leaders of the labour movement, however, can only see a system that has gone “crazy”. There are even some bourgeois thinkers who see things in these terms. For these technocrats the views expressed by the president of SYRIZA in international meetings seem quite logical: austerity should stop, the vicious cycle that prevents economic growth should stop also. Undoubtedly, everyone would like to see growth, rising wages, more jobs, etc. But is all this possible within the narrow confines of the capitalist system?
Zizek says, “the policies of austerity are not logical policies”. The question we have to ask ourselves is: what are the alternatives to austerity? The bourgeois in countries like Britain and the United States have applied what they define as “quantitative easing”, i.e. the printing of money, with little effect bar the piling up of inflationary pressures for the future. Basically what Zizek is objecting to is monetarism, i.e. so-called “neo-liberalism”. The alternative to monetarism, under capitalism, is Keynesianism, which would require massive amounts of public spending. With such high levels of public debt everywhere, where does Zizek propose the money will come from? As he excludes overthrowing the bourgeoisie [see below], but merely suggests some abstract “redistribution” of wealth, he is obliged to seek a solution within the logic of capitalism, and thus ends up as yet another modern-day reformist who clings to Keynesianism as a way out of the crisis. [For a detailed analysis of the ideas of the monetarists and Keynesians see: Marx, Keynes, Hayek and the Crisis of Capitalism – Part One, Part two and Part Three]
Austerity is nothing more than a form of class war; and it is an unavoidable choice for the ruling class and not merely a political choice. The outcome of this war will be determined by the policies adopted by the leadership of the labour movement. The working class has shown in several countries that it is moving in a very radical direction and that it is ready to struggle. In Greece this is abundantly clear. The general strikes, mass rallies and protests of the past few years clearly confirm this. The capitalists, in fact, are very much aware that sooner or later class struggle will erupt everywhere – not just in Greece – and they are getting ready for this.
But what are the leaders of the labour movement doing? What is the strategy, what is the programme of the leaders of the working class? More importantly, what should this strategy be?
In his interview with Eleftherotypia, Zizek says:
“…I am fed up with the left that states that it wishes to remain loyal to its principles and dreams of radical solutions and thus always ends up being marginalized, since it isn’t actually interested in winning; maybe because if it does enter into government, its ineffectiveness will be revealed. Contrary to this SYRIZA is ready to assume government in very difficult times for your country and without promising a quick solution. They are not some crazy lefties that will attempt to realize utopia and then when they fail they blame western imperialism.” [Translated from the Greek original].
We can understand why Zizek denounces those sects of the so-called “radical left” who in the name of purity of revolutionary ideas adopt methods and tactics which render them incapable of connecting with the real needs of the masses. However, the main characteristic of the sectarians is not their devotion to principles, as Zizek claims, but their rigidness when it comes to tactics and their vague propaganda of a programme that is revolutionary only in theory.
Sectarianism indeed leads to isolation from the masses and therefore failure. For what does “revolutionary purity” have to offer if the policies emanating from it lead to certain failure? However, the way to answer this sectarianism is not to denounce the revolutionary programme, is not to move the “strategic goal of socialism” to some undefined future, as Zizek does. Zizek, in a classical reformist manner, throws out the baby with the bathwater. He equates a principled defence of a revolutionary programme with sectarianism. In this he carries out a dishonest trick. In reality, it is possible to maintain a principled revolutionary stance and apply this in a flexible, non-sectarian manner to the labour movement as a whole. It is possible to connect the programme of revolutionary Marxism with the mass movement, as did Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky in the past. Nowhere in the texts of these great Marxist thinkers will one find anything that would justify abandoning the revolutionary programme of socialism as a means of gaining power. On the contrary!
What is required is to defend the revolutionary programme together with flexibility in tactics. This is what would allow a mass revolutionary party to sink roots within the working class. The success of revolutionary policies depends on successfully connecting them with the needs of the working class, of using them as a lever to make conscious the task at hand: the overthrow of capitalism.
For Zizek, however, the overthrow of capitalism is something for the long distant future. For him it is still early days for any such attempts. According to Zizek at this stage the left should adopt a more moderate approach. Radical reforms are not necessary; all that is required, as we have quoted him above, is to work “simply, in a very pragmatic way, which will have very radical consequences, to bring rationality, to give people hope, to stabilise the situation…” Thus all that is needed is to break with the madness and irrationality of today’s bourgeois leaders and introduce reason.
The problem is that this return of reason, that Zizek wants to see, is accompanied by policies that are confined to this very capitalist system. Capitalism has its own rules that govern it and within these it is impossible to plan production and distribution. The idea of a redistribution of wealth without expropriating and overthrowing the bourgeoisie is utterly utopian. It amounts to kindly requesting that the small minority of wealthy capitalists voluntarily give up some of their wealth for the good of society in general. If Zizek can indicate where such bourgeois are to be found, we would be very interested to know!
Given the anarchic nature of capitalism, real social needs cannot be recorded and calculated, and therefore effective planning to produce goods to meet the social needs of the bulk of the population cannot be calculated either. Any policy that respects the rules of capitalism – a Keynesian policy that will raise demand for example, as the leadership of SYRIZA frequently puts forward – is not at all rational or reasonable for it ignores the way capitalism actually works. These kinds of policies cannot tackle the actual cause of the crisis but merely try to cure its symptoms using superficial remedies.
Hidden within Zizek’s views there is a reactionary illusion: that the left, when in government, will manage to convince at least a section of the capitalists to support policies that will be beneficial both for them and the workers. This is as senseless as trying to convince a tiger to become a vegetarian. To maximise profits the capitalists are demanding a cut in the cost of labour and they are competing with each other to see who can cut the most. To think that capitalists can behave in any other way is to ignore the real world we live in.
In order to stabilize the situation under capitalism and to give hope to the people, it is necessary that there be economic growth that produces a large enough surplus while at the same time the social relations nationally and internationally would have to be such as to allow the working class to receive a sufficient share of this. This is a scenario that has been realized – and even then only partially – under very special circumstances, such as during a prolonged period of capitalist growth like the one we experienced during the post-war period in Europe, but it is completely utopian during a period of deep capitalist crisis, such as the one we are experiencing today.
So while Zizek states that he is “fed up” with the sectarianism of the “revolutionary left”, he is not so fed up with reformism, a political tradition and practice that, despite its name, is in reality incapable of achieving even the mildest of reforms in today’s conditions. Despite his fierce attacks on capitalism, mainly of a moralistic nature, in reality his views reveal illusions in the potential for growth of the system. He sees it as a question of bad, mafia-type capitalists versus genuine, honest, productive capitalists who want the good of the nation.
The “realistic” alliances of Zizek
Having put forward such goals for SYRIZA, Zizek also suggests what he considers to be “novel” political alliances. He states in the interview with Eleftherotypia the following:
“What we need are true and reasonable alliances, not communist revolutions, but bourgeois parliaments that will bring results. The left should abandon its sectarian attitude and approach what one would define as the patriotic bourgeoisie.”
Earlier this year at the above quoted 6th Subversive Festival held in Zagreb in a debate with Alexis Tsipras Zizek dealt with this same question raising the need for an alliance with a so-called “patriotic” or “progressive” bourgeoisie. Here we quote some of what he said. [The full debate is available online]:
[Minute 50 to 54] “It’s a question of intelligent alliances... we will still live for some decades within capitalism... I will use an old term... a patriotic bourgeoisie... that has some genuine interest in producing for the people... It is not just about generally striking at the rich, but a very carefully planned strategy... There are things that work with capitalism if applied properly... competition, especially at small scale production of consumerist goods and so on... A dream for me of what SYRIZA should be, within this global redistribution, is to make life easier even for truly productive capitalists... This would be a true triumph for SYRIZA... They would say that not only did we make it easier for the workers, but if you are a good honest capitalist you should vote for us... And I am ready to come to you and be some kind of voice of ‘capitalists for SYRIZA’. That would be my dream.”
Here we are presented with undistilled reformism. Here we are presented with the view that there are good “productive” capitalists who want to produce and bad capitalists of the gangster mafia type. Since when have there been capitalists who have a “genuine interest in producing for the people”? Has Zizek suddenly forgotten all his readings of Marx? Capitalists invest if they can make a profit. That is the only thing that motivates them. If in Greece there were scope for profitable investment to be made in manufacturing industry you can be sure the capitalists would be rushing in with their money. Instead, they keep it stashed away in foreign banks or at most use it in speculative investment.
Zizek also introduces another very old idea: that small scale production can work on a competitive basis. Has he, again, forgotten, what Marx explained long ago, that from small scale production the road inevitably leads to large scale monopolisation, precisely through the mechanism of competition? Or are we to believe that a SYRIZA government will prove capable of turning the clock of history backwards to a time when production was still in its early stages of small scale family run enterprises?
Dear comrade Zizek, the only form of capitalism that is possible today is the one you have before you, one dominated by huge multinational corporations. The advice you are giving to the SYRIZA leaders is very dangerous indeed, as it sows illusions in the possibility of finding some kind of “progressive” bourgeoisie with which it would be possible to govern together in the interests of both workers and capitalists. Any such attempt would doom SYRIZA to failure, and the workers and youth of Greece would pay a very heavy price for such failure.
Zizek on the Greek state
How far Zizek is removed from a genuine understanding of Marxism can be seen by what he says about the Greek state:
“SYRIZA shouldn’t do some crazy leftist revolution. SYRIZA should even modernise the Greek state, make it finally an efficient, even a much better bourgeois state if you want... You will have to do the decent job that the Greek capitalist class wasn’t able to do for themselves. [Minute 58]
No doubt comrade Zizek has read Lenin’s State and Revolution. We wonder, from reading the above quote, whether he actually agrees with Lenin or if he remembers what he has read. In this quote we see the utterly reformist illusions of Zizek in relation to the Greek state. He clearly thinks the present bourgeois Greek state is no good, but in its place he envisages SYRIZA creating a “better bourgeois state”. By this we presume he means a state which is efficient, that does away with bureaucracy, nepotism, corruption, etc. This is in line with his views that somewhere in Greece there is an honest, productive, progressive bourgeoisie.
Thus, according to the logic of Zizek, since “communist revolutions” are ruled out – and consequently SYRIZA should not aim to overthrow capitalism – it would seem logical to “approach” this so-called “patriotic” bourgeoisie as a necessary ally in reforming the state and developing the economy! The only obstacle to achieving this realistic alliance seems to be a sectarian section of the left. And in order for the left to overcome this sectarianism what may prove necessary is the whip of someone like... Thatcher, as he states in the same interview with Eleftherotypia! We presume that by this he means a strong leader of the left who can impose unity on the left and bring it to its senses and adopt the realistic viewpoint that Zizek suggests.
We see how Zizek has no problem in suggesting that SYRIZA adopt a policy of class collaboration. He says that what is needed is imagination and the removal of taboos. We Marxists on the other hand, have no obligation to accept a seriously mistaken and dangerous position, no matter whose imagination has formulated it. On the contrary, it is our duty to expose the damaging role that these ideas can have for both SYRIZA and the labour movement as a whole.
Firstly, one has to ask oneself who is this “patriotic bourgeoisie” and whether it even exists at all and at the end of the day what common interests could it have with the working class. It is quite a different matter to enter into a discussion regarding an alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie than to discuss the tactics that a government of the left should employ to win over the small business men and women who have gone bankrupt because of the current crisis. The small shopkeepers, the artisans, the small businesses are not the same thing as big business and the ruling class. They are the petit bourgeoisie who, in normal times, the big bourgeois lean on for political support. But in times of severe crisis these layers face bankruptcy and destitution. This layer can and must be won over by the left. But that cannot be done by inventing some phantomatic “progressive bourgeoisie”. The only way to win over this layer is by boldly putting forward a revolutionary programme that includes the nationalisation of the banks and big corporations. For example, by nationalising the banks and uniting them into one centralised state bank, it would be possible to offer cheap credit to the small businesspeople.
When Zizek speaks of the “patriotic” bourgeoisie, he is referring to an abstractly constructed social class, some kind of “progressive bourgeoisie”. Such a class is supposedly a progressive capital owning layer of society that is willing to inject its wealth into the economy by investing in production –and not keep its capital stashed away in foreign banks or offshore – which would transform Greek society by sweeping away the old remnants of history, such as for example the legal connection of the State with the Church. It is quite clear that such a class has never existed in the whole history of Greek capitalism and it certainly does not exist today either. Today such a class does not even exist in the advanced capitalist countries where the bourgeoisie played a progressive role in the past.
A concrete indicator of the absence of such a class in Greece today is its lack of any political representation. The small businesspeople that do react against the Troika, in reality are disappointed with the fact that the government is no longer able to protect them from the attacks of foreign capital. Desperate as they are, they turn either to right-wing demagogues and far-right parties, such as the Independent Greeks or Golden Dawn, or in some cases to SYRIZA.
It is important to point out here that the collaboration that the leadership of SYRIZA has suggested with the Independent Greeks does not flow from any political strategy of turning to this so-called “patriotic” bourgeoisie, but is a reactionary and opportunistic alliance that disappoints and confuses the rank and file. Unfortunately, Zizek’s superficial statements, instead of providing clarity on these questions – as they should – merely provide a “radical” cover for reactionary methods that have their origins, not in supposedly original ideas, but in the treacherous tactics of the Stalinist Popular Frontism of the 1930’s which are dangerous for the movement.
What should be SYRIZA’s position towards the petit bourgeois?
Instead of talking about approaching the “patriotic” bourgeoisie, the discussion should be focused on how could a government of the left secure the support, or at least the acceptance, of the petit bourgeois layers of society.
There is no doubt that the left will need to form alliances when it comes to power. However, its basic first duty should be to succeed in organizing and giving a voice to the working class. No discussion regarding alliances has any meaning without this basic precondition. The winning over of the petit bourgeois layers cannot happen by capitulating to the policies of those bourgeois parties who in reality do not have the consistent support of any part of society. The only way for a left government is to implement consistently the programme of the working class, which can be only the programme of socialist revolution. The nationalisation of the banking system and of the commanding heights of the economy is not a programme that is hostile towards the middle classes. On the contrary, this is the only way to control the flow of credit and to enable the planning of the reconstruction of production in the country. This would offer a breath of fresh air to the middle classes who are currently being crushed by the monopolies.
Advocating the “communist revolution” does not constitute sectarianism, as Zizek seems to think. On the contrary, the outbreak of events of a revolutionary character in various countries shows that we are not dealing with isolated, local events but manifestations of a deep crisis of capitalism as a whole. The revolutionary movements that we have seen in the recent period in countries like Turkey and Brazil, and even more so in Egypt and Tunisia, all express a deep desire of the masses for change. In all cases the masses raise demands that are de facto incompatible with the continuation of capitalism. They want jobs, good healthcare, good education, decent wages and so on. This means that they are objectively on a collision course with the system. Initially the masses may think that these demands can be achieved without challenging the very basis of the system, but through experience and struggle they will come to the conclusion that the whole system must be swept away. The question that we need to address is whether the left in Europe and around the world can analyze these phenomena, adopt the right course and lead the working class, not only in Greece, but in an organized and coordinated way, in every country. A new and mass revolutionary international organisation that will base itself on the solid foundations of Marxism is more relevant than ever.
Slavoj Zizek is a popular speaker with bold facial expressions and constant gesturing, who uses provocative jokes and verbal excesses, but he does not seem to be able to grasp the essence of the situation in Greece. Along with his support for SYRIZA, he also adopts uncritically the whole agenda of the party’s leadership, thus becoming its ideological apologist. He provides a theoretical backing for all the mistaken policies of the SYRIZA leadership with the glamour of a “radical philosopher”. His radicalism, however, despite his own intentions, is inconsistent and conceals the most insidious conservatism, the conservatism of class collaboration, which is the cornerstone of every social democratic policy. This is not what the rank and file of SYRIZA and the workers and youth in general in Greece require.
The Communist Tendency of SYRIZA understands that the masses have turned to the party investing it with their hopes and will continue to support it expecting significant changes in their lives. However, if their expectations are not met, Zizek’s statement that SYRIZA “is not promising a quick solution” will not be of much comfort to them. On the contrary, it is possible that he too will have to face their wrath.
For the Communist Tendency the only realistic option for SYRIZA is not to bend to the pressures of the bourgeoisie, but to struggle for a government of the left – offering a united front to the KKE – which would be a revolutionary government that would carry out a socialist programme establishing a democratically planned, nationalised economy. Such a government would explain that in order to guarantee jobs, decent wages, good healthcare, good schools and a general improvement in living conditions for the working people, the wealth of the big bourgeoisie, of the banks and the big corporations must be taken under public control. There is no other road, whatever Zizek may think.
Who can doubt that if the leaders of SYRIZA were to explain all this, considering their authority and also considering the burning desire for change on the part of the masses, that a successful socialist transformation of Greece is not possible? And Zizek, instead of using his reputation to support the backsliding of the SYRIZA leadership, would do better to use his reputation to explain the genuine ideas of Marxism. He has expressed the desire to see SYRIZA not only win the elections but also to keep winning and to stay in power. The way to achieve that is to carry out a genuine socialist transformation of Greece taking power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie. Such a successful transformation would indicate the way forward for the socialist revolution in Europe and around the world.