Alan Johnson on Zizek

Earlier this month Alan Johnson (of the Euston Manifesto and liberal interventionist journal Democratiya) made a blog post on the website of Dissent. In it Johnson opposes the democratic proceduralist approach of Norberto Bobbio to Slavoj Zizek’s ‘authoritarian leftism.’ Making a point of Zizek’s democratically irresponsible revolutionary messianism, Johnson quotes the following: “Revolutionary politics is not a matter of opinions but of the truth on behalf of which one often is compelled to disregard the ‘opinion of the majority’ and to impose the revolutionary will against it.

Unfortunately Johnson draws a straw-man picture of Zizek’s political arguments as laid out in his many works (including the more recent First as Tragedy, Then as Farce), and one has to wonder something else. Isn’t there a double standard in play when Zizek’s rhetorical flourishes about anti-democratic revolutionary terror are condemned, all the while many of the writers for Democratiya supported a unilateral push for regime change in Iraq that certainly disregarded the majority opinion of the world? As many have pointed out over the years, the neoconservative fascination with regime change in the Middle East certainly had a Trotskyite character of its own. By his own reasoning, does this make Johnson more of a Zizekian than he is aware of?


3 thoughts on “Alan Johnson on Zizek

  1. Actually, I did not support the invasion of Iraq. I was involved in South Lakeland Stop the War movement (‘No to War, No to Saddam) then worked with the free Iraqi trade unions after the invasion. With their international rep. Abdullah Muhsin I wrote ‘Hadi Never Died: Hadi saleh and the Iraqi Trade Unions’ (TUC 2006). And I would like to see you back up that claim that i create a ‘straw man’ of Zizek’s political views. I’ve read his books, pen in hand, and written a bunch of chapters. He is an authoritarian. Arguably, a left-fascist.

  2. Professor Johnson,

    I welcome your response. I had known of your involvement with the Labour Friends of Iraq and your work with the trade unions in the country after the occupation, although admittedly not with the Stop the War Movement. Nevertheless, I don’t think I was wrong in my initial description of Democratiya as a “liberal interventionist” journal and in saying that a number of individuals who eventually wrote for the journal you edited took a hawkish stance in the lead up to the invasion (Paul Berman, Nick Cohen, and Kanan Makiya come most readily to mind). While you may have opposed the invasion, I believe that it was still reasonable for me to sketch the broader connection between the journal that was your brainchild, the responsibility that certain intellectuals bear for the role they played in justifying the invasion, and the rather undemocratic American push for regime change in Iraq.

    Regarding Zizek, let me first say that I myself don’t subscribe to his version of leftist political theory, and that I think the questions you raise in your many essays deserve to be taken seriously. My objection to your reading in that particular article, however, is threefold.

    First, I think a distinction should be drawn between his advocation of theoretical radicalism as a means of resisting the ideologies of late capitalist society, and the role of radicalism in a concrete political program. Hence he writes, invoking Althusser, that antihumanism in theory does not equate to antihumanism in practice: “In our practice, we should act as humanists, respecting others, treating them as free persons with full dignity, creators of their world” (Zizek Presents Robespierre, p. xiv).

    From this follows my second point – that although Zizek has himself proclaimed to be an authoritarian, Stalinist, Linksfaschismus, etc. (not without a healthy dose of irony, I suspect), he has over the years supported Obama’s election, criticized the rise of the European far right, spoken at Zuccotti park, and spoken out against European anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. These are hardly the actions of a bloodthirsty Blanquist.

    Lastly, I disagree with the final juxtaposition you make between Zizek’s revolutionary terror and Bobbio’s proceduralist liberal democracy, as if these are the only options that the Left has these days. This dichotomy represents much of the failure of the contemporary Left in terms of its vision of a future democratic society, although I believe OWS and the other social movements we have seen emerge in 2011, albeit flawed in many ways, are steps in the right direction. Our alternatives should not be reform or revolution, as if one always produces sound policies while the other inevitably leads to cataclysm. You quote Bobbio that “Democracy and its ally reformism can make mistakes because democratic procedures themselves make the correction of mistakes possible.” Yet mistakes brought about through a combination of misguided policy and liberal-democratic procedures can also be beyond correction when they involve massive tolls on human life (once again Iraq comes to mind). Instead of being forced to choose between reform and revolution, in my opinion the Left needs to start thinking more in terms of tactics and ethics – What are our short and long-term goals, and what are we willing and not willing to do to reach them?

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