Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Friday, October 08, 2004

Zizek is Not a Radical (prepublication version) - Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey

Zizek Page 1 3/11/03
This paper is an early (longer) version of an article that will be appearing in Thesis
Eleven in 2004.
‘Zizek is not a Radical’
Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey
University of Nottingham *
In the world of radical theory, Slavoj Zizek has attained the status of intellectual superstar.
Terry Eagleton claims Zizek ‘provides the best intellectual high since Anti-Oedipus’, and with
good reason.1 Zizek’s work is passionate, exciting, funny, frustrating, all-consuming,
interdisciplinary and paradigm-shaking. Further, he endorses immediately ‘political’ positions
and claims that seem uncompromisingly ‘radical’ when compared to rivals such as Ernesto
Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Judith Butler. He relentlessly unmasks those he sees as closet
liberals in his enduring war on the terrorism of political moderation, from ‘radical democracy’
to multiculturalism, denouncing all attempts to improve liberal capitalism from within its own
horizon.2 Moreover, Zizek’s radicalism seems refreshingly original and relevant whilst daring to
confront the existing socio-symbolic system. But is this appearance of a radical break with a
flawed present sustainable?
* Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey work in the School of Politics at the University of Nottingham,
UK. The authors would like to thank Susan McManus, Yannis Stavrakakis, Mat Humphrey and Saul
Newman for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts.
1 Eagleton’s recommendation appears on the jacket of a number of _i_ek’s recent works.
2 See for example, Slavoj _i_ek, The Fragile Absolute, London 2000, p. 46 [hereafter FA]; Slavoj _i_ek,
‘Repeating Lenin’,; p. 2 [hereafter RL], Slavoj _i_ek, The Ticklish Subject:
The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London 1999, p. 359 [hereafter TS]; Slavoj _i_ek, Did
Somebody Say ‘Totalitarianism’?, London 2001, p. 67 [hereafter DSST]; Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau
and Slavoj _i_ek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, London 2000, p. 325 [hereafter CHU].

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What we want to suggest in this paper is that whilst Zizek’s recent work is intellectually
‘radical’ this is not, despite appearances to the contrary, a radicalism that left politics can draw
sustenance or hope from. Zizek, that is, does not offer an alternative that is genuinely
progressive or transformative, but only the empty negativity of what Raoul Vaneigem terms
‘active nihilism’.3 This negativity ‘breaks’ with the present but undermines, rather than
generates a meaningful politics of resistance to the system. What Zizek delivers falls short of its
promise. Zizek’s position should therefore be exposed and opposed by those concerned with
advancing left-radical goals and anti-capitalist resistance.
A Radical Terror?
Zizek’s popularity results largely from the apparent way out that he provides from the cul-desac
in which radical theory, and in particular radical postmodern theory, has found itself. Zizek
is of course not the first author to attack ‘postmodernists’, post-structuralists and post-Marxists
on grounds of their lack of radical ambition on the terrain of politics. To take a couple of
examples from amongst the many, Sharon Smith asserts that ‘[t]he politics of identity do not
offer a way forward for those genuinely interested in transforming society. ... The emphasis on
lifestyle ... is the guarantee that such movements will remain middle class’.4 Murray Bookchin
similarly argues that subjectivist claims about ‘the ‘impossibility’ of formulating an ‘objective
criterion’ of rationality or good are ‘an indulgence we can ill afford’ - the ‘condition of the
world is far too desperate’.5 These critiques, however, are rooted in an ‘old’ left prone to
essentialism, unfounded ‘objective’ claims and simplifying vulgarisations – precisely the
reasons for the popularity of ‘postmodern’ approaches. Objections to spurious claims about an
‘objective’ answer to the present problems, to class and other reductionisms which risk
perpetuating voicelessness, and to dogmatism and theoretical rigidity are often well-founded,
3 Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, London 1994, p. 178.
4 Sharon Smith, ‘Mistaken Identity’, International Socialism, no. 62, Spring 1994, p. 47.

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even if those who make such criticisms appear disturbingly ‘liberal’ in their orientations. Thus,
left activists genuinely interested in confronting the liberal capitalist status quo find themselves
trapped between politically radical but theoretically flawed leftist orthodoxies and theoretically
innovative but politically moderate ‘post’-theories.
Enter Zizek. Zizek offers an alternative to traditional left radicalisms and
‘postmodern’ anti-essentialist approaches, especially identity politics. For Zizek, ‘radical
democracy’ accepts the liberal-capitalist horizon, and so is never ‘radical’ enough.6 Against this
alleged pseudo-radicalism, Zizek revives traditional leftist concepts such as ‘class struggle’.7
However, he ignores the ‘orthodox’ left meaning of such terms, rearticulating them in a
sophisticated Hegelian and Lacanian vocabulary. His dramatic impact on radical theory is
therefore unsurprising. To take one example, Sean Homer’s praise for Zizek is based on this
supposed reinvigoration of radicalism and Marxism.8 Though Homer is sceptical about Zizek’s
‘Lacanianism’, he declares that ‘Marxism … has always been much more to the fore of Zizek’s
work than many of his commentators have cared to acknowledge’.9 Zizek, he claims, is reopening
the repressed issue of the Marxian and Althusserian legacy, and calling for ‘[u]topian
imaginaries which allow us to think beyond the limits of capitalism’.10 For Homer’s Zizek ‘the
point is to be anti-capitalist, whatever form that might take’.11 And though he attacks ‘the
problem’ of Zizek’s Lacanian categories, especially the Real, Homer clearly sees Zizek’s work
as a step towards the revitalised Marxist radicalism he advocates.12 Problems remain, however.
Zizek’s version of ‘class struggle’ does not map on to traditional conceptions of an empirical
working-class, and Zizek’s ‘proletariat’ is avowedly ‘mythical’.13 He also rejects newer forms
of struggle such as the anti-capitalist movement and the 1968 uprisings thereby reproducing a
5 Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, Montreal 1996, p. xix.
6 See for example the interview with _i_ek published as ‘Lacan in Slovenia’ in Peter Osborne ed.), A
Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals, London 1996, pp. 41-2 [hereafter CrS].
7 Slavoj _i_ek, The Plague of Fantasies, London 1997, p. 216 [hereafter PF].
8 Sean Homer, ‘_i_ek’s Marxism’, Radical Philosophy no. 108 July-August 2001.
9 Homer, ‘_i_ek’s Marxism’, p. 7.
10 Homer, ‘_i_ek’s Marxism’, pp. 8-9, 10.
11 Homer, ‘_i_ek’s Marxism’, p. 15.
12 Homer, ‘_i_ek’s Marxism’, pp. 13-14.
13 TS p. 173.

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problem common in radical theory: his theory has no link to radical politics in an immediate
sense.14 Nevertheless, he has a theory of how such a politics should look which he uses to
judge existing political radicalisms. So how does Zizek see radical politics emerging?
Zizek does not offer much by way of a positive social agenda. He does not have
anything approximating to a ‘programme’, nor a model of the kind of society he seeks, nor a
theory of the construction of alternatives in the present. Indeed, the more one looks at the
matter, the more difficult it becomes to pin Zizek down to any ‘line’ or ‘position’. He seems at
first sight to regard social transformation, not as something ‘possible’ to be theorised and
advanced, but as a fundamental ‘impossibility’ because the influence of the dominant symbolic
system is so great that it makes alternatives unthinkable.15 A fundamental transformation,
however, is clearly the only answer to the vision of contemporary crisis Zizek offers. Can he
escape this contradiction? His attempt to do so revolves around a reclassification of
‘impossibility’ as an active element in generating action. Asserting or pursuing the impossible
becomes in Zizek’s account not only possible but desirable. So how then can the left advance its
‘impossible’ politics? How is a now ‘impossible’ model of class struggle be transformed into a
politics relevant to the present period?
As becomes evident ‘class struggle’ is not for Zizek an empirical referent and even less
a category of Marxisant sociological analysis, but a synonym for the Lacanian Real. A
progressive endorsement of ‘class struggle’ means positing the lack of a common horizon and
assuming or asserting the insolubility of political conflict.16 It therefore involves a glorification
of conflict, antagonism, terror and a militaristic logic of carving the field into good and bad
sides, as a good in itself.17 Zizek celebrates war because it ‘undermines the complacency of our
daily routine’ by introducing ‘meaningless sacrifice and destruction’.18 He fears being trapped
by a suffocating social peace or Good and so calls on people to take a ‘militant, divisive
14 RL p. 20, TS, p. 244, 247.
15 CHU p. 325.
16 PF p. 216.
17 FA p. 57, 126.
18 TS p. 105.

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position’ of ‘assertion of the Truth that enthuses them’.19 The content of this Truth is a
secondary issue. For Zizek, Truth has nothing to do with truth-claims and the field of
‘knowledge’. Truth is an event which ‘just happens’, in which ‘the thing itself’ is ‘disclosed to
us as what it is’.20 Truth is therefore the exaggeration which distorts any balanced system.21 A
‘truth-effect’ occurs whenever a work produces a strong emotional reaction, and it need not be
identified with empirical accuracy: lies and distortions can have a truth-effect, and factual truth
can cover the disavowal of desire and the Real.22
In this sense, therefore, Lenin and de Gaulle, St Paul and Lacan are all carriers of the
truth and therefore are progressive, ‘radical’ figures, despite the incompatibility of their
doctrines. Such individuals (and it is always individuals) violently carve the field and produce a
truth-effect. That de Gaulle and the Church are political rightists is of no importance to Zizek,
since he redefines ‘right’ and ‘left’ to avoid such problems. He also writes off the human
suffering caused by carving the field as justified or even beneficial: it has a ‘transcendental
genesis’ in the subject, and its victims endure it because they obtain jouissance from it.23 The
structural occurrence of a truth-event is what matters to him - not what kind of world results
from it. This is a secondary issue - and anyway one that he thinks is impossible to discuss, since
the logic of liberal capitalism is so total that it makes alternatives unthinkable.24 One should
keep the utopian possibility of alternatives open, but it should remain empty, awaiting a
How can one overcome capitalism without imagining an alternative? Zizek’s answer
relies on his extension of Lacanian clinical principles into social analysis. For Zizek, every
social system contains a Symbolic (social institutions, law, etc.), an Imaginary (the ideologies,
fantasies and ‘pseudo-concrete images’ which sustain this system), and a Real, a group which is
‘extimate’ to (intimately present in, but necessarily external to) the system, a ‘part of no part’
19 DSST pp. 237-8, FA p. 122, TS p. 226; cf. RL p. 9.
20 FA pp. 79-80.
21 PF p. 92.
22 PF p. 56, RL, p. 27, FA pp. 138-7, CHU pp. 126-7, FA pp. 136-7, CHU pp. 126-7.
23 TS pp. 105-7.
24 CHU p. 324.

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which must be repressed or disavowed for the system to function. Zizek identifies this group
with the symptom in psychoanalysis, terming it the ‘social symptom’. Just as a patient in
psychoanalysis should identify with his or her symptom to cure neuroses, so political radicals
should identify with the social symptom to achieve radical change. This involves a ‘statement
of solidarity’ which takes the form ‘We are all them’, the excluded non-part - for instance, ‘we
are all Sarajevans’ or ‘we are all illegal immigrants’.26 By identifying with the symptom, one
becomes for Zizek a ‘proletarian’, and therefore ‘touched by Grace’.27 Thus even academics
like Zizek can perform an authentic Act while retaining their accustomed lifestyles simply by
identifying with anathemas thrown at them by others.28 Since the social symptom is the
embodiment of the ‘inherent impossibility’ of society, identification with it allows one,
paradoxically, to recover a radical politics which is rendered unthinkable and impossible by the
present socio-symbolic system.29 Identification with the symptom is not an external act of
solidarity. Zizek does not accept a division between individual and social psychology, so he
believes identifying with the social symptom also disrupts one’s own psychological structure.
This identification involves neither the self-emancipation of this group nor a struggle in support
of its specific demands, but rather, a personal act from the standpoint of this group, which
substitutes for it and even goes against its particular demands in pursuit of its ascribed Truth.30
Thus Zizek mercilessly rejects the present state of the world. On the one hand, he is
very aware of problems of great significance for the left: the privatisation of everything from
telecommunications to genes, the invisible exploitation of workers in sweatshops, the growing
ecological crisis, and the weight of the forces lined up to make these attacks, and the crisis they
generate, seem ‘normal’.31 And yet on the other, he launches conservative attacks on liberalism
and reflexivity,32 bemoaning the lack of a Master,33 denouncing campaigns against sexual
25 CHU p. 325.
26 TS p. 231.
27 TS p. 173, 227.
28 CHU p. 122.
29 CHU p. 125.
30 CHU p. 125, RL p. 5.
31 DSST pp. 133-4, CHU p. 322.
32 FA p. 9, TS p. 358.

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violence,34 railing against ‘permissiveness’ and ‘decadence’ and calling for a conformist
‘normal mature subject’ prepared to submit to authority on trust and to identify authentically
with social roles.35 Though it is not clear that the changes he demands are unproblematically
progressive, he clearly wants a comprehensive transformation. Indeed, he dismisses others’
concerns for human rights, moderation and toleration as ‘humanist hysterical shirking of the act’
and announces that he doesn’t care if ‘bleeding-heart liberals’ accuse him of ‘linksfaschismus’.36
Zizek’s theory thus sacrifices everything to a core orientation. Yet the question remains, how
can he reconcile such a stance with the impossibility of imagining a radical alternative?
Caught in the Act
The answer is that Zizek does not see impossibility as a barrier to action. Rather, he sees it as a
sign of the purity and authenticity of a particular action, i.e. of what he identifies as an authentic
Act. For Zizek, an authentic, radical Act necessarily comes from the repressed Real, and
involves the return of this repressed impossibility. It necessarily, therefore, surprises not only
conformist observers, but the actor; it ‘surprises/transforms the agent itself’.37 The Act
therefore opens a redemptive dimension via a ‘gesture of sublimation, of erasing the traces of
one’s past … and beginning again from a zero-point’.38 Such an Act is for Zizek a
transcendental necessity for subjective action, ‘a quasi-transcendental unhistorical condition of
possibility and … impossibility of historicisation’.39
The Act, which for Zizek is the sole criterion of whether one’s politics are radical, is a
structural or formal category, defined (in principle) internally and radically separated from
anything which does not meet its criteria. All alternatives - even those which share Zizek’s
33 TS pp. 113-14, PF p. 151, 153, 164, DSST pp. 246-7.
34 TS p. 285, FA p. 72,111.
35 PF p. 193, FA pp. 110-11, 133, 135, TS p. 369, 399, see also PF p. 148.
36 TS p. 380, CHU p. 326.
37 CHU p. 124.
38 FA p. 127.

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hostility to liberal capitalism, and including some which fit particular formal requirements of an
Act - which fall short of the criteria of full Acts are for Zizek necessarily complicit in
capitalism. At best, they are hysterical ‘false acts’, providing a pseudo-radical pseudo-resistance
which actually sustains capitalism by contributing to its phantasmic supplement.40
Acts have several formal criteria which Zizek formulates differently on different
occasions. Firstly, someone who Acts must identify with the symptom, thereby revealing a
repressed Truth and bringing the Real to the surface. Secondly, they must ‘suspend’ the
existing symbolic system, including its ethics, politics, and systems of meaning and
knowledge;41 an Act is nihilistic and extra-, even anti-, ethical (at least as regards any
conception of the good). Since Zizek denies the existence of radical social, cultural or
psychological difference, he believes that everyone is equally trapped by the dominant symbolic
system, so any break with it must come from beyond meaning and positive ethics. The
commitment an Act generates must be ‘dogmatic’; it ‘cannot be refuted by any argumentation’
and is indifferent to the truth-status of the Event it refers to.42 An Act has its own inherent
normativity, refusing all external standards;43 an Act (or Decision) is circular and tautological,44
based on a shibboleth,45 and incomprehensible except from the inside.46 It is a response to an
ethical injunction beyond ordinary ethical norms, so that ‘although what I am about to do will
have catastrophic consequences for my well-being and for the well-being of my nearest and
dearest, none the less I simply have to do it, because of the inexorable ethical injunction’.47 The
Act resolves all problems in a single, all-encompassing Terror which bypasses particularities
and violently stops the ‘mad dance’ of shifting identities, operating instead ‘to ground a new
political universality by opting for the impossible, with no taboos, no a priori norms... respect
for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit
39 PF pp. 225-6.
40 See, for example, TS p. 247; PF p. 34; FA p. 148.
41 FA p. 93, 155, TS p. 361, PF p. 50.
42 TS p. 144.
43 TS p. 388.
44 TS p. 243.
45 TS p. 138.
46 TS p. 140.

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of sacrifice’.48 An Act is symbolic death,49 creatio ex nihilo and self-grounded.50 It is the
outcome of ‘an ethics grounded in reference to the traumatic Real which resists symbolisation’,
i.e. to ‘an injunction which cannot be grounded in ontology’,51 a ‘self-referential abyss’,52 an
excessive gesture irreducible to human considerations and necessarily arbitrary.53 The
suspension of ethical, epistemological and political standards is not a necessary consequence of
a Zizekian Act - it is a defining feature. It is necessary so a new system can be built from
nothing,54 and anything short of a full Act remains on enemy terrain.55
The choice of the term ‘suspension’ is revealing, for although in Zizek’s account the
surface structure of the social system is changed during such a ‘suspension’, the deep structure
of the social system as set out in Lacanian theory is not (and cannot be) changed in the slightest.
So an Act shatters capitalism, but it leaves intact many of its most objectionable features,
including social exclusion,56 violence,57 naturalisation,58 reification and myths,59 all of which are
for Zizek primordial, ever-present and necessary in any society. Further, since the Act involves
submission to a Cause and a Leader, it cannot destroy the authoritarian structure of capitalism:
‘often, one does need a leader in order to be able to “do the impossible”... subordination to [the
leader] is the highest act of freedom’.60 So, while an Act may destroy the specific articulations
of oppression within the present system (e.g. the identification of the Real with illegal
immigrants), it necessarily produces a system which is equally oppressive.
Thirdly, an Act involves going through ‘symbolic destitution’. Through an Act, ‘the
subject accepts the void of his [sic] nonexistence’.61 It is ‘the anti-ideological gesture par
47 DSST p. 14.
48 CHU p. 326.
49 FA p. 30.
50 DSST p. 176; PF p. 223.
51 PF pp. 213-14.
52 PF p. 223.
53 FA p. 155; p. TS 96.
54 FA p. 127.
55 CHU p. 126.
56 CHU p. 102-3.
57 CHU pp. 233-4.
58 CHU p. 100.
59 PF p. 106; DSST pp. 38-9.
60 DSST pp. 246-7.
61 TS p. 281.

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excellence by means of which I renounce the hidden treasure within myself and fully admit my
dependence on the externality of symbolic apparatuses - that is, fully assume the fact that my
self-experience of a subject who was already there prior to the external process of interpellation
is a retrospective misrecognition brought about by the process of interpellation’.62 Zizek uses an
example from the film The Usual Suspects where the hero shoots his family dead to give him a
pretext for chasing the gang who held them hostage. This is ‘the ‘crazy’, impossible choice of
in a way shooting at himself, at that which is most precious to himself’, through which the
subject gains a ‘space of free decision’ by ‘cutting himself loose from the precious object
through whose possession the enemy kept him in check’, and clears the terrain for a new
beginning.63 Through an Act, one negates one’s position in the social system and destroys the
person one was before. The concept of the Act is therefore palingenetic: one destroys one’s
former self to go through a moment of rebirth, which, however, is not connected to any
particular programme of change. Rather, it is founded on a desire for Nothingness.64 For Zizek
‘the only legitimation of revolution is negative, the will to break with the Past’, and
revolutionaries should not have positive conceptions of an alternative to be realised.65
Ruthlessness is characteristic of the Act: Zizek hates soft-heartedness because it ‘blurs the
subject’s pure ethical stance’,66 and calls for an Act ‘impervious to any call of the Other’.67
The Act thus reproduces in the socio-political field the Lacanian concept of traversing
the fantasy. Traversing the fantasy involves ‘accepting’ that there is no way one can be
satisfied, and therefore a ‘full acceptance of the pain ... as inherent to the excess of pleasure
which is jouissance’, as well as a rejection of every conception of radical difference.68 It means,
contra Nietzsche, ‘an acceptance of the fact that there is no secret treasure in me’,69 and a
62 CHU p. 134.
63 CHU pp. 122-3.
64 FA pp. 166-7.
65 CHU p. 131.
66 DSST p. 111.
67 DSST p. 175.
68 PF pp. 30-1.
69 PF p. 10. We are assuming that _i_ek’s remarks in this and similar passages is directed against
Nietzsche who in On the Geneaology of Morals follows the gospel of Mathew (6:21) in searching for the
‘secret treasure’ within us. Nietzsche locates such a treasure in the ‘beehives of our knowledge’. See

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transition from being the ‘nothing’ we are today to being ‘a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a
Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack’.70 It involves being
reduced to a zero-point or ‘ultimate level’ similar to that seen in the most broken concentrationcamp
inmates,71 so the role of analysis is ‘to throw out the baby... in order to confront the
patient with his ‘dirty bathwater’,72 inducing, not an improvement, but a transition ‘from Bad to
Worse’, which is ‘inherently ‘terroristic’.73 It is also not freedom in the usual sense, but
prostration before the call of the truth-event,74 ‘something violently imposed on me from the
Outside through a traumatic encounter that shatters the very foundation of my being’.75 In true
Orwellian fashion, Zizek claims that in the Act, freedom equals slavery; the Act involves ‘the
highest freedom and also the utmost passivity with a reduction to a lifeless automaton who
blindly performs its gestures’.76
So the Act is a rebirth - but a rebirth as what? The parallel with Lacan’s concept of
‘traversing the fantasy’ is crucial, because, for Lacan, there is no escape from the symbolic
order or the Law of the Master. We are trapped in the existing world, complete with its
dislocation, lack, alienation and antagonism, and no transcendence can overcome the deep
structure of this world, which is fixed at the level of subject-formation; the most we can hope
for is to go from incapable neurosis to mere alienated subjectivity. In Zizek’s politics, therefore,
a fundamental social transformation is impossible. After the break initiated by an Act, a system
similar to the present one is restored; the subject undergoes identification with a Cause,77
leading to a new ‘proper symbolic Prohibition’ revitalised by the process of rebirth,78 enabling
one ‘effectively to realize the necessary pragmatic measures’,79 which may be the same ones as
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals reprinted in M. L. Morgan (ed.), Classics of Moral and
Political Theory, Indianapolis 1992, p. 1233.
70 FA pp. 146-7.
71 DSST pp. 76-7, 86.
72 PF pp. 62-3.
73 TS p. 377.
74 TS p. 227.
75 TS p. 212.
76 TS p. 375.
77 TS p. 154.
78 TS p. 368.
79 AF pp. 72-3.

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today, e.g. structural adjustment policies.80 It is possible to start a new life by replacing one
symbolic fiction with another.81 As a Lacanian, Zizek is opposed to any idea of realising utopian
fullness. Any change in the basic structure of existence, whereby one may overcome
dislocation and disorientation, is out of the question. However, he also rejects practical
solutions to problems as a mere displacement.82 So an Act neither solves concrete problems nor
achieves drastic improvements; it merely removes blockages to existing modes of thought and
action. It transforms the ‘constellation which generates social symptoms’,83 shifting exclusion
from one group to another, but it does not achieve either drastic or moderate concrete changes.
It ‘means that we accept the vicious circle of revolving around the object [the Real] and find
jouissance in it, renouncing the myth that jouissance is amassed somewhere else’.84 It also
offers those who take part in it a ‘dimension of Otherness, that moment when the absolute
appears in all its fragility’, a ‘brief apparition of a future utopian Otherness to which every
authentic revolutionary stance should cling’.85 This absolute, however, can only be glimpsed.
The leader, Act and Cause must be betrayed so the social order can be refounded. The leader,
or ‘mediator’, ‘must erase himself [sic] from the picture’,86 retreating to the horizon of the social
to haunt history as spectre or phantasy.87 Every Great Man must be betrayed so he can assume
his fame and thereby become compatible with the status quo;88 once one glimpses the sublime
Universal, therefore, one must commit suicide - as Zizek claims the Bolshevik Party did, via the
Stalinist purges (‘When the Party Commits Suicide’).
Furthermore, despite Zizek’s emphasis on politics, his discussion of the Act remains
resolutely individualist - as befits its clinical origins. Zizek’s examples of Acts are nearly all
isolated actions by individuals, such as Mary Kay Letourneau’s defiance of juridical pressure to
80 CRS p. 32.
81 TS, p. 331.
82 TS pp. 383-4.
83 CHU p. 124.
84 Slavoj _i_ek, ‘The Seven Veils of Fantasy’ in D. Nobus (ed.), Key Concepts of Lacanian
Psychoanalysis, London 1988, pp. 209-10.
85 FA pp. 159-60.
86 DSST p. 50.
87 FA p. 64.
88 TS p. 316; pp. 90-1.

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end a relationship with a youth,89 a soldier in Full Metal Jacket killing his drill sergeant and
himself,90 and the acts of Stalinist bureaucrats who rewrote history knowing they would later be
purged.91 This is problematic as a basis for understanding previous social transformations, and
even more so as a recommendation for the future. The new subject Zizek envisages is an
authoritarian leader, someone capable of the ‘inherently terroristic’ action of ‘redefining the
rules of the game’.92 This is a conservative, if not reactionary, position. As Donald Rooum’s
cartoon character Wildcat so astutely puts it, ‘I don’t just want freedom from the capitalists. I
also want freedom from people fit to take over’.93
Regarding social structures, furthermore, Zizek consistently prefers overconformity to
resistance. For him, disidentification with one’s ideologically-defined role is not subversive;
rather, ‘an ideological edifice can be undermined by a too-literal identification’.94 Escapism and
ideas of an autonomous self are identical with ideology because they make intolerable
conditions ‘liveable’;95 even petty resistance is a ‘condition of possibility’ of the system,96 a
supplement which sustains it. To be free of the present, one should renounce ‘the transgressive
fantasmic supplement that attaches us to it’,97 and attach oneself instead to the public discourse
which power officially promotes.98
How does Zizek distinguish his ‘leftist’ politics from ‘rightist’ alternatives which would
equally meet the formal criteria of an Act? He introduces the idea of the ‘false Act’ (or ‘rightist
suspension of the ethical’) to deal with this problem. False acts, such as the Nazi seizure of
power and the bombing of Afghanistan, have the formal structure of an Act, but are false
because they involve impotent acting-out against a pseudo-enemy, and therefore do not traverse
89 TS pp. 385-7.
90 PF p. 21.
91 DSST pp. 98-9.
92 TS p. 377.
93 Donald Rooum, Wildcat ABC of Bosses, London 1991, p. 24.
94 PF p. 22.
95 CHU p. 104.
96 PF p. 20.
97 FA p. 149.
98 CHU p. 220.

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the actual social fantasy.99 Their function, rather, is to preserve the system through the actingout.
100 One can tell a true Act from a false Act by assessing whether an act is truly negative, i.e.
negates all prior standards,101 and by whether it emerges from the actual void in a situation,102
which is always a single ‘touchy nodal point … which decides where one ‘truly stands’.103 This
is problematic because Zizek here introduces external criteria while elsewhere stating that the
Act must negate all such criteria. Furthermore, if the authenticity of an Act is dependent on an
empirical assessment of where the actual social void is, then Zizek’s account of the Act as the
assertion of a Truth over and against the facts is undermined.
Zizek’s account of the Act provides a general framework for political assessments.
Before assessing its validity, however, we need to examine how the concept operates when
applied to a concrete political topic.
Depleting Lenin: What is not to be done!
Zizek is not a political theorist, and much of what passes for ‘politics’ in his work is asserted in
passing. Usually, he discusses politics as an afterthought, during analyses of other subjects,
such as a particular film or novel. Zizek’s recent work does however address some directly
political topics, including the attacks of September 11th, eastern European nationalism, the
Holocaust, the concept of totalitarianism and western interventions in armed conflicts. One of
his current fascinations is the relevance or ‘meaning’ of Lenin and the Act-Event associated
with the Lenin signifier, i.e. the Russian revolution and its aftermath. This interest in Lenin
follows logically from Zizek’s love of provocation. Lenin is perhaps the ultimate bogeyman of
post-Marxism. Less open to reformist rearticulation than ‘Marx’, and lacking the
99 CHU pp. 126-7; Slavoj _i_ek, ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’,, pp.
4-6 [hereafter WDR].
100 WDR p. 4.
101 TS pp. 162-3.
102 TS pp. 138-40.
103 CHU p. 125.

Zizek Page 15 3/11/03
anathematising extremity of ‘Stalin’ (for, though Zizek claims to be identifying with the worst
anathemas, he avoids in practice the most ‘disavowed’), the signifier ‘Lenin’ occupies the nodal
point between a committed revolutionary politics and the ‘progressive’ leftism of Zizek’s
intellectual opponents. Further, Zizek’s references to Lenin offer a case-study of the political
implications of Zizek’s theories and the extent to which they can generate anything beyond
intellectual provocation, negative assertion and abstract theorising.
Lenin is an obvious reference-point for anyone concerned about radically transforming
the world rather than merely reforming the existing system. Though Lenin was, by most criteria
including his own, ultimately unsuccessful in achieving his goals, the revolution associated with
his name succeeded in overthrowing capitalism and establishing an alternative social system.
Further, Lenin had a reputation for determination, intransigence and ruthlessness which Zizek
finds attractive. He was not content to be a tragic-romantic failure, to play the liberal-capitalist
game or to polemicise ineffectually from the sidelines, but rather, he was determined to be part
of a movement which could seize and retain state power.
Zizek’s ‘Leninism’ results from similarities between Lenin’s positions and Zizek’s
concept of the Act - especially if Lenin himself is interpreted as initiating the entire
revolutionary process. Lenin went through an experience Zizek sees as an Act, taking a ‘mad’
revolutionary stance in April 1917 when even his comrades rejected such a position.104 His
revolutionary intransigence suspended liberal and Marxist orthodoxies and so conformed with
Zizek’s description of the nature of an Act. And it is true that Zizek’s account is supported by
some of Lenin’s statements: ‘After its victory’, Lenin insisted, ‘the proletariat has to make the
most strenuous efforts, to suffer the pains of martyrdom ... to ‘liberate’ itself from ... pseudorevolutionaries’;
105 it should make sure it ‘is not afraid of itself’ and be ready to use ‘immediate
and severe punishment’, ignoring the empty ‘hypocrisy’ of ‘those who show... fear’, who
belong to the old society ‘which utters the word ‘justice’ without believing it’.106 Moreover, his
break with Kautsky involved going through subjective destitution, providing support for Zizek’s
104 RL p. 13.
105 V. I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Peking 1965, p. 102.

Zizek Page 16 3/11/03
view that an ‘impossible’ politics is one that starts from personal denial.107 Arguably, he also
‘shot at himself’ by the sacrifices he made for ‘the revolution’, suppressing his own emotions
and denying himself a ‘normal’ family life. As Zizek insists, Lenin was prepared to put aside
the promise of emancipation when the regime felt threatened by the lack of ‘order’, during the
Civil War. And Lenin used all available means to retain power and celebrated the use of force
and terror to underpin the new ‘revolutionary’ symbolism. This terror was sufficiently wideranging
to meet Zizek’s demand for a Bataillean dimension.108 Zizek’s admiration for Lenin
thus stems from the same source as his admiration for other historical figures such as Pope John
Paul II, St Paul, Charles de Gaulle and President Chavez of Venezuela, which is to say that it
stems less from Lenin’s politics than from the latter’s willingness to traverse the fantasy of a
socio-political ‘given’.109
The paradox of this ‘defence’ of Lenin is that it reproduces almost exactly the
conservative account of why Lenin should be renounced as a messianic ‘totalitarian’ despot.
This is the Lenin of Bertram D. Wolf, Leonard Shapiro and Adam B. Ulam, the Lenin of the
Gulag and the Evil Empire, the Lenin whose ‘Bolshevism proved to be less a doctrine than a
technique of action for the seizing and holding of power’,110 the big bad wolf so important for
Cold War and anti-left propaganda - that is, the very image of Lenin that generations of leftleaning
scholars have been trying to qualify, undermine, challenge or rebut.111 Zizek’s
endorsement of this ‘Lenin’ illustrates in stark terms why his project should be rejected by those
seeking to advance a left agenda. Zizek’s ‘Leninism’ shows the primacy of the category of the
Act within his own approach. What he admires in the figure ‘Lenin’ has little to do with
Lenin’s motives and objectives, about which he says little; nor does he endorse progressive
106 V. I Lenin, Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, Moscow 1967, p. 42.
107 RL p. 12.
108 RL p. 21.
109 See for example, DSST pp. 246-7, TS p. 227, and Slavoj _i_ek, The Abyss of Freedom, Ann Arbor
Mich, 1997, pp. 72-3.
110 Leonard Shapiro, The Origins of the Communist Autocracy, 2nd edition, London 1977, p. 14.
111 _i_ek’s main source for his views on Lenin appears to be the work of Neil Harding whose reading of
Lenin is, paradoxically given the above, orientated towards rehabilitating Lenin as an orthodox Marxist
and, more importantly, as a democratic socialist. See Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, 2 vols.,
London 1981.

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aspects of the Bolshevik ideology or programme, such as radical decentralisation, land reform
and workers’ control. What he admires is how Lenin’s ruthlessness supposedly enabled him to
traverse the fantasy and accomplish an Act. Thus, the fact that the revolution was ‘betrayed’,
that it (or its successors) ate its own children and created a new Master and a new Order through
horrific purges in contradiction to its own proposed goals, are not to be regretted, but should for
Zizek be celebrated as evidence of the authenticity of the Leninist Act.112 That the regime
which eventually emerged was violent and terroristic is not problematic for Zizek: Acts are
necessarily terroristic and sweep their initiators up in a truth-event regardless of their will, and
the most one can do is claim responsibility for what occurs.113 Further, they are on Zizek’s
account supposed to produce a new Order and a new Master. It remains unclear why one should
support the ‘Leninist’ Act, if this is the ‘Leninism’ on offer.
As a historical account, this reading of Lenin is problematic. Zizek seems to feel he has
little need for evidence to back his claims; he cares about the empty usefulness of the ‘Lenin’
signifier, not the historical Lenin - although his account rests on the assumption that he is saying
something relevant to this Lenin and to the historical Russian Revolution. To take a few
examples of the selectivity of Zizek’s reading, Lenin specifically rejected ‘orgiastic’ releases of
energy,114 and tried to restrain the worst excesses of the Cheka.115 Between Lenin’s ‘mad’
position in April and the Revolution in October, there were the July Days and the text Marxism
and Insurrection, where Lenin specifically renounced the idea of taking a revolutionary position
without mass support. Lenin’s late texts show that he did not take unconditional responsibility
for the betrayal/failure of the revolution, but rather regretted and tried to amend many of the
developments to which he had contributed.116 These are just a few examples of a problem of
empirical inaccuracy which plagues much of Zizek’s work.
112 TS p. 194; Slavoj _i_ek, ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’, New Left Review, no. 238
September/October 1997.
113 Slavoj _i_ek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London 1989, p. 221 [hereafter SOI].
114 Maurice Brinton, The Irrational in Politics, London 1975, p. 92.
115 Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, Cambridge 1990.
116 See for example Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, London 1985; Farber, Before Stalinism.

Zizek Page 18 3/11/03
What is more pertinent for our purposes is that Zizek’s position on Lenin confirms the
basic conservatism of his political stance. Firstly, it involves an intentionalist ‘Great Men’
approach to history which ignores the subaltern strata. Echoing conservative readings, such as
Bertram Wolf’s Three Who Made a Revolution, Zizek assumes a Master is necessary for social
change. As a political strategy this is in turn a formula for a messianic, leader-fixated,
authoritarian politics, with change delivered to the hapless masses by a Leader. Lenin is a
‘Messiah’ and commitment to him is a ‘leap of faith’.117 The theorist’s role is to identify or
generate such a leader, rather than to identify means whereby ordinary people can actively
achieve their own liberation or emancipation. The leader becomes a social engineer who should
be given every opportunity to manipulate others to produce an authentic Event.118 Zizek’s
formula of returning the masses’ message in its true-inverted form is indistinguishable from
Mao Zedong’s slogan ‘from the masses, to the masses’.119 The ‘anamorphic’ (distortingreflective)
process Zizek advocates is a manifesto for those who would substitute for others
while claiming to represent them. Even the Lenin of What is to be Done? would have blanched
at such an approach, and with good reason. Zizek’s model of the revolutionary party is that of
what Sartre terms a ‘pledged group’ with individuals tied to each other through identification
with the Cause and the Leader, where ‘in the name of our fidelity to the Cause we are ready to
sacrifice our elementary sincerity, honesty and human decency’ - whereas, according to Sartre,
revolutions are made by ‘fused groups’, directly mobilised around immediate concerns.120
Lenin was well aware that the party alone could not make a revolution (Marxism and
Insurrection), and, though sometimes surrounded by sycophants, he was notoriously wary of
any attempt to identify the revolutionary process directly with the party leadership.
Secondly, Zizek implies that Lenin must in some sense have ‘understood’ that the
revolution would necessarily betray itself, and that all revolutions are structurally doomed to fall
short of whatever ideals and principles motivate them. He also implies that the success or
117 RL p. 5.
118 DSST p. 117.
119 RL p. 5; Mao Tse-Tung, Selected Works, vol. 3, Peking 1975, p. 119.
120 SOI p. 212; Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, London 1976.

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failure of a revolution has nothing to do with whether the modes of thought and action, social
relations and institutions which follow are at all related to the original revolutionary ideals and
principles. What matters is that power is held by those who ‘identify with the symptom’, who
call themselves ‘Proletarian’. Zizek therefore endorses the conservative claim that Lenin’s
utopian moments were Machiavellian manoeuvres or at best confused delusions, veiling his true
intentions to seize power for himself or a small elite: Lenin was the ‘ultimate political
strategist’.121 That Zizek endorses the ‘Lenin’ figure despite endorsing nearly every accusation
against Lenin serves to underline the degree to which Zizek’s politics are wedded to
conservative assumptions that repression, brutality and terror are ‘always with us’. Rejecting
the claim that politics could be otherwise, Zizek wishes to grasp, embrace and even revel in the
grubbiness and violence of modern politics. The moment of utopia in Russia was for Zizek
realised when the Red Guards succumbed to a destructive hedonism in moments of Bataillean
excess.122 The only difference for Zizek between leftist ethics and the standpoint of Oliver
North, the Taleban, the anti-Dreyfusards and even the Nazis is that such ‘rightists’ legitimate
their acts in reference to some higher good, whereas leftists also suspend the higher good in a
truly authentic gesture of suspension.123 The Soviet Terror is a good terror whereas the Nazi
one is not, only because the Soviet terror was allegedly more total, with everyone being
potentially at risk, not only out-groups.124 Zizek goes well beyond advocating violence as a
means to an end; for Zizek, violence is part of the end itself, the utopian excess of the Act. The
closest parallel is the nihilism of Nechaev’s Catechism of a Revolution which proclaims that
‘everything is moral that contributes to the triumph of the revolution; everything that hinders it
is immoral and criminal’.125 As Peter Marshall comments in his digest of anarchist writings and
121 RL p. 16.
122 RL p. 21.
123 Slavoj _i_ek, ‘Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism’, New Left Review,
no. 225, September/October 1997, pp. 49-50; CHU p. 127; RL p. 32.
124 DSST pp. 128-9.
125 Quoted in Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, London 1993, p. 283.

Zizek Page 20 3/11/03
movements, the Catechism is ‘one of the most repulsive documents in the history of terrorism’.
One can only speculate what he would have made of ‘Repeating Lenin’.126
Thirdly, Zizek’s view of Lenin also shows that his ‘revolution’ cannot be extensively
transformative; it can suspend the symbolic order, but must later restore it. Thus, Zizek
identifies, not with the transformative agenda of The State and Revolution or the early reforms
such as workers’ control of factories, democratisation of the army and decentralisation of
decision-making - which hardly figure in his account - but rather, with Lenin’s determination to
restore order even at the cost of abandoning such transformations, to take on ‘the burden of
taking over’, to take ‘responsibility for the smooth running of the social edifice’ and become the
‘One who assumes the ultimate responsibility, including a ruthless readiness to break the letter
of the law … to guarantee the system’s survival’.127 The ‘heroic’ dimension of revolution
occurs when the ‘Stalinist ritual, the empty flattery which “holds together” the community’,
which is ‘a dimension... probably essential to language as such’, ‘necessarily’ replaces the
revolutionary moment.128
What Zizek is telling left radicals, therefore, is to abandon the notion of the state as a
source of violence and to see it as part of the solution to, rather than the problem of, reordering
social life. Zizek sees the state as a useful ally, and an instrument through which to impose the
good terror. He denounces anti-statism as idealist and hypocritical,129 and attacks the anticapitalist
movement for lacking political centralisation.130 Zizek does not offer an alternative to
statist violence; in Zizek’s world (to misquote an anarchist slogan), ‘whoever you fight for, the
state always wins’. Opponents of the war in Afghanistan and the arms trade, of police racism
and repression against demonstrators, will find no alternative in Zizek - only a new militarism, a
‘good terror’ and yet another Cheka.
Zizek’s concept of ‘socialisation’, virtually his only concrete proposal for social change,
further confirms his authoritarianism. Since he applies it in areas such as gene patenting,
126 Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p.283.
127 TS p. 237.
128 SOI p. 211.
129 RL p. 16; FA p. 171; DSST p. 271.

Zizek Page 21 3/11/03
cyberspace, CCTV and scientific knowledge,131 it cannot mean workers’ control, let alone
workers’ management. Presumably, therefore, it must mean control by the state, i.e.
‘socialisation’ by the big Other under the control of the master-signifier, a conclusion confirmed
by Zizek’s use of the terms ‘socialisation’ and ‘state control’ as interchangeable.132 If so, its
extension to these areas is threatening, not liberating: Zizek is giving a green light to
eugenicists, Internet censors and Lysenkoites. Zizek admits that his approach reduces privacy
and openly advocates academic censorship and secret police.133 Gene patenting and CCTV
should be eliminated, not socialised, while science and the Internet are potential areas of
freedom in which only the production process should be collective. Zizek’s approach is closer
to what Marx attacks as ‘barracks communism’ than to the Marxist idea of socialisation of the
means of production. Zizek also defends the Stalinist view that social issues should be dealt
with in reference to their effect on production, not their human dimension.134
Zizek also in practice rejects Lenin’s political theory, including most noticeably the
commitment to the eventual elimination of the state.135 Often, Zizek’s ‘Leninism’ creeps across
into support for Stalinism, which for Zizek results from the necessary betrayal of Leninism and
is an inevitable consequence of attempting to implement the Marxist project.136 For Zizek, for
instance, Stalinist societies, which he terms ‘actually existing Socialism’, were ‘a kind of
‘liberated territory’, sustaining a space for critique and exuding an ‘emancipatory potential’.137
He even states on one occasion that the 1917 revolution was a false Act, ‘similar to the Fascist
revolution’; the real revolution was the Stalinist forced collectivisation of agriculture.138
Zizek’s Lenin, therefore, is not the ‘Lenin’ of the left, but the ‘Lenin’ of the right. Just
as conservative critics are interested in ‘Lenin’ insofar as he gave us Stalin, orthodox
‘Communist’ dogmas, the Cold War and the Gulag, so Zizek is interested in a ‘Lenin’ of the
130 RL p. 20.
131 TS pp. 356-7, DSST p. 256.
132 RL p. 23.
133 DSST p. 256, 236.
134 DSST p. 133, 135.
135 See V. I Lenin, The State and Revolution, London, 1992.
136 SOI p. 211; TS p. 232, p. 349.
137 DSST p. 131.

Zizek Page 22 3/11/03
Master, the Act, the carving of the field and the Good Terror. Zizek’s Lenin is also the ‘Lenin’
which Stalin built: the ‘cult of Lenin’ Stalin used to legitimate his own agenda of the
omnipotence of the Leader, terror in the countryside and power as an end in itself. This is
Stalin’s ‘Lenin’, the ‘creator’ of Russian Communism,139 whose civil war measures are valid for
‘an entire historical era’ and who advocates ‘iron discipline’, ‘voluntary submission’ and
constant purges.140 Stalin’s eclectic ‘radicalism’ - mixed, like Zizek’s, with social, aesthetic and
sexual conservatism - could not be reconciled with other left radicalisms, and could succeed
only by murdering Lenin’s comrades - Trotsky, Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev, etc. - and millions
of others, and crushing what remained of the victories of 1917 (such as the remnants of the
Soviets), even while applauding them. In betraying itself, Stalin’s ‘Leninism’ conforms
precisely to Zizek’s model of revolution. This is a Leninism for those who hate the ‘wishywashy’
sentimental values of the left radical tradition itself, such as fraternity, solidarity and
care for the other. It is a Leninism which revels in violent excess in itself, ignoring the fact that,
for many participants in Russia, revolutionary violence was justifiable only by reference to the
ideals towards which it was used. It is a Leninism that heartily endorses the reading of Lenin as
a ‘vanguardist’ and ‘substitutionist’, as a thinker and leader concerned only with seizing and
retaining state power as an end in itself.
One step forwards, two steps back
The significance of Zizek’s work is ambiguous. In questioning the movement of left radical
theory towards identity politics, multiculturalism and ‘radical’ democracy, he reminds readers
of the continued importance of the global economy and the extreme disparities of wealth and
power which characterise capitalist ‘globalisation’. He has sought to think the impossible and
reopen the debate in radical theory about social transformation. His return to Lenin is a
138 TS p. 194.
139 J. V. Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, Peking 1965, p. 9.

Zizek Page 23 3/11/03
potentially interesting development, given Lenin’s importance in debates on organisation,
strategy and the wars of position and of movement which radical theory has regrettably
eschewed in favour of abstract socio-cultural critique. He also offers a glimpse of the dilemmas
and dangers of power, violence, transformism and betrayal which await those who take radical
political action. Read in a certain way, Zizek points radical theory back towards radical
political practice - towards an engagement with political issues, radical political movements and
the transformation of social relations, an engagement it should never have lost in the first place.
As useful as such a reading is, this is not the Zizek who emerges on closer examination.
Regarding where radicals - especially active radicals - should proceed from ‘here and now’,
Zizek’s work offers little to celebrate. The relevance of a politics based on formal structural
categories instead of lived historical processes, which measures ‘radicalism’, not by concrete
achievements, but by how abruptly one rejects the existing symbolic order, is questionable. The
concept of the Act is metaphysical, not political, and it leads to a rejection of most forms of
resistance. For Zizek, objections to official ideologies which stop short of an Act are ‘the very
form of ideology’,141 and the gap between ‘complaint’ and Acts is ‘insurmountable’.142 So
protest politics ‘fits the existing power relations’ and carnivals are ‘a false transgression which
stabilizes the power edifice’.143 This position misreads past revolutionary movements -
including the decades-long revolutionary process in Russia - and offers nothing to the
development of a left strategy to challenge the existing system. All Zizek establishes, therefore,
is a radical break between his own theory and any effective left politics. The concept of the Act
is a recipe for irrelevance - for creating a desert around oneself while sitting in judgement on
actual political movements which always fall short of one’s ideal criteria.
Zizek is right to advocate a transformative stance, but wrong to posit this as a radical
break constituted ex nihilo. Far from being the disavowed supplement of capitalism, the space
for thinking the not-real which is opened by imaginaries and petty resistances is a prerequisite to
140 Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, p. 43, p. 114, pp. 116-7.
141 PF p. 21.
142 TS p. 361.
143 TS p. 230; PF p. 73.

Zizek Page 24 3/11/03
building a more active resistance and ultimately, a substantial social transformation. In practice,
political revolutions emerge through the radicalisation of existing demands and resistances - not
as pure Acts occurring out of nothing. Even when they are incomprehensible from the
standpoint of ‘normal’, conformist bystanders, they are a product of the development of
subterranean resistances and counterhegemonies among subaltern groups. As Jim Scott argues,
when discontent among the subaltern strata generates ‘moments of madness’, insurrections and
revolutions, it does so as an extension of, and in continuity with, existing ‘hidden transcripts’,
dissenting imaginaries and petty resistances. As Scott’s evidence shows, resistance ‘requires an
experimental spirit and a capacity to test and exploit all the loopholes, ambiguities, silences and
lapses available... [and] setting a course for the very perimeter of what the authorities are
obliged to permit or unable to prevent’.144 Such petty resistance can pass over into more general
insurrections. When prisoners at a Stalinist camp, expected to deliberately lose a race against
their guards, ‘spoiled the performance’ with a ‘pantomime of excess effort’, a ‘small political
victory had real political consequences’, producing a ‘flurry of activity’.145 Filipino peasant
uprisings often acted out an ideology developed through a subverted version of passion plays,146
and European carnivals often passed over into insurrection.147 Social change does not come
from nothing; it requires the pre-existence of a counter-culture involving nonconformist ideas
and practices. ‘You have to know how the world isn’t in order to change it’.148 As Gramsci
puts it, before coming into existence a new society must be ‘ideally active’ in the minds of those
struggling for change.149
The history of resistance gives little reason to support Zizek’s politics of the Act. The
ability to Act in the manner described by Zizek is largely absent from the subaltern strata. Mary
Kay Letourneau (let us recall) did not transform society; rather, her ‘Act’ was repressed and she
was jailed. In another case discussed by Zizek, a group of Siberian miners is said to accomplish
144 James C Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven, Conn., 1990, pp. 138-9.
145 Scott, Domination, pp. 139-40.
146 Scott, Domination, p. 159.
147 Scott, Domination, pp. 179-82.
148 China Mieville, ‘Fantasy and Revolution’, International Socialism, no. 88, Autumn 2000, p. 159
149 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, London, 1985, p. 39.

Zizek Page 25 3/11/03
an Act - by getting massacred.150 Since Acts are not socially effective, they cannot help the
worst-off, let alone transform society. Zizek’s assumption of the effectiveness of Acts rests on a
confusion between individual and social levels of analysis. Vaneigem eerily foresees Zizek’s
‘Act’ when he argues against ‘active nihilism’. ‘In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to
death, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the
wall. Nobody gets excited; the disappointed young man lets himself be thrown out... Nobody
responded to the sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone, like the hooligan who
burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself, but condemned to exile for as
long as other people remain exiled from their existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic
field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity’.151 The transition from this
‘wasteland of the suicide and the solitary killer’ to revolutionary politics requires the repetition
of negation in a different register,152 connected to a positive project to change the world and
relying on the imaginaries Zizek denounces, the carnival spirit and the ability to dream.153
Zizek’s politics are not merely impossible, but potentially despotic, and also (between
support for a Master, acceptance of pain and alienation, militarism and the restoration of order)
tendentially conservative. They serve only to discredit the left and further alienate those it seeks
to mobilise. Instead, a transformative politics should be a process of transformation, an alinear,
rhizomatic, multiform plurality of resistances, initiatives, and, indeed, acts, which are
sometimes spectacular and carnivalesque, sometimes prefigurative, sometimes subterranean,
sometimes rooted in institutional change and reform, sometimes directly revolutionary. Zizek’s
model of the pledged group, bound together by the One who Acts, is entirely irrelevant to the
contemporary world and would be a step backwards from the decentred character of current leftradical
politics. Nor need this decentring be seen as a weakness as Zizek insists. It can be a
strength, protecting radical politics from self-appointed elites, transformism, infiltration, defeat
through the ‘neutralisation’ of leaders, and the threat of a repeat of the Stalinist betrayal. In
150 DSST pp. 74-5.
151 Vaneigem, Revolution p. 40.
152 Vaneigem, Revolution p. 178.
153 Vaneigem, Revolution p. 111.

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contrast with Zizek’s stress on subordination, exclusivity, hierarchy and violence, the tendency
of anti-capitalists and others to adopt anti-authoritarian, heterogeneous, inclusive and multiform
types of activity offer a better chance of effectively overcoming the homogenising logic of
capitalism and of winning support among wider circles of those dissatisfied with it. Similarly,
the emphasis on direct action - which can include ludic, carnivalesque and non-violent actions
as well as more overtly confrontational ones - generates the possibility of empowerment through
involvement in and support for the myriad causes which make up the anti-capitalist resistance.
This resistance stands in stark contrast to the desert of ‘heroic’ isolation advocated by Zizek,
which, as Laclau puts it, is ‘a prescription for political quietism and sterility’.154
Zizek is right that we should aim to overcome the ‘impossibilities’ of capitalism, but
this overcoming should involve the active prefiguration and construction in actuality of
alternative social forms, not a simple (and actually impossible) break with everything which
exists of the kind imagined by Zizek. It is important that radicals invoke ‘utopias’, but in an
active way, in the forms of organisation, ‘disorganisation’, and activity we adopt, in the spaces
we create for resistance, and in the prefiguration of alternative economic, political and social
forms. Utopian imaginaries express what is at stake in left radicalism: that what exists does not
exist of necessity, and that the contingency of social institutions and practices makes possible
the overthrow of existing institutions and the construction or creation of different practices,
social relations, and conceptions of the world. The most Zizek allows to radicals is the ability to
‘glimpse’ utopia while enacting the reconstruction of oppression. Radicals should go further,
and bring this imagined ‘other place’ into actual existence. Through enacting utopia, we have
the ability to bring the ‘no-where’ into the ‘now-here’.
154 CHU p. 293.


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