work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

The fatal attraction of Jacobinism: Žižek as Robespierre

07.24.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep.’ (Orwell 1990)

Totalitarianism is en vogue again, it seems, as the internationally acclaimed philosopher/psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek has become something of a academico-political star. So much so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do what I had decided to do after first reading his New Left Review article ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’ back in 1999 (a piece that I found not just incoherent and seriously confused, but also strangely irrelevant) – namely to ignore him as one given to Stalinist nostalgia. His subsequent political writing seemed to follow similar lines and confirmed him as staunch yet frivolous Leninist. Although Žižek keeps putting in disclaimers to the effect that he doesn’t really mean to promote old-style Bolshevism, I think Alan Johnson’s (2011) analysis of his revolutionism as Leninism/Blanquism holds and I am thus not burdened, here, with the task to argue this point. I fully recommend Johnson’s thorough and devastating paper. And just as if to confirm this analysis, Žižek now self-certifies as a Jacobin of the Robespierre school.

I will use this little piece to show up a few typical rhetorical devices in what I see as his neo-totalitarian rhetoric, but my main interest is to pose the question why it is so attractive to those who, traditionally, tend to be the first up against the wall after a revolution: left-leaning academics.

To begin with the particular piece in questions: the Jacobin Spirit. In short, the Jacobin spirit can be summed up as a claim that you do not need democratic legitimacy if you have “truth”. The core of the Leninist interpretation of the notion of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the dictatorship of a party elite in possession of the blueprint of history. The Bolsheviks were in possession of the truth of history (as they had the only valid, because Hegel-based, reading of Marx’s prophecy), so once they found that workers and peasants couldn’t be trusted with making the right (i.e. Bolshevik…) choices in the elections to the soviets, it was an easy call to abolish the radical-democratic principle that the soviet initially incorporated and transform it into a one-party closed shop. The truth of the working classes ranked higher than their majority will.

Žižek sides with the Jacobins against the Girondins on the decision to execute the King. The Girondins were not per se against putting the King on trial and, should this be the outcome, to death. What they suggested was a democratic process to establish a basis on which this could be done. Robespierre rejects this on the grounds summarised and defended by Žižek as follows:

“[The] minority has everywhere an eternal right: to render audible the voice of truth.” […] Robespierre’s response was that such an appeal to the people would effectively cancel the people’s sovereign will which, through the Revolution, had already made itself known and changed the very nature of the French state, bringing the Republic into being. What the Girondins effectively insinuate, he claims, is that the revolutionary insurrection was “only an act of a part of the people, even of a minority, and that one should solicit the speech of a kind of silent majority.” (Žižek 2011)

Where to begin? First of all: Of course there would have been an argument for not asking the People – and that is the notion that the People had already delegated powers to the Assembly and its members will act according to the will of the People because they will be subjected to another vote not so long in the future. But that’s not the point. The point is to act according to “the truth” – and the truth is the possession of a minority..

Robespierre’s answer was that the truth is irreducible to numbers (to counting); it can be experienced also in solitude: those who proclaim a truth they have experienced should not be treated as factionists, but as sensible and courageous people.

Crucially – although he is identified as “philosopher” (and be it as a “maverick” one) – he does not bother to enlighten us what “truth” is meant to mean here. It is also an example of wrong inference that is quite typical in his writing – a propagandistic trick that works by garnering the audience’s assent to a quite obviously true statement (truth is not an outcome of a democratic process and very often known only to a minority), and then draw a straightforward-looking conclusion while smuggling in a range of pretty strong extra assumptions (such as that knowledge of the truth gives you the right to make live/death decisions…). One assumption that Žižek makes here is of course this: Robespierre is indeed in possession of the truth. We’re not told what that particular truth is – but it certainly cannot  be a factual truth of any kind. Such factual truth can’t tell you what to do but only gives you the likelihood of what will happen if you act this way or that. This here is a normative truth, a moral truth. A truth only to be had in theology as formulated, say, in Catholic dogma… or in CP doctrine. Truth that cannot, due to its roots in God or Marx/Engels/Lenin, be doubted. Truth that doesn’t even need to be argued for because isn’t it obvious? Truth only the stupid and evil don’t see – as George Orwell acutely observed in his 1946 essay The Prevention of Literature:

‘The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that “the truth” has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of “the truth” and merely resists it out of selfish motives.’ (Orwell 1960: 162)

But, as Catholicism and Communism coexist: who’s got the true truth? In fact, “the truth” here is simply that: what people endorsed by Žižek as in the line of prophets decide it is. In this case: Robespierre’s truth of the anti-monarchist Republic (as opposed to the truth of the monarch by God’s grace). Now how does one make sure that nobody spots the logical error? Direct the audience to easy-listening analogies. Robespierre is a bit difficult to sell: we’re not tempted to side with the ancien régime, but there’s little understanding to be had for the Great Terror either. Same applies to Lenin – no sympathies for the Czar, but neither much understanding for the terror of the Cheka either.

So he quotes an example liberal/humanist democrats can hardly argue with: the French Resistance against German occupation. This, too, he says, is an instance of enlightened truth over majority will, because:

Before we dismiss these lines as “totalitarian,” let us recall a later time when the French patrie was again en danger, in 1940, when none other than General de Gaulle, in his famous radio address from London, announced to the French people the “strong truth”: France is defeated, but the war is not over; against the Pétainist collaborators, the struggle goes on. The exact conditions of this statement are worth recalling: even Jacques Duclos, second in command of the French Communist Party, admitted in a private conversation that, had free elections been held at the time, Marshal Pétain would have won with 90 percent of the votes. (Žižek 2011)

The way this is presented as just another case of the rule of an enlightened minority is breath taking. First of all: the Girondiste proposal was one in which the Republic applies the achievement it has made: democracy. The Republic was not defeated – it was in charge. The Republic after German occupation is, as de Gaulle said, defeated. Democratic choice is not an available option (which is synonymous with: the Republic is defeated, which is why the victory of the Jacobins over the Girondins meant that the Republic was defeated). Even had there been a vote: it would have been a vote at gun point. Not democracy. That are the “exact conditions” of De Gaulle’s statement. Democracy has been defeated. If we want it back, we must fight for it – and then de Gaulle will face the voters (unlike Robespierre; unlike Lenin). Democracy never is established by democratic choice – as that would presuppose what is to be established. But a democratic struggle must always aim to end in democratic choice.

But even so: if you had asked the French People in a referendum whether they would have liked their democracy back or would like to continue life under occupation (as opposed to: would they like to risk their lives in fighting an unequal struggle against the Nazi war machine) – the pre-war election results and the post-war election results give you a clue which way the decision might have been going.

But there’s more.

‘Even Jacques Duclos’, Žižek says. If even this Communist leader doesn’t trust the majority of the French people (and what do Communist leaders have to fear from majority votes) – who could contradict?

The cheek to cite Duclos! Jacques Duclos “second in command of the French Communist Party” sounds very much like a partisan leader… and fair enough – he did lead the PCF in resistance. But only after under his leadership the Party shamefully tried to negotiate its legalisation with the Nazi administration – and whose Party paper L’Humanité as late as 20th June 1941 accused de Gaulle of “killing the children of France for the sake of England’ (Pike 1993: 477). You see – when France was defeated this was partly due to the fact that Nazi Germany had it calm in the east, and that was due to an understanding with Comrade Stalin over how to chop up Poland. And with Hitler and Stalin being chums – would allowing the publication of L’Huma not be an appropriate reward for loyalty? Needless to say that the negotiations came to nothing (but apparently mainly because of Petain’s hurt feelings, not the Nazis’ ill will towards the PCF) – which further testifies to the analytical powers of this crown witness. It is fascinating to see someone who is so apparently economical with the historical truth ascribing the possession of the moral truth to historical actors…

This little exercise can be repeated on every single one of Žižek’s political texts. He really isn’t that difficult to take apart. So why do so many reasonably bright young academics adore his writing as if it were final revelation? Part of the answer we already have seen: seduction. It has often been noted that Žižek writes to offend – but he also writes to please. He writes to please those who would really like to offend and he provides them with cryptic reference texts that exude dynamism and power.

Among German academic youth in the 1930s the rationalism of the socialist and liberal left had a hard time competing with the muscular, authenticity-promising and self-reassured and at once cryptic and uncomplicated philosophy of Heidegger (whom Žižek rightly ordains a place in the chain of his prophets) – a style Žižek tries to copy. As the insightful Helmuth Plessner(2003: 279f.) observed,

‘In Heidegger youth encountered a sympathetic force of extreme working optimism. A clear programme and  a clear rejection of used-up notions of psychology and epistemology.  Nothing more of Consciousness,  Representations, Freedom, Personality, Values, Culture. […] As in Böhme, Fichte, Hegel there was the enchantment of a private language which retained nothing of the smoothness, agility and wealth of allusions of the language of education.’ (Plessner 1985: 279) This peppered with a ‘bitter activism of the heroism of being unto death’ reads ‘pre-fascist philosophy – cunning, evil and reckless’ (Plessner 1985: 280)

I would claim that Žižek banks on the model of Heidegger’s and other conservative revolutionary’s success. A private language always helps (as anybody involved with 1970s academic Marxism will know) – as whenever you make an outrageous claim you can retreat onto the position that your adversaries just don’t understand you (because: how could anyone?). In his latest piece he puts in a specimen as last and unquestionable reason why (total) violence is the only way:

why does the revolutionary Truth-Event entail violence? Because it is enacted from the symptomal point (or torsion) of the social body, from the point of impossibility of the social totality—its subject is the “part of no-part” of society, those who, although they are formally part of society, are denied a proper place within it. This is society’s “point of truth,” and to assert it, the whole structure whose point of impossibility this point is must be annihilated, suspended. (Žižek 2011)

Presented as if you couldn’t possibly argue with that… Yet, if you boil this down what remains is the claim that every instance of social exclusion merits the annihilation of the excluding society. Any social struggle for equal rights, recognition etc. only makes sense as total revolutionary struggle. Put like this, it can be tested against the achievements and failures of emancipatory movements past and present. But although he associates himself with sociological enquiry, Žižek doesn’t seem to acknowledge any of its results – partial successes are the opposite of success, sell-out, system-affirming.

It is also interesting that he doesn’t feel the need to enlighten the unsuspecting reader why these are, of all things, “points of truth” – and not simply: injustices. Also: the “social totality” – what is that supposed to mean? Clearly the man thinks in terms of nations in a very Hegelian way – as carrier substances of a spirit. No wonder he can so easily use concepts like “true France” and “true Germany” (pure and good spiritual entities embodied by a few individuals as opposed to the actual nation states with their institutions, economies, public lives, armies etc.). In short, building on an impenetrably coded, “deep” theory, Žižek liberates his readers to embrace very simplistic concepts, seemingly covered by a theoretical construction the reader does not need to understand. It is pleasant reading as it comes as a release: an intellectually justified démontage of the intellect. Hannah Arendt (whose study on totalitarianism is a nuisance for any advocate of revolution for its own sake) saw this as a central element of the ‘temporary alliance between elite and the mob’ which ‘rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.’ (Arendt 1967: 333). While resting on a command of a body of highly sophisticated (though often enough misguided) theoretical literature, the various movements translated (and thereby destroyed) this into simplistic and quite obviously misguided formula:

From this viewpoint it was rather gratifying to see that Bolshevism and Nazism began even to eliminate those sources of their own ideologies which had already won some recognition in academic or other quarters. Not Marx’s dialectical materialism, but the conspiracy of 300 families; not the pompous scientificality of Gobineau and Chamberlain, but the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; not the traceable influence of the Catholic Church and the role played by anti-clericalism in Latin countries, but the backstairs literature about the Jesuits and the Freemasons became the inspiration for the rewriters of history. (Arendt 1967: 333)

You don’t need to work your way through Lacanian psychoanalysis or Hegelian Marxism to follow Žižek – he always gives you a short summary of what’s the case (and although this more often than not doesn’t make much sense in itself, one can take it reassured that it’s backed by the vast and flawless structure of his theoretical work). There is something oddly attractive in this for the bored, unrecognised, enthusiastic young academic who works their way through the ossified intellectual systems, gnawing away some dead wood out of a overelaborated and dated thicket of dogma (nowadays the legacy of the postmodernists, poststructuralists etc.) – and would like to burn the whole wood down to make space for something bold and new. And a revolutionary explosion promises just that.

Left wing radicalism – with the exception of the hedonistic elements of the post-1968 movements that already recognised that violence can be fun – normally suppresses the emotionally liberating aspect of street fighting. As Theleweit showed in his study on the 1920s Freikorps and their ideological texts, the erotic rewards of fascism constituted a competitive advantage in the struggle of the totalitarian movements during the 1920s and 1930s.

What the texts cited have most clearly demonstrated is a refusal by fascism to relinquish desire – desire in the form of a demand that “blood must flow,” desire in its most profound distortion. In the German Communist Party (KPD) desire was never seen as the producer of a better reality; that party never so much as intimated that there might be pleasure in liberation, pleasure in new connections, pleasure in the unleashing of new streams. (Theweleit 1989: 189)

Žižek quite openly works towards a closure of that gap. He frequently invokes the struggles of the impoverished who allegedly are above the squeamishness of the middle class intellectual regarding hard discipline and immediate violence. But the poor don’t buy his books. Yet he fills lecture halls with mainly young middle class academics. It’s for them that he makes violence part of the fun that being a revolutionary is. And that’s much more worrying. As Orwell says

‘The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.’ (Orwell 1960: 172f.)


Arendt, Hannah (1967): The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Johnson, Alan (2011): ‘Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique’, in: Global Discourse, Vol.2, No.1 at

Orwell, George (1990): Coming Up for Air, London: Penguin

Orwell, George (1962): ‘The Prevention of Literature’ (1945-6), in: Inside the Whale and Other Essays, London: Penguin, pp.159-74

Pike, David Wingate (1993): ‘Between the Junes: the French Communists from the Collapse of France to the Invasion of Russia’, in: Journal of Contemporary History, Vo.28, No.3, pp.465-85

Plessner, Helmuth (1985): ‘Deutsches Philosophieren in der Epoche der Weltkriege (1953)’, in: Helmuth Plessner: Schriften zur Philosophie (Gesammelte Schriften IX), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp.263-299

Žižek, Slavoj (1999): ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’, in: New Left Review, I/238

Žižek, Slavoj (2011): ‘The Jacobin Spirit’, in: Jacobin, No.3,

PS (25th July 2011)

Of course Žižek’s rhetorics don’t find favour all across the radical left – and I guess being involved, like these anarcho-syndicalists, with actual struggles around living conditions, dignity and self-determination etc. immunises against the intellectualist lure of the totalitarian world…

PPS (10th September 2011)

In the meantime Jacobin Spirit has given Alan Johnson a space to reply to Žižek – a sound rejection of Linksfaschismus and a strong warning of “the power of nonsense”

One Response to “The fatal attraction of Jacobinism: Žižek as Robespierre”

  1. Alex Phillips says:

    Fantastic. Thank you.

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