Monday, April 04, 2005

The Pope, Slavoj Zizek, And Anti-Communism

Pearsall has noted my quoting of Terry Eagleton's criticism of Polish Catholicism as, amongst other things, particularly anti-Communist, and expresses dismay that anyone would regard Pope John-Paul II's role in the overthrow of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe as anything but a crowning glory of his Papacy. Undoubtedly, John-Paul II did play a relatively significant role in the eventual withdrawal of Soviet support for the Warsaw Pact regimes, by organizing peaceful Catholic resistance to those regimes, and supporting other forms of resistance, most notably Solidarity. I didn't mean to condemn that: the regimes in question were fairly reprehensible, and it is a good thing that they have fallen, even if that goodness is slightly mitigated by the less-than-ideal successor regimes in some cases. Anti-Communism potentially has a wider scope as a description than picking out these acts, though, and the content of that wider description, I think, can be used as a criticism of John-Paul II.

Understood in the context of the kinds of views the Pope held about desirable social, political and economic arrangements and in the context of an increasingly reheated Cold War in the Eighties, anti-Communism becomes the criticism of any proposal for progressive social change, other than the social change of the removal of Communist regimes. It is a kind of Reds-under-the-beds mania, which extends not just to an entirely proper criticism of oppressive Eastern European regimes, but to a denial that Liberation theology picked up on any legitimate concerns of the Latin American poor by associating it with those regimes. This is, I think, what Eagleton means to criticize when he describes the Polish Catholic Church as "ferociously anti-Communist". Anyone who shows any sympathy for vaguely Marxian ideas - of the structural necessity of injustice in a capitalist economy, of class struggle, of the base and the superstructure - is at least a fellow-traveller and crypto-Communist, if not a full-blown supporter of the gulags, show trials, mass starvations and deportations of the USSR in the thirties when one is 'ferociously anti-Communist'.

In a way, my willingness to read this criticism this way, to see it picking out more than merely the criticism of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, casts doubt on an argument Slavoj Zizek has made in the LRB, which John Holbo has been criticizing for some time, as part of what seems to be a general campaign against Slavoj Zizek. Zizek argued that liberals - as is often typical of post-modernists, it is far from clear exactly what this is supposed to pick out at all - cannot see an important difference between Fascism and Stalinism, and so tend to regard Stalinism as worse. Zizek's own argument that Stalinism is not as bad as Fascism turns, I think - it is quite hard to tell what he is arguing a lot of the time - on a premise that historical materialism is true when he says that "[c]lass antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism". Consequently, liberals, who typically do not believe that 'class antagonism is constitutive of the social field', are unlikely to accept his argument: it begs the question against them, in a quite obvious way.

However, I do think there is an important sense, which is particularly relevant what Zizek is writing about, the remembrance of these regimes, in which Stalinism was less bad than Fascism, in that Stalinism, for all its horror, at least held out the prospect of a progressive emancipation, an achievement of freedom, whereas Fascism is inherently backwards-looking, a true blood and soil ideology, whose end is the subsumption of humans into their ethnicities. Communism is a progressive and utopian system of political thought, and that utopia, were it reached, would be a genuine utopia, whereas Fascism is a form of radical nationalism, steeped in myths of bloody confrontation and martial glory leading only to further bloody confrontation. Insofar as Stalinism is a failed form of Communism, however morally disgusting and grotesque it was, there should be a tinge of regret in our assessments of it because of the emancipatory promise of Communism: there is a sense in which it is sad that Communism is not true, because, were it true, there would be the possibility of achieving the kind of utopia it describes. Fascism utterly lacks this kind of regret, because it has no vision of an end-point, a justification for its horrors, that any right-thinking person could want to embrace. Our collective memory of the two sets of regimes should embrace that difference in regret, I think.

I think that it is also this kind of emancipatory vision which links other left-leaning movements and Communists in anti-Communist's minds: they share the belief in the possibility of a radically better world, often to be achieved by overthrowing or removing existing social, political and economic structures, sometimes by violence but sometimes not. So anti-Communism is, if one thinks that the world could be made better by the removal of some social, political and economic structures, however incrementally and carefully that removal should be done, and if my earlier analysis is correct, a series of claims of which one ought to disapprove: it stands as a criticism of the Pope, I think.

Postscript: John Holbo is having another go at all these obsfucating lit-theory types, specifically at their ill-explained use of the term 'liberalism'.

Postscript II: Pearsall has an interesting take on the 'Communism tinged with regret' line.


Phil said...
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Phil said...

One of the curious things about Zizek's opposition between Communism (or rather Stalinism) and Fascism (or rather German National Socialism) was how wrongheaded and, to be blunt, ignorant some of his comparisons were. Here's a letter I wrote to the LRB about it:

Slavoj Zizek's analysis of National Socialism, presented as the irrational and mystified product of a recoil from Communism, was illuminating. However, Zizek could have spared himself the curious argument that Communism's authenticity is shown by the greater irrationality of its arbitrary arrests and show trials, as compared with the Nazis' consistent focus on dissidents and Jews. In fact "nobody was safe" under Hitler, any more than under Stalin: the Gestapo system was fuelled by a stream of denunciations for crimes such as disloyalty or hoarding, which attracted penalties ranging from indefinite detention to death. I am also puzzled by Zizek's assertion that "dissident Communists" had no National Socialist equivalent. One obvious parallel is the career of Hitler's early ally Otto Strasser, who was exiled in 1930 and spent the next fifteen years agitating for a more 'socialist' form of National Socialism. (He returned to Germany after the war and died in 1974.)

I understand - and share - Zizek's wish to contrast Communism and National Socialism, but feel that the differences between the two are clear enough to survive the admission of the odd awkward resemblance.

I like Zizek's basic premise, & I think you've shown that it's possible to salvage something useful from his argument. But the evidence doesn't do everything he wants it to, and there's a strange illogic about the way the argument is put together. He starts with an a priori: Fascism was inherently worse than Communism, even if its outcomes weren't worse. Then he argues that the record shows that the outcomes of Fascism were worse, which supposedly proves the a priori argument. Then he says that areas in which the outcomes of Communism were worse also validate the argument, as these show that Fascism was less authentic - and hence worse. It's clever stuff, but there's such a fine line between clever and stupid.

Pearsall Helms said...

I dunno if 'dismay' is the right word. More an eyebrow raised at Eagleton's using of 'anti-Communism' as a slur. I actually have a lot more to say about this and the Zizek piece, so hold tight.

Rob Jubb said...


I think that Zizek is effectively trying to drag the debate above the level of outcomes, because he realises that if we're doing death tallies, Stalin loses (depending on how you parse WWII). I'd read him more as attempting to show the rationalist, Enlightenment inheritances of Communism by pointing out the embodiment of those inheritances even in the debased structures of Stalinism. So, the argument, in its most charitable interpretation, to my mind, reads something like this: communism is an Enlightenment philosophy, and hence good, whereas fascism isn't; look, here is all this evidence of even debased forms of communism adhering to enlightenment ideas; ergo, the first premise is proved.

Anonymous said...

Zizek's nonsense "a priori" claim is that to be anti-Communist is to participate in the rehabilitation of Fascism. This dilemma deserves to be ignored. It comes from his false conflation of Ernst Nolte with liberal democracy's critique of totalitarianism.

If Communism and Fascism are not the same, their resemblances overwhelm any appeal to the "emancipatory potential" of Leninism (funny that Lenin never makes an appearance in the piece).

It seems to me that anti-totalitarianism has more to do with seeing the Gestapo State and the Chekha State as aiming towards the same generic outcome --totalitarianism-- whatever ideological tripe it is encased in.


Rob Jubb said...


I share your disapproval of Zizek's rhetorical style, which is frankly wilfully obscurantist, and of his misreadings and misrepresentations of non-Marxian thought, but I think that you have slightly missed the point here. Zizek is not writing about anti-totalitarianism, he is writing about anti-communism and anti-fascism, which are not quite the same thing: rather than the generally liberal concern with structures of coercive authority which permeate into every aspect of life, stunting and stifling it - anti-totalitarianism - he is writing about the differences in attitude displayed towards the social systems and the ideologies which spawned them in that concern - anti-communism and anti-fascism.

Insofar as by placing stalinism and nazism in the same category - and here I am not implying that they ought not to be, but merely noting that they are in the same category of totalitarian regimes - and judging stalinism worse, liberals - whoever they are - Zizek claims, rehabilitate fascism, at least in comparison to communism, this seems like a reasonable claim. They are the same sort of thing; stalinism was worse; ergo, nazism was better than stalinism, as far as totalitarianisms go. I think that final judgement is implausible, because of the genuine enlightenment inheritances of marxism: a communist utopia, could it exist, would be a wonderful thing, whereas there is nothing remotely attractive about the telos of fascism. Whilst this argument does bear on the point you make - that totalitarianism is the common category for the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin - by asking you to take more seriously the content of the ideas which motivated (at least some of) those involved in them, and hence be more careful about the comparison, asserting the conclusion of that argument against Zizek is somewhat uncharitable (not that he isn't uncharitable, merely that we shouldn't follow him into that particular vice).

Stygius said...


Yet the attempt to proclaim Fascism as "fundamentally worse" than Communism simply continues the game of totalitarian relativism, while rehabilitating Communism in the name of anti-Fascism. Anecdotes about Bolshevik kitsch aside, the entire dispute seems to imply that there is some happy totalitarian mean; where talking about whether x-regime was more or less totalitarian than y-regime is somehow meaningful. I don't see that Zizek is doing anything else but perpetuating this.

I tend to think that trying to give Communism some sort of authenticity by relating it to the Enlightenment serves more to expose the failure of enlightenment than to validate Bolshevism. (I also see much of the Enlightenment in Fascism as well, which--if valid--would then change the whole context of authenticity.)

I agree that ideologically Nazism to Stalinism is apples to oranges, thus quantitative comparisons of their victims are not only fruitless in the end, but ethically fruity and dehumanizing. Are there contrasts? Of course, but seeing such contrasts as a basis for arguing "better than" or "worse than" is wrong. It is impossible to evaluate them that way.

Thus, arguing that Marxian utopia confers some betterness on its totalitarian offspring misses the point, I believe.

Rob Jubb said...


'Yet the attempt to declare fascism "fundamentally worse" than Communism simply continues the game of totalitarian relativism, rehabilitating Communism in the name of anti-fascism'

two things: firstly, Zizek's comparisons have nothing to do with the relative levels of penetration by the state into society more generally in either Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia, but rather the make-up of the ideologies which motivated that penetration, so I can't understand why you persist in talking about the issue in terms of totalitarianism, when that is essentially tangential to the issue at hand; secondly, as long as the rehabilitation is aware of the serious problems, and undoubted tendencies towards repression, which exist in marxist thought, I see no problem in a rehabilitation of Communism as a product of the Enlightenment in a way that Nazism certainly is not (fascism may be, but I don't think that Nazism and fascism are really the same thing), and as anti-Nazi at least because of that, not because of some comparison of the relative totalitarianess of the embodiment of the two systems of thought.

I think this determination to force the debate back onto your own ground, that of anti-totalitarianism, and to condemn Zizek for not talking about Stalinism in those terms, is evident throughout your comments, but as I have been at pains to point out, this is not what Zizek is talking about: he is talking about, given the horror of the regimes, whether there are any differences between them, other than judgements of the relative scale of the horror, which might make us view them differently. He does not need 'some happy totalitarian mean' to judge Nazism or Stalinism worse because he is not interested in them as totalitarian, and neither is his claim that the totalitarian outcome of marxism was somehow better because of it's intellectual heritage, at least qua totalitarian, but that in considering that intellectual heritage that we ought to remember that it shares the Enlightenment vision of a reason-guided emancipation. When he claims that Fascism is fundamentally worse, he is not arguing that Nazism as an actual existing social system, was somehow more degrading, more cruel, and more violent than Stalinism: he is making a claim about the system of thought. Undermining that argument requires showing at least one of three things a) that it does not share that vision b) that has other features which cancel out the worth of that vision or c) that that vision is not a thing of value. Talking about Communism as totalitarianism, which focuses on the social systems it gave birth to, rather than the ideology itself, can't show any of these things.

Stygius said...

I'm sorry for the delay in replying; I forgot to keep track of this.

I suppose I persist in talking in terms of totalitarianism because I think we ought to. Also, there is my assumption that it is engendered by the Communist ideology, and thus discussing it can't be tangential. In fact, it goes to the core of the ideology's legitimacy, or "authenticity."

So, perhaps I haven't been clear enough in referring not only to its historical product, but also to its internal logic as totalitarian.

But there is an assumption here on my part: that it is meaningless (and problematic) to talk about a political ideology's legitimacy abstracted from its history. History is the political ideology's subject after all--if it is genuinely political; thus it is appropriate to evaluate it on the basis of its own history.

Consequently, ahistorical abstraction is no way to evaluate "better than" and "worse than."

Rob Jubb said...


I'm not sure about either the claim that totalitarianism is a key part of communist ideology (the utopia doesn't look totalitarian to me, even if it is rather, well, utopian, although Marx - who's the only communist whom I'm really familiar with - is notoriously vague about exactly how the utopia is reached) or that the subject of ideologies is history (perhaps in a very general sense: liberal ideas of progress, etc... but rarely in a specific sense - you wouldn't indict conservatism generally because of Thatcher, or at least, I wouldn't - and rarely solely about history - they have accounts of what we owe to each other as well, which aren't purely historical), but these are other debates. Thanks for being patient enough to discuss this at length: it's been interesting.