Slavoj i‑ek, In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso Press, 2008)
Revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Mao, if they could return today, would find a political left transformed beyond their recognition. While they believed in the absolute truth of their ideas, or at least wrote as if they did, most modern leftists see truth as partly contingent on one’s point of view. Where the old leaders saw the hierarchical political party as the best tool for transforming society, most modern leftists prefer decentralized forms of organizing, in which power flows from the bottom up. And where the old leaders imagined an uprising that would sweep capitalism from the face of the earth, modern leftists often believe it capable of incorporating every type of resistance. They advise their followers to bend it to their needs, to wait for the catastrophe that might cause its collapse, to build small spaces of resistance in which a semi-autonomous life is possible.
Slavoj iek, the Slovenian philosopher and author of more than fifty books, has harsh words for this approach in his new book, In Defense of Lost Causes. He calls it “a worthless sophistic exercise, a pseudo-theorization of the lowest opportunist survivalist fears,” and urges leftists to look beyond the old legacy’s “totalitarianism” to see what might still be valuable there. iek has been arguing this point for decades, and the failure of the anti-war movement has put new wind in his sails. Still, it’s not going to be easy to convince the people he calls “postmodern leftists” (a pejorative term nearly all of them would object to, as Simon Critchley recently did in Harper’s magazine) that there is anything of use to them in the legacies of Stalin and Mao, let alone Hitler.
Is this book really going to defend such characters? Yes and no. iek’s thought is full—perhaps even cluttered—with disparate influences, most of which emphasize the contradictory nature of reality. G.W.F. Hegel, the seventeenth-century idealist philosopher who described the tendency of regimes to contain their opposites, and G.K. Chesterton, the prolific writer and Christian moralist who focused on the paradoxes of human experience, are two of these. iek combines them with substantial servings of Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis to create an intellectual stew in which nothing is ever what common sense would have one believe.
These foundations provide iek with an unusual take on the revolutionaries of the past. He is clear about their murderous excesses, which he calls “monstrous” and “obscene.” Yet, he also believes they left behind unfinished emancipatory projects that the modern left neglects at its own peril. “The past is not simply ‘what there was,’” he writes. “It contains hidden, non-realized potentials, and the authentic future is the repetition/retrieval of this past, not of the past as it was, but of those elements in the past which the past itself, in its reality, betrayed, stifled, failed to realize.”
These unrealized potentials, for iek, are often manifest in the spirited early days of a revolution, but fade away into a kind of mirage once the business of governing the state begins. iek insists again and again that the problem with past revolutions was that they failed to impose the radicalism of their inception onto the everyday life of their citizens: the Stalinist revolution of the 1920s, he writes, was “not radical enough in effectively transforming the social substance,” and the same goes for Mao and all the others.
What iek is asking us to believe, then, is that despite the excitement around decentralization and consensus, today’s left should “repeat” the centralized, party-driven tactics that led to bloodshed and failure in the past, but go further in courage and violence in order to finish the job. Oddly, this provocative argument is not rigorously pursued, but buried among long, tangentially related critiques of other philosophers’ theories and lavish pop cultural illustrations that range from Jennifer Aniston’s “terrorist demands” in Break Up to the political fantasies embedded in Tarkovksy’s Solaris. These digressions, while genuinely thought-provoking, leave only a few scant pages for the nuts and bolts of iek’s political diagnosis, in which he suggests that the environmental crisis on the horizon, along with the problems posed by intellectual property, biogenetic tinkering, and a global tendency toward gated communities, may finally succeed in forcing a disciplined revolutionary movement to develop.
This leaves iek looking surprisingly similar to mainstream liberal think tanks. The Institute for Policy Studies, for instance, advocates redefining sovereignty in order to better address the threat of climate change. The only substantial difference is iek’s belief that the rising movement should use “terror” and “ruthless punishment” against those who oppose it. Unfortunately, the way he makes his case for this return to violence makes one wonder about his sincerity. Key ideas emerge in the course of digressions, only to be picked up hundreds of pages later in another digression. While iek’s tendency to improvise along chains of allusion and reference is often entertaining and sometimes illuminating, it leads him away from the strictness he eulogizes, and leaves the reader feeling stimulated but not necessarily convinced.
James Trimarco's writing has appeared in Vanity Fair magazine.