The only exceptional thing about the crisis the working class is experiencing is that it comes at a stage in capitalism’s collapse where the potential for destruction is unprecedented. Where the system is producing the greatest ever risk of nuclear war, a destabilization of the climate, and the terminal decline of the economic system within the American sphere. These events cause or correlate with a great amount of misery and deprivation for the working class, but misery and deprivation for the working class are not the exception. There have always been horrifically exploited people under capitalism. And during the last half-century, this exploitation has been getting progressively more severe, and present in the lives of more people. Socioeconomic cruelty is nothing new for a great proportion of society. This inflation crisis, and the Fed’s scheme to exacerbate it by driving up unemployment for corporate interests, represent the point where this cruelty has grown big enough to cause unprecedented mass backlash.
The movement that’s been provoked by the elite’s recent crimes against the working class is visible in the new rise of strikes, union activity, and in a broader sense antiwar organizing, since imperialism depends on sacrificing the proletariat’s livelihoods in the imperial center. It has the potential to be more effective and sustainable than Occupy Wall Street, so long as the spontaneous outrage behind it gets directed towards the organizations which can make it revolutionary. That’s where one of the movement’s biggest ideological obstacles comes in. There’s a class of petty-bourgeois intellectuals, among them the Yugoslavian anti-communist movement participant Slavoj Zizek, whose goal is to prevent the rise of an effective workers movement. As the class conflict grows more intense, these actors will try to redirect radical sentiments towards their set of ideas, which appear radical on the surface but fundamentally oppose workers revolution.
Key to understanding how these academic and commentary types operate is by seeing just how narrow their targeted audience is. They’re not trying to reach the broad mass of workers, as the average worker doesn’t have the time or the incentive to absorb what they say. They’re trying to reach students, those involved in organizing spaces, and those involved in online political spheres. These types represent the minority whose life circumstances can lead them to come across any of the work of the pseudo-Marxist intellectuals. Their unique situation makes them prime for becoming the most advanced section of the workers, but only if they gain the dialectical perspective. If their thinking is instead shaped by the petty-bourgeois distorters of Marxism, they’ll become apathetic, or aggressive social media promoters of these distortions who actively impede the proletariat’s victory.
With this context, which shows the distorters of Marxism seek to limit their audience to a particular subset, we can get a sense of what proletarian revolutionary agitation must look like: a campaign to reach the people as a whole, rather than a niche. That’s what I’m trying to do by using rhetoric which centers class, as class is the unifying interest among all the different identity groups who are disadvantaged by the system. This type of educational material can’t reach everyone either, since as long as capitalism dominates, there will be plenty of workers who lack the time to read everything I write. But by its nature as an appeal to the needs of every proletarian, this material is capable of resonating with more of society than petty-bourgeois intellectualism can. And if proletarian propagandists like myself create content that’s digestible for the average person, alongside the polemics directed at our own community, we’ll be able to make the theory more popular.
Whereas Marxist material can lead someone to deeply relate to and understand it, the works of these intellectuals are designed to have the effect of estranging the average person from the idea of theory. As the way commentators like Zizek present “theory” makes it look like a procedure of observing things through a personal, rather than a materialist, lens of analysis. Which, to someone without the luxuries of abundant free time and mental space, feels shallow, something only an out of touch person would care about.
This shrinking of the appeal of theory is the point of what these actors do. The Marxist scholar Gabriel Rockhill describes Zizek as someone whose job is to replace the material with the idealist, to get his readers to disregard the notion of seriously analyzing our reality: “Žižek, like Badiou, is not a historical materialist. Neither of these philosophers engage in rigorous analysis of the concrete, material history of capitalism and the world socialist movement, and they eschew serious political economy in favor of discussing superstructural elements and products of the bourgeois cultural apparatus. Both of them openly indulge in an idealist philosophical approach that privileges ideas and discourses, and they are metaphysicians who defend an anti-scientific belief in superstition.” A look at the particular way Zizek makes anti-communist arguments reveals the use this framing has in molding minds.
Left-liberal commentators like Chomsky assail Leninism by promoting the same myths about it that Zizek promotes, i.e. that Leninism was anti-democratic and a betrayal of the revolution. But Zizek’s superstitious, philosophically oriented type of thinking makes his statements more damaging to revolutionary consciousness than Chomsky’s. This is because whereas Chomsky merely says Leninism and “Stalinism” are evil, Zizek puts forth an actual operating procedure for left anti-communists to try to frustrate the spread of dialectical ideas.
This procedure he proposes is to attack the idea of the people, as a whole, being worthy of admiration. His premise is that “Stalinism” and its supposed crimes, which left anti-communists presently project onto China and the DPRK, is justified by the idea that these deeds are necessary for advancing the interests of the collective. Zizek therefore concludes that through satire which points out the shallowness and self-absorption which people can fall into, this narrative basis for “Stalinism” will be broken apart. I don’t know how seriously this idea is even worth taking, as it’s obviously an example of Zizek’s standard analytical method where he takes something and gives his opinion on it without real investigation. But the fact that there are minds which can be brought to take it seriously shows it poses a kind of threat towards working class victory.
To combat this and the other reactionary ideas these actors put forth, it’s necessary to do more than argue against them directly. I could point out the misleading nature of the historical narrative about Stalin having been a figure who was tied to some exceptional series of crimes, or how a derisive attitude towards the people naturally leads to a stance that’s incompatible with proletarian revolution. I could also decry Zizek for his pro-imperialist ideas, which are a natural extension of his rejection of dialectics. But these aren’t the arguments that can render the postmodernist, anti-dialectical perspective unable to influence popular consciousness. The argument that can truly do this is one which presents an alternative mode of thinking, a mode of thinking whose superiority at letting us understand the world is easy to see. That’s how to make it readily apparent why the notions that come out of his analytical framework are wrong.
This alternative mode is one which tells the worker: “Your ever-worsening circumstances can absolutely be turned into a scenario where you’re the one in control over your workplace. In fact, the long arc of history favors this scenario, as it’s the next stage of societal development.” As opposed to the insular “left” intellectual sphere’s narrative, which in effect says: “Your circumstances have no clear way of being ended, and you shouldn’t listen to those who say otherwise, as they represent a perversion of socialism.” A “socialism” that’s opposed to dialectics is not a socialism that can actually change history, except for when it obstructs history’s progression. It can only act as another brand, one constructed by appropriating the aesthetics of the real thing.
If you appreciate my work, I hope you become a one-time or regular donor to my Patreon account. Like most of us, I’m feeling the economic pinch during late-stage capitalism, and I need money to keep fighting for a new system that works for all of us. Go to my Patreon here.