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Zizek’s Jacobin Spirit

By Steve Fake

A Jacobin legacy has haunted the left ever since the political spectrum became defined as a left-right axis. This is hardly a surprise – the Jacobins were, after all, the original left-wing. And the role of the “left” in the French Revolution was a notoriously mixed-bag. A concern for equality was coupled, disastrously, with a will to power. The prolific and inexplicably popular Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, recently published an article on “The Jacobin Spirit” that provides an opportunity to briefly address some of these long-standing ambiguities and controversies.

For Žižek, following what he takes to be “Marx’s key insight,” “the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper,” which he defines in the traditional liberal sense of free elections and press, an independent judiciary, and so forth. Instead, Žižek asserts, freedom resides in social transformation: “revolutionary class struggle rather than democratic elections.” Nor, in his view, is democratizing the economic system anything more than an “illusory” solution, though that may be because Žižek appears not to include allocation and workplace relations under this rubric. The confusion here is in failing to consider the potential of more radical forms of democracy of the sort attempted in the seminal 1871 Paris Commune and, subsequently, in the factory committees and council systems of numerous uprisings and revolutions, from 1956 Hungary to 1960s Algeria, 1917 Russia to 1936 Spain.

Žižek quotes Alain Badiou’s “democratic illusion” to observe that change cannot be limited to “the apparatuses of the ‘bourgeois’ state”. True enough. Yet it is quite another thing to add, as Žižek promptly does, that “democratic mechanisms” cannot be the only means of change. Apparently there is a “need to de-fetishize democracy,” as well as “violence.”

What this means becomes evident soon enough. Speculating that Chavez’s Venezuela may be facing deliberate subversion of its economy by Western imperial power, he muses that, “under such conditions, is not the exercise of a kind of “terror” (police raids on warehouses, detention of speculators, etc.) fully justified as a defensive counter-measure?” Žižek adds that this is “the key political point, difficult to swallow for some liberals.” “Are we still,” he asks incredulously, “required to remain at a distance from state power when that power is itself disintegrating, and in the process resorting to obscene exercises of violence in order to mask its own impotence?”

Despite his endorsement of traditional state power and violence, Žižek does acknowledge a “problem with twentieth-century Communism,” namely, “the Party as instrument of historical necessity, etc.” However, as we shall see, this does not mean he has abandoned the notion of a far-sighted vanguard with a monopoly on truth.

“One should oppose,” Žižek avers, “the old (pseudo-)Machiavellian idea that truth is impotent and that power, if it is to be effective, has to lie and to cheat.” So far so good. But then Žižek continues with the remark that, “as Lenin claimed, Marxism is strong insofar as it is true.” Lenin is an odd authority to quote on this point, given his government’s record of dissembling.1

“Even many contemporary (post-)Marxists are embarrassed,” Žižek complains,

“by the so-called Jacobin legacy of centralized state terror, from which they want to distance Marx himself, proposing an authentic “liberal” Marx whose thought was later obfuscated by Lenin. It was Lenin, so the story goes, who (re)introduced the Jacobin legacy, thus falsifying Marx’s libertarian spirit. But is this really the case? Let us take a closer look at how the Jacobins rejected the recourse to a majority vote, on behalf of those who speak for an eternal Truth.”

How, Žižek wonders, can one “distinguish between the voice of truth, even if it is minoritarian, and the factional voice which seeks only to divide artificially to conceal the truth” (quoting Sophie Wahnich)?

A democrat would answer that it is precisely the structures of complete democracy which permit a full airing of opinions and information and allow any interested party to determine the truth according to their own lights. As to governance, the minoritarian voice, if correct, will soon become the majority. If that is not always true, it is, at any rate, more infallible than any other method of governing correctly. Majoritarian democratic rule also has the virtue of being a legitimate end in its own right, quite apart from the validity of its decisions.

Žižek, however, finds guidance in Robespierre,

“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. Addressing the Assemblée nationale on December 28, 1792, Robespierre claimed that, in attesting to the truth, any invocation of a majority or minority is nothing but a means of reducing “to silence those whom one designated by this term [minority]”; “[The] minority has everywhere an eternal right: to render audible the voice of truth.”

All of which is, in and of itself, plainly evident and unobjectionable. Yet Žižek (and Robespierre) sees this notion as directly applicable to actual governance:

“It is deeply significant that Robespierre made this statement in the Assemblée apropos the trial of the king. The Girondins had proposed a “democratic” solution: in such a difficult case, it was necessary to make an “appeal to the people,” to convoke local assemblies across France and ask them to vote on how to deal with the king—only such a move could give legitimacy to the trial. 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.” In short, the Revolution has already decided the matter, the very fact of the Revolution means that the king is guilty, hence to put his guilt to the vote would mean casting doubt on the Revolution itself.”

The apparent generalization is that, ‘the very fact of the Revolution’ dictates that to put anything to a vote ‘would mean casting doubt on the Revolution itself.’

Apparently concerned that we may become impotent through over-scrupulous adherence to principles, Žižek quotes Henri Grégoire in 1792: “there are people who are so good that they are worthless; and in a revolution which engages in the struggle of freedom against despotism, a neutral man is a pervert who, without any doubt, waits for how the battle will turn out to decide which side to take.”

At what point one becomes so “good” as to become “worthless” is not entirely clear. Did Trotsky make himself worthless when he finally rounded on Stalin? Surely Grégoire would have found Maxim Gorky, who was sharply critical of the Bolsheviks in power despite his friendship with Lenin, worthless. There can be no room for excess humanism in Robespierre’s revolution.

Nonetheless, Žižek warns us not to “dismiss [Grégoire’s] lines as ‘totalitarian,’” and, to make his point, posits that in 1940 France, the Nazi collaborationist, Philippe Pétain, would have received 90 percent of the vote had a free election been held. Žižek writes:

“When de Gaulle, in his historic address, refused to capitulate and pledged his continued resistance, he claimed that only he, not the Vichy regime, could speak on behalf of the true France (that is: on behalf of France as such, not only on behalf of the “majority of the French”!). What he asserted was deeply true, even if, “democratically speaking,” it not only lacked legitimacy, but was clearly opposed to the opinion of the majority of the French people. (The same goes for Germany: those who stood for Germany were the tiny minority who actively resisted Hitler, not the Nazis or the undecided opportunists.)”

Putting aside essentially meaningless rhetorical flourishes like “true France,” Žižek’s passage conveys a simple message: an enlightened government must rule in accord with truth (as defined by itself, of course) rather than majority opinion. There is, then, a dangerous conflation in Žižek’s thought between the value (and right) of minority opinions receiving a fair hearing – and the (il-)legitimacy of minority rule.

The latter notion is an idea that any left worthy of the name should have abandoned to the Jacobins over 200 years ago. Still, late would be better than never.

  1. For instance, the lies spread by the Bolshevik regime about the Kronstadt mutineers. See Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, Princeton UP, Princeton, 1970, pp. 96, 194. []


  1. Thanks Steve for touching on the question of Venezuela. I’m sure Zizek will be a vocal proponent of whatever violence Chavez unleashes on the Venezuelan people, in the proud tradition of the various left luminaries who gave political cover to the Castro regime some 40 years ago when they were locking up queers and Trotskyists and anarchists …

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