Slavoj Žižek and Trotsky on DSA & Jacobin Magazine’s Political Philosophy

Is democratic socialism an intergalactic concept?/Zizek image by Andy Miah (CC BY-SA 2.0)

These days, there’s a lot of talk in the news about the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and its explosion in size, a theoretical journal run by one of their caucuses called Jacobin magazine, Bernie Sanders (undeniably the most well-known member of DSA today), and what that all means for the 2020 election. There are a lot of ways to hash through this issue and I think that Leftist superstar philosopher Slavoj Žižek offers some important insights (though notably Ž is enthusiastic about Sanders these days).

Let me start by emphasizing that I understand not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good, particularly when it comes to electoral politics. I personally don’t subscribe to the notion of a “lesser evil voting” strategy (mostly because I live in a machine Democrat state) but that is simply not a part of my calculus here. Second, I’ll admit that I am a proponent of voting for the Green Party, which was advocating for many of the same policies as DSA 20 years ago (and indeed DSA has plagiarized entire sections of the Green Party platform). The Green Party is a circus of hippies, lefties, and kooks that has serious internal work to do in order to be a meaningful political force and I admit that readily.

But the likelihood of that project succeeding seems as likely as what DSA says they will succeed at, turning the Democratic Party into a socialist labor party from within.

Sing all the hosannas you want to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar (and expect to hear my voice in that chorus at some points when they make genuine impacts, as was the case last month when AOC rightfully named the border prisons concentration camps). The fact is that NONE of them will turn the Democrats into anything except the party of austerity, war, and Wall Street.

Back in 2007, Žižek published with Verso Books Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky. At the time, the Anglophone Global Northern political discourse was much further to the right, with a Bush in the White House, an anti-war movement on life support, and socialism still a verboten word. This is the truly surprising fact of the volume, that after the Wisconsin labor rebellion, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo, the book has become more useful for understanding our politics.

Žižek starts off by dismantling false notions of the revolutionary’s identity, first targeting “the gentrified image of Trotsky popularized today by the latter-day Trotskyists themselves: Trotsky the anti-bureaucratic libertarian critic of the Stalinist Thermidor, partisan of workers’ self-organization, supporter of psychoanalysis and modern art, friend of surrealists, etc. (and one should include in this ‘etc.’ the brief love affair with Frida Kahlo)”

This counterfactual vision of the USSR, a workers paradise without the dastardly Stalin, has always bugged the shit out of me. Doug Henwood recently summed this up perfectly when he explained “Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a typical gathering of leftists consisted of seven weirdos meeting in a ramshackle space, often fighting ancient battles about whether the USSR was a failed state capitalist experiment or a degenerated workers’ state. Goals were maximalist—to overthrow capitalism and build socialism—but no one really had an idea of what that meant.” Our Slovene philosopher says “Trotskyism often functions as a kind of politico-theoretical obstacle, preventing the radical self-critical analysis needed by the contemporary left.” In practice, many Trots get so hung up on the history of the twentieth century they fail to remember that it has zero relevance to struggles today in this hemisphere, century, and millennium.

Žižek continues:

There are passages in Terrorism and Communism which effectively seem to point forwards to the Stalinist 1930s with their spirit of total industrial mobilization to drag Russia out of its backwardness. After Stalin’s death, a well-read copy of Terrorism and Communism was found among his private papers, full of handwritten notes which signalled Stalin’s enthusiastic approval – what more does one need as a proof? This is why Terrorism and Communism is Trotsky’s key book, his ‘symptomal’ text which should on no account be politely ignored but, on the contrary, focused on.

Trotsky’s polemic was a biting response to Karl Kautsky, the so-called “Pope of Marxism” and the hallowed wise man of the German Social Democratic Party, the most advanced pre-World War I Socialist formation in Europe. Kautsky’s repudiation of the Bolshevik revolution is premised on a liberal democratic notion that informs the logic of certain DSA members today (indeed, Bhaskar Sunkara, founder/publisher of Jacobin, named the German politician as his inspiration):

…In the eyes of the critics of Bolsheviks, the militarization of labour is only one aspect of a more fundamental problem, the one of ‘democracy versus dictatorship’. Here, indeed, the contrast seems to be as clear as possible – on the one hand, there is Trotsky’s open recognition that the dictatorship of the proletariat means the dictatorship of the party… On the other hand, there is Kautsky’s defence of multiparty democracy with all its ingredients, inclusive of the freedom of the press; for him, the victory of socialism was effectively conceived as the parliamentary victory of the Social Democratic Party, and he even suggested that the appropriate political form of the passage from capitalism to socialism is the parliamentary coalition of progressive bourgeois and socialist parties. (One is tempted to bring this logic to its extreme and suggest that, for Kautsky, the only acceptable revolution would have been to have a referendum and get at least 51 per cent of voters to approve it …) [Emphasis added]

Does that suggestion also hold true of Sunkara, Jacobin subscribers, and DSA? While Sunkara says in his writings that he sees no hope for the Democrats, he conveniently neglects to mention that the GOP has not existed in political suspended animation over the past 50+ years. Since the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the Nixon election of 1968, the Republicans have slithered further and further to the right every cycle, making each election into a bid for “lesser-evil” voting where the stakes become more and more dire every time. For instance, there’s no doubt that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would have been a catastrophe if elected in 2012. But in comparison to Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the GOP’s 2012 slate seems like a pair of bleeding heart liberals. George H.W. Bush was a criminal and fiend who helped unleash the crack epidemic onto the urban landscape but he looks more and more like fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, if not for nothing else but his onetime pro-choice affinities.

This is the Sisyphean conundrum of DSA and others who claim the ability to change the Democratic Party “from the inside.” There never will be a moment when the GOP puts up a candidate who is not so rotten that the “lesser evil” argument becomes a serious argument in the mainstream liberal discourse.

For the record, the author is adamant that Bill Maher is an Islamophobic, bigoted ass that regrettably gets liberals to jump on their hind legs and bark on command without fail.

And it is here that Žižek’s analysis of Trotsky becomes especially useful:

Trotsky’s basic reproach to parliamentary democracy is not that it gives too much power to uneducated masses, but, paradoxically, that it passivizes the masses too much… A commonsense reproach arises here: why, then, call this ‘dictatorship’?… ‘Dictatorship’ does not mean here the opposite of democracy… When Lenin and Trotsky designate liberal democracy as a form of bourgeois dictatorship…[and] democracy also is a form of dictatorship…

Even the most ‘free’ elections cannot put into question the legal procedures that legitimize and organize them, the state apparatuses that guarantee (by force, if necessary) the electoral process, etc… Trotsky is here faithful to Lenin who, in his writings of 1917, saved his utmost acerbic irony for those who engage in the endless search for some kind of ‘guarantee’ for the revolution… Lenin’s answer is…[that] those who wait for the objective conditions of the revolution to arrive will wait for ever – such a position of the objective observer (and not of an engaged agent) is itself the main obstacle to the revolution.

This is the true failure of “democratic socialism” as a concept and proposed organizational method for society. Democracy is such an abstract, plastic notion that there never will be a moment when the majority of voters (by the way, who is allowed to vote opens another giant can of worms…) will elect “socialism” according to the rules of the Federalist Electoral College. The utopian nature of the proposal, seemingly beamed from another planet, intentionally denies a century of repeated legalized sabotage on the part of the capitalist class when these politicians were put into office (cf. Sweden’s Meidner Plan, Chile’s Allende, France’s Mitterand, Venezuela’s Chavez and Maduro, Brazil’s Lula and Rousseff, et. al.), many times with the direct backing of the American government.

And here is where Žižek’s essay provides the final answer to the query What Is To Be Done? (both in terms of socialist politics being successful and the legacy of Trotsky):

...The figure of Trotsky nonetheless remains crucial in so far as it stands for an element which disturbs the alternative ‘either (social) democratic socialism or Stalinist totalitarianism’: what we find in Trotsky, in his writings and his revolutionary practice in the early years of the Soviet Union, is revolutionary terror, party rule, etc., but in a different mode from that of Stalinism.

This is where today’s reader diverges from that of 2007. After seeing the horrors of the alt-right in Charlottesville, ICE agents prowling migrant communities, family separation at the border concentration camps, and so much more,

a little red terror doesn’t sound that bad…


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