Lenin and totality

Erik Empson

Zizek has a narrow conception of the political, one that has its only real point of reference in the past. The return to Lenin rhetoric is at best naïve – why pick that figure over and above any other – and misleading as he really wants to rehabilitate Lenin  (the thinker of the concrete situation, the thinker of the new) in order to bury him and put himself in his place. For all the talk of the new situation, Zizeks solutions are blatantly old hat, and he has placed his bets safely on an old nag that he knows will not come in running first, but will surely be strong enough to carry him home.

There is a peculiar line of argument characteristic of Zizek that is to find political only that which some how universal. New Social movements are maligned because they ‘do not relate to the social totality’. But how would a new-fangled proletarian party relate to the totality – would it share the generous amounts of antipathy of its forebearers to movements organised around different social conflicts? Though critical enough to argue that singular issue politics are limited, he fails to see that they have a different operative conception of the totality. Does Zizek really think that ecologists for example – a movement that arises pretty much concurrently with the demise of social projects based on ‘progress’ – will suddenly be swayed by the emergence of a new Lenin? Does Zizek here offer any real suggestion of how, in a de-centred totality, one movement, presumably under one leader, could articulate a universal politics. How different is this to Christian eschatology of the second coming?

What would it require for a politics to orientate itself to the totality today? It would require it to address all the determinate conflicts given within the complex order of our society – what figure would supply the unitary logic of this process? Surely we have to turn to the social body itself - to people – for all its ambiguities, the idea of the multitude services this end with far more power than the concept of the party. Despite all the talk of the ‘new constellation’ and the critique of the extension of capitalism into all the pores of life, the idealism of the professional revolutionary shines through: what above all else distinguished the Leninist conception of the party (e.g. as outlined in History and Class Consciousness), from other political strategies was the belief that it could exist outside of society, both in organisational and ideological terms; it could maintain a financial and political autonomy in respect to political struggles and processes within the social; it could intervene. Is this realistic today? Does this model represent new thinking or a dependence on old types of struggle?

Zizek is right in some aspects of his critique of conciliatory movements in the social. However he fails in regard to his own standards, when he critiques them not for what they are but on the basis of what they should be. Through this strategy Zizek displaces the problem of political action in the here and now, of people taking responsibility for the own lives, by posing in quasi-transcendent terms that the answer must be imputed from the outside – and sets himself up as judge of what is an effective response to the new constellation of problems. Nowhere here does he recognise the substantive reorientation that Hardt and Negri do their best to affect. That is to the total congruence between doing and constituting that is necessarily the condition of the capitalist social today. It is not enough to base a political programme on thinking the present, one does actually need at some point to think the present as well as act in it. That both processes are constitutive ones, Zizek would probably agree, but then begs the question of why he seems to hold such disdain and ignorance of many struggles in the here and now.

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