‘Those who cling to pacifism in the face of the Russian attack on Ukraine remain caught in their own version of [John Lennon’s ] “imagine,”’ wrote the mega-star Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek in a recent op-ed for The Guardian (21 June 2022). ‘Imagine a world in which tensions are no longer resolved through armed conflicts … Europe persisted in this world of “imagine,” ignoring the brutal reality outside its borders. Now it’s the time to awaken.’
For decades the political Left has been in love with this Slovenian Marxist theorist. He has rightly challenged those on the Left to distinguish between lazy bourgeois progressivism masquerading as Leftism and traditional socialist analysis; reasoning — again correctly — that it is because of the former the Left is losing. He has found common ground with right-wing so-called ‘Edge Lords’ in his snorting rejection of a modern culture unwilling to dismiss the patently pathetic and whimpering screeches of the lunatic fringe — another hallmark of the progressive camp, and he has certainly had no small part in putting Marxism back on the map of European political thought.
His recent comments on Ukraine have therefore, and quite understandably, bewildered and divided socialists around the world. Ukraine, he says, ‘risked the impossible, defying pragmatic calculations, and the least we owe them is full support, and to do this, we need a stronger Nato.’ But wait! Supporting Ukraine is to support a Nazi-captured state, post-Maidan, and to seek a stronger NATO is to desire a reinforced US unipolarity and the furtherance of American liberal and capitalist hegemony. To the socialist (qua a leftist who reads) this is simply anathema.
Left progressives (qua leftists who don’t read) will no doubt follow Žižek. Again, this is perfectly understandable. This is Žižek after all — perhaps the sharpest knife the modern Left has in the box. It is hard to argue with Slavoj Žižek. Ask Jordan Peterson. But argue with him we must. He has got this one wrong. Still, in saying this, we have to take a number of things into account: Žižek has his own positionality in this discussion which most of us do not share, his analysis — as this piece will argue — is established on a few misapprehensions and faulty assumptions, and — trigger warning — he may not be as wrong as many of those reacting to his interjection think.
Žižek grew up in a peculiar Titoist socialist regime in the former Yugoslavia, a particular brand of Marxist-Leninism shaped by Josip Tito’s antipathy towards the capitalism of the West and his well-founded mistrust of Stalin. This political non-alignment which kept the former Yugoslavia in a weird liminal space between NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War undoubtedly shaped the Marxism of Slavoj Žižek and other socialists and communists to emerge from the space. He is uniquely positioned, then, to appreciate a purity to Marxism unsullied by Soviet domination and imperialism and so maintain a delicious tension between his own ingrained suspicion of Russia and his chiselled disdain for the destructiveness of western capitalism.
It might be that Žižek’s personal political psychology was not fabricated like ours in the West or like those formed behind the Iron Curtain. Cold War ideological formation was a binary; good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. Communists and socialists in Britain, France, Italy, West Germany, and in the United States developed an affection for Russia, for the Soviet Union. Academics, trade unionists, and working class activists — not to mention nationalists and separatists like ETA and the IRA — were always considered, certainly after the McCarthy era, ideological enemies within. This was not the experience of communists and socialists in the former Yugoslavia. Žižek never needed to imagine Russia as a workers’ utopia in the east. His Marxism is natal.
Of all the responses to his remarks, Jonathan Cook, writing for MintPress News, perhaps most lucidly highlights the problem the Left in the West has with critiquing Žižek’s position:
His latest piece – published where else but The Guardian – is a morass of sloppy thinking, moral evasion and double speak. Which is why I think it is worth deconstructing. It encapsulates all the worst geostrategic misconceptions of Western intellectuals at the moment.
Cook’s careless assumption here is of course that Žižek is a ‘Western intellectual.’ He is not. As this piece has already noted, Žižek’s intellectual heritage is Slovenian. It was shaped in the Communist former Yugoslavia; within a post-war Marxist intellectual tradition in a strange borderland between what we imagine as the East and the West in European terms. Where the mainstream western narrative justification for its unconditional support for the Maidan Ukrainian regime is rooted in historical Russophobia stemming from, on the one hand, a centuries-old western suspicion of Russian imperialism, and, on the other, from the ideological hatred for Russia in the West born in the Russian Revolution and forged and tempered through the Cold War, dissent — as we have noted — has a tendency to be a reaction to this; seeing in Russia an idealised alternative to the ills of the western capitalist system. It is in this, one might imagine, that Cook reads ‘moral evasion and double speak.’
Unlike capitalism, which need only ever concern itself with profit, socialism, Marxism, and communism — as materialist critiques — are contingent on the particular and different social, political, and economic realities on the ground where they are active. So, while the instruments of Žižek’s Marxist critique are the same as our own, the situation in which it has been formed is radically different to ours. Žižek betrays nothing of his Leftism when he refused to become partisan in an East versus West ideological conflict. His critique is from within the borderland. His criticism of Russian aggression, then, is not evasion or double speak. This analysis would hold that it is an authentic position native to his intellectual tradition. Yet, this does not mean that he is not wrong. He is wrong. He is labouring under a number of serious misconceptions.
His comparison of the criminality of the United States’ invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan with that of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, demonstrates this and a few other things rather well. Writing about the planned extradition of Julian Assange from the United Kingdom to the US, he notes:
… the documents revealed by WikiLeaks revealed how, under Bush’s presidency, “the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan, while leaked Iraq war files showed 66,000 civilians had been killed, and prisoners tortured.” Crimes fully comparable with what Putin is doing in Ukraine. From today’s hindsight, we can say that WikiLeaks disclosed dozens of American Buchas and Mariupols.
This uncritical reliance on the western media narrative on the war in Ukraine — which itself merely repeats the propaganda being produced by the Kiev regime — is problematic to say the least. There is no ‘Collateral Murder’ video from either Bucha or Mariupol. On 12 July 2007, two US AH-64 Apache helicopters fired on civilians in Baghdad — killing a number of innocent people including two Reuters journalists. The video (‘Collateral Murder,’ released by WikiLeaks on 5 April 2010) records the killings and the laughter of the US airmen after the assault. It is beyond question that the US military committed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. No such evidence as yet exists supporting similar claims by the Ukrainian government against the Russian forces, and the fact that the Kiev regime has been caught out lying on a number of occasions does not help its case against Moscow either.
The bodies of civilians littered the streets of Bucha in the days following the Russian withdrawal from the town, it is altogether likely there was a massacre, and indeed there was a mass grave. But it is far from clear — in fact, quite unlikely — that these crimes were committed by the Russians. Russia requested an international investigation into the incident at the UN Security Council which was roundly vetoed by Britain. There are significant issues with the narrative and chronology of the Bucha massacre, and so this is far from safe ground from which to point the finger of blame at Russia. It is much the same story with the long siege of the southern port city of Mariupol. The openly Nazi Ukrainian garrison in the city refused a number of requests to surrender, the Ukrainian military refused to permit the civilian population to leave — effectively using it as a human shield, and was found to be using civilian buildings as firing positions. Again, certainly at this point in time, it is not sound to use Mariupol as a Russian equivalent of American war crimes.
More than anything else, it is this reliance on the accepted and highly propagandistic western media narrative that weakens Žižek’s case the most. But to dismiss him, as Cook does, as a ‘cheerleader for the military-industrial complex’ is more than a little misguided. Žižek is no cheerleader for the western military-industrial complex. It is simply the case, as he writes, that refusing to support Ukraine on the grounds that this support would only further enrich the military-industrial complex is irrational. Kiev’s priority — regardless of any outside opinion — is military defence, and, in this, what does it matter where the hardware comes from or who gets rich? — send guns! In this, at least, his logic is sound. If the Left’s only reason for opposing Ukraine is to strike out against the capitalist system in the West and the military-industrial complex, then this is poor reasoning in the face of an illegal foreign invasion.
Like it or not, Ukraine has a right to defend its sovereign territory from armed invasion. All states have this right. Russia — like it or not — is in fact the aggressor. Ignoring for the time being the part the US, NATO, and the European Union have played in provoking this war, Ukraine has a right to resist Russia with force of arms and there is — albeit a flimsy one — a moral case for supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needs for its territorial defence. This is where Žižek is getting it right: the Left in the West is siding with Russia for all the wrong reasons (Žižek is getting something wrong in this too). In the West, this war is a binary — a new Cold War, a proxy war — with Russia on one side and NATO on the other, but Žižek’s analysis here is important:
The true target of the war is the dismantlement of the European unity advocated not only by the US conservatives and Russia but also by the European extreme right and left.
From his non-aligned or borderlands perspective, Žižek is pointing out, correctly, that the frontlines in this conflict do not run between states — but through them. It is the European Union and not Ukraine that is the true target of this war; from the US neocons, from Russia, and from powerful polarised positions within Europe. This is, in this author’s estimation, the single most important insight Žižek makes in his piece — and few have spotted this. True, Ukraine is a proxy war between NATO — an instrument of US imperialism — and Russia, but Ukraine is a proxy for the war for the future of Europe. A ‘public intellectual,’ he may be, but it cannot be denied that Slavoj Žižek has a solid record of cutting through the fog and seeing certain realities as they truly are. We must not deny him the credit for this and we on the Left must not be too hasty in cancelling him for getting some of the important details wrong.
When he looks at this war from his position; independently suspicious of both NATO and Russia, he is offering us a glimpse at reality: that this is not quite the new Cold War we thought it was, but a new kind of conflict in which the divisions run through and not between the states, and in which not the future of capitalism and socialism hang in the balance — but Europe. It is in answering this threat that he is saying we cannot accept the pragmatic ‘pacifism’ of Chomsky and Kissinger. ‘We need a stronger NATO,’ he writes — before adding the clarification: ‘but not as a prolongation of the US politics.’ NATO is, by definition, the prolongation — the extension or expansion — of US hegemony. This is, as Chomsky righty says, not an alliance of equals, but a US instrument by which it furthers its geopolitical objectives with the use of client states. The ‘stronger NATO’ Žižek wants is not and cannot be NATO. He says this, more or less, himself.
Aware of the real and present danger to European unity — for which Ukraine is a testing ground — Žižek is thinking of a military alliance that would put Europe’s interests first and by extension an institution or set of institutions which would safeguard the peace and security of Europe from the dangerous internal tensions right now being exploited by Russia and the United States. In this big-picture analysis, Žižek is saying something few others are — and he is right.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Cook, Jonathan. “A Lemming Leading the Lemmings: Slavoj Zizek and the Terminal Collapse of the Anti-War Left.” MintPress News, June 23, 2022. https://www.mintpressnews.com/slavoj-zizek-ukraine-terminal-collapse-anti-war-left/281190/.
McCann, Jason Michael. “The Bucha Massacre.” Standpoint Zero (blog), April 4, 2022. https://standpointzero.com/2022/04/04/the-bucha-massacre/.
WikiLeaks. “Collateral Murder.” WikiLeaks, April 5, 2010. https://collateralmurder.wikileaks.org/.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Pacifism Is the Wrong Response to the War in Ukraine.” The Guardian, June 21, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/21/pacificsm-is-the-wrong-response-to-the-war-in-ukraine.