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The Real Versus Objective Knowledge: Seeing with the Power of the Spirit
''God' means, we should always bear in mind, that the outcome of our acts will never fit our expectations.' The theological dimension serves as a kind of safety valve, a mark of openness.
By Slavoj Zizek
Editor's Note: In Lutheran ethics there is no certainty that a person can fully know in specific terms the will of God. So it is necessary to "act" on the basis not of "law" as if that can be known absolutely in any specific case, but on the basis of "spirit" as the Apostle Paul talks about it. In this article the philosopher Slavoj Zizek speaks about this distinction in terms of leaders of the Russian and French revolutions. There are those today who claim that "science" gives them objective knowledge of what to do so they can act with certainty. Well, things are a bit more complicated than that.
Those who follow obscure spiritual-cosmological speculations have for sure heard of one of the most popular topics in this domain: when three planets (usually the Earth, its moon and the sun) find themselves along the same axis, some big cataclysmic event takes place, the whole order of the universe is momentarily thrown out of joint and has to restore its balance (as it was supposed to happen in 2012). Does something like this not hold for the year 2017, which is a triple anniversary? In 2017, we are not only celebrating the centenary of the October Revolution but also the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Marx’s Capital (1867), and the 50th anniversary of the so-called Shanghai Commune when, in the climactic moment of the Cultural Revolution, residents of Shanghai decided to follow literally Mao’s call and directly took over the power, overthrowing the rule of the Communist Party (which is why Mao quickly decided to restore order by sending the army to squash the Commune).
Do these three events not mark the three stages of the Communist movement? Marx’s Capital outlined the theoretical foundations of the Communist revolution; the October Revolution was the first successful attempt at overthrowing the bourgeois state and building a new social and economic order; while the Shanghai Commune stood for the most radical attempt to immediately realize the most daring aspect of the Communist vision, the abolishment of state power and the imposition of direct people’s power organized as a network of local communes. This radical idea was already motivating Lenin in his preparatory theoretical work for the October Revolution: in his State and Revolution, he outlined his vision of the workers’ state where every kukharka (not simply a cook, especially not a great chef, but more a modest woman-servant in the kitchen of a wealthy family) will have to learn how to rule the state; where everyone, even the highest administrators, will be paid the same worker’s wages; where all administrators will be directly elected by their local constituencies, which will have the right to recall them at any moment; where there will be no standing army. How this vision turned into its opposite immediately after the October Revolution is the stuff of numerous critical analyzes. But what is perhaps much more interesting is the fact that Lenin proposes as the normative ground of this “utopian” vision an almost Habermasian notion of “the elementary rules of social intercourse.”[i]
In Communism, this permanent normative base of human intercourse will finally rule in a non-distorted way: only in a Communist society,
“freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.”[ii]A page or so later, Lenin again states that “we know that the fundamental social cause of excesses, which consist in the violation of the rules of social intercourse, is the exploitation of the people.”[iii] Does this mean that revolution is normatively grounded in some kind of universal rules which function as eternal “human nature”? (And maybe we find an echo of this preoccupation of Lenin with “elementary rules of social intercourse” even in his critical remarks on Stalin’s brutal manners from the last months of his life.) In another passage of State and Revolution, Lenin seems to claim almost the opposite: he surprisingly grounds the (in)famous difference between the lower and higher state of Communism in a different relation to human nature. In the first, lower, stage, we are still dealing with the same “human nature” as in the entire history of exploitation and class struggle, while what will happen in the second, higher, state is that “human nature” itself will be changed:
“We are not utopians, we do not indulge in ‘dreams’ of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination; these anarchist dreams […] serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until human nature has changed. No, we want the socialist revolution with human nature as it is now, with human nature that cannot dispense with subordination, control and ‘managers.’ […] The united workers themselves […] will hire their own technicians, managers and bookkeepers, and pay them all, as, indeed, every state official, ordinary workmen’s wages.”[iv]The interesting point here is that the passage from the lower to the higher stage of Communism does not primarily rely on the development of productive forces beyond scarcity but on the changing human nature. In this sense, Chinese Communists, in their most radical moment, were right: there can be a Communism of poverty (if we change human nature) and a Socialism of relative prosperity (“goulash Communism”). When the situation is most desperate, as it was in Russia during the civil war of 1918-1920, there is always the millenarian temptation to see in this utter misery a unique chance to directly pass to Communism; Platonov’s Chevengur has to be read against this background… But in what are these Leninist oscillations and tensions grounded?
Let us turn to Jean-Claude Milner’s perspicuous analysis of the imbroglios of modern European revolutions that culminated in Stalinism. Milner’s starting point is the radical gap that separates exactitude (factual truth, accuracy about facts) from Truth (the Cause to which we are committed):
“When one admits the radical difference between exactitude and truth, only one ethical maxim remains: never oppose the two. Never make of the inexact the privileged means or the effects of truth. Never transform these effects into by-products of the lie. Never make the real into an instrument of the conquest of reality. And I would allow myself to add: never make revolution into the lever of an absolute power.”[v]To justify this claim to absolute power, the role of proverbs is significant in the Communist tradition, from Mao’s “Revolution is not a dinner party” to the legendary Stalinist “You cannot make an omelet without breaking the eggs.” The preferred saying among the Yugoslav Communists was a more obscene one: “You cannot sleep with a girl without leaving some traces.” But the point made is always the same: endorsing brutality with no constraints. For those for whom God — in the guise of the big Other of History whose instruments they are — exists, everything is permitted… However, theological references can also function in the opposite way: not in the fundamentalist sense of directly legitimizing political measures as the imposition of divine will whose instruments the revolutionaries are but in the sense that the theological dimension serves as a kind of safety valve, a mark of the openness and uncertainty of the situation which prevents the political agents from conceiving of their acts in the terms of self-transparency. “God” means, we should always bear in mind, that the outcome of our acts will never fit our expectations. This “mind the gap” does not only refer to the complexity of the situation in which we intervene; it concerns, above all, the utter ambiguity of the exercise of our own will.
Was this short-circuit between truth and exactitude not Stalin’s basic axiom, which, of course, had to remain unspoken? Truth is not only allowed to ignore exactitude; it is allowed to refashion it arbitrarily. Perhaps, the peculiarity of some Russian words can be a guide in this matter. Often, there are, in Russian, two words for what appears to us, Westerners the same term, one designating the ordinary meaning and the other a more ethically charged “absolute” use. There is istina, the notion of truth as adequacy to facts, and Pravda, the absolute Truth designating also the ethically committing ideal Order of the Good. There is svoboda, the ordinary freedom to do what we want within the existing social order, and volja, the more metaphysically charged absolute thrust to follow one’s will up to self-destruction (as the Russians like to say, in the West, you have svoboda, but we have volja). There is gosudarstvo, the state in its ordinary administrative aspects, and derzhava, the state as the unique agency of absolute power. (Applying the well-known Benjamin-Schmitt distinction, one may venture the claim that the difference between gosudarstvo and derzhava is the one between constituted and constituting power: gosudarstvo is the state administrative machine running its course prescribed by legal regulations, while derzhava is the agent of unconditional power.) There are intellectuals, educated people, and intelligentsia, intellectuals charged with and dedicated to a special mission to reform society. (Along the same lines, there is already in Marx the implicit distinction between “the working class” – a simple category of social Being – and “proletariat” – a category of Truth, the revolutionary Subject proper.)
Is this opposition ultimately not the one, elaborated by Alain Badiou, between Event and the positivity of mere Being? “Istina” is the factual truth (correspondence, adequacy), while “pravda” designates the self-relating Event of truth; “svoboda” is the ordinary freedom of choice, while “volja” is the resolute Event of freedom… In Russian, this gap is directly inscribed, appears as such, and thus renders visible the radical RISK involved in every Truth-Event: there is no ontological guarantee that “pravda” will succeed in asserting itself at the level of facts, covered by “istina.” And, again, it seems as if the awareness of this gap itself is inscribed in Russian language, in the unique expression avos’ or na avos,’ which means something like “on our luck.” It articulates the hope that things will turn out OK when one makes a risky radical gesture without being able to discern all its possible consequences. It is something like Napoleon’s on attaque, et puis on le verra, often quoted by Lenin.
So where does Lenin stand here? Milner locates him at the edge, bringing the tension to its extreme: while he remained fully pledged to Marxist orthodoxy which views revolution as part of the global historical reality, in his political practice he exercised the utmost stance of openness and improvisation, passing from revolutionary terror to a partial opening to capitalism. And in this process the Bolsheviks “committed all possible mistakes,” as Lenin himself put it:
“During the French Revolution itself, it is easy to recognize the moments in which the most rational and the most courageous among the revolutionaries despaired. Most of them were competent and cultured, but no historical precedent in history, no scientific discovery, and no philosophical argument could help them. The same can be said about Lenin. Whoever has read his works cannot but admire his intelligence, his encyclopedic culture and his ability to invent new political concepts. Nonetheless, his own writings show a growing uncertainty about the situation that he himself had created. Right or wrong, the NEP was not only a turning point; it implied a severe self-criticism, bordering on renegading. At least, it proved that Lenin had been confronted by his own lack of knowledge in the field of political economy, where, as a Marxist, he was the most sure of himself; he was indeed discovering a new political country. He was encountering the very difficulty that Saint-Just had announced.”[vi]In his practice, Lenin was thus effectively acting as the captain of a vessel lost in a stormy sea, finding its way in an uncharted territory. However, although he tried to develop a theoretical framework for this practice (the framework of a complex overdetermined totality in which exception is the law and which allows for a revolution in the “weakest link” of the capitalist system), the tension became more and more palpable. So what did Stalin do here? “Stalin chose the easy way in preferring the absolute solitude of S1 which leads to absolute opportunism. No party, no family, no allies except circumstantial ones, but also no predetermined theory of social forms, no accepted criteria for rationality, no ethical rules.”[vii]
Perhaps, Milner’s reading is a little bit too narrow here. At a certain level, Stalin’s break with Lenin was purely discursive, violently imposing a radically different subjective economy. The gap between general principles (“historical laws”) regulating reality and pragmatic improvised decisions still palpable in Lenin is simply disavowed, and the two extremes directly coincide. On the one hand, we get total pragmatic opportunism; on the other hand, this pragmatic opportunism is legitimized by a new Marxist orthodoxy which proposes a general ontology. Marxism thus becomes a “world-view” allowing us the access to objective reality and its laws, and this operation brings a new false sense of security: our acts are “ontologically” covered, part of “objective reality” regulated by laws known to us, Communists. Nonetheless, the price paid for this ontological security is terrible. Exactitude, in the sense of truth about facts, to which Lenin was still committed, disappears; facts can be voluntarily manipulated and retroactively changed, events and persons become non-events and non-persons. In other words, in Stalinism, the Real of politics, a brutal subjective intervention which violates the texture of reality, returns with a vengeance, though in the form of its opposite, of respect for objective knowledge.
In other words, what Milner seems to neglect here is the crucial fact that the Real of the “absolute solitude of S1 (arbitrary interventions of the Master) which leads to absolute opportunism” has to appear as its exact opposite, the reign of “objective knowledge.” In Lacanese, Stalinism is the supreme case of the full reign of the “University discourse” whose agent is knowledge, not the Master. The only way to sustain the full harmony between S1 and S2, between the abyss of the Master’s arbitrary decisions and knowledge, is to subordinate factual knowledge to the Master’s arbitrariness. And, again, that’s why Stalinist discourse has to change facts retroactively. In Stalinism, there are no “renegades” (agents who were once on the right path with us but later on deviated from it) as Kautsky was for Lenin: once Trotsky began to oppose Stalin and was denounced as a traitor, it had to be proven that he had always-already been a traitor. It is this readiness to accept sudden radical changes in the Party line without demanding any argumentation which characterizes a true Stalinist. He doesn’t just faithfully follow the shifts in the Party line (first Social Democrats are the enemies, then we are ordered to build a Popular Front coalition with them; first Hitler is the ultimate enemy, then we conclude a pact with him…); he sees in this obedience to arbitrary shifts the ultimate proof of his fidelity to the Cause. In other words, within the Stalinist universe, the lack of argumentation for the shifts of the Party line is not a weakness but a proof of its strength: one should follow the new line not in spite of not knowing the reasons for it but because we don’t understand these reasons.
Again, here is how Milner recapitulates his argumentation: “I do not hesitate to qualify Lenin’s policy as delusional: in October 1917, he made a decision, without any clear notion of what his decision implied; moreover, his doctrine precluded the possibility of learning anything new from an event. According to him, audacity is taught by the right doctrine; it cannot add anything to that doctrine. In other words, it cannot teach anything new. Lenin’s conviction is the exact opposite of Saint-Just’s saying. It is delusional because it denies the alterity between S1 and S2. In his own devious way, Stalin sided with Saint-Just; at least, he understood intuitively that a revolution has something to do with the real, rather than with the imaginary mixture of past events and past assessments that is called ‘reality.’ Lenin and all true Marxist-Leninists treated the revolution as a reality. More generally, they seem to have had no sense of the real difference between the real and reality. Stalin is but the symptom of what happens when the real comes back in a world that denies it: it destroys all reality.”[viii]
Milner outlines in detail the gap that separates the French Revolution from the two, or three, later paradigms of the ideal revolution (the October, the Chinese, and, for some, the Cuban), as well as the gap that separates it from the American war of independence. The American “Revolution” (war of independence) celebrated as a model by Hannah Arendt was mired in compromises (slavery, etc.); it was in a way finished only in 1865, and maybe even in the 1960s, so it was logical that it lacked the universal appeal of the French Revolution. With regard to the Communist revolutions that as a rule refer to the French revolution as their model, the latter implied a fundamentally different stance towards the “big Other”. Communist revolutions were grounded in a clear vision of historical reality (“scientific socialism”), its laws and tendencies, so that, in spite of all its unpredictable turn, the revolution was fully located into this process of historical reality. As they liked to say, Socialism should be built in each country not according to its particular conditions, but in accordance with general laws of history. In theory, this kind of revolution was thus deprived of the dimension of subjectivity proper, of radical cuts of the real into the texture of “objective reality,” in clear contrast to the French Revolution, whose most radical figures perceived it as an open process lacking any support in a higher Necessity. Saint-Just wrote in 1794: “Ceux qui font des révolutions ressemblent au premier navigateur instruit par son audace” (“Those who make revolutions resemble a first navigator, who has his audacity alone for a guide”).[ix] Here is Milner’s reading of these lines:
“In Saint-Just’s analogy, the explorer discovers what no one has seen before. There is no previous map of the political regions that he enters. This ignorance is particularly true of those who do not participate in the exploration. They cannot see what the revolutionaries see. Of course, the latter do not occupy a higher position than the former. Nevertheless their political perceptions are radically different. Moreover, there is no previous theoretical or practical science of revolution that could be common to the revolutionaries and their non-revolutionary counterparts. Consequently no one but revolutionaries themselves may express a judgment on their choices. The parallel with Descartes is striking, but Saint-Just’s analogy entails yet another consequence. Revolutionary reality is compared to an undiscovered part of the earth. To suppose that it is possible to draw up a map of a revolution before its occurrence would be self-contradictory. Saint-Just would have rejected Lenin’s The State and Revolution as a masterpiece in science fiction. Indeed, the whole program of Marxism-Leninism is rejected in advance. Such is the paradox of what is commonly called ‘the revolutionary tradition’. It supposes that several revolutions in history share a set of features and that this set defines an ideal type of revolution, the most prominent source of such features being the French Revolution. But, as one of the main participants of that historical sequence, Saint-Just would have unflinchingly opposed such a conception. In his view, every revolution is a type in itself.”[x]From this basic difference, a whole series of others follow. Critics like to point out Terror as the common thread of revolutions. But for the Jacobins, Terror was a strictly constrained instrument to be used also against itself: they unleashed state terror to regulate and contain the popular terror (the “September massacres” in 1792) with the motto: “let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be.” The Jacobin trials were far from the Stalinist monster trials: many of the accused were proclaimed innocent, and the guilt of the accused was as a rule actual (for example, today we know that Danton was financed by the British). The entire modus operandi of Jacobins was public: not secret plots but speeches in the National Assembly, and this was also how they lost power (with a simple vote in the Assembly). Robespierre “wanted the revolution to finish as soon as possible; as his doctrine foresaw it, he was ready to accept that his own death will be necessary in order to stop the internal wars.”[xi] In contrast to the Stalinist revolutionary who acts as a “subject supposed to know” (Lacan), the Jacobin revolutionary “is a revolutionary only to the exact extent to which he is not supposed to know. More precisely, he is the subject-supposed-not-to-know constitutive of the revolutionary gesture.”[xii] In this sense revolution is not a part of objective reality; it implies a subjective gesture and, as such, an eruption of the Real in historical reality.
This, of course, does not mean that Robespierre’s position is not without its own antagonistic tensions. When Milner claims that Robespierre “believed what he said – and we know this was his symptom,”[xiii] we should take the word “symptom” here in the strict psychoanalytic sense, not just as a term synonymous with “the sign of some deep feature.” Robespierre’s very sincerity, his believing what he was saying, paradoxically becomes a sign of something he desperately tried to avoid or even repress, something that returns as a compromise-formation uniting contradictory features. And we should not be afraid to have a recourse to Marxism in order to discern this tension: what Robespierre’s egalitarianism, his “dedication to the axiom of equality,” ignores is the full extent to which political equality is the very form of economic inequality, of economic class struggle.
Today we navigate in uncharted territories, without global cognitive mapping. But what if that is hope, opening to avoid totalitarian closure, like Saint-Just for Milner?[xiv] So, what if we read the couple Lenin/Trotsky as a repetition of the couple Robespierre/Saint-Just, who are (or could be) today’s Lenin and Trotsky?
[i] Quoted from http://www.marxistsfr.org/ebooks/lenin/state-and-revolution.pdf.
[ii] Lenin, op.cit.
[v] Jean-Claude Milner, Relire la Revolution, Lagrasse: Verdier 2016, p. 246.
[vi] Jean-Claude Milner, “The Prince and the Revolutionary,” quoted from http://crisiscritique.org/ccmarch/milner.pdf..
[vii] Milner, op.cit.
[viii] Milner, op.cit.
[ix] Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, “Rapport sur les factions de l’étranger,” in Śuvres complčtes, Paris: Gallimard 2004, p. 695.
[x] Jean-Claude Milner, “The Prince and the Revolutionary.”
[xi] Milner, Relire la Revolution, p. 129.
[xii] Milner, op.cit., p. 128.
[xiii] Op.cit., p. 129.
[xiv] Jean-Claude Milner, “The Prince and the Revolutionary.”
Slavoj Žižek is the Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural critic who has become one of the most distinguished thinkers of our time. Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist after the 1989 publication of his first book in English, "The Sublime Object of Ideology“. He is a regular contributor to newspapers like “The Guardian”, “Die Zeit” or "The New York Times“. He has been labelled by some the "Elvis of cultural theory“ and is the subject of numerous documentaries and books. This article appeared at the Philosophical Salon of the Los Angeles Review of Books with the title "Lenin Navigating in Unchartered Territories."
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