The Jacobin Spirit

On violence and democracy.

Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps more than ever: for Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper (Does a country have free elections? Are its judges independent? Is its press free from hidden pressures? Does it respect human rights?). Rather, the key to actual freedom resides in the “apolitical” network of social relations, from the market to the family. Here the change required is not political reform but a transformation of the social relations of production — which entails precisely revolutionary class struggle rather than democratic elections or any other “political” measure in the narrow sense of the term. We do not vote on who owns what, or about relations in the factory, and so on — such matters remain outside the sphere of the political, and it is illusory to expect that one will effectively change things by “extending” democracy into the economic sphere (by, say, reorganizing the banks to place them under popular control). Radical changes in this domain need to be made outside the sphere of legal “rights.” In “democratic” procedures (which, of course, can have a positive role to play), no matter how radical our anti-capitalism, solutions are sought solely through those democratic mechanisms which themselves form part of the apparatuses of the “bourgeois” state that guarantees the undisturbed reproduction of capital. In this precise sense, Badiou was right to claim that today the name of the ultimate enemy is not capitalism, empire, exploitation, or anything similar, but democracy itself. It is the “democratic illusion,” the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as providing the only framework for all possible change, which prevents any radical transformation of capitalist relations.

Closely linked to this need to de-fetishize democracy is the need to de-fetishize its negative counterpart, namely violence. Badiou has recently proposed the formula of “defensive violence”: renounce violence as the principal modus operandi, and focus instead on creating free spaces at a distance from state power (like the early Solidarno in Poland); resort to violence only when the state itself uses violence to crush and subdue these “liberated zones.” The trouble with this formula is that it relies on a deeply problematic distinction between the “normal” functioning of the state apparatuses and the “excessive” exercise of state violence. In contrast, the Marxist notion of class struggle — more precisely, of the priority of class struggle over classes conceived as positive social entities — proposes the thesis that “peaceful” social life is itself sustained by (state) violence, i.e., that it is an expression or effect of the predominance of one class over another. In other words, one cannot separate violence from the state conceived as an apparatus of class domination: from the standpoint of the oppressed, the very existence of a state is a violent fact (in the same sense in which Robespierre claimed there was no need to prove that the king had committed any crime, since the very existence of the king was a crime in itself, an offense against the freedom of the people). In this sense, every act of violence against the state on the part of the oppressed is ultimately “defensive.” Not to concede this point is, nolens volens, to “normalize” the state and accept that its own acts of violence are merely contingent excesses to be dealt with through democratic reforms. This is why the standard liberal motto — that violence is never legitimate, even though it may sometimes be necessary to resort to it — is insufficient. From a radical emancipatory perspective, this formula should be reversed: for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate (since their very status is the result of the violence they are exposed to), but never necessary (it will always be a matter of strategy whether or not use violence against the enemy).1

In short, the topic of violence should be demystified: the problem with twentieth-century Communism was not its resort to violence per se, but the mode of functioning which made that recourse to violence inevitable (the Party as instrument of historical necessity, etc.). Advising the CIA on how to undermine the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, Henry Kissinger put it succinctly: “Make the economy scream.” Senior US representatives openly admit that today the same strategy is being pursued in Venezuela. As former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said on Fox News:

[Chávez’s appeal] only works so long as the population of Venezuela sees some ability for a better standard of living. If at some point the economy really gets bad, Chávez’s popularity within the country will certainly decrease and it’s the one weapon we have against him to begin with and which we should be using, namely the economic tools of trying to make the economy even worse so that his appeal in the country and the region goes down [ . . . ] Anything we can do to make their economy more difficult for them at this moment is a good thing, but let’s do it in ways that do not get us into direct conflict with Venezuela if we can get away with it.

The least one can say is that such statements give credibility to the suspicion that the economic difficulties faced by the Chávez government are not simply the result of its own inept policy making. This bring us to the key political point, difficult to swallow for some liberals: we are clearly dealing here not with blind market processes and reactions, but with an elaborate and well-planned strategy — 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? Even Badiou’s formula of “subtraction from the state” plus “only reactive violence” seems insufficient in these new conditions. The problem today is that the state is becoming more and more chaotic, failing even in its proper function of “servicing the goods.” Are we still 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?

A more fundamental question might also be raised here: why does the revolutionary Truth-Event entail violence? Because it is enacted from the symptomal point (or torsion) of the social body, from the point of impossibility of the social totality — its subject is the “part of no-part” of society, those who, although they are formally part of society, are denied a proper place within it. This is society’s “point of truth,” and to assert it, the whole structure whose point of impossibility this point is must be annihilated, suspended. For exactly the same reason, as Lenin correctly perceived, the truth is revolutionary — the only way to assert it is to bring about a revolutionary upheaval in the existing hierarchic order. Thus one should oppose the old (pseudo-)Machiavellian idea that truth is impotent and that power, if it is to be effective, has to lie and to cheat: as Lenin claimed, Marxism is strong insofar as it is true. (This holds especially against the postmodern dismissal of universal truth as oppressive, according to which, as Gianni Vattimo put it, if the truth sets us free, it also sets us free from itself.)

In the history of radical politics, violence is usually associated with the so-called Jacobin legacy, and, for that reason, dismissed as something that should be abandoned if we are truly to begin again. Even many contemporary (post-)Marxists are embarrassed 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 could the Jacobins, the partisans of unity and of the struggle against factions, justify this rejection? “The entire difficulty resides in how to 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.”2

Robespierre’s answer was that 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.” 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. When we are dealing with “strong truths” (les vérités fortes), asserting them necessarily entails symbolic violence.

When la patrie est en danger, Robespierre said, one should fearlessly state the fact that “the nation is betrayed. This truth is now known to all Frenchmen”; “Lawgivers, the danger is imminent; the reign of truth has to begin: we are courageous enough to tell you this; be courageous enough to hear it.” In such a situation, there can be no room for those taking a neutral third position. In his speech celebrating the dead of August 10, 1792, abbé Grégoire declared: “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.” Before we dismiss these lines as “totalitarian,” let us recall a later time when the French patrie was again en danger, in 1940, when none other than General de Gaulle, in his famous radio address from London, announced to the French people the “strong truth”: France is defeated, but the war is not over; against the Pétainist collaborators, the struggle goes on. The exact conditions of this statement are worth recalling: even Jacques Duclos, second in command of the French Communist Party, admitted in a private conversation that, had free elections been held at the time, Marshal Pétain would have won with 90 percent of the votes. 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.)

Adapted from Living in the End Times. (Verso)
  1. I owe this idea to Udi Aloni.
  2. Sophie Wahnich, “Faire entendre la voix de la vérité, un droit révolutionnaire éternel” (manuscript, June 2010). All further non-attributed quotes are from this outstanding text.

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Slavoj Žižek, a maverick philosopher, is the author of over 30 books and has been acclaimed as both the "Elvis of cultural theory" and the "most dangerous philosopher in the West." He is today's most controversial public intellectual. The paperback edition of Living in the End Times is now available from Verso. Žižek is now at work on a book about Hegel.

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