Reform or Revolution? Philosopher Slavoj Žižek on Communism

How does Slavoj Žižek define Communism, and to what extent does it constitute a political theory?

Jul 27, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

slavoj zizek communism reform revolution


Slavoj Žižek is one of the most recognizable contemporary philosophers. What does his commitment to Communism entail? This article aims to explore this question, beginning with a discussion of Žižek’s life and the reception of his work. It then moves on to discuss specificity and alternatives in Communist thought. Then it will cover Žižek’s attitude to social movements and revolutionary action in the early 2010s, along with analyzing a contradiction in Žižek’s work, and what it means for the success of his political theory.


Slavoj Žižek’s Life

A recent photograph of Žižek, via Deutschland Funkkultur


Slavoj Žižek was born in 1949 and is a philosopher from Slovenia, formerly the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, a Communist state. The authoritarianism under which Žižek was raised and developed his career is important.


For one thing, although Žižek is a Communist, he is fluent in the vocabulary and style of postmodern (post-structuralist, deconstructionist, post-Communist) philosophy. As Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary theorist, observes, this is a discursive lexicon that has proven effective in speaking against tyrannical regimes without said regime noticing. For another, although Žižek did grow up under a kind of Communist regime, and for all the ironic praise he might lavish on Yugoslavia and Soviet Russia, he does not advocate a return to that exact system of government (although what exactly he does advocate remains somewhat ambiguous, as we shall see).


Žižek’s hyper-energetic, flitty, heterogeneous theoretical style has proven extremely popular among Western intellectuals. His charisma, love of dirty jokes, and willingness to say more or less anything (no matter how unacceptable) have made him one of the best-known philosophers alive by a substantial margin. This article wants to get behind some of the façades and get an answer to a simple question—when Slavoj Žižek advocates for the creation of a Communist state, what exactly is he advocating for?

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Critiques of and Alternatives to Communism

Statue of Karl Marx, 2019, via Pixabay


As Benjamin Kunkel, a recent surveyor of the terrain of Marxist (or, as he puts it, Marxish) theory, has it, Marxists tend to be thorough in their critiques of capitalism but far less thorough when it comes to characterizing the alternatives.


It is worth saying at the outset that this is not, as many non-Marxist political theorists might wish, a takedown objection to the entire project. Indeed, it is patently absurd to expect the same degree of clarity when attempting to imagine an ambitious, wide-ranging change to social and political structures than a more modest one. It does not follow from that lack of specificity that such a change is necessarily a bad idea, nor indeed that it is less likely—just less predictable.


That being said, the ability to conceive of some sustainable Marxist future is, one would think, absolutely critical for any attempted defense of Marxism as a theory. Traditionally, the success of Marxism as a worldview has been—at least partly—grounded in the possibility of developing Marx’s thought into both a theory for taking power and for using it in a certain way once acquired.


Žižek’s dominance in the world of academia and, more recently, as a public intellectual of the popular sort, has come at a time when Marxism has faced severe challenges, in no small part due to historical events which appear to be to its detriment: the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, the rise of capitalism in China, and the failure of many Marxist or otherwise left-wing revolutions in the developing world.


The Appeal of Emancipatory Politics 

Slavoj Žižek speaking in Liverpool, 2008, via Wikimedia Commons


According to Žižek, there are elements of both modern popular culture and contemporary political confrontations that signal the deep and enduring appeal of radical, emancipatory politics, even despite the apparent or professed political allegiances of those involved.


It is this kind of triumphalism against appearances, this kind of absolute confidence, that presents part of Žižek’s appeal. Certainly, there is something almost irrationally appealing about someone who manages to remain hopeful, indeed quite a bit more optimistic than that, despite everything. Surely, one thinks, he knows something we don’t.


Žižek is, as endless articles written about him point out, a brilliant cultural critic. He can identify yearnings for something beyond capitalism in major motion pictures with the best of them. It is in his book The Year of Dreaming Dangerously that he identifies similar, unlikely Communist affinities within political movements and political events. The year in question was 2011—the year of the sequence of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa known as the “Arab Spring,” the year of the Occupy Wall Street movement, riots in London, and the seemingly interminable financial crisis (deepening, most of all, in Europe).


Radicalism and Recent History

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello playing a set on Day 28 of Occupy Wall Street in New York, via Wikimedia Commons.


Žižek proceeds to identify many of these tumultuous movements as containing the trace of a yearning for Communism. In certain cases, he allows, there is only the merest trace. Yet even the most wrongheaded, absurd, dangerous ideas could, on Žižek’s telling, be turned on their head to good effect.


For example, his analysis of right-wing nationalism in Europe (exemplified by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik) notes that those who professed to be concerned with protecting “Christian” Europe from Muslim “invaders” committed to the ideals of Christian universalism, they would find the very notion of protecting Christianity from outsiders nonsensical, and would indeed find many aspects of contemporary capitalism equally objectionable.


Riots in London were similarly far from the mark, and, indeed—though less objectionable for other reasons than Breivik and his ilk—almost more depressing, illustrating as they do the tendency for causes of genuine protest to degenerate into a mirror image of the greedy, inequitable, and violent practices which they originally sought to oppose.


Even though Žižek warns of the danger that the kind of post-ideological void represented by the riots might be filled by religion rather than emancipatory politics, he feels that the revolutions which took place across much of the Islamic world deserved unconditional support from European and American Marxists, even as Islamists (those who believe that Islam should be fundamentally intertwined with governance) thrived on the back of these.


The cause which Žižek sees as most closely aligned with his position is, unsurprisingly, the Occupy Wall Street movement. Žižek praises the movement for identifying capital as such, rather than some particular version of it, as the problem. Similarly, he praises the movement’s focus on the function (or rather a dysfunction) of American democracy as a critical component of the financial crisis at the time, along with the more durable (and growing) inequity in American society.


Zizek on Communism and the Future

Cover of the Communist Manifesto’s first edition, 1848, via Wikimedia Commons.


It is the radicalism of the demands being made here—the absence of any attempt to reform the present system—that drew Žižek to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Žižek is generally skeptical of the view that capitalism can be reformed “so that it serves the larger goals of global welfare and justice … accepting that markets have their own demands which should be respected.”


Of course, as Kunkel observes, to suggest that pursuing reform or revolution are two opposing alternatives represents a false dichotomy. Reform within capitalism may encompass initiatives that range from setting up welfare states to public healthcare, extending public education, regulating industry, strengthening the power of labor unions and collective bargaining for workers, guaranteed minimum public pensions, and so on.


The period when reforming capitalism seemed most possible—namely, the thirty years after the Second World War—was also the time when revolutionary left-wing movements had the greatest success across much of Europe. The growing unacceptability of reformist left-wing politics has gone hand in hand with that of revolutionary politics. It is not a question of either/or, but both and (or perhaps, one, and then the other).


Yet despite this (or maybe not—Žižek enjoys speaking and writing paradoxically), Žižek is on the record as favoring a certain kind of pragmatism in the realm of political strategy, believing that “a strategically well-placed, precise, “moderate” demand can trigger a global transformation.” This isn’t, of course, a straightforward kind of incompatibility, but certainly, the need for revolutionary politics is partly justified by the very fact that these kinds of demands tend not to be adhered to, because those in power are not open to negotiation, to compromise, to listen to the demands of the proletariat.


It is hard to know when Žižek is being serious, but in the last analysis, a mobile army of jokes and contradictions is no more useful from a political perspective than that. The intention is not all that matters.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.