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John Gray reviews Slavoj Zizek

(Original book reviews by John Gray at The New York Review of Books…)

"A celebration of violence is one of the most prominent strands in Žižek’s work. He finds fault with Marx for thinking that violence can be justified as part of the conflict between objectively defined social classes. Class war must not be understood as “a conflict between particular agents within social reality: it is not a difference between agents (which can be described by means of a detailed social analysis), but an antagonism (‘struggle’) which constitutes these agents.” Applying this view when discussing Stalin’s assault on the peasantry, Žižek describes how the distinction between kulaks (rich peasants) and others became “blurred and unworkable: in a situation of generalized poverty, clear criteria no longer applied, and the other two classes of peasants often joined the kulaks in their resistance to forced collectivization.” In response to this situation the Soviet authorities introduced a new category, the sub-kulak, a peasant too poor to be classified as a kulak but who shared kulak values:

The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of objective social analysis; it became a kind of complex “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying an individual’s “true political attitudes” hidden beneath his or her deceptive public proclamations.

Describing mass murder in this way as an exercise in hermeneutics is repugnant and grotesque; it is also characteristic of Žižek’s work. He criticizes Stalin’s policy of collectivization, but not on account of the millions of human lives that were violently truncated or broken in its course. What Žižek criticizes is Stalin’s lingering attachment (however inconsistent or hypocritical) to “‘scientific’ Marxist terms.” Relying on “objective social analysis” for guidance in revolutionary situations is an error: “at some point, the process has to be cut short with a massive and brutal intervention of subjectivity: class belonging is never a purely objective social fact, but is always also the result of struggle and social engagement.” Rather than Stalin’s relentless use of torture and lethal force, it is the fact that he tried to justify the systematic use of violence by reference to Marxian theory that Žižek condemns…"

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