THE “ANARCHIST HYPOTHESIS” IN THE 21st CENTURY. A reply by Octavio Alberola to Gabriel Kuhn’s “The Anarchist Hypothesis, or Badiou, Žižek and Anti-Anarchist Prejudice”

Octavio Alberola

Reading the interesting essay “The Anarchist Hypothesis or Badiou, Žižek and Anti-Anarchist Prejudice[1] by our Austrian comrade and friend Gabriel Kuhn, I was prompted to spell out where I agree and take issue with what he sets out in the essay; even though I agree with his rebuttal of the views and claims of those two renowned neo-marxist philosophers on the subject of anarchism, I take issue with the relevance and viability of his proposition – a counter to Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis” – of some “anarchist hypothesis” founded upon “a strong, united collective movement under a shared name”.

To be more specific, my response to the essay was grounded in the view that the “points of agreement” validate the “points of disagreement” and that the most salient events to have come to pass over the five years that have elapsed since the essay was written fail to bear out his proposition. So, rather than going into the reasons why his “hypothesis” does not strike me as pertinent or viable, allow me briefly to summarise those “points of agreement” and “points of disagreement”.

Points of agreement

I agree with the writer of the essay in almost all of his rebuttals of the anti-anarchist line of argument of Badiou and Žižek, and also that, even though “the manner in which Badiou understands communism is still pretty vague”, that we share his belief that “the term ‘communism’ may and should once more carry a positive value.” Especially because Badiou also regards as failures all of the attempts made in the 20th century to make a reality of communism and deplores “the apparent and sometimes bloody mistakes represented by certain events connected with the communist proposition” and continues to be of the view – with Marx – that communism is “an association wherein the unfettered growth of each individual is a requisite for the unfettered growth of all”. And also because, after arguing that “capitalism’s malignant spectacle” must be countered by “the reality of peoples’ lives”, he continues to believe – as he has set out in his book The Communist Hypothesis – that “the subject of the emancipation of humanity has lost nothing of its power.”

Now, as Gabriel Kuhn points out, even though Badiou’s approach might hold some allure for anarchists when he asserts that “the existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, should no longer be depicted as a necessity: a long drawn-out process of reorganisation on the basis of a free association of producers will lead on to its extinction”, it is hard to forget that both Badiou and Žižek are “impressed by the historical figures who have upheld authority (…) people like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.” And that they both tackle contemporary politics exclusively “in terms of Sarkozy, Chavez and Berlusconi, rather than in terms of the peace, green or social justice movements.” And are forever making admiring references to “persons that headed governments which killed, tortured and jailed millions.”

Indeed, how are we to overlook such moral insensitivity and political blindness in Badiou and Žižek? Especially when they both talk to us about “thinking about the idea of communism as an actual trend” (Žižek) and “marking the opening of the third phase of the existence of the idea” (Badiou).

Thus far I have no difficulty with what Gabriel Kuhn set out in his essay. I understand and share his 2011 reaction to Badiou’s and Žižek’s groundless criticisms of anarchism. I even share his sense of the need for “a concept to keep alive the notion of something beyond capitalsm” and I might share his determination to come up with an “anarchist hypothesis” to counter Badiou’s “communist hypothesis”, if only for the reasons that he he puts forward; “to give anarchism an opening” whilst – as he says – “we cannot see any promising New Man emerging”. But the problem is that doing so just on those simple “grounds” does not strike me as serious and besides I have serious issues with Kuhn when it comes to the way in which he thinks of “the anarchist hypothesis” in his 2011 text.


Our first issue is that, despite regarding the “drive for emancipation” as a constant in history – since the French Revolution at any rate – and being of the mind that what matters if “having a shared purpose”, well, contrary to what Kuhn thinks (or thought at that time), it is not always the case that having “a shared name” means having “a shared movement”, or that “a shared name” delivers the imperative advantage “for mass politics” that “people feel part of a common strength and capable of bringing collective pressure to bear on the enemy”.

In actual fact, as history shows, especially recent history, the fact is that mass mobilisations on behalf of protests or emancipation have only been feasible where people had a clear appreciation of the reasons behind their outrage or rebellion and have been sensible of the same craving, the same determination to make it manifest and to struggle … And this regardless of labels and ideologies and identification with ‘a shared name’. Beyond some symbolic labelling such as 15M, Marea, Occupy Wall Street, Nuit debout, and so on.

In any event, what history has made very plain is that mass mobilisations under some “shared name” and as “mass politics” have only been feasible under totalitarian regimes and as legitimations for and promotions of totalitarian schemes. … and in the so-called “democracies”, only in order to mobilise voters and secure election victories or work improvements within the System …

Besides, the existence and use of some “shared name” has not only not prevented it from being construed differently and on occasion in opposing senses, but also has not been any barrier to fragmentation of the “shared movement” into “factions” and “sub-factions”. Which has always been the case within the communist movement and the anarchist movement ever since communist activists and anarchist activists first decided to band together as specific constituencies, with each ideology having its own “shared movement”.

In the light of which fact, which takes the feet out from under the supposed usefulness and possible efficacy of Kuhn’s proposal, based on some “shared name” and “shared movement”, how could there be any doubts as to its pertinacity and viability in today’s world?

And to that issue must be added another, more important one, one that is more fundamental when it comes to the reasons behind the quest for “a shared name”; because – in his 2011 essay at any rate – it is not clear why Kuhn proposes to replace or counter the “communist hypothesis” posited by Badiou with the anarchist hypothesis” as an alternative to capitalism. Not just because, in his summing up he reminds us that “the ultimate anarchist – and communist – aim remans moving beyond the state”, but also on account of his insistence in arguing that this “can only happen by means of a mighty collective movement united behind a shared name” and bemoans the fact that “anarchism is still very often ‘the politics that dares not speak its name’.”

How is this to be construed other than as an acknowledgment of the proximity of his proposition to Badiou’s? For even though he tells us that “there is a plethora of reasons why people want to rid themselves of all the political traditions and introduce some fresh term for their revolutionary politics” and that he is “in no way” against “this”, Kuhn nevertheless proposes to “create an opening for anarchism.”

Anarchism or anarchisms?

Sure, and why not? But in order to afford it such an opening we would need to be clear on which anarchism Kuhn is talking about? This because, as is evident throughout his essay, he seems not merely to agree with Badiou and Žižek on the state’s being “the fundamental form of oppression”[3], but also seems to share with the pair of them an appreciation of a need not to oppose “the immediate and worldwide abolition of the State”. Because, according to him, “not all anarchists champion” such abolition, especially if “the state can be minimised” or “can focus on social justice rather than upon protecting the wealth of the ruling class”.

So – given such ambiguous pronouncements about the stare – how could we do other than wonder what sort of anarchism Kuhn is thinking of? Especially when, when the talks about the “issues” that Žižek says that he has with anarchism, due to the latter’s obsession with there being no call for “more global organisation” and with “not breaking down the equation that more global organisation means more totalitarian control”, Kuhn is not content just to refute this (“Since when has anarchism been the same as rejection of global organisation?”)but, after stipulating that “there is no truth in the claim that the contemporary anarchist movement, all in all, is anti-organisation”, cites, by way of “a genuine example of anarchist grassroots organisation” the Red Anarquista (Anarchist Network) which, he writes “represents one of the strongest anarchist ventures of our times”. And this even though the Red only speaks for the “especifista and platformist”[4] current, and despite if, when we talk about anarchism, his going on to say that “oddly enough, platformists are commonly criticised as ‘Leninists’ by anti-organisational anarchists.”

In fact, whilst “platformism” may be fodder for debate between anarchists[5], it is plain that it cannot be regarded as representative of the anarchist movement and this is just down to some ambiguity on Kuhn’s part when it comes to anarchism, but the very existence of that debate indicates – to say the least – the impossibility of talking about an “anarchist hypothesis” representative of the anarchist movement, since he sees several anarchisms. Unless we take anarchism to signify the anti-authoritarian principles of horizontal organisation, direct action, democratic decision-making, etc., rather than this or that organisation, committee or movement purporting to embody it. If, in our thinking of anarchism, – as Kuhn seems to be doing when he quotes David Graeber – we are talking about the “creation and promotion of horizontal networks rather than top-down structures like states, parties or corporations, networks rooted in the principles of decentralisation, and non-hierarchical, consensual democracy.” But in that case and independently of the actual viability of such a “hypothesis” as the world presently stands, how can we carry on basing “the anarchist hypothesis” on a “strong collective movement unified under a shared name”?

The “Anarchist Hypothesis” Today

It looks obvious, therefore, that, not only would it be a contradiction and an illusion to stick with the claim, but would also be neither relevant nor viable … This even though there are – as Kuhn states – three reasons why “anarchism” has the edge over “communism” as a designation for “the Alternative to capitalism”. In fact, those three reasons (“1. Anarchism has no history of totalitarianism, gulags and mass sections.2. Anarchism does not revolve around the ideas of ‘great men’. 3. Most importantly, these days anarchist ideas make up the heart of most social movements …”) lead one to think that anarchism, being less stained than communism by repressive authoritarianism and failed historical attempts, can have all the appearances of ‘a more promising label’. As well as being a human aspiration rather than a theoretical construct, given that these days “anarchist ideas” sit at the “heart of most social movements”.

But if it is to be “more promising”, it strikes me that Kuhn will agree that it is not its being a “strong collective movement unified under a shared name” – albeit that it may well claim to represent anarchism – which can render “the anarchist hypothesis” more relevant and viable today. What does have the power to render it pertinent and viable is that it is the actual expression of “anarchist ideas” and the anarchist practices of individual and collective autonomy, self-organisation, pluralism, decentralisation, direct democracy and direct action, equality in economic, political and social terms, mutual aid, solidarity, etc. The very opposite of unification “under a shared name” which can only be achieved through forcible imposition, as we have seen throughout history.

Octavio Alberola (Translated by Paul Sharkey)

[1] Written in 2011 after Slavoj Žižek showed up for a debate with Amy Goodman and Julian Assange, organised by Frontline in London wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Lenin. (Translated into Spanish by the political scientist and researcher Iván Dário Avila Gaitán from the National University of Colombia.)


[3] Kuhn reminds us that Chomsky “regards this as mistaken”.

[4] Defined by Kuhn as: “An Anarcho-communist Movement based upon the ‘Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists’ proposed by Nestor Makhno and his exiled comrades in Paris in the 1920s.”

[5] Not only on account of its ‘Leninist’ overtones but also on account of its dalliances with ‘People’s Power’ governments in various Latin American countries, Venezuela, Cuba, etc.


The Anarchist Hypothesis, or Badiou, Žižek, and the Anti-Anarchist Prejudice

This essay was written in the summer of 2011 after Slavoj Žižek sported a Lenin T-shirt during his talk with Amy Goodman and Julian Assange in London. The talk was held on July 2, 2011, and hosted by the Frontline Club.

Gabriel Kuhn

Alain Badiou’s “Communist Hypothesis” rests on a simple, yet important conviction: we need to be able to envision something other than capitalism and the notion of communism makes this possible. Badiou’s understanding of communism, however, remains rather vague. He calls it “an Idea with a regulatory function, rather than a programme”. (1) Just like his friend and communist ally, Slavoj Žižek, Badiou considers the twentieth-century attempts to implement communism a fiasco. While Badiou speaks somewhat long-windedly of “the apparent, and sometimes bloody, failures of events closely bound up with the communist hypothesis”, (2) Žižek corrects the BBC’s HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur who calls communism a “catastrophic failure” only to call it a “total failure”. (3) Yet both Badiou and Žižek are the main stars of a series of popular communism conferences that kicked off with a 2009 event in London, based, in Badiou’s words, on the conviction that “the word ‘communism’ can and must now acquire a positive value once more”. (4)

With the exception of the individualistic, primitivist, and anti-leftist strains of contemporary anarchism, most anarchists – and not only self-declared “anarchist communists” – would support this. “Communism” as the idea of a society based on equal rights, social justice, and solidarity rather than competition is close to most anarchists’ hearts. Badiou’s vision seems particularly attractive to anarchists since he questions both the party and the state. He contends: “The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.” (5) And: “…the statist principle in itself proved corrupt and, in the long run, ineffective.” (6) When Badiou argues that “we have to take up the challenge of thinking politics outside of its subjection to the state and outside of the framework of parties or of the party”, (7) Benjamin Noys is right in pointing out that “anarchists might well reply this has been exactly what anarchism has been doing for at least two hundred years”. (8) Yet anarchism seems far from anything Badiou, or Žižek, would be interested in.

Badiou’s few flippant remarks on anarchism in the “Communist Hypothesis” peak in the following comment:

“We know today that all emancipatory politics must put an end to the model of the party, or of multiple parties, in order to affirm a politics ‘without party’, and yet at the same time without lapsing into the figure of anarchism, which has never been anything else than the vain critique, or the double, or the shadow, of the communist parties…” (9)

This characterization of anarchism is simply false. In many countries, there were lively anarchist movements long before communist parties emerged. Also ideologically, the common conception of anarchism as communism’s “little brother” is unfounded. Before the clash between Marxists and Bakuninists at the 1872 Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, Marxism and anarchism had developed as two rather independent strains within the socialist movement.

Žižek’s most notorious evaluation of anarchism stems from a 2002 interview with Doug Henwood (who unfortunately celebrates Žižek as someone who doesn’t care about “political correctness”, echoing tiresome conservative tirades about the apparent limit to freedom that a demand for ethical standards in social relationships entails – that some of these efforts miss the mark does not discredit the principle):

“For me, the tragedy of anarchism is that you end up having an authoritarian secret society trying to achieve anarchist goals. […] I have contacts in England, France, Germany, and more — and all the time, beneath the mask of this consensus, there was one person accepted by some unwritten rules as the secret master. The totalitarianism was absolute in the sense that people pretended that they were equal, but they all obeyed him.” (10)

I do not dare to comment on the situation in England and France, but as far as Germany is concerned, I would love to know who this “secret master” within the anarchist movement is. Maybe Žižek does have friends who hold sway over secretive anarchist sects – and maybe it wouldn’t be surprising if Žižek had friends like that – but I can guarantee that they play no role whatsoever in the German anarchist movement, let alone have any major influence on it.

Žižek also claims: “The second point is that I have problems with how anarchism is appropriate to today’s problems. I think if anything, we need more global organization. I think that the left should disrupt this equation that more global organization means more totalitarian control.” (11)

Since when does anarchism equal a rejection of global organization? While anarchists have been involved in what was once called the “antiglobalization” movement, anarchists were also the first to point out that globalization per se wasn’t the target but rather “corporate” or “neoliberal” globalization – alternative terms like “alterglobalization movement” are results of these debates.

Secondly, while some contemporary anarchists might frown at the idea of any kind of organizing – globally or not – it is by no means true that the contemporary anarchist movement as a whole is anti-organizational. In fact, so-called platformism, an anarchist communist movement based on the “Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists” written by Nestor Makhno and his comrades in Paris exile in the 1920s, has seen a strong resurgence in recent years. The Anarkismo network – a true grassroots example of global organizing – is among the strongest anarchist projects of our times. Interestingly, platformists are regularly criticized as “Leninists” by anti-organizational anarchists – maybe there is more in anarchism for Žižek than he thinks. Žižek’s ignorance might of course stem from the simple fact that in order to truly understand social movements one has to listen. As David Graeber has justly asked, “Could we really imagine someone like Žižek, even in his fantasies, patiently listening to the demands of the directly democratic assemblies of El Alto?” (12)

Given the intellectual weight that both Badiou and Žižek build their reputation on, the shallowness of their critique of anarchism is curious. It seems based on little else but old anti-anarchist prejudices within Marxist thought. Badiou’s above-cited comment is the characteristic assessment of someone who has once learned that anarchism was a petty-bourgeois ideology and never bothered to take a second look. Marxism has long regarded anarchism as a utopian movement with no substantial theory. It is true that anarchism has no Marx and no comparable economic analysis. However, this does not mean that anarchist theory is poor – it is rather poorly known. Unlike Marxist theory with one hundred years of partly state-sponsored development (even if some might call that part stagnation) and a well-established class of academics, anarchist theory has, to a large degree, been formed outside of the academy, in collective reflection on the social struggles and projects one concretely engages in. Examples reach from early twentieth-century anarchosyndicalist study circles and the Modern School Movement to anarchist zine culture and the CrimethInc. project. As a result, anarchist theory is often more tangible, adaptable, and inspiring than Marxist theory, even if it lacks the unpronounceable words and abstract musings. Most importantly, anarchists have shown insights in the dynamics of power, authority, and the state that Marxists could have certainly benefited from. Even Badiou makes concessions like the following:

“Marxism, the workers’ movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state – all the inventions of the 20th century – are not really useful to us any more. At the theoretical level they certainly deserve further study and consideration; but at the level of practical politics they have become unworkable.” (13)

In 1871, Mikhail Bakunin wrote in God and the State:

“It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the mind and heart of men. The privileged man, whether politically or economically, is a man depraved in mind and heart. That is a social law which admits of no exception, and is as applicable to entire nations as to classes, corporations, and individuals.” (14)

To avoid any misunderstandings: although I believe that many Marxists lack openness in their engagement with anarchism, the intention of this essay is by no means to bash Marxism. Sectarianism is a problem within all camps of the left. My personal sympathies have always been with anarchism rather than with Marxism, but my personal sympathies are not very important. I have never been interested in condemning Marxists and I don’t see them as inevitable traitors and backstabbers of anarchists. Sometimes, Marxists are allies of anarchists, sometimes they are not. The same is true for Christians, peasants, and bus drivers. Of course, history knows of a number of incidents in which Marxists have betrayed anarchists. But anarchists have betrayed anarchists, too. What is important is to have a common goal, namely the abolition of the state system, and solidarity in struggle.

Let us return to Bakunin. Certainly, he is no historical figure that Badiou or Žižek would embrace. Badiou and Žižek seem exclusively concerned with historical figures that have held power. People like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. Even contemporary politics are discussed in terms of Sarkozy, Chavez, and Berlusconi rather than of social justice, environmental, or peace movements. (That Žižek doesn’t pay much attention to the animal rights movement comes as little surprise given his prediction that vegetarians will turn into “degenerates”. (15))

However, the intention of this article is also far from attacking Badiou or Žižek. They make extremely important contributions to radical debate, I am certain that they are genuinely striving for a better world, and it is encouraging to see radical thinkers enter mainstream media. Both seem to be pleasant fellows and the hyperactive Žižek is particularly hard to dislike. Yet, Žižek’s sense of humour can be as troubling as both thinkers’ fascination with powerful men. One does not have to be “oversensitive”, “uptight”, or “moralistic” to take issue with constant references to individuals who presided over governments that killed, tortured, and imprisoned millions, especially while talking about “conceiving the idea of communism as a real movement” (Žižek) (16) and “usher[ing] in the third era of the Idea’s existence” (Badiou) (17). This also applies to Žižek wanting to send people who spray anti-government slogans in the streets of Ljubljana to the Gulag. (18) I know who these people are. Maybe that’s what makes it less funny.

In the course of the heated debate following Žižek’s oddly titled (“Resistance Is Surrender”) review of Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding in the London Review of Books, (19) Critchley did not hold back in his critique of Žižek:

“As Carl Schmitt reminds us — and we should not forget that this fascist jurist was a great admirer of Lenin’s — there are two main traditions of non-parliamentary, non-liberal left: authoritarianism and anarchism. If Žižek attacks me with characteristically Leninist violence for belonging to the latter, it is equally clear which faction he supports. […] For Žižek, all of this is irrelevant; these forms of resistance [civil-society groups, indigenous-rights movements, alternative-globalization and antiwar movements] are simply surrender. He betrays a nostalgia, which is macho and finally manneristic, for dictatorship, political violence, and ruthlessness.” (20)

With all the sympathy I have for Žižek, it is hard to defend him against such allegations.

However, let us return to the argument that we need a term keeping the idea of something beyond capitalism alive. I wholeheartedly agree with this, although, in postmodern times, the objections are obvious: a “fixed” term fosters identity politics, washes over differences, demands hegemony, and limits tactical options. I understand these objections and good arguments can be made for them. However, a “diverse” threat can also fast become a “diffuse”, and hence very “weak”, threat. The principle of “divide and conquer” is still a cornerstone of authoritarian politics. Furthermore, it is not enough to say that a specific struggle is linked to hundreds of other struggles – it actually has to be linked to them. And if these concrete links exist, then why not call this network of struggles by a common name? A common name has two advantages that are mandatory for mass politics: people feel part of a common struggle and they are able to put collective pressure on the enemy. If you have no common name, you have no common movement, at least not in the public’s eye – but to be in the public’s eye is essential if you want to foster a critical mass that actually makes structural change possible.

The question raised here is whether the name “anarchism” would not be a more promising name than the name “communism”. This is a strategic question. To favour the name “anarchism” doesn’t necessarily mean that you find something wrong with the name “communism”. In fact, you might believe that true communism equals true anarchism. However, I do believe that the name “anarchism” has advantages over the name “communism” as a signifier for the “other” of capitalism. Especially today, when the vast majority of people, just like Badiou and Žižek, associate “communism” with the Marxist tradition rather than with the anarchist.

1. Perhaps the most obvious: anarchism has no history of totalitarianism, Gulag systems, and mass executions.

2. Anarchism is not centred on the ideas of “big men”. This is not to say that anarchism doesn’t have problems with male dominance. These problems are very real. But the “big men” of anarchism (Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc.) have far less influence on contemporary anarchism than their Marxist counterparts. It is hard to be taken seriously as a Marxist if you have not studied Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Meanwhile, many contemporary anarchists have never even picked up a book by Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Malatesta. In fact, sometimes one might wish for a bit more historical interest and study. Overall, though, the lack of reverence is productive and contributes to anarchism’s vibrancy.

3. Most importantly, anarchist ideas are at the core of most of today’s social movements. While Marxist ideas do of course continue to play a role for social movements, their current strongholds appear to be traditional Marxist parties and academia. Autonomous social activists mostly adhere to anarchist principles whether they use the term or not: anti-authoritarianism; horizontal organizing; direct action; democratic decision-making processes. Ten years ago, David Graeber summed up the credo of the “New Anarchists” in New Left Review thus: “It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.” (21) These core values of early twentieth-century activism remain the same. In 2005, Richard Day offered a comprehensive testimony to these developments in his book Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Day’s assessments that “an orientation to direct action and the construction of alternatives to state and corporate forms opens up new possibilities for radical social change that cannot be imagined from within existing paradigms” and that this “offers the best chance we have to defend ourselves against, and ultimately render redundant, the neoliberal societies of control”, still ring true. (22)

Richard Day is among a new generation of anarchist academics challenging Marxist dominance at the universities. Initiatives like the Anarchist Studies Networks that have emerged in the UK and in North America, books such as Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization (AK Press, 2007) and Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchism in the Academy (Routledge, 2009), and conferences like the annual Renewing the Anarchist Tradition (RAT), organized by the Institute for Anarchist Studies, all contribute to bridging the gap. While these anarchist forays into academic discourse are to be welcomed as invigorations of academic debate, they can become insincere if not accompanied by a thorough critique of the institution and of one’s own role in it. As Deric Shannon writes in his excellent contribution to Contemporary Anarchist Studies:

“It does no good to ignore the fact that careers are sometimes built out of radical politics in general and anarchism in particular. This is not to suggest that we should resign our jobs (which, after all, do allow us to teach anarchist ideas to a new generation). It is, however, important that we acknowledge our career interests openly and honestly. Again, careerism has infected a number of other liberatory perspectives. If we are to avoid that, it requires open, honest, and more importantly, reflective conversations about self-interest and our work.” (23)

Every anarchist academic should also heed Shannon’s advice on “resisting the careerism, institutionalization, and domestication that other liberatory perspectives have found part and parcel of their entrance into the Academy”. (24) Shannon identifies the following key aspects: “Meet me in the streets. Talk openly and reflectively about self-interest. Talk with students about institutional constraints. Resist ideological rigidity. Write, publish, and discuss outside of the Academy. Do not pull punches.” (25)

Arguably, academic Marxism often leaves these requirements unfulfilled. There exists a privileged class of Marxist academics, a fact that does not contribute to a more positive image of Marxism, and hence communism, in the public eye. At the same time, it allows Marxist intellectuals to be embraced by people who like to surround themselves with intellectuals, Marxist or not. Many folks celebrate Badiou and Žižek not because they are interested in “the subjectivation of an interplay between the singularity of a truth procedure and a representation of history” or in a Lacanian analysis of Disney movies, but because Badiou and Žižek are hip. The two are embraced in the same way as Red Army Faction art exhibitions and Soviet vintage stores. “Communism” has gained exchange value because its actual power has waned. It has turned from threatening to kinky. It is telling that the New Republic‘s description of Žižek as the “most dangerous philosopher in the West” has caused him no harm at all; rather, it has boosted the Žižek trademark. Radical-chic danger is very different from actual danger. Already in 1994, the noise rock band Killdozer had widespread success with the album Uncompromising War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, full with social realist art clippings and old-school communist slogans. Today, Žižek even gains popularity with numerous Stalin references, while Badiou has been sticking to Mao for a good fifty years.

Of course, anarchism has also turned into a commodity in many ways and is not necessarily perceived as a danger either. Chomsky was allowed to talk politics on HARDtalk too, circle-A logos draw attention to consumer goods from lollypops to handbags, and anarchist bookfairs hardly raise an eyebrow among local officials and the police. However, the stronger presence of anarchists in social movements does make a difference. Žižek seems to prefer the Marxism conferences of the Socialist Workers Party – at least a true reflection of his writing on social movements.

One might of course argue that anarchists got it all wrong and that their influence on social movements does more damage than good. Žižek makes some important points in this regard:

“I’m becoming skeptical of the Leftist anti-State logic. It will not go unnoticed that this discourse finds an echo on the Right as well. Moreover, I don’t see any signs of the so-called ‘disappearance of the State’. To the contrary. And to take the United States as an example, I have to confess that 80 percent of the time, when there is a conflict between civil society and the State, I am on the side of the State. Most of the time, the State must intervene when some local right-wing groups want to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, and so on. I think it’s very important, then, for the Left to influence and use, and perhaps even seize, when possible, State apparatuses. This is not sufficient unto itself, of course. In fact, I think we need to oppose the language of ‘ligne de fuite’ and self-organization and so on with something that is completely taboo on the Left today – like garlic for the vampire – namely, the idea of large State or even larger collective decisions.” (26)

It would be too easy to simply dismiss these reflections. At the same time, they are hardly new. Noam Chomsky has long been causing outrage among anarchists with statements like the following:

“Many anarchists just consider the state the fundamental form of oppression. I think that’s a mistake. Among the various kinds of oppressive institutions that exist, the state is among the least of them. The state, at least to the extent the society is democratic […] you have some influence on what happens. […] You have no influence on what happens in a corporation. They are real tyrannies. As long as society is largely dominated by private tyrannies, which is the worst form of oppression, people just need some form of self-defence. And the state provides some form of self-defence.” (27)

In the Scandinavian context, we are facing the irony that the activities of many self-declared anarchists have focused on the defence of the social welfare state in recent years. However, this only goes to show that Žižek’s arguments are not necessarily arguments against anarchism, only against the immediate and universal abolition of the state – which not all anarchists would argue for, especially not as long as the state might be replaced by Social Darwinism rather than egalitarian communities. Still, it does not seem necessary to call for a “large state” – the state can be small, it must just focus on social justice rather than on protecting the ruling class’s riches.

The eventual anarchist – and communist – aim, of course, remains to overcome the state. This, however, can only happen by a strong collective movement unified by a common name. Therefore I find it unfortunate that anarchism is still very often “the politics that dare not speak its name”. (28) Of course there are plenty of reasons why people would want to rid themselves of all political traditions and introduce a new term for their revolutionary politics. I am in no way opposed to this. However, as long as we see no promising new name emerging, we might as well give anarchism a try. There is little to lose.

Gabriel Kuhn  (August 2011)


(1) Alain Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis”, The New Left Review 49, January-February 2008.
(2) Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, London/New York 2010, p. 7.
(3) Slavoj Žižek on HARDtalk, BBC, November 24, 2009.
(4) Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 37.
(5) Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis”.
(6) ibid.
(7) Alain Badiou, Polemics, London/New York 2006, p. 270.
(8) Benjamin Noys, “Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou’s Critique of Anarchism”, Anarchist Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 2008.
(9) Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 155.
(10) “I am a Fighting Atheist: Interview with Slavoj Žižek”, Bad Subjects, issue 59, February 2002.
(11) ibid.
(12) David Graeber, “Referendum on Žižek?”, open letter, December 2007.
(13) Alain Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis”.
(14) Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, Mineola, NY 1970, p. 31.
(15) Žižek!, documentary film, directed by Astra Taylor, USA/Canada 2005.
(16) “The Idea of Communism”, panel discussion at Marxism 2010, London, July 4, 2010.
(17) Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 260.
(18) Žižek!, documentary film.
(19) Slavoj Žižek, “Resistance Is Surrender”, London Review of Books, no. 22, vol. 29, November 15, 2007.
(20) Simon Critchley, “Resistance Is Utile”, Harper’s Review, May 2008.
(21) David Graeber, “The New Anarchists”, New Left Review 13, January-February 2012.
(22) Richard J.F. Day, Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, London/Ann Arbor, MI/Toronto 2005, p. 18.
(23) Deric Shannon, “As Beautiful as a Brick Through a Bank Window: Anarchy, the Academy, and Resisting Domestication”, in: Randall Amster et al. (eds.), Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchism in the Academy, Milton Park/New York 2009, p. 185.
(24) ibid., p. 184.
(25) ibid., p. 183-188.
(26) “Divine Violence and Liberated Territories: Soft Targets talks with Slavoj Žižek”, March 14, 2007,Žižek.php.
(27) Theory and Practice: Conversations with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, DVD, Oakland 2010.
(28) Noys, “Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou’s Critique of Anarchism”.