Marxism and Religion Today
2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Thomas F Haddox and Honor McKitrick Wallace
University of Tennesee

"See, I Make All Things New":

  Marxism, History, and Messianic Time in Slavoj Zizek's Recent Work

Do not cite without permission of the author.




            Marxism has always been vulnerable to the charge that it is an eschatology masquerading as a science.   Certainly many Marxists have viewed revolution and the demise of capitalism not merely as desirable goals, toward which all committed to the cause must strive, but as inevitable events mandated by the logic of capitalism's historical development.   According to this familiar story, capitalism produces increasingly intractable contradictions wherever it holds sway, eventually making its own continued expansion so problematic that it collapses under its own weight.   The successful Marxist revolution therefore occurs only when the time is right, and there is a fundamental tension between the free, collective agency of revolutionaries and the sense that their actions have been historically determined--a tension analogous to the long-standing division within Christianity between salvation as freely chosen (a position shared by Catholicism and Lutheranism) and salvation as predestined (the Calvinist position).   From Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism, which castigates both Marxist and Hegelian versions of the dialectic for their superstitious belief that the future can be predicted, to more modest accounts such as Raymond Aron's The Opium of the Intellectuals, critiques of Marxism have seized upon this eschatological strain in Marxist thought, even at times going so far as to suggest that Marxism itself is a kind of Christian heresy, and that its claims to scientific status are lies.

            Perhaps it should not surprise us, given the spectacular failures of avowedly Marxist regimes during the twentieth century, that the most influential currents of Marxism at the present moment ignore (or even, in some cases, reject) the claim that history can be predicted in this way.   Starting with Walter Benjamin, and moving through Theodor Adorno to such current thinkers as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, the sexiest Marxists on the scene have focused on yearning, not methodical analysis.    Against the backdrop of an intolerable world--in which, to use Benjamin's famous phrase, "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" ("Theses" 256)--these thinkers long for a total social transformation that seems less and less likely to happen, as capitalism continues to tighten its screws, to extend its dominion into hitherto relatively uncolonized regions of lived experience.    In each of these thinkers, the possibility of failure looms--to quote Benjamin again, " even the dead will not be safe" if the triumph of capitalism becomes too total ("Theses" 255).   Indeed, in the work of Adorno, failure takes on a kind of masochistic sublimity:   the excruciating pain of the present allows us to postulate the joys of a transformed world, joys that we can imagine only through their palpable absence.  

            What is surprising, though, is that though these Marxists turn away from historical prediction as such, they retain an eschatological--even explicitly messianic--conception of political change that often draws heavily on the Judeo-Christian tradition.   For them, the revolutionary Event is not the predestined working out of a historical process, but the irruption of the undetermined into history.   Just as, for Christians, the coming, death, and resurrection of Christ constitute an utterly gratuitous gift from God that defies rational analysis--this strain of Marxism emphasizes the contingent nature of revolution, the sense that while ardently desired, it conforms to no principle of necessity.   In its versions that draw primarily on Judaism, the Messiah is awaited, but, as Maimonides says, he may tarry, and we should be open--as in Benjamin--to the unpredictable moments through which he might enter ("Theses" 264-65).   In its more Christian versions, the proposition is more radical still: the Messiah has already come, the kingdom of God is at hand, and we need only unplug ourselves from the repressive social order and join the messianic collectivity to actualize this redemption.

The most prominent Marxist thinker to make use of these notions today is Slavoj Zizek.   His recent trilogy on the Judeo-Christian legacy-- The Fragile Absolute , On Belief , and The Puppet and the Dwarf --argues (with increasing cogency in each subsequent book) that historical materialists should reject Marx's characterization of religion as "the opium of the people."   In the first of these books, Zizek argues that "Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onslaught of new spiritualisms" because "the authentic Christian legacy is much too precious to be left to the fundamentalist freaks" ( Fragile 2).   By the end of The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek's position has become more explicit: "My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach--and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist one should go through the Christian experience" (6).

According to Zizek, today's global capitalism thrives in part by facilitating the growth of a whole cluster of vaguely "spiritual" beliefs and practices that cultivate infinite tolerance toward the world's religious traditions, the cultivation of inner peace through an ironic detachment from the world's frenetic changes, and the wearing of one's own beliefs lightly. Zizek calls this cluster "Western Buddhism," because its reliance on New Age spirituality is most evident, but takes a variety of forms and is implicated in a variety of religious and philosophical movements today, from the radical pragmatism of Richard Rorty to the deconstructionist "openness toward the Other" of Levinas and Derrida to the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism (associated with, for instance, Elaine Pagels and Harold Bloom) to the fantasies of bodilinessness that some partisans of virtual reality and cyberspace have invoked.   What unites all of these disparate movements is the rejection of any understanding of the world grounded in material reality.   For this reason, Zizek writes, even though "Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit , it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement" ( On Belief 12). The superstructure of capitalism has always functioned through a process of idealization, obscuring the realities of material oppression.   Against the proliferation of such rampant idealism today, Marxism and Christianity, with their uncompromising attention to materiality, must fight.

Of course, such a thesis involves a fairly unconventional understanding of what Christianity entails.   Zizek argues that attempts to track down the "original" Jesus--and to valorize his message in contradistinction to the "distortions" produced first by Paul and later by the whole institutional Church--are fundamentally flawed when not pernicious, as are attempts to hold to the "original" Marx, bypassing the more violent legacy of Lenin ( Fragile 1-2).   As Zizek points out, Paul shows little interest in the "historical" Jesus presented by the Gospels, focusing instead only on the single salient point that Jesus died and rose from the dead, thereby ushering in salvation for those who believe in him ( Puppet 9-10).   The emphasis is instead on the creation of the Christian community, which constitutes itself in a violent act of separation from the world as a whole and announces that in it, existence itself has been transfigured.   Indeed, Zizek's most theologically dubious point is that the new Christian community renders any need for an afterlife superfluous: the Holy Spirit, which he takes to be synonymous with the community of believers (and therefore the embodiment of the divine in human beings), is all that we need ( Fragile 160, On Belief 90-91). Likewise, Lenin's violent establishment of a Soviet state, a rupture that could not have been predicted, becomes the foundation of a new community.

Unlike many of his earlier books, this trilogy is unabashedly militant, and one might be tempted to read it as a response to such critics as Teresa Ebert, who have seen Zizek's work as ludic self-indulgence ( Ludic Feminism 57-64) and have repeatedly castigated him for a lack of interest in the political.   And indeed, Zizek approvingly quotes from poetic incitements to violence by Bertolt Brecht (as well as Southern Baptist preachers who claim that "plenty of good people will burn in hell" [ On Belief 150-51, 1]) and repeatedly praises Kierkegaard for understanding that the "religious" must ultimately involve the suspension of the ethical.   Such militancy, one infers, is necessary more than ever because post-Cold War history and poststructuralism alike have taught us to accept a restricted horizon of political possibility that is, in the long run, a recipe for despair.   Yet it would be misleading to suggest that the books are free of familiar Zizekian tics: the endless riffing on high and pop culture to provide examples for his thesis, the delight in pointing out that the "correct" position is nearly always the opposite of conventional academic wisdom, the adulation for Lacan that, in its desire to track Lacan's manipulation of his followers, resembles Jane Gallop's own quasi-masochistic quest in The Daughters' Seduction. .

How, then, is one to evaluate this body of work?   Zizek's distress that the "historical materialist" analysis has receded and requires the help of theology (as the title of his third book, with its reversal of the famous anecdote from Benjamin's "Theses On the Philosophy of History," makes explicit) is genuine, and his diagnosis of the attitudes that he clusters under "Western Buddhism" is difficult, for anyone repulsed by the triumph of therapeutic consumerism in the West today, to dispute. The obvious rejoinder, however, is that Zizek's use of Christianity in this way is opportunistic--and perhaps a testament to the weakness of contemporary Marxism.   Aside from the distortions of Christian theology, there is the fact that Zizek's argument proceeds almost entirely from homology: one term in historical materialism corresponds to another term in Christianity, which corresponds to another term in psychoanalysis.   To the extent that we see all three as roughly equivalent, the argument holds together, but to see them in this way often means answering Zizek's frequent rhetorical questions in just the way he intends.   There is, in other words, a circular quality to the argument.   Alexandre Kojève's claim that all true knowledge is circular (94-99), which Zizek does not cite but which is implicit in much of his thinking, might constitute a defense, but a defense unlikely to convince anyone.

A less fundamental but ultimately perhaps more vexing objection has to do with the redefinition of materialist analysis that Zizek's project entails.   How does one maintain a materialism that is more prophecy than science, which invokes the language of Revelation--"See, I make all things new"--but does so precisely by rejecting the elements of prediction and planning that science sets in place? Or, to give this question more concrete application: what does a Marxist do in the face of the apparent failure of apparent revolutions, short of disavowing Marx altogether? Do we look to the Marx who does seem to have supported a gradualist approach, for instance the Marx who supported the United States against Mexico in the Mexican War because it was further along historically--closer to the revolution, in other words? Or do we invest in a still more radical notion of the revolution, one that comes, not dialectically out of capitalism, but as a rupture within it, as a break so profound as to be indescribable in its particulars?

Zizek takes the latter approach; he has a fantasy of liberating the revolution from the banality of History. His emphasis, unsurprisingly, is on the radical: the radical cores of both Christianity and Marxism, the radical break between the Jewish and the Christian traditions, the radical break that the revolution itself will constitute. There's good reason for his wishing to make all things new, and for his insistence on preserving Walter Benjamin's distinction between an "evolutionist" notion of history "which is inherently teleological, since it conceives of the higher stages as a result of the deployment of the inner potential of the lower stages" and what Zizek identifies as a "properly historical perspective" in which "the New emerges in order to resolve an unbearable tension in the Old, and was as such already 'present' in the Old in a negative mode, in the guise of an infinite sadness and longing" and   "the past is not simply past, but bears within it is proper utopian promise of a future Redemption. . . " ( Fragile Absolute 89). When we ask Marxism to live up to its own scientific and materialist claims, that need not mean that we accept the most rudimentary and mechanistic view of History--we are permitted, surely, to theorize. But Zizek's prophetic mode runs into problems, not because it is insufficiently materialist, but because it does not do what it says it does; it does not hold up its own claims to the radical, and in its inability to do so, reveals an emptiness, rather than a plenitude, of belief.

Zizek seems to believe that, by using Christianity as a model, the historical subject, the would-be historical agent, can rediscover his or her relation to the Marxist vision. But is a radical break that is patterned after another radical break really so radical? There is a point at which Zizek seems to slip from homology to prophecy; the notion that we must come to Marx through Lenin in the same way that Christians must come to Christ through Paul slides, at a certain point, into the suggestion that Christianity pre-figures Marxism, that Christ heralded Paul who heralded Marx who heralded Lenin--recall the aforementioned claim that "to become a true dialectical materialist one should go through the Christian experience." Whether Zizek means this literally or not is, in the final analysis, irrelevant; if Marxism's transformative power can only be appreciated (perhaps even realized) through the lens of Christianity, we have to ask just how radically transformative it can really be said to be.

Marx himself realized the danger of this modeling; in The Eighteenth Brumaire , he calls for a wholly new revolution: "The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content" (18). Note that it is the adoption of the poetry of the past that Marx critiques, not the dialectical connections among the past, present and future. But even as he calls for a rejection of the past as history, ?i?ek enshrines the Christian past as poetry, weakening the force of anything Marxism might "make new."   Significantly, however, Zizek's insistence on radical break also falls into another pattern Marx critiques in the 1869 preface to The Eighteenth Brumaire. Here, Marx distinguishes his approach to the coup d'état from earlier ones by arguing that   "Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d'état . The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history" (8). Certainly, Zizek is not repeating Hugo's exact mistake; despite what might be seen as a canonization of Lenin, Zizek is making no claims for Lenin as a Great Man. But it is precisely the insistence on constructing the event as a "bolt from the blue" (a phrase that Marx and Engels use repeatedly in their prefaces to this work) that isolates "initiative," cuts it out from history, and distorts the truth of the event.

If, however, Marx is critical of the portrayal of an event as a radical break, he also argues that "Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d'état as the result of an antecedent historical development. Inadvertently, however, his historical construction of the coup d'état becomes a historical apologia for its hero" (8). In contrast, Marx claims, his account demonstrates "how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part" (8). Both the treatment of the event as radical and the determinist approach to it omit for Marx the crucial factor that makes History: the class struggle. In other words, instead of seeing the event as wholly new or as wholly determined in a precisely linear fashion, Marx insists on seeing it as the product of the dialectical movement of the classes.

The requirement that the revolution be configured as radical appears, in Zizek as well as many other Marxist thinkers, as an effort to render it sublime, as something that so completely transcends the current moment that attempts to trace its beginning would be futile. The revolution gains power from its very unthinkability. But in the emptying out of content that such unthinkability demands, we see the fundamental problem with this notion of the radical. What is literally unthinkable, what cannot be cognitively represented, is the idea that the revolution would in fact come as a bolt from the blue, out of nothing. The wish to present it as such is a desperate effort to escape History--not just the overly simplistic teleological model of the "evolutionist" notion of history, but even and perhaps especially the "properly historical" notion Zizek supports. Put another way, can we really avoid any and all "emplotment" of History--and if so, would we want to? Do we need all things to be new? Because when Marx speaks of a new revolution in The Eighteenth Brumaire , he is not talking about an event that comes from nothing, but rather an event that refuses to act as if it is reenacting an earlier revolution. The "new" revolution is a product of the dialectic and as such can never be truly severed from the past.

The radical break Zizek seeks is a fantasy and a dangerous one at that. In suggesting that there is no cause in the current system from which the revolution might spring, it neutralizes the dialectic, refusing to acknowledge the "thesis" in "anti-thesis." There is a desperation in this act that, contrary to Zizek's claims, cannot be assuaged by Christianity, because the Christian parallel proves less analogous than Zizek wishes. Zizek has lost faith in History and in the dialectic, and in his vision, if the revolution comes, it must come despite History rather than because of it. Just as Hugo's presentation of the event as a "bolt out of the blue" places too much agency and power in the hands of one individual, Zizek's approach implies a capitalism that is so totalizing that it cannot produce or undergo the dialectic. To maintain the Christian parallel, it is as if one could only believe in God because the presence of Evil in the world was so monolithic and unmitigated that one had to establish the fantasy of an opposite. In surrendering the dialectic, Zizek surrenders the possibility that capitalism contains within it the possibility for change. Thus, in the conclusion of The Puppet and the Dwarf, he explains that "[t]he point of this book is that [. . . . ] [w]hen Christ dies, what dies with him is the secret hope discernible in "Father, why hast though forsaken me?": the hope that there is a father who has abandoned me. [. . . . ] The point of Christianity as the religion of atheism [. . . ] attacks the religious hard core that survives even in humanism, even up to Stalinism, with its belief in History as the 'big Other' that decides on the 'objective meaning' of our deeds" (171).   Having spent three books valorizing the Christian legacy, Zizek ends by asserting the necessity of atheism: "That is the ultimate heroic gesture: in order to save its treasure, [Christianity] has to sacrifice itself--like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge" (171).   The implication, of course, is that to save its treasure, Marxism too must sacrifice itself--its belief in historical necessity, its hope that the historical process mandates, despite all the damage piled up along the way, a better world to come.

As we stated above, Zizek's emphasis on yearning over analysis, his impatience with specifying either the content of the post-revolutionary future or the process through which it gets underway, is shared by other Marxists today.   (Terry Eagleton, for instance, maintains, "Just as the pious Jews . . . were forbidden on pain of idolatry to fashion graven images of the God of the future, so political radicals are prohibited under pain of fetishism from blueprinting their ultimate desire" [216]).   For a Marxist committed to such a notion of revolution, the Russian Revolution (and hence the emphasis on Lenin in Zizek's work) must indeed appear exemplary.   After all, czarist Russia in 1917 was economically backward and still largely "feudal" in its political structures, and Marx would have been surprised to learn that the first successful Marxist revolution occurred there, rather than in Germany or even the United States.   In Boris Pasternak's 1959 novel Doctor Zhivago , the title character reflects, in a conversation with his father-in-law, on the significance of the Russian Revolution in terms that do look forward to Zizek's analysis:

            "And the real stroke of genius is this.   If you charged someone with the

task of creating a new world, of starting a new era, he would ask you first to clear

the ground.   He would wait for the old centuries to finish before undertaking to

build the new ones, he'd want to begin a new paragraph, a new page.

            "But here, they don't bother with anything like that. This new thing, this

marvel of history, this revelation, is exploded right into the very thick of daily

life without the slightest consideration for its course. It doesn't start at the

beginning, it starts in the middle, without any schedule, on the first weekday that

comes along, while the traffic in the street is at its height. That's real genius. Only

real greatness can be so unconcerned with timing and opportunity" (195).

And yet, the ultimate failure of this Revolution, its palpable failure to bring about a classless society, may in fact spring from the fact that Russia was not yet prepared to undergo such a transformation. It is ironic to consider the move from Zhivago's exuberance before the Revolution's "unconcern with timing and opportunity" to what Heinrich Müller in 1992 called "the waiting-room mentality" of Communist Eastern Europe:                       

There would be an announcement: The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18. 20--and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement. The train will arrive at 20.10. And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting room, thinking, It's bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation. Basically, as a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah's impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won't be coming. And yet somehow, it's good to hear him announced all over again. (qtd. in Fragile 41)

Commenting upon this passage, Zizek remarks:

The point of this Messianic attitude, however, was not that hope was maintained, but that since the Messiah did not arrive, people started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings, in contrast to the West, where people, engaged in permanent frantic activity, do not even properly notice what is going on around them. ( Fragile 42)

In this remarkable passage, however, Zizek reveals how much the notion of a radical, revolutionary break depends upon such a notion of Messianic waiting.   What does such a break produce, if not another period of waiting, another yearning for a Messiah who may come, but whose promise sustains our existence in the present, makes the "inert materiality" of our world meaningful?   In other words, does not Zizek concede here the possibility that even the radical break may simply be absorbed into a cyclical (not a dialectical) structure?

For both Christianity and the brand of Marxism to which Zizek subscribes, time must logically have a stop.   This is quite proper to theology, which takes the eternal as one of its chief objects of study.   But while materialism itself may be, as Zizek suggests, just as much a faith as Christianity, it must, if it is to be comprehensible and efficacious, believe that the world--and our existence in it--be made explicable.   Zizek's account is neither good Christianity nor good Marxism, but it may well be an apt product of the dialectic that most marks our current moment, in which for many the tension between desire and History grows unbearable.

Works Cited


Aron, Raymond.   The Opium of the Intellectuals.   Somerset, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001.

Benjamin, Walter.   "Theses on the Philosophy of History."   Illuminations: Essays and Reflections.   Trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt.   New York: Schocken, 1969.   253-64.

Eagleton, Terry.   The Ideology of the Aesthetic.   Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Ebert, Teresa.   Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism.   Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.

Gallop, Jane.   The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis.   Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Kojève, Alexandre.   Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit.   Trans. Raymond Queneau.   Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Marx, Karl.   The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.   New York: International, 1963.

Pasternak, Boris.   Doctor Zhivago.   Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari.   New York: International Collectors Library, 1958.

Popper, Karl.   The Poverty of Historicism.   London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Zizek, Slavoj.   The Fragile Absolute, or, why is the christian legacy worth fighting for?   London: Verso, 2000.

---.        On Belief.   London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

---.        The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity.   Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2003.