One of the biggest disappointments in the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes when the mole explains himself to Smiley upon being found out. The television series had had him launch into an anti-American diatribe, talking about the evils of consumerism and essentially the need to resist the capitalist degradation of all culture. In the film, however, he simply says claims that he had to choose a side and that the West has become “ugly” in some unspecified way. The mole becomes a shallow aesthete, impotently and arbitrarily “acting out,” whereas in the television adaptation, one could see a certain nobility to the character. I think one could read this shift as symptomatic of the historical shift that occurred between the two adaptations: after the fall of the Soviet Union, the appeal of communism, even as an alternative to what is undesirable in the West, has become unthinkable.
It is here that I think Zizek’s obsessive investigations of Stalinism are most important. On a certain level, he is simply following a “psychoanalytic” approach to politics, focusing on the pathological in order to shed light on the so-called normal (in this case, liberal democracy). Yet after reading Adorno for the last few months, I’m increasingly convinced that Zizek’s insistence on the distinction between Stalinism and fascism and his choice of Stalinism as the privileged object of critique — and his criticism of the Frankfurt School for taking the opposite approach on both counts — is justified, at least as a strategic choice. Choosing fascism as the “pathology” that is supposedly revelatory of the real content of the “normal” can fall much too easily into familiar patterns of liberal political analysis: moralism, progressivism (i.e., fascism shows that pre-modern national loyalties “still” hold great power), and the easy dichotomy between Enlightenment reason and its irrational other.
The privileging of Stalinism gets around that, because one can position it specifically as a failure within the Enlightenment tradition, rather than a failure of the Enlightenment to overcome the forces opposed to it. Adorno (and Horkheimer) are much more sophisticated than your normal moralizing critique of “totalitarianism,” yet I do think their work can very easily be appropriated by such discourses — whereas Zizek’s valorization of Stalinism, at least so far, apparently cannot. Another advantage of the emphasis of Stalinism is that it can shed a more interesting light on contemporary power relations. It’s much too “easy” to prove that supposedly “pre-modern” forms of power (patriarchalism, tribalism) are on the loose — and then we get to feel a nice buzz of liberal righteousness denouncing these people for failing to get with the program. It’s a lot more interesting and surprising to hear Zizek say, as he did once in a public lecture I attended (but has unfortunately not followed up on yet to my knowledge), that Stalinism has finally come into its own in contemporary corporate culture.