Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Reading Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” against Russia’s Wars on Syria and Ukraine

March 21, 2022

“War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle the voice of conscience within them.”1

“Art should cause violence to cease.”2

“Anti-Fascist Resistance” logo, targeting the “Z” symbol of the Russian military

Originally published on New Politics, 20 March 2022

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a globally renowned White-Russian prose poet, journalist, ethicist, and Christian-anarchist critic. Though he fought as a cadet in the Eastern Caucasus and became an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian army as a young man, he would resign as a first lieutenant in 1856, after two years.3 Rather than affirm Tsarist colonialism or jingoist pan-Slavist ideologies, as did the celebrated novelist Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Lev Nikolaevich from the start of his writing career expressed critical views of imperial violence and dispossession. This can be gleaned from “The Raid” (1853), the “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869). In its dual rejection of the exaltation of violence and the worship of power, the writer’s humanist war correspondence is motivated by the utopian hope that lending a voice to those who suffer the most in armed conflict might “drastically reduce its incidence” in the future.4

Written as eyewitness accounts of the siege of the Russian naval base by British, French, and Turkish forces during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the “Sevastopol Sketches” portray such scenes of devastation that “shake [one] to the roots of [one’s] being.”5 As such, Count Tolstoy’s purpose in these reports runs parallel to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s teaching from two and a half millennia ago: that awakening begins through acknowledgment of the traumatic reality.6 Establishing himself in these “Sketches” as a “seer of the flesh,” both living and dead, who interweaves poetry and truth, Tolstoy contests those liberal and radical thinkers who focus on the “achievements and ferocious power of the state” while ignoring the “horrific consequences of this power for millions.”7 He repudiates the “galactic” view of existence that would regard Earth from above, and see humanity as a tool to manipulate, manage, and destroy.8 The artist parts company with those who would portray combat as romantic by communicating the straightforward ideas that militarism is based on male sadism and vanity, and that war constitutes murder and ultraviolence.9

No surprise, then, that Tolstoy remains excommunicated within Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, just last month, the megalomaniacal Russian president ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Employing projection and pretext, Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. In reality, this former KGB spy and director of the post-Soviet FSB, embittered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is overseeing a genocidal assault on the Ukrainian people. Brutal violence has long been Putin’s favored approach: the security analyst Anna Borshchevskaya discusses the possibility that he ordered the FSB to bomb apartment buildings in three Russian cities in September 1999. Whether or not he was responsible, Putin blamed these acts of terror on Chechen rebels, while exploiting them both to launch a Second Chechen War (1999-2009) and to secure the presidency in 2000.10 Since then, the Russian despot has led “anti-humanitarian interventions” in Georgia, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Now, nearly a month into his ill-fated foray into Ukraine, the Russian leader mimics his ally Donald Trump by hosting a self-congratulatory fascist rally.

In this essay, we will examine Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches,” emphasizing its tragic realism, anti-militarism, and anti-authoritarianism. Afterward, in the spirit of the Russian artist, we will meditate on parallel war crimes that have been carried out in Syria over the past decade-plus by forces loyal to Putin and Bashar al-Assad. In this sense, we agree with free Syrians and Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, who alike see in Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria a clear precedent for the current offensive against Ukraine. Ominously, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense has likened the Ukrainian resistance to “international terrorists in Syria.” So far, it is clear that the Russian military is using the same atrocious tactics in Ukraine as in Syria, including the direct targeting of hospitals, journalists, bakeries, and residential areas.11 While millions of Ukrainians flee the country or shelter in basements, just as Syrians do and did, the Assad regime is recruiting thousands of mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, now that Russia’s initial blitzkrieg has failed.

Mural for Ukraine painted by Aziz Al-Asmar in Idlib, Syria, February 2022 (Middle East Eye/Bilal al-Hammoud)

The Sevastopol Sketches

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” are comprised of three short first-hand reports on the besiegement and fall of the main Russian-occupied port city of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, between October 1854 and September 1855. These “Sketches” constitute unsettlingly realistic dispatches from the front lines that might have their equivalent today in emergency news reports from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Ukraine which depict suffering with compassion, demanding immediate remedial action.12 Written as “anti-war” correspondence, the “Sketches” are the product of Tolstoy’s commission as an artillery officer in 1854, and of his experiences in the embattled port-city following his transfer there as a second lieutenant the following year.13 Regardless of his humanistic bent, though, Tolstoy erases the important role played by Muslim Crimean Tatars in the city’s defense, in keeping with his silence over their colonial dispossession, which began with Tsarina Catherine II’s annexation of Crimea in 1783.14 At present, Crimean Tatars are courageously taking up arms against Putin’s “special military operation.”

Published in the literary journal The Contemporary that had been co-founded by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s national poet, the same “Sketches” which ironically brought the young Tolstoy celebrity were the product of his autonomous mental labor, following the moribund Tsar Nicholas I’s denial of the lieutenant’s proposal to launch a weekly forces newspaper.15 Significantly, the writer employs narrative realism in the “Sevastopol Sketches” not to mystify or endorse inter-state violence, but rather to defamiliarize or ‘estrange’ the suffering and exploitation demanded by war and militarism before his audience, who accordingly become spectators once-removed from the scene of desolation. In the “Sketches” and subsequently in The Cossacks and War and Peace, the artist at once defamiliarizes, reviles, and deprovincializes warmongering and statist ideologies. He does so by repudiating the resigned acceptance of such destructiveness while providing “intimacy at a distance.” In this way, he seeks to restore the humanity of war’s victims, and to encourage cosmopolitan-internationalist sensibilities in his readers.16

In 1853, Nicholas I declared war on the Ottoman Empire, seeking to take control of its European territories in the Balkans and “liberate” its Orthodox Christian subjects. In response, the British and French allied with the Turks to invade the Crimean Peninsula and assault Sevastopol. Their aim was to capture the Russian naval base, the principal port for the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, toward the end of neutralizing regional Russian expansionism.17 Subjected, then, to a merciless assault by the French and their allies, the soldiers, sailors, and civilian populace of the port-city experience “a total absence of the human and of any prospect of salvation.” Tolstoy observes that, in Sevastopol, “everywhere [one] perceive[s] the unpleasant signs of a military encampment.” Like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno (1320), the writer takes his readers on a tour of a world comprised of the fortress and its eight bastions. The story begins in December 1854 in the Assembly of Nobles, which has been transformed into a makeshift field hospital.18

Showing compassion for the war-wounded in this effective slaughterhouse, the onlooking narrator demonstrates Tolstoy’s commitment to the politics of pity, defined by scholar Lilie Chouliaraki as the “symbolic mechanism[s…] by means of which various media […] construe the spectator-sufferer relationship via emotions of empathy and enunciation or aesthetic contemplation.” Centering the agora—or the realm of reflection and argument—and the theater—or the realm of fellow-feeling, identification, and agency—in these “Sketches,” Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy seeks to convince readers not only of the immorality of warfare, but also of the urgent need to overcome their status as voyeuristic spectators who may just be “sit[ting] back and enjoy[ing] the high-adrenaline spectacle.” Implicitly, he enjoins audiences to channel their emotional reactions into protesting against militarism and social hierarchy.19

Approaching a young wounded warrior, Tolstoy’s guide asks him about his injuries. In response, the youth betrays the self-surrender expected of a soldier (or worker): that “[t]he main thing […] is not to spend too much time thinking about it.” The narrator witnesses a sailor whose chest is “blown away” by a mortar contritely apologizing to his comrades as he perishes. Likewise, surgeons “with pale, gloomy physiognomies” are shown operating effective (dis)assembly lines to amputate the limbs of injured soldiers. One of these surgeons, performing triage, records over five-hundred thirty admissions to the field hospital in a single day in May 1855.20 Besides physicians, 163 Russian female nurses, supervised by the proto-feminist surgeon Nikolai Pirogov (1810-1881), served in front-line field hospitals in Crimea, where they courageously attended to the injured and dying while exposed to artillery barrages and typhus.21 From the other side of the line of control, British nurse Florence Nightingale’s (1820-1910) statistical findings on the causes of death in Allied hospitals showed that “far more men died of disease, infection, and exposure than in battle.”22

Overwhelmed by agony, the factitious Russian Prince Galtsin cannot stand more than a moment in Tolstoy’s bleak Assembly Hall. Seemingly everywhere, intermixed with the mire, can be found “shell splinters, unexploded bombs, cannonballs and camp remains,” and one is assaulted by a ceaseless hail of bullets and shells. For this reason, war is depicted not as “a beautiful, orderly and gleaming foundation,” as the authorities would prefer, but rather, according to the politics of pity, “in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering, and death.”23

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Estimates suggest that the casualties incurred during the final attack on Sevastopol reached twenty-four thousand on both sides, or about one-tenth of the total from all causes over the course of the siege.24 In contemplating the mass-casualties experienced during this time, Tolstoy’s narrator wonders whether it would not have been more just for two representatives of the warring sides to have dueled, and the conflict’s outcome to have been based on that result. For war as it is practiced is “madness.”25 Through these “quixotic musings” about duels as an alternative to full-blown wars, Tolstoy “dispute[s] the rationality and morality of violence in general.” He does so by implicitly disavowing his landowning class and identifying with anti-militarist values expressed by Russian peasants. In reality, many muzhiki (male peasants) believed that World War I should have been resolved through a village brawl, rather than through mass-slaughter.26 These peasants had an important point: the suffering and death of even one soldier in war “symbolizes [the] ‘universal’ human state of existence” of objectification and brutalization. In other words, to humanize the victims of war, we must treat every casualty as a person.27

In Tolstoy’s Sevastopol, Prince Galtsin and the Polish Lieutenant Nieprzysiecki harass wounded soldiers for retreating, whereas the enthusiastic, newly arrived volunteer Lieutenant Kozeltsov, anticipating “the laurels of immoral glory,” confronts demoralization and horror upon learning the reality of the situation. Alongside soldiers, civilians suffer, too. A sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter remark on the sight of a French artillery barrage at night. The girl cries, “Look at the stars, the stars are falling!” while her mother laments the impending destruction of their home, cursing the “devil” for “blazing away” and bringing “horrible things.” The adjutant Kalugin adds that “sometimes [it’s] impossible to tell which are shells and which are stars!”28

Tolstoy further defamiliarizes the scene by focusing on the responses of a ten-year old boy to all this devastation, contrasting his instinctual horror, based on natural goodness (in accordance with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas), against the statist-militarist normalization of such destructiveness. The scholar Liza Knapp hypothesizes that

Tolstoyan pacifism has its seeds here, where Tolstoy makes the boy, and the reader, pay attention to the corpses, to the sight, smell, and feel of them, and where Tolstoy points to the basic contradiction between the brotherly love that the soldiers at Sevastopol profess […] and the killing that they practice.29

Echoing this point, officer Kalugin thinks to himself that he should amount to something more than the “cannon fodder” to which soldiers are reduced in combat. In this moment, he anticipates how Prince Andrei Bolkonsky similarly laments the reduction of young men to pawns in War and Peace.30 At the end of his account from May 1855, Tolstoy juxtaposes the dystopian sight of hundreds of corpses, or “the bodies of men who two hours earlier had been filled with all manner of hopes and desires,” and the thousands injured between the Allied and Russian positions with the beauty of the stars, the “thundering” sea, and the “mighty, resplendent” sun, as though to decry the betrayal and denial of “joy, love and happiness” owing to war. After all, such tense dynamics are not limited to the nineteenth century. As we know from history and the present, when talks among states fail, “cannons start firing, and people, with all their aspirations and potential, begin to die in droves.”31

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Anti-War Meditations, from Crimea to Syria, Ukraine, and Palestine

Tolstoy’s disturbing albeit realistic presentation of the horrors of warfare in the “Sevastopol Sketches” certainly has its echoes today. Though the “Sketches” were published more than a century and a half ago, the problems of war, imperialism, dehumanization, and ultraviolence continue in our own day, considering that the State and capitalism persist as the dominant global forms of social organization—as in the nineteenth century. At the same time, whereas the “Sketches” illustrate an inter-imperialist conflict involving the British, French, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, Putin’s ongoing assault on Ukraine threatens an independent nation with reconquest by the former imperial power. Seen from an Enlightenment rationalist perspective, the Crimean War, the Syrian counter-revolution, and the Russo-Ukrainian War are senseless, ruthless, and reactionary. They speak to our predicament of being “stuck” within ossified relations of domination. It is indeed telling that so many Russian soldiers who have surrendered to the Ukrainian military since the offensive began should say they don’t know why they had been obeying orders in this fratricidal conflict. Likewise, one of Tolstoy’s alter egos, Prince Andrei, admits in War and Peace not to know why he is fighting, either.32

Furthermore, the gloomy surgeons amputating Russian soldiers en masse in Sevastopol eerily bring to mind the thousands of Palestinian protesters, mostly youth, whom the Israeli military injured and killed during the “Great Return March” demonstrations that began in March 2018. As of late 2019, at least six hundred of these protesters who were shot in the legs had developed osteomyelitis, a bone infection that can threaten the viability of limbs. Over three hundred such protesters have died in Gaza. It is also striking to consider how closely the comments of the sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter in the “Sketches” echo the desperate realities confronted by millions of courageous Syrians who have risen up against Bashar al-Assad’s fascist regime—only for this regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to have murdered hundreds of thousands, and possibly over a million, of people in response.

If Terry Eagleton is right that “[t]he traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body,” and if John P. Clark is right that meditation on a corpse is “one of the most ancient and most useful meditative practices,” then perhaps meditation on the vast war casualties from the Syrian counter-revolution can be similarly useful, according to a tragic-humanist framework, toward the end of alleviating future episodes of suffering and exclusion—as the Ukraine invasion has starkly shown.33

As the members of The Lancet-American University of Beirut Commission on Syria note, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2.”34 In reality, in a 2021 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry found evidence of “the most heinous of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated against the civilian population” in the country, including genocide. Plus, in an unprecedented March 2021 report on violations of international law perpetrated by the Russian military since its September 2015 intervention in Syria, Russian human-rights groups lament how State-controlled media have blocked out the vast human costs of the war—just as Putin has now prohibited that the war on Ukraine be described as anything other than a “special military operation.” To contest State brutality, these groups seek to “present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die.”

Along similar lines, journalist Rania Abouzeid reports on how the aunts of the eleven-year old girl Ruha, living in Saraqeb, Idlib province, suffered mass-bombardment in 2013 by the Assad regime’s air force, which resembled seemingly ceaseless “raining fire.” In like manner, scholar Yasser Munif describes the grim panoply of technologies employed by the regime to suppress the Syrian Revolution: “starvation, torture, siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical attacks, massacres, assassinations, etc…”35 Anthropologist Charlotte al-Khalili highlights the “vast inequality” in the balance of forces:

peaceful and later lightly-armed revolutionaries, on the one hand, versus a heavily-armed regime on the other, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, using a wide range of weapons up to and including barrel bombs and chemical weapons to exterminate the people living in revolutionary bastions and liberated areas.

The anxiety expressed by the young girl in Sevastopol about the shells resembling stars can be considered to echo the fears of millions of displaced Syrian civilians residing in Idlib, who have been subjected to an indiscriminate campaign of mass-aerial and artillery bombardment by the Assad regime and its allies for years. Equally, they bring to mind the millions of city-dwelling Ukrainians, including children, currently seeking refuge in metro stations, basements, and other bomb shelters targeted by the Russian military. In Idlib, siege tactics have included the use of white phosphorus to set alight crops, destroy agricultural production, worsen malnutrition and starvation, and ultimately force the civilian population into submission. In parallel, Putin’s forces are employing the same cluster munitions and ballistic missiles in Ukraine that they have used in Syria.

Remarkably, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s 2019 documentary film For Sama chronicles the Syrian Revolution and the retaliatory siege of East Aleppo by the Assad-regime axis. Al-Kateab’s documentation of the interplay of joy over the life of her daughter with the plague of war can be seen from the feature’s very first scene, filmed in the Al-Quds Hospital, which was founded in November 2012 by her husband, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab. For Sama begins with a lovely dialogue between the titular infant and her mother which conveys interrelationality—only to be interrupted by an artillery barrage that provokes the flight of al-Kateab with her child through the basement of the hospital. The infernal aspects of this scene, allegorical and real at once, are but the opening salvo in Waad’s illuminating account that bears witness to the devastation perpetrated by Assad and Putin against Syrian revolutionaries. Interviewed on Democracy Now in March 2022 about echoes of Syria in Ukraine, al-Kateab conveyed shock over Putin’s belligerence: “What [is] the world waiting for? What more [do] you need to see? How many hospitals should be more bombed?”

Syrian director Waad al-Kateab interviewed on Democracy Now, March 17, 2022

Assad and Putin’s Counter-Revolutionary Aggression

Over the past decade-plus, the combined forces of the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian States and affiliated paramilitaries have committed heinous crimes in pursuit of their counter-revolutionary goal of suppressing the popular Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011.

Due to their viciousness, both in Syria and Ukraine, Assad and Putin recall the historical figures Generals Sergei Bulgakov (?-1824) and Alexei Yermolov (1777-1861), butchers of the Caucasus, as well as the French General de Ségur (1780-1873). In his function as Napoleon Bonaparte’s underling during the Grand Armée’s invasion of Russia (1812), Comte de Ségur sought to rationalize the extermination of the Muscovites as a necessity for “civilization.”36 Moreover, Putin and Assad’s crimes recall the aggression of the “new high-velocity m[e]n,” Red Army Commander Lev Trotsky (1879-1940) and Soviet Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), who crushed the Kronstadt and Tambov Communes in 1921, using overwhelming and relentless force of rapid maneuver.37 After all, the Assad regime’s prison system—described by the former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifeh as a central aspect of Syria’s topology of violence—builds on the French colonialists’ imposition of their carceral system on the country a century ago, as well as on the Soviet Gulag, which was itself inspired by Tsarist military colonies. In fact, the one-party dictatorship which Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad imposed in 1970 was modeled after the Stalinist regime, and today, ideological and political partisans of Ba’athism openly seek a “USSR 2.0.”

Moreover, Putin and Assad’s employment of mass-aerial bombardment of civilians follows from the Swiss-French imperialist Le Corbusier’s (1887-1965) macabre avowal of air power to “redesign” the Casbah, or citadel, of Algiers, together with the surrounding Old City.38 As well, these autocrats’ use of “vertical power” follows the grim model of the Luftwaffe’s destruction of the Basque town of Guernika in April 1937, within the context of the Spanish Civil War—not to mention US atrocities in World War II, or the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars. If the Russian incendiaries and arsonists who sought to thwart the Grand Armée’s capture of Moscow in 1812 anticipated the pétroleuses of the 1871 Paris Commune, who aimed at burning down buildings symbolizing France’s despotic past and “block[ing] the Versailles invaders with a barrier of flames,” the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz (1949-2013) was surely right to emphasize that his revolutionary compatriots’ struggle against the Assad regime is “no less than [that of] the workers of the Paris Commune.”39

Conclusion: Justice for Syria and Ukraine

July 2014 banner from Syrian revolutionaries in Kafranbel in solidarity with Ukrainians under attack by Russia

As Munif and al-Kateab morosely chronicle, by all means, the Assad regime-axis has directed special retaliatory violence against autonomous and resistant communities, journalists, and medics in Syria.40 Healthcare workers who render aid to communities outside regime control risk being branded “enemies of the state,” and consequently being detained, tortured, and killed, in accordance with the regime’s strategy of “medical genocide.”41 The annihilatory tactics used by this regime and its allies—mimicking those employed by Western European imperialists, Nazis, and Stalinists alike—reproduce the “unconscious past” of the Soviet Gulag system, which inspired Ba’athist brutalism.42 In the same way, Assad and Putin’s brazen counter-revolution has arguably paved the way for not only the genocidal abuses being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party against millions of Uyghur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims in Xinjiang, but also the Burmese junta’s coup of February 2021 and subsequent scorched-earth approach to dissent, as well as the ghastly ongoing attack on Ukraine.

Over six years into Russia’s military intervention to stabilize Bashar’s regime as Putin’s only client State in the “far abroad,” Russia has secured bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and destroyed regional Islamist groups by “turn[ing] the liberated areas into death zones.” Still, the pathos of children murdered by Assad and Putin’s bombs and shells in Syria and Ukraine is no less than that of Palestinian children murdered by the Israeli military.43 Echoing Israel’s tactics in Gaza, the Syrian and Russian air forces have targeted markets and up to fifty hospitals, as New York Times reporters have shown. In February 2021, seeking to market the lethality of its weaponry, the Russian military proudly released video of one of its Iskander ballistic missiles hitting Azaz National Hospital, north of Aleppo. On the Ukrainian front, as we have seen, the main enemy is the same.

In the continuities between the Tolstoyan scenes and sequences from the “Sevastopol Sketches” and War and Peace which center wounded and dying soldiers, the mass-displacement of civilians, and the urbicidal devastation of entire cities like Smolensk and Moscow during the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars on the one hand with the destruction of Syrian and Ukrainian cities like East Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Khan Sheikhoun, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv on the other, we perceive constancy in the fundamentally brutal exercise of State power. We must face these tragedies with Tolstoyan realism and compassion by doing our best to stop Putin, Assad, and their enablers; avoiding an escalation from fratricidal to nuclear war; and supporting revolutionaries, protesters, refugees, and victims of militarism across borders.

“Stop Putin, Stop the War”: street protest in London, March 19, 2022 (Courtesy Paula Erizanu)

Footnotes

1 Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s Diaries, ed. and translated by R. F. Christian (London: Flamingo, 1985), 54.

2 Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy: Later Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 378.

3 Donna Tussing Orwin, “Chronology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4-6.

4 Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 246-9; Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom (San Rafael: Semantron Press, 2009), 66; Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 101.

5 Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks and Other Stories, trans. David McDuff and Paul Foote (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 192 (emphasis added).

6 John P. Clark, Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 194.

7 Алексей и Владимир Туниманов Зверев, Лев Толстой. Вступ. статья. В. Я. Курбатова (Moscow: Youth Guard, 2006), 12; Dmitry Shlapentokh, “Marx, the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production,’ and ‘Oriental Despotism’ as ‘True’ Socialism,” Comparative Sociology 18 (2019), 508; Richard Sokoloski, “Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych: First and Final Chapter,” Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. 9 (1997), 51; Peter Kropotkin, Russian Literature: Ideals and Realities (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991), 118.

8 Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 478-80; James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War (New York: Penguin, 2004), 51.

9 Andrei Zorin, Critical Lives: Leo Tolstoy (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 31; Liza Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 172; Berdyaev 157; Gunisha Kaur, From torture to ultraviolence: medical and legal implications,” The Lancet, 6 April 2021.

10 Anna Borshchevskaya, Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence (London: I. B. Tauris, 2022), 42.

11 Yasser Munif, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death (London: Pluto, 2020), 37-40.

12 Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage, 2006), 18, 76, 118.

13 Christopher Bellamy, “Tolstoy, Count Leo,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 914; Orwin 4.

14 Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 348; Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 399.

15 Zorin 26-7; Bartlett 109-11.

16 Knapp 171; Chouliaraki 21-43, 71 (emphasis in original); Charles Reitz, Ecology and Revolution: Herbert Marcuse and the Challenge of a New World System Today (Routledge: New York, 2019), 84-5.

17 Zorin 29; Evtuhov et al. 367-70; Christopher Bellamy, “Sevastopol, sieges of,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 821.

18 Tolstoy 2006: 304, 187, 192.

19 Chouliaraki 38-9, 44-52, 85-93, 119-121, 124-48.

20 Tolstoy 2006: 190, 192, 200, 228-9 (emphasis in original).

21 Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 30-1.

22 Natasha McEnroe, “Celebrating Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary,” The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10235, 2020), 1477.

23 Tolstoy 2006: 192, 196, 227-8).

24 Evtuhov et al. 370.

25 Tolstoy 2006: 204.

26 Rick McPeak, “Tolstoy and Clausewitz: The Duel as a Microcosm of War,” eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 116; Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 148).

27 Chouliaraki 124; Hillman 49.

28 Tolstoy 2006: 221, 223-4, 227, 268-9.

29 Lisa Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 170.

30 Tolstoy 2006: 236-7; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 756.

31 Tolstoy 2006: 247-8, 25; McPeak 115.

32 Tolstoy 2010: 27, 677.

33 Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 27, 168; Clark 187.

34 Samer Jabbour et al. “10 years of the Syrian conflict: a time to act and not merely to remember,” The Lancet, vol. 397, issue 10281 (2021), P1245-8.

35 Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), 182-3; Munif 9.

36 Alexander M. Martin. “Moscow in 1812: Myths and Realities.” Tolstoy On War, eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 42-58.

37 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 161; Christopher Bellamy, “Tukhachevskiy, Marshal Mikhail Nikolaeyich,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 924-5; Neil Croll, “The role of M.N. Tukhachevskii in the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion,” Revolutionary Russia, (17) 2 (2004), 10-14.

38 Munif 43-6, 90.

39 Robert Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 6-7; David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune: French Politics, Culture, and Society at the Crossroads of the Revolutionary Tradition and Revolutionary Socialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 95, 159.

40 Munif 33-6.

41 Jabbour et al.

42 Nancy Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

43 Borshchevskaya 169.

Science Fiction as Protest Art (Part III): On The Shores of Communist H(e)avens

November 21, 2021
The U.S.S. Enterprise in Earth orbit (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

In this concluding part of our analysis of speculative fiction as protest art, we will wrap up the discussion of ‘capitalist hells’ from parts I and II; consider a few cases of art-works combining utopian and dystopian elements, including Elysium, Octavia’s Brood, and Palestine +100; and then pivot to contemplating the ‘communist heavens’ and ‘alternative’ and/or ‘anti-modern utopias’ envisioned by William Morris, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Roddenberry, and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others.

First published on The Commoner, 21 November 2021. Feel free to support them via their Patreon here

Correction to part II: Pardot Kynes, from Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), is an imperial, not Fremen, ecologist; in the novel, he is father to Liet-Kynes, and grand-father to Chani. Liet is played by Max von Sydow in David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, Karel Dobry in the 2000 Sci-Fi edition, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 version.

So far, in this three-part series on visionary fiction, we have considered some of the critical functions that protest art may serve, in terms of the links between the imagination and political resistance. Against the ruling ‘master symbols’ that impart unreason and brutality, ‘countersymbols may arise,’ as reflections of ‘an ideal community of the imagination.'[1] In the anarchist tradition, such counter-symbols include red and black color schemes and flags, the circle A, the idea of ‘One Big Union,’ and songs such as ‘The Internationale, ‘Solidarity Forever,‘ and A Las Barricadas.Anti-authoritarians have also long used photography, poetry, theater, novels, journals, essays, periodicals, comics, zines, and films to convey our hopes for better futures. Indeed, writer Jesse Cohn observes that we anarchists ‘practice culture as a means of mental and moral survival in a world from which [we] are fundamentally alienated.’[2]

In their much-anticipated new study, The Dawn of Everything (2021), the archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber affirm the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s idea that ‘mythological thought […] is better conceived as a kind of ‘neolithic science’ inseparable from our humanity, from the very beginning. For this reason, Wengrow and Graeber celebrate the cultural phenomena of carnival and inversion, which feature in speculative fiction and protest art: ‘In carnival, women might rule over men and children [might] be put in charge of government. Servants could demand work from their masters, ancestors could return from the dead, ‘carnival kings’ could be crowned and then dethroned, giant monuments like wicker dragons built and set on fire […].’ They find such festivals significant, because they remind participants and observers alike that ‘other arrangements are feasible,’ compared to what is dominant at any given time.

Even so, while celebrating how artistic counter-symbols sustain the mental and physical possibilities of ‘striv[ing] to realize [anarchist] communit[ies] in actuality’ by ‘evok[ing] a sense of possible worlds worth fighting for,'[3] we must recognize that verbal and visual images critical of capital and authority have been thoroughly commodified in popular media. As voiced by Thomas Wilson Jardine, the concern is that this phenomenon of recuperation will merely function as a safety valve which ultimately ends up serving the end of social control, besides generating investors in the entertainment industry a great deal of profit.

Along these lines, at the end of The Matrix Revolutions (2003), the conclusion to the original cyberpunk trilogy The Matrix (1999-2003), the protagonist Neo responds to his nemesis Smith’s query as to why he persists in his seemingly hopeless struggle by saying, ‘Because I choose to.’ While this is not the same as disclosing that he is driven by some radical duty or cause, Neo’s reply nonetheless echoes the U.S. anarchist poet Hayden Carruth’s observation that:

‘the real revolutionary is the one who can see
all dark ahead and behind, [their] fate
a need without a hope: the will to resist.’ [4]

Be that as it may, the trilogy’s anti-systemic messianism champions the epic hero of Western iconography, emblematically centers masculinity and whiteness, and emphasizes individual over collective action. After all, Trinity and Morpheus are mere supporting characters for Neo in the original films, and it remains to be seen whether the much-anticipated The Matrix Resurrection (2021) will improve on this dynamic. Like Dune, these movies remind us that subversiveness cuts both ways—sometimes, simultaneously—to portend both recuperation into male authority and racial capitalism, as well as the creation of liberatory counter-publics.

With this dynamic in mind, we will defend anti-authoritarian subversiveness and visionary existentialism in this concluding part of our series on speculative fiction as protest art, wherein we consider “capitalist hells,” “communist heavens,” and “alternative” and/or “anti-modern utopias.”

Visionary Fiction, from the Turn of the Twenty-First Century to Present

Still from Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

Deus Ex (1999-2016): Although the various role-playing games in the cyberpunk Deus Ex universe are relatively open-ended, they jointly communicate Kafka-esque, Orwellian, and ‘negative-anarchist’ visions of totally administered worlds.[5] In the original Deus Ex (1999) and in its more recent iterations, Human Revolution (2011) and Mankind Divided (2016), the main characters, who are vaguely queer-coded cyborg super-soldiers, undergo thematic journeys of self-discovery and exile, as they encounter political corruption, inequality, ultra-violence, homelessness, medical abuse, and discrimination as ‘Augs.’ Players begin Deus Ex on the side of the police and the State, but—echoing Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)these ‘red detective[s]’ slowly realize the folly of power by bearing witness to the conspiratorial brutality of the authorities and the lies of the mass-media. Players end up defecting to anti-systemic resistance movements.[6] (The alternative options, admittedly, are to serve the ‘Illuminati’ [an anti-Semitic trope], or oneself.)

At their best, the augmented playable characters in Deus Ex are ‘Anarchist Action M[e]n’ who recall Alex Murphy at the end of RoboCop (1987), Douglas Quaid in Total Recall (1990), the T-800 from Terminator 2 (1991), and Neo from The Matrix. Furthermore, they are reminiscent of Miguel Cervantes’ classic knight-errant Don Quixote, ‘a figure sincerely beloved by anarchists’ for his idealism and commitment to direct action.[7] Although only in Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003) can gamers choose to play as a female heroine, thus reflecting and perpetuating the toxic masculinity for which the industry is notorious, the Deus Ex series not only creatively satirizes many of the social, political, and economic ills of our time, but also allows players the virtual choice to perpetuate or contest these.

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999): This innovative computer strategy game, which builds on the well-known Civilization series, imagines human groups settling on ‘Chiron’ in the Alpha Centauri star system, located 4 light-years from Earth. Having reached Alpha Centauri in the twenty-second century, the interstellar travelers break up into numerous political factions upon planet fall. Gamers can choose to play as the Green ‘Gaia’s Stepdaughters,’ the fundamentalist ‘Lord’s Believers,’ the capitalist ‘Morgan Industries,’ or the despotic-collectivist ‘Human Hive,’ among others. The expansion pack Alien Crossfire (1999) adds the syndicalist ‘Free Drones,’ cyborgs, ‘Data Angels,’ and two indigenous alien factions. With a highly customizable interface that permits mod-ability, includes an expansive technology tree, and integrates astute speculation on the future course of humankind, Alpha Centauri makes for a unique experiment in the digital construction of new societies that goes beyond the typical one-dimensional game. Indeed, as we shall see below, an unacknowledged source for the makers of Alpha Centauri may have been Kim Stanley Robinson’s original Mars (1992-1996) trilogy.

In parallel to the game, back on Earth, anarchists are divided among ourselves, and we confront numerous enemy forces, from the State to capitalists, fascists, and Stalinists. Hopefully, we can unite and find allies to propel global anti-authoritarian and ecological revolution, before world leaders lead humanity to our doom through war, future pandemics, totalitarian takeovers, and/or ecological catastrophe.

Cover image of Elysium

Elysium (2013), Sleep Dealer (2008): Elysium, written and directed by District 9’s director Neil Blomkamp, is a slice of life from the apocalyptic landscape of Los Angeles in 2154, juxtaposed with the orbiting space-station Elysium, which is home to the affluent capitalist overlords of the future. While on Elysium there are many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by servant-bots—akin, perhaps, to the humanoid ‘Tesla Bots‘ recently announced by Elon Musk—Earth-dwellers confront veritably infernal conditions. In fact, the “Earth” scenes were filmed in the Bordo Poniente landfill in Mexico City (one of the largest in the world, before its closure), while the Elysium scenes were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The film’s protagonist, Max (played by Matt Damon), is seriously injured by a workplace accident in LA, due to negligence and pressure from his supervisor. With mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard the remote and highly fortified space station, where highly advanced therapeutic machines hold out the promise of freeing the body from all ailments and disease. With the help of his mostly Latin@ comrades, Max overwhelms Elysium’s defenses and sacrifices himself to ensure that all Earth residents become Elysian citizens, and so are allowed free, life-saving medical treatment.

In its internationalism, its cosmopolitan focus on migration, and its concern with militarism and labor exploitation, Elysium shares many themes with its fellow dystopian social science-fiction film Sleep Dealer, which envisions Mexican proletarians renting themselves out digitally to work as labor-bots in factories on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border—which is closed, and patrolled by killer drones—all while remaining in their home country. This is something that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has urged. Both films therefore critique borders, inequality, and labor in a manner consistent with anarchist principles, calling to mind the ongoing importance of class struggle, humanism, cross-border organizing, and migrant solidarity.

Cover of Octavia’s Brood

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015): This striking volume of visionary fiction, written mostly by people of color, renders homage to Octavia Butler’s profound contributions to the development of anarcha-feminist and anti-racist themes in sci-fi and protest literature. In ‘Revolution Shuffle,’ Bao Phi imagines Asian- and Arab-Americans, ‘Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Chicanos, and Black people’ thrown into concentration camps by the authorities en masse, as guerrillas look on, contemplating launching a war ‘that might just turn into something like a revolution.'[8] In her contribution, co-editor Walidah Imarisha imagines an itinerant, avenging Black Angel who rescues Palestinians and Mexicans from marauding neo-Nazis and ICE agents, respectively, using overwhelming force. Having been expelled from heaven for questioning God’s complicity with wickedness, A. seeks to be one of the righteous ones ‘who fight against [oppression], who push the forces of destruction back.’[9]

In a similar vein, disability activist Mia Mingus envisions a commune of people with disabilities (‘UnPerfects,’ or ‘U.P.s’) finding solace in autonomous life on a distant planet, far from Earth, where a new wave of annihilatory attacks on ‘U.P.s’ recalls the horrors of Nazi Germany.[10] In an excerpt from Aftermath (1997), LeVar Burton, of Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, foresees the Black Dr. Rene Reynolds inventing a ‘Neuro-Enhancer’ that could cure all disease, but then being enslaved by traffickers who target dark-skinned people. Grimly, these slavers turn around and sell the skins of their victims of color to whites for the purposes of grafting, or ‘skin fusion,’ to protect the latter against cancer, in light of the catastrophic depletion of the ozone layer.[11] Notably, as well, Octavia’s Brood includes an excerpt from Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain (1988), an alternate utopian history of the U.S., wherein slaves and abolitionists successfully liberate the South from Confederate rule, leading to the founding of the independent Black socialist State of Nova Africa. Octavia’s Brood therefore represents a timely and intersectional intervention that can animate a politics of resistance and decolonization against white supremacy, fascism, and ableism, in keeping with Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and disability-justice movements.

Palestine + 100 (2019): In this collection of speculative stories about Palestine’s future a century after the Nakba—the ethnic cleansing of up to three-quarters of a million Palestinians, on which Israel was founded in 1948—Palestinian writers defamiliarize and question their everyday lives, which under Occupation amount to ‘a kind of a dystopia,’ according to editor Basma Ghalayini. Contributors Saleem Haddad and Selma Dabbagh report that they found the writing process to have been therapeutic, and unexpectedly liberating. Along these lines, Palestine + 100 has the power to ‘ope[n] up a whole [new] world’ for writers and audiences alike, proclaims Dabbagh. In her review of the volume, Ramona Wadi observes that the volume’s fiction ‘offers an alternative to imagine and communicate these fantastical forays into a not-so distant future, while never forgetting about the historical trauma impacting generations since the Nakba.’ Indeed, in June 2021, following another shooting war between Israel and Hamas that took the lives of at least 248 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, Palestinians attested to the centrality of the radical social imaginary in their ongoing struggle for justice by dreaming online of life as if the Occupation had ended, using the hashtag #TweetLikeItsFree.

Heavenly Communism

Alongside the “capitalist hells” from history and present that pervade sci-fi, visionary fiction also features previews of “communist heavens” at the terrestrial, interplanetary, and galactic levels. Inspired by the Russian Marxist Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), a two-volume novel set three hundred years in the future in a ‘Martian-Marxian society’ observing full communism, Russian science-fiction writers from the early Soviet period lyrically explored modernization, ‘the outer reaches of technical innovation,’ and the use of science to dominate nature, while proclaiming ‘the ultimate triumph of the shining pravda [truth] of social justice over the dark krivda [wickedness] of greed and power hunger.’ In this sense, in contrast to the pessimism of the Fabian socialist H. G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds (1897), Soviet speculative writers marshaled revolutionary ideology and critical sociology to optimistically envision utopian futures—in turn, presumably moving Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Roddenberry, and Kim Stanley Robinson to do much the same, as we shall see.[12]

Along these lines, in April and May 2021, artists from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region publicly mused about the future through the prism of sci-fi. For this series, the Egyptian novelist Ahmad El Fakharany exclaims that ‘Heaven is the world’s motor, the mirage it needs. We will never lose its effects. We will never stop pursuing it.’ Likewise, the Egyptian poet Khadija Al-Saadi identifies fiction as a ‘certain reality that contributes to change and transformation—what I think about, I work on. Ideas are free and roam different worlds.’ She adds that ‘[s]cience fiction is accessible to anyone who thinks about it in depth, calmly and methodically. After thinking, the images come, and then answers.’

William Morris & Co., ‘The Orchard’ (1890; courtesy Albert and Victoria Museum, 2021-2026)

To this point, the British eco-socialist poet and designer William Morris (1834-1896) wrote News From Nowhere (1891) as an ‘Epoch of Rest’ and a ‘Utopian Romance.’ Although this novella depicts communist h(e)avens, it may more accurately be classified as an anti-modern utopia integrating Romantic, pastoral, and even proto-solarpunk themes.[13] Recalling Tao Qian’s ‘Peach Blossom Spring‘ (421 C.E.), Morris’ alter ego, William Guest, awakens the morning after a discussion at the Socialist League about the ‘Morrow of the Revolution,’ only to find himself in a paradoxically future-medieval London, set in 2102, from which the factories and associated pollution have disappeared. Remarkably, he discovers that poverty and class have been eliminated, that workers are healthy in body and mind, and that the people’s social character is warm, joyous, and humanistic, such that they resemble a ‘bed of tulips in the sun.’ In place of a ‘country of huge and foul workshops,’ railways, and robber barons, England and its fields have become ‘a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt,’ and ‘made for the pleasure as well as the livelihood of all.’ In this liberated world, capitalism, industrialism, and Puritanism have been overthrown, and ‘mastery has changed into fellowship.'[14]

During a boat ride down the Thames River, Guest and his fellow dreamer Ellen encounter ‘a mill […] as beautiful in its way as a Gothic cathedral,’ and amidst the sounds of blackbirds, doves, rooks, and swifts, they visit an old house built by peasants from Guest’s timeline, and there jointly contemplate what the psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow might term the ‘living’ or ‘unconscious past.'[15] Ellen presents socialist-feminist reflections on how she would have been ‘wrecked and wasted […] either by penury or by luxury,’ had she had the misfortune of being born in the nineteenth rather than twenty-second century.[16] Yet, soon after joining his friends for a communal feast at a medieval church, Guest awakens, hoping passionately that his reveries could become a political vision for the future.

The importance of Morris’ Romantic-revolutionary outlook should not be underestimated. All of it remains relevant today. In Cohn’s words, the message of News from Nowhere speaks to a ‘key component of anarchist dreaming’: that is, ‘the process of reconciliation and reintegration that would constitute a society of equals without producing another Terror.'[17] In Spaces of Hope (2000), David Harvey employs the motif of falling asleep amidst a bout of political despair to envision a radically different, non-repressive future society. The film Total Recall (1990)—starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a disaffected worker who either goes to Mars to lead a successful planetary insurrection against the capitalist overlords, or merely fantasizes about doing so—relies on a very similar premise. Riffing off Morris’ communalist anti-industrialism, Paul Glover’s eco-utopian Los Angeles: A History of the Future (1984) envisions the peoples of Santa Monica and Boyle Heights reaching self-sufficiency and replacing car-centric urban planning designs with orchards that are communicated by bikeways and solar-powered rail.[18]

Hopefully, with greater movement toward unionization of the U.S. working class during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ‘Great Resignation‘ of laborers quitting ‘bullshit jobsen masse, the power of State and capital can be further destabilized, so that workers and communities come to replace the State and capital as decision-makers in the future. Green and community syndicalism hold more promise for reaching a sustainable, egalitarian future, when compared to the gross negligence that has been exhibited by world leaders for decades, in the face of the collective death sentence posed by global warming.

In a similar vein to News from Nowhere, Alexander V. Chayanov’s 1920 fictional work, My Brother Alexei’s Journey into the Land of Peasant Utopia, begins with a proletarian leaving his job one night in 1921, ‘disgusted at the mechanical extremism of the socialist regime in which he lives.’ He falls asleep, awakening over sixty years later in a future Russia wherein the Bolsheviks have been overthrown by the Socialist Revolutionaries, and large cities and the centralized State destroyed. Self-evidently, such a vision deviates radically from Marxist prescriptions for the future. That having been said, for envisioning an agrarian society that would be self-governed by cooperatives, but not necessarily opposed to private ownership or traditional peasant culture, Chayanov perished in Stalin’s GULAG in the early 1930’s.[19]

Le Guin’s Ambiguously Utopian Futures

Cover of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

The visionary anarcha-feminist Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novels The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1985) combine elements of heavenly communism with anti-modern and alternative utopianism to contemplate possible anti-authoritarian futures for humanity. Following in the steps of her parents, the ethnologists A. L. and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin (1929-2018) uses anthropological approaches to narrate these “ambiguous utopias.”

The Dispossessed describes a future anarcho-communist society in the Tau Ceti solar system being constructed on the desolate moon Anarres, whose courageous inhabitants have broken away from the bourgeois-patriarchal society based on the more ecologically bountiful home planet of Urras. Led by the prophetess Odo, the Anarresti resist socio-political authoritarianism by engaging in cooperation, encouraging free love and sexuality (including LGBTQ dimensions), and creating a new language that lacks possessives, thus consciously building what Le Guin terms ‘the most idealistic, and […] the most interesting, of all political theories.’ The Anarresti physicist Shevek, the work’s protagonist, visits Urras, only to encounter class divisions, sexual repression, and militaristic State violence. By contrast, Shevek’s experience in the capitalist hell of Urras does not mean that life on Anarres is perfect, for Le Guin warns of the risks of group conformity and stagnation, even among mindful anti-authoritarians who have consciously overcome many of the problems faced by the Urrasti.

The novel’s title is likely a play on Fëdor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1871-1872),[20] and its plot presents a critique of the opportunistic and deranged social character which Dostoevsky imputes to anarchists in his reactionary satire. In this sense, when the Marxist literary commentator Fredric Jameson criticizes the links Le Guin traces among ‘institutionalized warfare, centralization and psychic aggression’ as ‘preoccupations of a characteristically liberal type,’ he merely tells on himself, while echoing Dostoevsky and Marx’s authoritarian caricatures of anarchism—not to mention those propagated by neo-Stalinists in the twenty-first century.[21]

Beyond the political novel of The Dispossessed, Always Coming Home synthesizes speculative ethnology with poetry, parables, music, spiritual journeys, and emblematic memoirs to construct the world of the so-called Kesh, an egalitarian people who institute a society based on anarcha-feminism, free love, communal horticulture, and the gift economy in ‘the Valley’ of California in the deep future. In ecological terms, this future-world is marked by capital’s infernal devastation of the global climate. Implicitly speaking to the threat of sea-level rise posed by the melting of the world’s glaciers and poles, a certain Grey Bull recalls a journey by boat to what must previously have been the San Francisco Bay Area, whose houses, buildings, streets, and roads now lie at ‘the bottom of the sea.'[22]

‘Under the mud in the dark of the sea there
books are, bones are […].
There are too many souls there.'[23]

Speculatively, there may be a connection between this estranging journey into the effects of global warming, and the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), which is set in a future wherein the polar ice caps have melted, and New York—like other low-lying cities—has been irreversibly inundated. In spite of the ecological constraints imposed not only by climate catastrophe, but also by past chemical pollution of the environment, Le Guin’s sympathetic portrayal of Kesh society in Always Coming Home arguably constitutes an (an)archaeology of the future: a vision, in other words, of ‘what [we] can become.'[24] The Kesh and their mysteriously advanced allies, ‘the Exchange,’ use soft technologies, including cybernetics and solar energy, to decentralize industry and society—thus integrating the past visions of Peter Kropotkin, Marshall Sahlins, Morris, and Lev Tolstoy.[25] The climate is fortunately stable enough to support horticulture. Through the practice of ‘heyiya,’ or the recognition of the links between the sacredness and interconnection of life, they institute Hermann Cohen’s vision of a ‘religion of reason.’

As a foil to the Kesh, Le Guin introduces the Condor People, a nomadic group of marauding male-supremacists and propertarians, who practice militarism, ultra-misogyny, and cruelty toward animals. Accordingly, in this work, ‘[t]he patriarchal […] is identified with the imperialistic.'[26] Through their casteism, sexism, and ultra-violence, the Condor soldiers recall the Vikings, the Mongol empire, conquistadores, and Euro-American slaveowners of yore, as well as the Hindutva, Taliban, and Christian fundamentalists of today.

In sum, according to John P. Clark, Le Guin condemns ‘the manipulative world of domination we actually find ourselves in,’ while affirming ‘the cooperative world of freedom we are capable of creating.'[27]

Star Trek: Communism in Space

The U.S.S. Enterprise confronts a Borg cube (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

The various Star Trek series (1966-present), the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), closely follow Morris and Le Guin, in that they mix visions of communist h(e)avens with high-tech utopianism to consider a ‘good future’ for humanity. This arrives through the United Federation of Planets, which is co-founded among Earth and the planets Vulcan, Andor, and Tellar in the year 2161, after victory against the Romulan Star Empire, which had launched a nuclear war on Earth six years prior. The Earth-Romulan war, in turn, comes a century after World War III, which similarly involved the use of atomic weapons.

In this sense, the backstory of Star Trek pays tribute to the Russian engineer V. D. Nikolsky’s epic In A Thousand Years (1927), which involves a journey via ‘chronomobile’ into the future that anticipates the victory of socialism and humanism over capitalist imperialism, following a desperate period of nuclear war and bourgeois dictatorship.[28] In turn, Roddenberry renders homage to the Argentine Trotskyist Juan Posadas, who adopted Michel Pablo’s concept of nuclear catastrophism, whereby the workers of the world would survive the ‘destruction of all bourgeois and bureaucratic institutions in nuclear war’ to rebuild the world as socialist. Such an optimistic, catastrophic spirit might be germane to our own time, beset as we are by COVID-19 and unchecked global heating.

Broadly speaking, Star Trek can be viewed as a rationalist Enlightenment narrative about humanity’s self-overcoming of infancy, mastery, and brutality. For instance, in ‘Past Tense,’ from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1995), we learn that the ‘Bell Riots‘ of San Francisco (2024) paved the way for the coming of the Federation, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987) opens in the twenty-fourth century with the supernatural entity Q putting humanity on trial for the ‘multiple and grievous savageries of the species.’ Proving Q wrong, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise liberates an alien lifeform that had been imprisoned and exploited by the humanoid Bandi species at the Farpoint station. Such utopian visual images arguably connect to today’s Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, trade-unionist, climate-justice, and Total Liberation movements, not to mention the Syrian or Rojava Revolutions.

In The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969) and TNG, the Federation and its military-exploratory wing, Starfleet, are shown as constantly at odds with the Romulans—who follow the classical despotism of the Romans, instituting an authoritarian State, reified law, and private property[29]—and the Klingons, who are reminiscent of the Mongol, Qin(g), and Japanese Empires. Klingon ‘Birds of Prey‘ could be likened to Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s war planes, due to the cruel purposes they commonly serve, while the Romulans hold a mirror up to the sordid history of Western ‘civilization.’ For their part, the menacing, authoritarian-collectivist Borg may be meant to satirize Stalinist or Maoist state-capitalism, corporate capitalism, and/or the dangers of technology. In this sense, Roddenberry affirms Enlightenment and socialist humanism through the idea of the Federation struggling against the fascistic Borg, while conveying a future vision of the Third-Campist motto—devised by U.S. Trotskyists amidst the depths of the Cold War, and likely adapted from Shakespeare—of ‘A plague on both their houses’: namely, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., or the Romulans and Klingons. In this vein, a similar critical analysis of present-day rivalries between the U.S.A. and the People’s Republic of China would be in order.

Whereas the Star Trek universe presents a cooperative, inter-species, post-capitalist future, wherein the peoples of Earth have abolished poverty, scarcity, and profit, it also resembles Le Guin’s ‘ambiguous utopias,’ as hierarchies of gender and race arguably persist in the Federation. The franchise’s representation of Klingons as invariably Asian and/or Black also reproduces white supremacy—especially, as in TOS, when these Klingons are played by Euro-American actors. At the same time, Black, Asian, and/or female characters and actors play productive roles in several Star Trek series, and so contest racism and sexism, in an implicit nod to the Civil Rights Movement (contemporary to TOS). Nonetheless, due to the machinations of producer Rick Berman, LGBTQ representation and feminist themes were hampered for decades over multiple series.

At its best, Star Trek helps defamiliarize and question mainstream politics. The TNG episode ‘Force of Nature’ (1993) foresees the Federation Science Council imposing fleetwide limitations on warp speeds, due to concern that further high-warp emissions would prove destructive to the fabric of space. In contrast, in our world, ‘the systems that were meant to validate and respond to’ the initial alert about COVID-19 ‘were too slow,’ and much the same could be said about the official response to the climate crisis, which threatens our future radically. To this point, although the third season of Star Trek: Discovery (2020) is set in an alternate future in the early fourth millennium, wherein the Federation has collapsed following a mysterious ‘Burn,’ anti-authoritarians and rebels committed to Starfleet principles still find each other and engage in high-tech communist insurrections. Likewise, the trailer for season 2 of Picard (2022) suggests that the crew of La Sirena goes back in time to our day to prevent a fascist takeover in an alternate future, without the Federation. Accordingly, the Star Trek franchise both encourages and profits from horizontalist politics and internationalist struggles.

The Mars Trilogy and Red Moon

‘[D]o the best you can! Help all good causes!'[30]

The progressive visionary Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy—Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996)renders homage to Bogdanov’s Red Star in its portrayal of the near-future colonization of the red planet, and its subsequent terraforming into a green and then blue planet, laden with oceans. Robinson, or KSR, integrates a utopian blending of red and green figurative imagery and eco-political thought to envision a Martian cultural and political revolution against the capitalist despotism based on Earth.[30] Many of the place-names he invents for the red planet pay tribute to the German critical theorist Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope (1954-1959). In his own words, KSR was forever ‘changed’ by reading Le Guin, whom he described upon her passing in 2018 as ‘a complete person of letters and an important public intellectual.’

Among the scientists who settle Mars in 2026 in KSR’s imagination, certain characters stand for different socio-ecological alternatives. For example, the prophetess Hiroko Ai, a leader of the ‘Green’ movement, which seeks to terraform Mars, stands for ‘viriditas’ and life, while her foil, the geologist Ann Clayborne, initially avows a ‘Red’ position of ‘Mars First!’, which is radically opposing to any form of geoengineering. In contrast, Ann’s erstwhile colleague Phyllis Boyle stands for capitalist modernization and the death drive, whereas Arkady Bogdanov, whom she assassinates, symbolizes anarcho-syndicalism. The engineer Nadia Cherneshevsky, his partner—whose last name alludes to the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the social utopia What Is To Be Done? (1863)—emphasizes the critique of violence and social reconstruction following Terran retaliation against the First Martian Revolution, which takes place at the end of Red Mars. Furthermore, the Trinidadian anarchist stowaway known as ‘Coyote’ plays a crucial role in propagating ‘eco-economics,’ utopian socialism, and the gift economy in Green Mars. Ultimately, the Martian colonists succeed in transforming the planet into a ‘second Earth’ which has abolished private property, patriarchy, and social violence. As Blue Mars closes, on the newfound beaches of the fourth planet from the sun, the transformed elder Ann Clayborne reflects proudly:

‘Beat on, heart. And why not admit it. Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids. There was that to be said.'[32]

Cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

In Red Moon (2018), KSR contemplates similar themes in a compelling visionary thriller that features inter-imperialist rivalry between the U.S. and China, as well as resistance movements in both countries that contest capitalist authoritarianism for the sake of a better future. The year is 2047, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has colonized much of the moon, integrating it into the State as a ‘Special Administrative Region’—akin to the internal colonies of Tibet, Xinjiang, Macau, or Hong Kong, among others (not to mention much-coveted Taiwan). Although nationalism explains much of the impetus for China’s lunar presence, KSR describes how the moon also serves as a site to which the most polluting industries could be transferred, as well as an untapped source of mineral extraction, and a launchpad to the rest of space. Through estrangement, KSR presents a dual critique of the ‘G2’ of China and the U.S. as mirror-image ‘[p]artners in crime,’ while he metaphorically ponders ‘what it will take to achieve escape velocity […] and fly off into a new space.'[33]

Red Moon ‘s main character is the revolutionary Chinese leader Chan Qi, a so-called ‘Party princess’ and daughter of the CCP’s finance minister, who is sympathetic to the New Left and a critic of Confucian sexism—but not a Party member. With the help of the U.S. quantum mechanic Fred Fredericks, Qi evades the nefarious bureaucratic forces that would capture or kill her, whether on Earth or the moon, to change the lunar-planetary system, by means of an inside-outside strategy. From her lunar hideout, Qi calls for an uprising in China, resulting in the popular occupation of Beijing. This mobilization for the ‘China Dream’ of a ‘just world’ in turn inspires a similar movement in Washington, D.C., galvanizing ‘a global people’s revolt,’ starting with a ‘G2 people’s revolt,’ that has ‘no leader.’ As in The Ministry for the Future (2020), such popular uprisings lead to significant governmental reforms, but also to the recovery and rehabilitation of State power. This paradox is reflected in the Daoist poet Ta Shu’s declaration—likely echoing KSR’s own contemporary views—that ‘[u]ltimately you need both’ pressure from below and top-down reforms to resist capitalism and combat global warming.[34]

While a grassroots strategy based in green and community syndicalism, feminism, and intersectionality may theoretically provide the best chance for radically mitigating climate destruction, overthrowing class society, emancipating humanity, and saving millions of other terrestrial and marine species from extinction, the ‘receiving sets‘ for such revolutionary transformation are arguably missing at present. Moreover, as critical theorists and psychoanalysts emphasize, capitalism and hierarchy tend to reproduce themselves both in mind and reality through children’s socialization and education, proletarians’ working lives, and the imperatives of the culture industry. Along these lines, COP26 has shown the world yet again that the only measures which can be contemplated by capital and the State on the most fundamental questions about climate catastrophe fall radically short of the basic demand—presumably shared by everyone—for a livable planet.

Conclusions

In this series on speculative fiction, we have seen numerous examples of the intimate connections binding radical artists, the social imaginary, visionary art, and revolutionary struggle across time and space. Utopian science fiction flourished in early Soviet Russia until Stalin banned it, according to his goal of figuratively performing a ‘fantasectomy’ of the revolutionary imagination, thus facilitating social control and the counter-revolutionary cause. As the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker argued, Stalinism and Fascism were ‘part of a transnational process reinforcing hierarchies in which the worker was inevitably reduced to an anonymous piece of machinery in mass society.'[35] As such, these totalitarian regimes had more in common with Fordist capitalism than not. It is not for nothing that Henry Ford and Hitler mutually admired each other, or that Ford and Stalin made a deal in 1929.

As opposed to the dystopias of capitalist and Communist hells alike, the competing emancipatory vision of exile, equality, and autonomy is conveyed by the Daoist dream of a ‘Peach Blossom Spring,’ Raúl Cruz’s imaginary Mayan steampunk creatures, and the egalitarian ‘new history of humanity‘ uncovered by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The cause of collective liberation resonates in several of the art-works we have examined in these three articles: for example, We, The Great Dictator, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, THX 1138, Star Wars, Terminator, The Parable of the Sower, Elysium, Octavia’s Brood, Palestine + 100, ‘Imagining the Future in the Middle East and North Africa,’ News from Nowhere, The Dispossessed, Always Coming Home, Star Trek, the Mars trilogy, and Red Moon.

Like Octavia Butler, who believed the ‘highest imperative’ to be ‘action to create change,’ Walidah Imarisha rightly declares that ‘[a]ll organizing is science fiction.'[36] For this reason, while Jardine is right to warn us to be wary of media corporations trying to sell us anti-authoritarianism and anti-capitalism and lull us into interpassivity, perhaps more importantly, we should be mindful of the immense power our imaginations have to break capital’s infernal grip—not only over the mind, but also over reality, from which it is inseparable. In this series, we have seen how visionary protest art permits explorations of social problems and creative solutions to the same in past, present, and future.[37] In this sense, we would do well to heed Pranav Jeevan P’s invitation for us to ‘revisit and re-imagine these visions, understand and imbibe the ideas behind them and work towards creating our [own] Begumpura,’ our Peach Blossom Spring, our global Federation.


[1]Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (Routledge: London, 1954), 288.

[2]Jesse Cohn, Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 15 (emphasis in original). Some examples of anarchist protest art might include Колокол (‘The Bell,’ 1857-1867), War and Peace (1869), L’Homme et la Terre (‘Humanity and the Earth,’ 1905-1908), Regeneración (‘Regeneration,’ 1900-1918), ‘Written in Red’ (1911), Living My Life (1931-1934), Animal Farm (1945), The Rebel (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Salt of the Earth (1954), Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973), Libertarias (1996), La Commune (2000), Maggots and Men (2009), World War III Illustrated (1979-2014), and Processed World (1981-2005).

[3]Gerth and Mills 288; Cohn 269.

[4]Hayden Carruth, Brothers: I Loved You All: Poems, 1969-1977 (New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1978), 93-4 (emphasis in original).

[5]Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 71-94.

[6]Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 172-3.

[7]Cohn 63, 287.

[8]Bao Phi, ‘Revolution Shuffle,’ in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 11, 14.

[9]Walidah Imarisha, ‘Black Angel,’ in Octavia’s Brood, 50 (emphasis in original).

[10]Mia Mingus, ‘Hollow,’ in Octavia’s Brood, 109-21.

[11]LeVar Burton, ‘Aftermath,’ in Octavia’s Brood, 215-23.

[12]Stites 32-3, 172.

[13]Stites 174.

[14]William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 2004), 43-8, 105, 211-6, 226, 228.

[15]Nancy Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

[16]Morris 215, 223.

[17]Cohn 209.

[18]Ibid, 322-4.

[19]Stites 185-6.

[20]Cohn 228.

[21]Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso: London, 2005), 276; Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018).

[22]Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 138.

[23]Ibid, 390.

[24]Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 5.

[25]Le Guin 379-80.

[26]Jameson 67.

[27] John P. Clark. ‘On Living in the World: Always Coming Home Revisited.’ Fifth Estate, forthcoming.

[28]Stites 176-7.

[29]Martin Malia, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism (New York: Universal Library, 1961), 301-9.

[30]Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon (New York: Orbit, 2018), 288.

[31]Jameson 409-16.

[32]Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars (New York: Del Rey, 2017), 761.

[33]Robinson, Red Moon, 148, 181, 227, 232, 234-42.

[34]Ibid, 142, 157-9, 209, 231, 267 (emphasis in original), 268-9, 276-7, 327, 363-73, 410

[35]David Bernardini, ‘A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.History of European Ideas (2021), 6.

[36]Tananarive Due, ‘The Only Lasting Truth,’ in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 270; Imarisha 3.

[37]Stites 189, 226.

Video Recording: “The Responsibility to Protect in the Twenty-First Century”

November 18, 2021

This is the recording of a panel on “The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the Twenty-First Century,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

Speakers in order of appearance:

  • Myself, “Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism”
  • Bill Weinberg, “For Solidarity; Against Dictators and Campism”
  • Many thanks to the conference organizers for releasing the recordings.

    Video Recording: “Ecology and Revolution”

    November 18, 2021

    This is the recording of a panel on “Ecology and Revolution,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

    Speakers in order of appearance:

    – Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus”
    – Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, Capitalism and Critique”
    – Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work”
    – Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home”

    Video Recording: “A Critical Theory of Authority”

    November 18, 2021

    This is the recording of a panel on “A Critical Theory of Authority,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

    Speakers in order of appearance:

    • Shon Meckfessel, “Anti-Humanism on the Left”
    • Rocío Lopez, “Fascism as Bourgeois Reaction”
    • Myself, “A Critical Theory of Authority”

    A Critical Theory of Authority

    October 11, 2021

    These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Marcusean Politics Today.” My co-panelists were Shon Meckfessel and Rocío Lopez.

    In Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (1954), the sociologists Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills observe that, “from a psychological point of view, the crux of the problem of power rests in understanding the origin, constitution, and maintenance of voluntary obedience.” They add that “Authority, or legitimated power, involves voluntary obedience based on some idea which the obedient holds of the powerful or of his position” (Gerth and Mills 194-5). Indeed, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577), Étienne de la Boetie came to much the same conclusion: namely, that authority persists because we allow it to. Although the reproduction of hierarchy under capitalism is not so simple as that, considering the threats of unemployment, imprisonment, starvation, and assassination for those who rebel, there is something to Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment about a kind of “complicity between the oppressor and the oppressed” (Sartre 338).

    In turn, the models of sexual sadomasochism and socio-political authoritarianism developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Jessica Benjamin, and Lynn Chancer highlight the psychodynamic dimensions of erotic frustration and gender and class oppression. In other words, under generalized relations of dependence on capital and male authority, the power of the boss, man, sadist, and/or ‘top’ is ultimately derived from the psychological self-subordination of the worker, woman, masochist, and/or ‘bottom.’ In this sense, the specter of revolt can function as a destituent power that reverberates throughout society, as we have seen on many occasions in history, up to and including the present.

    At the same time, not all revolt is emancipatory, and “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression” (Rancière xvii). In Reason and Revolution (1941), Marcuse controversially defends G. W. F. Hegel’s criticism of the “pseudo-democratic” opponents of the post-Napoleonic Restoration régime, likening them—in their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and German nationalism—to precursors of the Nazis (Marcuse 1999: 179-81).1 Along similar lines, Ze’ev Sternhell sees the fascist cultural and political revolt against Enlightenment values like humanism and rationalism not as anomalous to European history, but rather, as integral to it (Sternhell 3, 250-1). The anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker likewise saw in fascism a “reaction to progress […] rooted in German history but concerning the whole of Europe” (Bernardini 9). Unfortunately, as was confirmed not only by the descent of the Russian Revolution into a Stalinist nightmare, but also by the collaboration of revolutionary syndicalists in the birth of national socialism, the phenomenon of the “leftist right,” or what Jürgen Habermas termed a “left fascism,” certainly exists (Rancière 72; Gandesha). Both in the past, as in the present, we see “discourse[s] of order composed in the vocabulary of subversion” (Rancière 116). In this sense, the Russian Marxist Georgii Plekhanov was right to accuse Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “Father of Anarchy,” of having combined “extreme Radicalism of mind with extreme Conservatism of mind” (Plechanoff 57, 63). Along similar lines, the neo-Stalinism of the GrayZone bloggers and the Trumpists’ coup attempt at the Capitol in January 2021 are arguably just two sides of the same coin.

    Thus, in this presentation, I will analyze the ‘reactionary rebellion’ of the revolutionary French syndicalist Georges Sorel (1847-1922), follower of Proudhon and mentor to Benito Mussolini, the first Fascist leader, whose 1922 March on Rome animated Adolf Hitler’s failed “beer hall putsch” (1923). I will also explore the bureaucratic anti-humanism of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), who sided with his Party (the French Communist, or PCF) in rejecting the May 1968 uprising. I will then conclude with an analysis of national-socialist currents among ‘anti-imperialists’ today, and offer some reconstructive, anti-authoritarian ideas for anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists going forward.

    Georges Sorel’s National Revolution

    Perhaps ironically, George Sorel—who infamously synthesized revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism to inspire Fascism—shared some concerns with the anti-fascist Marxists of the Institute for Social Research, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School theorists. They commonly focused on symbols, emotions, and socio-political psychology in their respective intellectual projects, although admittedly, for vastly different reasons: Sorel sought to “mobilize the masses and to change the world” by annihilating bourgeois society while upholding the authority principle and the place of “revolutionary ‘élites,’” whereas the critical theorists aimed at a non-repressive, anti-authoritarian transformation of global society (Marcuse 2008: 105; Sternhell 59). Across different generations, both the Frankfurters and the Sorelians worried that the working classes of advanced-industrial societies had been integrated into capitalism. Sorel despaired that the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was more interested in reform than revolution, and Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man (1964) under the impression that workers in the U.S. would not rise up against capitalism (Sternhell 96). In the prologue to Negative Dialectics (1970), Theodor W. Adorno laments that “Philosophy […] remains alive, because the moment of its realization was missed,” given that “the transformation of the world failed.” Along similar lines, Sorel and Walter Benjamin shared a belief in the heroic potential of pessimism.

    Of course, neither Adorno nor Marcuse (much less Benjamin) turned, as Sorel and Martin Heidegger did, to national socialism as a “new revolutionary path” (Sternhell 25, 123). Rather, as German-Jewish Marxists, they were forced to flee Nazi Germany and relocate to New York as refugees. After scaling the Pyrenees Mountains in late September 1940, Benjamin poignantly lost his life in the Spanish border town of Portbou, where he overdosed on morphine rather than be deported by Franco’s guards to the Nazi-collaborating Vichy régime. In the U.S., their newfound home, the surviving Frankfurt School theorists continued their principled anti-authoritarian analysis of society, rather than betray the cause, as Sorel so egregiously did.

    According to Sternhell’s account in The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), fascism can be interpreted as a revolt against the principles of the Enlightenment (3). Certainly, this thesis can explain Heidegger’s own attraction to, and promotion of, Nazism. Like his intellectual mentor Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger sought to demolish the “post-1789 moral-political dispensation [and] replace it with a new radically illiberal and anti-egalitarian dispensation” (Beiner). In Reason and Revolution, Marcuse analyzes the Counter-Enlightenment philosophers who rejected German Idealism and inspired Nazism. In this sense, he highlights F. J. Stahl (1802-1861), who affirmed anti-rationalism, repudiated natural law, and sought to replace the category of reason with obedience (Marcuse 1999: 360-74). Likewise Sorel: “a horror of the Enlightenment [was] basic to his thinking” (Sternhell 69). Indeed, this devout Catholic had no truck with the anti-clerical cause. As a white supremacist, Sorel condemned what he saw as the Jacobins’ “recklessness” for “abruptly abolishing slavery in the colonies’”—particularly, in Haiti (Abromeit 396). Many of his followers encouraged Italy’s invasions of Libya (1911) and Ethiopia (1936) as “labor imperialist” projects. Like his protégé and fellow revolutionary syndicalist Mussolini, Sorel found Nietzsche’s ideas attractive, especially the philosopher’s contempt for “English ideas,” liberalism, and bourgeois society—and presumably, as well, the Nietzschean affirmation of slavery (Beiner; Sternhell 101, 110, 126, 196, 200). Sorel attacked the idealist tradition while hailing “proletarian ‘violence’” as a new form of authority (Marcuse 2008: 104).

    Like Stahl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Sorel rejected rationalism, humanism, and natural law. His infamous “revision” of Marxism involved advocacy of the destruction of liberal democracy and parliamentary socialism through class struggle. Paradoxically, like Proudhon, Sorel “refused to touch private property and […] believed neither in equality nor in social justice […].” In reality, this “antidemocratic socialis[t]” envisioned the creation of a “producers’ civilization,” which would effectively function as a “revolutionary capitalism—[or] a capitalism of producers.” In this vein, the Sorelians “had nothing to put in place of capitalism and they did not conceive of a postcapitalist era.” As such, it is not hard to see how such a vision of stripping away liberal norms while retaining the capitalist mode of production could morph into Mussolini’s class-collaborationist, corporatist strategy (Sternhell 22, 28-9, 33, 37, 46-50, 69, 75, 80-2, 91, 117).

    In this sense, the birthplace of fascism was neither Italy nor Germany, but rather, France. Though Mussolini would not seize power until 1922, on Sternhell’s account, all the requisite conditions for the propagation of the fascist ideal were in place before the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). In the years after the publication of his Reflections on Violence (1908), a volume that exhorted the proletariat to wield violence to annihilate the bourgeoisie, Sorel abandoned socialism in favor of ultra-nationalism and the “conservative revolution.” In turn, Sorel inspired the founding of the national-syndicalist Cercle Proudhon in late 1911 as a clearing house for “nationalists and leftist anti-democrats.” The futurists and Sorelians in this Cercle highlighted Proudhon’s defense of private property, militarism, traditionalism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. As champions of anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, pessimism, a “revolutionary” hatred of democracy, and fidelity to Sorel’s masculinist cult of violence, these left-right syncretists proclaimed their ideal “the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution” (Sternhell 4, 7, 27-9, 69, 75, 78, 80, 86, 90, 124, 130). As Marcuse might say, the Sorelians failed to question, much less overcome, technical reason; instead, they inspired Mussolini and Hitler to build on Sorel’s vision of a future wherein the “cult of energy” and “authority would emerge victorious all along the line” (Sternhell 24-7, 129, 168, 236-7).

    Crucially, Sternhell distinguishes between the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism and anarchists. For Sorel and his followers, “the principle of authority was never in question.” In fact, “Sorelism detested anarchism,” and the master’s right-hand man, Édouard Berth, “wrote that ‘a real abyss’ divided the ideas of the syndicalists from those of the anarchists.” Paradoxically, the Sorelians opposed the concept of self-management, whether individual or collective; effectively, they proposed a hierarchical and productivist society run by syndicates (Sternhell 31, 103-104, 127, 218-223). Ultimately, these revolutionary unionists were just used by the Fascists to seize power. After all, conceptually speaking, national syndicalism and corporatism utterly contradict the cause of worker autonomy. As we know from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), the Nazi regime was run in the interests of the industrialists, the bureaucracy, the military leaders, and the National Socialist Party (Neumann). Accordingly, Sternhell is right to conclude that fascists’ use of leftist discourse always has “’rightist’ results” (211), just as Rocker is right to denounce Stalinism and Fascism as totalitarian ideologies that “both grew on the same tree” (Bernardini 7).

    Even so, the case of Sorel is a disturbing one, considering how it illuminates the overlap between left and right, which are categories that are often considered to be mutually exclusive. How can it be that Jacques Rancière describes Sorel (perhaps unfairly) as an anarcho-syndicalist, that Mussolini and the Sorelian George Valois had had anarchist sympathies before embracing national socialism, and that so many Italian revolutionary syndicalists became Fascists? (Rancière 61; Sternhell 96, 143) In reality, many leftists and fascists commonly emphasize direct action, energy, violence, heroism, and sacrifice, while championing the will to power and conquest and critiquing “moralism” (Sternhell 29, 176-9). Mussolini and the Nazis admired Bolshevik authoritarianism, and Stalin trusted and allied with Hitler—rather irrationally, it turns out (Arendt 308-9; Bernardini). Part of the appeal of Sorelianism to syndicalists and nationalists alike was (and remains) its claim that both groups share(d) common enemies in liberalism and parliamentarism. Especially in the wake of postmodernism, many self-proclaimed leftists share a reactionary commitment to anti-universalism (Sternhell 163, 250-1). Whether a century ago or now, it is apparent that Sorelians, neo-Stalinists, and national socialists merely seek the worst of all possible worlds: that is, capitalism without any rights at all (Hensman).

    Althusser’s Lesson

    In Althusser’s Lesson (1974), the French philosopher Jacques Rancière takes his former professor to task for siding with the Communist Party of France (PCF), which opposed the revolutionary student movement of May 1968 as “petit bourgeois.” In regurgitating the Party line, Althusser effectively defended the division between mental and manual labor, privileging the former over the latter, while affirming the “very model prescribed by the philosophy of educators: enlightened despotism.” (In contrast, Sartre supported May 1968.) Besides Althusser’s disgrace, Rancière’s volume is focused “on the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order” (Rancière xvi, 11, 19, 54).

    In this vein, Rancière identifies Althusserianism as a discourse of order wrapped up “in the language of leftism.” He traces its origin to “the desire to combat the revisionist tendencies that had seeped into philosophy following the Twentieth Congress” of 1956, when Nikita Khrushchëv denounced the crimes of Stalin, his then-deceased predecessor. In other words, Althusser followed Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in their questionable defense of Stalin, announced during the Sino-Soviet split in the post-1956 context. Broadly speaking, for Rancière, Althusser’s career amounted to the “fight of a ‘communist philosopher’ against that which threatens both the authority of his Party and of his philosophy: [namely,] Cultural Revolution on a global scale.” Both Althusser and the PCF leadership were anxious about the discovery of Marx’s Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which so moved Fromm, Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others, because they feared the creation of a “political authority other than the Party.” Accordingly, Althusser maligned these pieces as having been written during Marx’s “petit bourgeois” as opposed to “proletarian” communist phase—despite the fact that this distinction is entirely arbitrary. In terms of theory, Althusser insisted that “Marxism is a[n] anti-humanism,” proposing instead that humanism is “bourgeois idealism,” while championing Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies through his promotion of “an unofficial version of Stalinism” (Rancière xx, 9, 21, 23, 33, 72, 78-9, 83, 113, 116).

    Indeed, by the time the May 1968 uprising began with student revolt, Althusser had long given up on any ideas he may have had about questioning and dissolving State power, factory despotism, or wage labor. His attacks on the syndicalist left, and his disgrace over May 1968, speak for themselves. Some of the reconstructive proposals that Rancière considers in closing are ideas about proletarian humanism, self-management, and the independence of labor leading to the autonomy of producers and “a world [re]made for and by the labour community.” At its best, society would operate as a network of cooperatives “which impos[e their] own rhythm on the work [through] non-hierarchical organization” and the democratic recognition of human equality (Rancière 37, 89-90, 93, 108, 117; May).

    Conclusion: National Socialism, ‘Anti-Imperialism,’ and Anarcho-Syndicalism

    Returning to the attempted Capitol putsch of 2021, we see that this disturbing neo-fascist moment united hyper-masculinity, white-male rage, anddirect action with anti-parliamentarian and anti-democratic politics. As Eric Alterman describes, “Trumpism’s release of suppressed sexual and aggressive drives is a far cry from [what Marcuse termed Eros]. Rather, it represents what Marcuse called the ‘political utilization of sex’ and aggression to reinforce social domination” (Alterman). That being said, this moribund marriage of opportunism with authoritarianism has not been limited in recent years to the far right. In the wake of the rise of self-described ‘leftist’ streamers and ‘anti-imperialist’ bloggers who claim independence from mainstream media while reproducing their brand competitiveness and associated ‘spins’ on reality, many neophyte ‘socialist celebrities’ have profited from “preach[ing] a contempt for democracy and parliamentarism,” as revolutionary syndicalists and ultra-nationalists did a century ago (Sternhell 108, 153).

    Along these very same lines, the political comedian Jimmy Dore bases his appeal in a call for the left and the right to “join forces” against “the Establishment.” Likewise, the GrayZone conspiracy theorists deny the existence of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other ethno-religious minorities that are maintained by the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang. Appallingly, one of GrayZone’s main shticks is to deny Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for hundreds of chemical-weapons attacks carried out against insurgents and civilian communities alike in Syria over the past decade. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that Dore and GrayZone have now switched to promoting disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and agitating in favor of the use of ivermectin to treat COVID.

    Rancière mentions the case of Pierre Daix (1922-2014), a journalist who first “denied the existence of labour camps in the Soviet Union [in 1949]; he never convinced anybody,” and then he resigned from the PCF in 1974, after having engaged with Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago (1973) (Rancière 107). Given the profit and self-promotion involved, we cannot expect the GrayZone editors to argue in good faith about history or current events, much less renounce their absurd positions. The problem is that they do seem to convince their audiences, who admittedly may already be predisposed to aggressive, delusional, and sadistic thought-patterns and behaviors. Like Althusser over May 1968, ‘anti-imperialist’ authoritarians—ostensibly on the left—have built up their brands by denying the existence of the Syrian Revolution over the past decade on the one hand, and covering up the egregious atrocities carried out by the counter-revolutionary axis on the other: that is, Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. With nearly a million Syrians murdered, and millions more displaced internally and across borders, the “line” of GrayZone and its sympathizers—of allying with the executioners—is a fundamental violation of leftist and Enlightenment principles around internationalism, humanism, and egalitarianism. In short, this ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse is merely another discourse of order and a “consecration of the [status quo] in the language of revolution” (Rancière 124).

    Around Syria, the Trump regime, and COVID-19, we have seen a clear convergence between Stalinists and fascists who seek to marry revolution with tradition by advancing anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, and a hatred of democracy (Stites 250; Sternhell 240-1). The risk is that contrarian bloggers and streamers in touch with these currents are implicitly and paradoxically promoting neo-Nazism by espousing “an authoritarian and corporatist national revolution based on an ‘anticapitalist’ alliance” (Sternhell 248). Though this risk may seem exaggerated, the experience of four years of Trump, plus the resentment that persists over his electoral loss, show us just how much support the Counter-Enlightenment continues to enjoy.

    Within this struggle, in the hopes of avoiding contributing to a reinvigorated fascism in our time, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should restate our opposition to private property, and our universal support for worker and community self-control of the economy and polity. Plus, we should revisit implicit or explicit futurism, anti-rationalism, and anti-humanism in the movement, and in our history, plus reconsider to what extent sharing a Nietzschean, Heideggerian, or Sorelian critique of liberal democracy is helpful. Furthermore, the cause of worker autonomy, which is realistically the only means of ensuring the preconditions for collective liberation and protection of the Earth from climate destruction, might greatly be assisted by integrating the insights from Critical Theory about the psychological dimensions of overcoming hierarchy, which ultimately is based on voluntary obedience, into labor organizing. Therefore, I conclude: anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists, unite!

    Works Cited

    Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” Transformations of Populism in Europe, the United States and Latin America: History, Theories and Recent Tendencies. Ed. John Abromeit. Unpublished manuscript. 367-413.

    Alterman, Eric 2021. “Altercation: Authoritarians Amok.” The American Prospect. Available online: https://prospect.org/politics/altercation-authoritarians-amok. Accessed 25 September 2021.

    Arendt, Hannah 1968. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt.

    Beiner, Ronald 2021. “Dangerous Minds in Dangerous Times.” Thesis Eleven, vol. 163, no. 1. 29-42. doi:10.1177/07255136211005989.

    Bernardini, David 2021. “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.” History of European Ideas. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2021.1963629.

    Gandesha, Samir 2019. “The “Authoritarian Personality” Reconsidered: the Phantom of ‘Left Fascism.’” American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 79(4): 601-624. doi: 10.1057/s11231-019-09227-w. PMID: 31745203.

    Hensman, Rohini 2018. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

    Marcuse, Herbert 1999. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

    — 2008. A Study on Authority. Trans. Joris de Bres. London: Verso.

    May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

    Neumann, Franz 1942. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. London: Victor Gollancz.

    Plechanoff, George 2014. Anarchism and Socialism. Trans. Eleanor Marx. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

    Rancière, Jacques 2017. Althusser’s Lesson. Trans. Emiliano Battista. London: Bloomsbury.

    Sartre, Jean-Paul 1983. Cahiers pour une morale. Paris: Gallimard.

    Sternhell, Ze’ev 1994. The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    1Marcuse comments: “Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right as a defense of the state against this pseudo-democratic ideology, in which he saw a more serious threat to freedom than in the continued rule of the vested authorities” (1999: 180).

    Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism

    October 11, 2021

    These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “The Responsibility to Protect in the Twenty-First Century.” My co-panelist was Bill Weinberg.

    Welcome to our round-table. We will focus on ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ethiopia and Syria, and present anti-authoritarian views on the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P). Just as the genocides perpetrated in the 1990’s in Bosnia and Rwanda did, so ongoing radical violations of international humanitarian law raise the controversial questions of R2P and humanitarian intervention today.

    In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, since November 2020, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has overseen a genocidal counter-insurgent campaign against not only the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom his administration has designated a “terrorist organization,” but also against the civilian population of the region, provoking mass-famine and -displacement. In parallel, Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have drowned the Syrian Revolution in blood: over the past decade, up to a million Syrians have been killed (Salahi). Undoubtedly, such crimes follow from the authoritarian illogic of State sovereignty and the “non-intervention principle” in international society, both of which form part of what the critical sociologist Max Weber described as the “Iron Cage” of capitalist modernity (Wheeler and Bellamy 563).

    In this presentation, I will begin by analyzing the political and intellectual support provided by many of the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists to the Allied war effort against Nazism, and consider the “neither Washington-nor Moscow” approach taken by most of these thinkers during the subsequent Cold War. I will then compare these concepts to anarchist ideals of internationalism. In place of the conspiracism, denialism, and anti-humanism that animates so much of what passes for “left” commentary on global issues of war, exploitation, and domination in our time, I will propose egalitarianism, (literary) realism, and anti-authoritarianism as important value principles for left internationalism. Lastly, I will consider the implications of such a position for the responsibility to protect (R2P) in the face of gross human-rights violations today.

    The Frankfurt School, World War II, and the Cold War

    As we know, most (but not all) of the Frankfurt-School theorists were German Jews who had to flee their homes in the early 1930’s, as the Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler seized power. Most resettled in New York, where director Max Horkheimer had arranged for the Institute for Social Research to be relocated to Columbia University. Theodor W. Adorno and Franz Neumann initially moved to England, where the Fabian socialists Sidney Webb, R. H. Tawney, and Harold Laski had arranged for a London office to be opened for the Institute. Uniquely among the critical theorists, Walter Benjamin did not survive his bid to cross the Pyrenees Mountains in September 1940 and pass through Francoist Spain to reach Lisbon, where he was to take a steamer to New York and reunite with his comrades.

    Once the relationship between Horkheimer and Marcuse soured in the early 1940’s, when Max suddenly announced he would partner with Adorno on Dialectic of Enlightenment, after having indicated to Herbert that he would be his co-writer—and encouraging him to move with his family across country to join Horkheimer in Los Angeles—Marcuse began working on philosophical studies of social change with Neumann, as well as his own investigations into Nazism. These included “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” (1941), “State and Individual under National Socialism” (1941), and “The New German Mentality” (1942). When Neumann joined the U.S. wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in 1942, Marcuse was not far behind. Together with fellow exile Otto Kirchheimer, the trio proposed a radical de-Nazification program for the post-war U.S. administration to implement, but it was duly ignored. After the OSS demobilized at the end of the war, Marcuse went on to work at the State Department until 1951, at which time he entered academia. Two decades later, when the equivalent of today’s ‘anti-imperialist’ critics used Marcuse’s tenure at the OSS to question his radical credentials, the critical theorist proudly defended his work there, noting that “the war then was a war against fascism and […] consequently, I haven’t the slightest reason for being ashamed of having assisted in it” (Marcuse and Popper 59). After all, we must not forget that World War II, besides being an inter-imperialist war with global dimensions, was also a people’s war against foreign occupation, totalitarian dictatorship, and genocidal oppression, both in Europe and Asia (Price).

    After the Allied victory, at the birth of the Cold War, Horkheimer and Adorno returned to what by then had become West Germany, while Marcuse remained in the U.S. to research and teach at different universities. After serving the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal as researcher for the chief prosecutor, Neumann died tragically in a car accident in Switzerland in 1954. Generally speaking, over time and space, the critical theorists maintained their anti-authoritarian critique of both Western capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism, in keeping with the third-campist, Trotskyist slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer slipped up, as we will see.

    Marcuse wrote Soviet Marxism (1958) as one of the first critical treatments of the USSR from within the Marxist tradition, and in One-Dimensional Man (1964), he condemns the mobilization of stifling conformity on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He was a fierce critic of U.S. government policy toward Castro’s Cuba, and of the Vietnam War, as well as a supporter of the May 1968 uprising in France, “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia (1968), and the Vietnamese and Chinese Revolutions (Sethness Castro). The same could not be said of Horkheimer, who took a turn for the worse toward life’s end by resisting calls for the Institute to condemn the Vietnam War, celebrating “German-American Friendship Week” in 1967, and going so far as to support the U.S. war on Vietnam as an ostensible means of checking the propagation of Maoist political movements (Jay 13-16, 352-353n30).

    Internationalist Principles: Egalitarianism, (Literary) Realism, and Anti-Authoritarianism

    Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

    Along these lines, Rancière’s political theory emphasizes the equal capacity everyone has to intervene in politics, while the literary realist style featured by Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy in such art-works as “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869) condemns the militarism practiced by States in a highly tragic and humanist light. Especially in the protest novel War and Peace, Tolstoy conveys his critique of inter-imperialist war, toxic masculinity, heterosexism, autocratic domination, and class exploitation. Such realism is effectively humanism. Rather than function to rationalize State abuses (in keeping with the “realist” school of international-relations theory), it remains true to Adorno’s concern for the “unbearable physical agony to which individuals are exposed” through atrocities (Adorno 365).

    Historically, anarchist internationalism has involved coordination of and support for self-organized, autonomous movements of peasants and workers. This strategy has been used by anarchists of collectivist, syndicalist, and communist persuasions in the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), otherwise known as the First International; the Anarchist St. Imier International; the Anti-Authoritarian International; and the International Workers’ Association (IWA-AIT), which continues organizing to this day (Graham). Anarchist internationalists have also supported armed struggle against oppression across borders in many different contexts, such as the nineteenth-century Polish uprisings against Tsarist domination; the Paris Commune of 1871; the popular Cuban struggle against Spanish and U.S. imperialism; the Mexican, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions; the French Resistance to Nazi occupation; both the Algerian independence movement, as well as those French soldiers who deserted their posts during the Algerian War (1954-1962); the neo-Zapatista struggle for indigenous autonomy (1994-present); and the Syrian and Rojava Revolutions of the past decade (Cappelletti; Porter).

    On the one hand, in stark contrast to Marxist-Leninists, anti-authoritarian internationalists have typically striven to remain distant from “anti-imperialist,” national-socialist, and/or state-capitalist regimes, such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the People’s Republic of China. That being said, Noam Chomsky effectively supported the Khmer Rouge, who in the late 1970’s killed millions in just three and a half years, before hailing its ouster by the Vietnamese after the fact as a striking example of humanitarian intervention.1 However much Chomsky’s contrarian approach has harmed the left’s relationship to real-life atrocities, inspiring the denialism of today, it should be taken as anomalous among anti-authoritarians (Anthony; Chomsky). On the other hand, anarchists have also generally maintained our independence from liberal Western governments, although the track records of the German theorist Rudolf Rocker—who abandoned anarcho-syndicalism for what he called “libertarian revisionism” at life’s end—and of the French unionist Georges Sorel—who proposed a marriage of revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism as a strategy to destroy bourgeois society, but instead ended up inspiring Fascism—provide important lessons in this sense, for both reformists and revolutionaries (Bernardini 7; Sternhell).

    Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Today

    Solidarist international society theory proposes that, regardless of questions of legality, there is a moral duty to forcibly intervene in “situations of extreme humanitarian emergency,” whether owing to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity (Wheeler and Bellamy 559). Humanitarian intervention, in this sense, can be viewed as a delayed reaction on the part of global society to its guilt over the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII. At the 2005 UN World Summit, 170 States formally adopted the legal doctrine of R2P, which stipulates “collective action […] through the Security Council, […] should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” As such, R2P doctrine is a combination of solidarism and geopolitical (but not literary) realism: while a “incomplete and poorly defined concept,” it at least establishes a minimum standard against atrocious human-rights violations (Nahlawi). Non-compliance in this sense could then trigger a multi-lateral intervention designed to use proportional force to compel a halt to such crimes.

    At the same time, the State actors that would be intervening are required to have humanitarian rather than strategic motivations for their effective violation of the otherwise overriding sovereignty principle—thus excluding the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from being instances of “R2P.” In reality, R2P is understood as an exception to the fundamental principles of the UN charter, which ban the use of force between States. As a result, humanitarian intervention is reserved for “extraordinary oppression, not the day-to-day variety” (R. J. Vincent, cited in Wheeler and Bellamy 561). Even so, this begs the question of why poverty, patriarchy, and exploitation should be normalized as acceptable in this framing that claims to oppose ultra-violence. The confused answer would likely have to do with diplomacy and respect for value pluralism; after all, even in the rare instances on which it would be considered and operationalized, R2P is suppose to be based on “incrementalism and gradualism in the application of force,” rather than “defeat of a state.” Moreover, to limit the application of R2P to the whims of UN Security Council members hampers its potential, as these States are by definition often involved in the very atrocities that require redress. They rightly fear that any legal precedent for humanitarian intervention could be used against them (Wheeler and Bellamy 563, 570). For this reason, Yasmine Nahlawi champions the “Uniting for Peace” doctrine as an alternative, whereby the UN General Assembly can take up questions of R2P when the Security Council refuses or otherwise fails to do so (Nahlawi).

    Humanitarian intervention can be forcible or consensual, violent or non-violent. Nicholas Wheeler and Alex Bellamy view “non-forcible humanitarian intervention,” like the work of Médecins Sans Frontières, as a “progressive manifestation of the globalization of world politics” (576). No doubt there. Yet, in the face of mass-atrocities being committed today in Syria and Tigray, pacific forms of intervention may serve more as band-aids than help to address the State oppression perpetuating human agony. For instance, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2” (Jabbour et al.). This is arguably due to global conformity with the principle of non-intervention, even and especially on the so-called “left,” particularly in the traumatic wake of the Iraq invasion. Paradoxically, then, the oppressive concept of sovereignty is being used by Assad, Putin, and their backers to shield accountability for the mass-atrocities they have carried out (Sibai). “Thus Hitler demands the right to practice mass murder in the name of the principle of sovereignty under international law, which tolerates any act of violence in another country,” write Horkheimer and Adorno (Adorno and Horkheimer 2003: 414). But perhaps, short of a global anarchist revolution, this dynamic should work the other way around: in other words, sovereignty could be canceled, in light of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (Wheeler and Bellamy 561).

    Applying principles of egalitarianism, literary realism, and anti-authoritarianism to left internationalism in the twenty-first century has a great creative potential. While we cannot entirely predict how this proposal might play out, support for R2P and humanitarian intervention could justifiably form part of the program. Of course, the idea that anarchists should compromise with the State, even on a question so pressing as international fascist atrocities, has a dire history: see the fate of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War.2 This risk of compromise and self-contradiction must, however, be balanced against the risk of violating one’s internationalism and even humanity, by ignoring and/or guarding silence about ultra-violence and other extreme forms of oppression happening elsewhere in the world.

    Naturally, these do not have to be the only two options. For instance, in Rojava, volunteers have joined the International Freedom Battalion, echoing the fighters in the International Brigades who participated in the Spanish Civil War. I personally agree with the Afghan-American professor Zaher Wahab that UN peacekeepers should have intervened as US-NATO forces left Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from taking over, as it has. Moreover, though flawed, the UN humanitarian intervention in Bosnia in the 1990’s prevented the extermination of the Bosniak Muslims at the hands of Serbian ultra-nationalists, and a similar analysis could be made of the 2014 intervention by the U.S. and the PKK in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to rescue Yezidis from Islamic State forces.

    Undoubtedly, these are all controversial questions. My perspective is that anti-authoritarian principles of egalitarianism, (literary) realism, and humanism represent much-needed “infusions” for left internationalism; that the responsibility to protect is direly needed to address political violence across the globe, whether in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Ethiopia, Burma/Myanmar, China, or elsewhere; and that political radicals should reconsider their commitment, in many cases, to bourgeois principles of non-intervention. Let’s discuss.

    Works Cited

    Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. London: Routledge.

    Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

    Anthony, Andrew 2010. “Lost in Cambodia.” Guardian, 9 January.

    Bernardini, David 2021. “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.” History of European Ideas. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2021.1963629.

    Cappelletti, Ángel 2017. Anarchism in Latin America. Trans. Gabriel Palmer-Fernández. Chico, Calif.: AK Press.

    Chomsky, Noam 1993-4. “Humanitarian Intervention.” Boston Review. Available online: https://chomsky.info/199401__02. Accessed 6 October 2021.

    Graham, Robert 2015. We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It. Oakland: AK Press.

    Jabbour, Samer et al. 2021. “10 years of the Syrian conflict: a time to act and not merely to remember.” The Lancet, vol. 397, issue 10281. P1245-8.

    Jay, Martin 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

    Le Guin, Ursula K. 1985. Always Coming Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Marcuse, Herbert and Karl Popper 1976. Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation. Ed. A.T. Ferguson. Chicago: New University Press.

    May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

    Nahlawi, Yasmine 2020. The Responsibility to Protect in Libya and Syria. London: Routledge.

    Porter, David 2011. Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria. Oakland: AK Press.

    Price, Wayne 2015. “The Meaning of World War II—An Anarchist View.” The Anarchist Library. Available online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wayne-price-the-meaning-of-world-war-ii-an-anarchist-view. Accessed 6 October 2021.

    Salahi, Amr 2020. “Will we ever really know how many people have died in Syria since 2011?” The New Arab, 28 January. Available online: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2020/1/28/how-many-people-have-died-in-syria-since-2011. Accessed 28 January 2020.

    Sethness Castro, Javier 2016. Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse. Leiden: Brill.

    Sibai, Leila 2018. “How international law helps Assad and Putin.” Al-Jumhuriya, 22 May. Available online: https://www.aljumhuriya.net/en/content/-how-international-law-helps-assad-and-putin. Accessed 6 October 2021.

    Sternhell, Ze’ev 1994. The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution.. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Alex J. Bellamy 2005. “Humanitarian intervention in world politics.” The Globalization of World Politics, 3rd Edition. Eds. John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 555-78.

    Yalom, Irvin D. 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

    Notes

    1As a side-note, China and the West condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as serving the aims of Soviet imperialism (Wheeler and Bellamy 563).

    2Of course, we cannot blame the outcome of the Civil War on the CNT-FAI.

    Panels on “Alternative Futures” at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference

    September 27, 2021

    On Saturday, October 9, 2021, I’ll be participating on three panels at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference. The theme this year is “Alternative Futures: Marcuse’s Dialectic of Technology.” While the conference will be held both virtually and in-person at the University of Arizona in Tempe, all panels will be accessible online via Zoom.

    “Ecology and Revolution”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 8:00-9:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

    Video Recording

    Chair: Thais Gobo

    • Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus
    • Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, capitalism and critique
    • Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work
    • Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

    “The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the Twenty-First Century”: Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, 10:00-11:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

    Video Recording

    Chair: Javier Sethness

    • Myself, “Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism
    • Bill Weinberg, “For Solidarity; Against Dictators and Campism
    • Anner G., “The Responsibility to Protect in Tigray”

    “Marcusean Politics Today”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 3:00-4:50pm Pacific/local Phoenix Time

    Video Recording

    Chair: Andrew T. Lamas

    • Shon Meckfessel, “Anti-Humanism on the Left”
    • Rocío Lopez, “Fascism as Bourgeois Reaction”
    • Myself, “A Critical Theory of Authority”

    We welcome discussion, and hope you can join us!

    The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report: A Green-Syndicalist Analysis

    August 29, 2021

    Originally published on New Politics, 28 August 2021

    Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of ongoing global warming. This study of the “Physical Science Basis” of climate change concludes that the situation is very alarming. As such, the AR6 may be taken as “code red for humanity.” In less than 300 years, the carbon emitted to power industrial capitalism has intensified the greenhouse effect, causing Earth’s global temperature to rise on average by 1°C, or 1.8°F (A.1.3). Overall, the AR6’s authors project the impacts of five trajectories of climate change in what remains of the twenty-first century, from courses that limit warming to a 1.5-2°C (2.7-3.6°F) average increase, to paths promising a rise of 3-5°C (5.4-9°F)—or worse. While these latter scenarios would hasten the Sixth Mass Extinction and threaten humankind’s self-destruction through precipitous global ecological collapse, even in the less destructive cases of increases of 1.5-2°C, “[m]any changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level” (B.5). Indeed, global temperatures will rise this century in all scenarios under consideration, and limiting this increase to 1.5-2°C is only possible with “deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions” now, and in the coming years. (B.1)

    Since publication of its first assessment report in 1990, the IPCC has borne witness to the ever-worsening problem of anthropogenic climate disruption, together with what amounts to humanity’s suicidal failure to address the factors threatening collective destruction. The AR6 reflects the latest and starkest findings from the field of climatology. Given that each successive report takes 6-8 years to produce, as Guardian environment correspondent Fiona Harvey adds soberly, the AR6 also constitutes “the last IPCC report to be published while we still have a chance of averting the worst ravages of climate breakdown.”

    In this article, we will review the IPCC’s AR6 Summary for Policymakers (SPM). The SPM is a much-condensed version of the full report on the “Physical Science Basis” of global warming, which runs to nearly 4,000 pages. We encourage readers to read either or both reports for themselves. After considering the latest findings from climatology, we will conclude by considering possible remedies to the grave problems highlighted by the AR6 SPM. As summarized in the concept of green syndicalism, we will avow egalitarian and socially transformative approaches to radically reducing emissions, in the hopes of minimizing the grave risks posed by the climate crisis. All figures are taken from the SPM.

    Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis

    The IPCC’s AR6 expands upon and updates the AR5, published in 2013. In turn, the 2007 AR4 served as the basis for the eco-journalist Mark Lynas’ terrifying exposé, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Climate (2007; reviewed here). Although it is the first IPCC report “to assess the risk of tipping points thoroughly,” the AR6 follows a similar format to its predecessors, in considering the past and current states of the climate, contemplating possible climate futures, and stressing the importance of limiting future warming. As scientists, the AR6’s authors use confidence estimates to convey the certainty of their claims.

    For instance, with 80-90% confidence, the IPCC finds that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in 2019 were the highest they’ve been in 2 million years, and that human activities are the “main driver” of worldwide glacial retreat since the 1990s, as of the decrease in Arctic sea ice seen in the past 40 years (A.1.5, A.2.1). Grimly, with 80% confidence, the IPCC can say that the average Arctic sea ice extent has been at its lowest over the past decade since 1850. With 50% confidence, it finds that both the existing level of late-summer Arctic sea ice and the global rate of glacial recession are unprecedented for one to two-thousand years (A.2.3). Since the onset of industrial capitalism, the oceans have borne the brunt of global warming: specifically, the AR6’s authors estimate with 80% confidence that the oceans have absorbed “91% of the heating in the climate system, with land warming, ice loss and atmospheric warming accounting for about 5%, 3% and 1%, respectively” (A.4.2). By the same token, in the early twenty-first century, “ice sheet and glacier mass loss were the dominant contributors” to sea-level rise (A.4.3). Thus far over the past century, the oceans have risen an estimated 0.2 meters, or 0.6 feet. (A.1.7)

    In terms of both the fate of Earth’s cryosphere (icy regions) and sea levels, the IPCC’s authors have no doubt either that ice loss will continue in Greenland, or that sea levels will rise, as this century progresses. Moreover, they calculate a two-thirds probability that Antarctica’s ice will recede during this time, together with a lower risk that the Antarctic ice sheet will start to break up altogether, in the case of especially high emissions (B.5.2). In a similar vein, the AR6 authors warns that sea levels will continue to rise another 0.3-1 meter(s) this century, with more intensive carbon-emission trajectories translating to greater sea-level rise. (B.5.3)

    Regarding heat and drought, the IPCC’s authors are “virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions since the 1950s, while cold extremes (including cold waves) have become less frequent and less severe, with high confidence that human-induced climate change is the main driver of these changes” (A.3.1, A.3.5; original emphasis). This shift toward a “Hothouse Earth” pathway is bleakly illustrated in the figure below, which shows nearly all of the world’s regions heating up. Whereas warming effects are expected to be most concentrated at Earth’s poles, some temperate and semi-arid regions can be expected to “see the highest increase in the temperature of the hottest days, at about 1.5 to 2 times the rate of global warming (high confidence)” (B.2.1, B.2.3; orig. emphasis). Overall, as Guardian editor Damian Carrington observes in his review of the AR6, “[d]rought is increasing in more than 90% of the regions for which there is good data.” Paradoxically, though, a hotter Earth can also be a wetter Earth: “The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area for which observational data are sufficient for trend analysis (high confidence), and human-induced climate change is likely the main driver” (A.3.2; orig. emphasis). As we have seen confirmed this summer from China to Germany and the U.S., global warming intensifies the risk and frequency of “heavy precipitation events” (B.2.4).

    Transitioning to a focus on different climate futures, the AR6 authors ominously conclude that there is effectively no space for any future expansion of greenhouse-gas emissions, considering that we have “blown 86% of our carbon budget already.” Therefore, as with exposure to ionizing radiation, we can conclude that there is no safe dose for the burning of carbon at this point, as “[c]hanges in several climatic impact-drivers would be more widespread at 2°C compared to 1.5°C global warming and even more widespread and/or pronounced for higher warming levels” (C.2). In other words, the degree of damage wrought by anthropogenic climate disruption depends on whether or not we can defy capital’s growth imperative and radically reorganize production, society, and polity in the coming years. As is clear from the bar graphs below, only the most radical of reduction trajectories considered in the AR6, the so-called SSP1-1.9, provides a good chance of limiting overall global warming to a 1.5°C average increase. Achieving this goal presupposes sustained global net negative carbon emissions—meaning the abolition of fossil fuels and deforestation, plus carbon sequestration (D.1.6). Even then, in the best case, temperatures could soar beyond 1.5°C later this century, before declining below the target again (B.1.3).

    In reality, only the lowest and second-lowest greenhouse-gas emission trajectories modeled by the IPCC in the AR6 are likely to avoid the “threshold” of a 2°C rise, beyond which catastrophe ensues (B.1.1, B.1.2). All other courses, which are expected by the capitalist compulsions that govern the world, ensure our collective self-destruction.

    Radical Climate Politics and Green Syndicalism

    As we have seen in this article, the first third of the AR6 is not dedicated to solutions, but rather, to examining the scope of the problem of global warming. However, whereas the AR6 section on strategies for mitigating global warming is not expected until next year, remedial action to shift us toward very low emissions trajectories is desperately needed now. Rather than perpetuate hierarchical convention or Trumpist barbarism, we need a regenerative “Great Transition” integrating a “managed decline” of fossil-fuel production, expansion, and exploration, together with a halt to deforestation, across the globe. As the AR6 demonstrates, such a program would need to achieve negative net carbon emissions—as through reforestation, rewilding, restoration, and other forms of sequestration—to limit global warming to a 1.5-2°C rise. In short, the longer we procrastinate, the higher our risk of self-destruction (D.2.3).

    At the same time, while the gloominess of the AR6 might shock its readers, we should recall that its conclusions are necessarily conservative. Climate journalist Emily Atkin points out that every word published in the IPCC’s name must be agreed to by each UN member-country—including mass-carbon burners like the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Due to this same power dynamic, the term “fossil fuels” does not appear once in the Summary for Policymakers. We hear about “activities,” “emissions,” and “influence,” but not exploitation or domination, whether of humanity or nature. Reading the AR6, Atkin notes soberly, “You’ll learn the world is ending, [but] you [might] not know who to blame.”

    In closing, then, and keeping in mind our interest in egalitarian and socially transformative frameworks for radically reducing emissions to minimize our climate risk, let us consider some contemporary approaches to climate politics, both institutional and radical.

    Known as the official architecture for discussing and debating global warming, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the body that has negotiated such non-binding international agreements as the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Accord (2015) through annual meetings of the Conference of Parties (COPs). In November 2021, after a one-year hiatus over the COVID-19 pandemic, the twenty-sixth COP will be held. Based on its track record so far, nothing meaningful can be expected to come of it. Of course, the failure of the COP to restrain the factors driving global warming is largely on the United States, the largest historical emitter by far, which refused to join Kyoto under the Clinton and Bush administrations, torpedoed the Copenhagen talks in 2009 but then championed the Paris Agreement under Obama, and withdrew from it under Trump.

    Although Biden has ordered the U.S. to get back on track to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Accord, the stark reality is that very few countries have met their pledges to date. Even if they did, studies show that the outcome would mean an unacceptable 3°C rise in average global temperatures. In parallel, Biden’s brainchild, the much-touted, $1 trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, had many of its climate provisions gutted to get it past Republican senators. In short, we are still on a high-emissions trajectory that promises hell on Earth later this century, even under centrist-reformist State management, and the necrophilic irrationalism of Trump and the GOP will only get us there sooner. In this sense, Republicans will likely capitalize on Biden’s chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan—which ironically followed Trump’s lead—thus amounting to an elegy for the Green New Deal.

    With time running out, and with all this negativity in mind, seeing the powers that be so radically failing us, what alternative remedies can we possibly consider?

    Certainly, with a combination of political, social, and economic changes, humanity’s energetic needs could be met by a transition to wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources, as outlined by Mark Jacobson and company’s WWS-based roadmaps for 139 countries, and David Schwartz’s concept of solar communism. The problem of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is far more political and economic than technical. Humanistic and ecological proposals for degrowth, targeting both private and State capitalism, echo Richard Smith’s deindustrialization imperative and a “neither Washington-nor Beijing” position that would critique both U.S.-American and Chinese Communist authoritarianism on principle. A decade ago, in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, I recommended internationalism and ecological anarcho-communism as reconstructive strategies, and still do.

    In The Ministry for the Future, the visionary writer Kim Stanley Robinson foresees the climate crisis unleashing global uprisings that force policymakers into overhauling the economy to deincentivize the burning of carbon altogether. Taking inspiration from La Via Campesina’s motto that “agroecology cools the planet,” Troy Vettese proposes that we induce a “second Little Ice Age” through a simultaneous transition to plant-based diets and the restoration and reforestation of the billions of hectares of land currently dedicated to pasture and agriculture. Hopefully, this would be a “bloodless” Little Ice Age, unlike the first, which took place between the 16th and 19th centuries, as European genocide and epidemiological desolation of Indigenous peoples in the Americas resulted in rapid regrowth of ecosystems, the sequestration of carbon, and a decline in atmospheric CO2.

    We believe green syndicalism to be among the most reasonable of strategies for implementing the deepest cuts to carbon emissions foreseen in the AR6’s—that is, the SSP1-1.9 curve, which provides the best chance to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. In light of the historical failures of bureaucratic socialism to achieve its stated goal of classlessness, much less to provide inspiring models for eco-socialism (see the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the Aral Sea), anarcho-syndicalism provides greater hope for workers’ self-abolition as workers, for it aims directly to overthrow class society. To add ecology to the mix, especially in the face of looming climate catastrophe, is only logical, considering Jeff Shantz’s point that the protection of nature “requires the social power, the power to stop capitalist production, distribution, and exchange, that is represented by the collective power of working people.” Rather than view workers as necessarily allied with bosses in the destruction of ecosystems, as the “jobs versus environment” double-bind would have us think, green syndicalists highlight class struggle and powerlessness at work and in society at large as factors that can contest and reproduce environmental destruction, respectively. In this sense, workers must come to recognize the uselessness of their jobs, while ecologists must come to recognize that class divisions and the bureaucratic organization of work perpetuate ecocide. The ideal organizing strategy might be to revisit Judi Bari’s synthesis of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World with the deep-green ecology of Earth First!—seen in the founding of the unique IWW/EF! Local 1 in northern California in 1989—learn from its shortcomings, and reapply similar models of “blue-green alliance[s],” community syndicalism, and autonomous unionization today, and in the future.[1]

    By inverting the established decision-making hierarchies between capital and labor, green anarcho-syndicalism has the potential to meet the unprecedented challenge, posed by the authors of the IPCC’s AR6, of reducing carbon emissions radically and rescuing humanity from self-destruction. Ideally, workers and environmentalists would unite to “dismantle the factory system, its work discipline, hierarchies, and regimentation,” as well as ban fossil fuels, implement a transition to a WWS-based energy system, and reorganize global society by promoting participatory democracy at work, in the community, and in social life.[2] Although the success of such a program may be hard to imagine in oligarchical U.S. society (not to mention other oligarchical contexts), in light of the exceedingly low rate of unionization in the workforce and the lack of effective recourse against bosses who crush union drives, a green-syndicalist revival is nevertheless imperative.[3]


    [1]    Jeff Shantz, Green Syndicalism: An Alternative Red/Green Vision (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2012), xxv, xxxii, xxli, 46, 109-112.

    [2]    Ibid, 54.

    [3]    Alice Martin and Annie Quick, Unions Renewed: Building Power in an Age of Finance (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020).

    Science Fiction as Protest Art (Part I): Exploring ‘Capitalist Hells’

    August 8, 2021
    Mars landscape from Total Recall (1990)

    This is the first entry in a two-part response to Thomas Wilson Jardine’s December 2020 essay, ‘Cyberpunk: An Empty Rebellion?In part one, we introduce the late historian Richard Stites’ framework on the speculative critique of ‘capitalist hells,’ and provide a number of examples of science fiction functioning as protest art. In part two, we will focus on Stites’ concepts of ‘communist heavens’ and ‘alternative, anti-modern utopias,’ analyzing Kim Stanley Robinson’s literature and the Deus Ex game universe as case studies.

    First published on The Commoner, 8 August 2021. Shared using Creative Commons license

    ‘The concept of progress is to be grounded in the concept of catastrophe. That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe. It is not that which is approaching but that which is. [August] Strindberg’s thought: Hell is not something which lies ahead of us—but this life here.’ – Walter Benjamin[1]

    In a world facing uncertain, bleak, and even terminal futures, capitalist media companies compete to maximize their market share by exploiting humanity’s artistic, political, and erotic fantasies. Simply put, the culture industry cynically sells our symbolic and real rebellions against oppression and dehumanisation back to us. Still, our individual and collective psychosocial reveries can be interpreted, at least in part, as compensatory means of coping with capital’s nihilistic, destructive impetus. Seen in this light, such emotional coping mechanisms serve the important ends of mental health and survival.

    At the same time, writing in The Commoner in December 2020, Thomas Wilson Jardine rightly underscores the risk that the increasing incorporation of critical, anti-authoritarian themes into such media as film and video games may ultimately just prey on our alienation and promote ‘interpassivity.’ The danger is that audiences will passively consume the recuperation of ‘revolutionary iconoclasm,’ or ‘the abolition of authority, authority figures,’ and ‘master symbols,’ in ways that merely reproduce what the French Situationist Guy Debord famously termed ‘the society of the spectacle.’[2]

    In this essay, I want to question whether the dynamic between art and audience is so straightforward. Do the iconoclastic themes and fantasies which writers, artists, and game developers incorporate into speculative fiction only serve to reproduce class society and social hierarchy in themselves and their consumers?

    Reflecting on the genres of cyberpunk and steampunk, I agree with Jardine that there is a strong risk of interpassivity, of psychic substitutionism, and of what an implanted-memory salesman from the film Total Recall (1990) terms ‘a vacation from the self,’ otherwise known as ‘LARPing’ (live-action role-playing). Games like Deus Ex (1999), BioShock (2007), or Ascent (2021), which incorporate subversive cyberpunk and steampunk themes, are rather different from the traditional action games, like the Counter-Strike (2000), Battlefield (2002), or Call of Duty (2003) series, which glorify militarism and the War on Terror. To this point, Brie Code, founder of the Tru-Luv development studio, comments that the gaming industry ‘has focused on a narrow subset of human psychology for several years,’ specifically ‘help[ing] people feel a sense of achievement or dominance.’ In this sense, titles with cyberpunk or steampunk themes may attract different ‘markets’ for game corporations: perhaps ones that are comprised of those who are younger, and/or more politically progressive or radical.

    Even so, the gaming experience depends upon the alienated labor of developers, together with that of miners and electronics workers, all of which is made invisible, according to Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. To this point, Jardine critiques Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), one of the industry’s most highly-anticipated games, which cost over $300 million to produce. They write, ‘I do not see V (your character) and Johnny Silverhand going to establish a better or new system and uniting the exploited cyborg proletariat in a popular uprising against Arasaka and Militech [corporations].’ As I have not played Cyberpunk 2077, I cannot comment on this particular aspect of the plot, much less any other.

    Be that as it may, in keeping with the utopian origins and function of speculative fiction, subversive social commentary is relayed, and social revolution even envisioned, in certain games. Red Faction (2001), for instance, begins with a miners’ strike on Mars, echoing the revolutionary fantasy of worker unrest and heroic anti-capitalism on the red planet in Total Recall. As this dynamic suggests, compared with the relatively new medium of video games, literature and film have had an expansive history of promoting humanist, anti-authoritarian, and ecological themes, thus advancing what Walidah Imarisha calls ‘[v]isionary fiction’: namely, speculative art that seeks to build ‘new, freer worlds,’ starting with the decolonization of the mind.[3] In this multi-part essay, we emphasize the continuities among literature, film, and games as protest art in this sense. We will see how reason and emotion are intimately tied to the struggle for individual and collective liberation. We will explore some of the links between history and the present, and see how the best sci-fi operates through the critical displacement—or defamiliarisation—of infernal capitalist modernity.

    A Brief History of Speculative Fiction and Protest Literature

    Uncle Zeng, Peach Blossom Spring

    Speculative, visionary fiction has an enduring history. In 421 C.E., the Chinese writer Tao Qian (365-427) composed ‘Peach Blossom Spring.’ This is a tale about a fisherman who discovers a utopian community located in a high valley at the terminus of a river lined with pink peach trees. The villagers of this exilic Daoist space, a ‘level land’ wherein ‘white-haired elders and tufted children alike were cheerful and contented,’ are either unaware of the Qin and Han imperial dynasties, or do not recognise them, for their ancestors had fled from the centralising Chinese State. Like the Cossack communities founded by peasants, who avoided serfdom by ‘exiting’ from early State formation in Russia during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries,[4] the Daoist community at the source of the peach blossom stream ‘had first left men’s society to escape the troubled world.’ In 718, the poet Wang Wei (699-759) expanded on this vision, imagining that the inhabitants of this community ‘were peaceful, calm, [and] kind,’ and the valley ‘fertile and full of animals.’

    ‘We stayed until we saw what it was: a good place.
    To live here would be fulfillment.’

    Moved by his experience, the narrator returns home, seeking to resettle with his family in this utopia. However, upon setting out to move there, they ultimately cannot find the community, for it was but a ‘moment in time’—or maybe just a dream, after all.[5]

    In a similar vein, the Indian poet Guru Raidas (c. 1450-1520) envisioned Begumpura, a ‘land without sorrow,’ five centuries ago:

    ‘The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
    they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
    No taxes or cares, none owns property there,
    no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
    Oh, my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
    my distant home where everything is right.
    That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
    where none are third or second – all are one;
    They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
    they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
    Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
    those who walk beside me are my friends.’

    This Begumpura, as the Dalit anarchist Pranav Jeevan P comments, is a stateless, classless, and casteless commune. It represents the ‘imagination [mobilizing] against caste, class, state, Brahmanical hierarchies and patriarchy,’ and foreseeing a ‘society living in harmony and free from all forms of discrimination.’ Considering the humanistic, emancipatory impulses that inform this dream, together with its continued acute relevance, both in BJP-dominated India and beyond, Pranav invites us to engage and re-engage with such visions, and ‘work towards creating our [own] Begumpura.’

    Fast-forward to Summer 1816. The English novelist Mary Shelley (daughter of the proto-anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft), while visiting Switzerland with her husband (the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley), produced Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), in response to Lord Byron’s bid for a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Composed on the shores of Lake Geneva, this Gothic art-work is often considered the first example of modern science fiction. The ghastly novel, bearing the imprints of the thought both of the author’s parents, as of the Swiss-born philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, depicts the ‘mad scientist’ Victor Frankenstein, who successfully creates a humanoid assembled from body parts of the deceased in his laboratory. This creature, who is physically strong and loving yet anxious and hideous, is rejected both by Frankenstein and by society at large. Viewed as a ‘monster, a blot upon the earth,’ and denied fellowship and sexual satisfaction, the Creature declares ‘ever-lasting war against the species.’[6] The nameless Creature poses the question: ‘Am I thought to be the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?’[7]

    This allegory functions as a sympathetic portrayal of human development, feminist and Romantic commentary on ableist social relations and the Promethean-masculinist ethos of capitalism, plus an endorsement of sociological approaches to criminology that would incorporate consideration for environmental and psychosocial factors driving crime. Its message runs parallel to Percy Shelley’s own Prometheus Unbound (1820), a lyrical drama which presents its author and his characters as Romantic heroes. From Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) to the creators of the eco-documentary Chasing Ice (2012), many have rendered homage to Frankenstein‘s climactic chase in the Arctic.

    In the conclusion to his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020), sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that the utopian socialist Charles Fourier was a ‘secret influence’ on the visionary French novelist Jules Verne, author of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), among other works.[8] In like fashion, the late historian Richard Stites finds that, in the wake of the Russian Revolution which overthrew Tsarism and landlordism, ‘[t]en editions of Fourier’s works appeared between 1917 and 1926 and many books about his ideas. [Fellow utopian socialists] Owen, Cabet, Buchez, Blanc, St. Simon and others enjoyed new translations in the 1920s. Their influence on the science fiction of the period is apparent, though never acknowledged.’[9]

    A similar story could be told in 2021, a century after the Czech artist Karel Čapek wrote Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921). This was the first work to envision synthetic ‘robots,’ or slave workers, who would replace human labourers and soldiers, and ultimately rise up and destroy humanity—as the Terminator series likewise foresees. Like today’s producers of science fiction, and especially climate fiction, who often convey either pessimistic ‘grimdark’ or optimistic ‘solarpunk’ messages, speculative writers from Russia’s early Soviet period often focused on social and political problems in their production of what amounted to protest literature.

    The late Howard Zinn defined protest literature as ‘any form of communication that engages social consciousness and may move someone to action.’ It is similar to the genre known as social science fiction, which includes such titles as Plato’s Republic (c. 375 B.C.E.) and Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). There was also the radical intelligentsia who, in their artistic, subtle, and indirect ways, crucially defamiliarised Tsarism in the nineteenth century, and so inspired the Russian Revolution. Following from their example, Soviet speculative writers expressed themes critical of capitalism, militarism, ‘Taylorist exploitation, death weapons, and mad scientists.’[10] Most sci-fi in our own time, whether developed primarily with society or profit in mind, is an adaptation of precisely this ‘revolutionary critique of the old world’ from a century ago, in a reflection of the staying power of hierarchy, brutality, and irrationality.[11]

    Thus, in the following two parts of this article, we will trace the continuities of utopias (and dystopias) in time, between past and present. Starting from the Freudian idea that fantasy disguises an unconscious desire for wish-fulfillment, we will see how speculative exercises in ‘[t]aking off into a better world’ are linked with the goal of overcoming ‘capitalist hells,’ reaching ‘communist heavens,’ and so integrating our deepest hopes with reality.[12]

    Footnotes

    [1]Walter Benjamin, ‘Central Park,’ New German Critique, no. 34 (1985), 50. Emphasis in original.
    [2]Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 183; Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (Routledge: London, 1954), 276.
    [3]Walidah Imarisha, ‘Introduction’ to Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 4.
    [4]Andrej Grubačić and Dennis O’Hearn, Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 48-62.
    [5]Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon (New York: Orbit, 2018), 344.
    [6]Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), 123, 138, 150.
    [7]Ibid, 224.
    [8]Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (New York: Orbit, 2020), 558.
    [9]Stites 168 (emphasis added).
    [10]Ibid, 180.
    [11]Ibid, 236.
    [12]Ibid, 171-4; Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1981).