Archive for the ‘ecology’ Category

Islamic Anti-Authoritarianism against the Ulema-State Alliance

April 5, 2023

Abbas al-Musavi, The Battle of Karbala

The second part in a series on Islam, humanism, and anarchism. This review includes an alternate perspective by Jihad al-Haqq.

First published on The Commoner, 5 April 2023. Shared using Creative Commons license. Feel free to support The Commoner via their Patreon here

Building on my critical review of Mohamed Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism (2022), this article will focus on Ahmet T. Kuru’s Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment (2019). Here, I will concentrate on Kuru’s study of Islam, history, and politics, focusing on the scholar’s presentation of the anti-authoritarianism of the early Muslim world, and contemplating the origins and ongoing oppressiveness of the alliance between ulema (religious scholars) and State in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). I will examine Kuru’s analysis of the “decline thesis” about the intellectual, economic, and political counter-revolutions that led Muslim society to become dominated by military and clerical elites toward the end of the Golden Age (c. 700–1300); briefly evaluate the author’s critique of post-colonial theory; and contemplate an anarcho-communist alternative to Kuru’s proposed liberal strategy, before concluding.

A painting of the Prophet Muhammed (with face covered), sitting on a mat in the cave of Hira. He is holding beads in one hand, his head is covered and surrounded by light. The cave is surrounded by mountains in various colours.
The Prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira, from the Hamla-yi Haidari manuscript (c. 1725). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (gift of George Hopper Fitch)

Perhaps ironically, Kuru may uncover more Islamic anti-authoritarianism than Abdou does in Islam and Anarchism. Marshaling numerous sources, Kuru clarifies that a degree of separation between religion and the State existed in Islam’s early period; that ‘Islam emphasizes the community, not the state’; and that ‘the history of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates was full of rebellions and oppression.’ In fact, the Umayyad dynasty, which followed the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661) that itself had succeeded the Prophet Muhammad after his death, generally lacked religious legitimation, given that its founders persecuted the Prophet’s family during the period known as the Second Fitna (680–692) [1].  Such sadism was especially evident at the momentous battle of Karbala (680), at the conclusion of which the victorious Umayyad Caliph Yazid I murdered the Imam Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet and son of the Rashidun Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib, together with most of his relatives [2]. Shi’ites mourn these killings of Hussein and his family during the month of Muharram, considered the second-holiest month of the Islamic calendar after Ramadan. Currently being observed by Muslims across the globe, Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad in Jabal al-Nour (‘the mountain of light’) in the year 610. (For an artistic representation of the latter event, see the featured painting from the Hamla-yi Haidari manuscript below.)

Politically speaking, early Muslims rejected despotism and majesty and emphasized the importance of the rule of law, such that ‘traditional Muslim[s were] suspicio[us] of Umayyad kingship’ [3]. Following the Mutazilites, the Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati claimed the fatalist belief in ‘pre-determination,’ which was encouraged by the orthodox theologian Ashari, to have been ‘brought into being by the Umayyids’ [4]. Along similar lines, in the Quran it is written, ‘if one [group of believers] transgresses against the other, then fight against the transgressing group,’ while one of the Prophet Muhammad’s ahadith (sayings) declares that the “best jihad is to speak the truth before a tyrannical ruler’[5]. During the time of Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs, hence, Islamic politics were rather progressive, for the nascent faith’s founders rejected both oppressive authority, whether exercised locally in Arabia or afar in the Byzantine Empire, and the injustice of the Brahmin caste system. In this vein, all founders of the four Sunni schools of law (fiqh), and some early Shi’ite imams, refused to serve the State. In retaliation, they were persecuted, imprisoned, and even killed [6].

The cover of Ahmet T. Kuru’s book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison

During the Abbasid Caliphate, radical freethinkers such as the physician Abu Bakr al-Razi (c. 854–925) and Ibn Sina (980–1037) made breakthroughs in medical science, while the polymath Biruni (973–1048) advanced the field of astronomy, just as al-Razi and Biruni respectively criticized religion and imagined other planets. Mariam al-Astrulabi (950–?) invented the first complex astrolabe, which had important astronomical, navigational, and time-keeping applications. Plus, Baghdad’s House of Wisdom boasted a vast collection of translations of scholarly volumes into Arabic, and a number of hospitals were founded in MENA during the Abbasid and Mamluk dynasties. Farabi (c. 878–950) emphasized the philosophical importance of happiness, Ibn Bajja (c. 1095–1138) likewise stressed the centrality of contemplation, and Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) made critical contributions to sociology through his insights into asabiyya, or group cohesion. Perceptively, Ibn Khaldun declared that the ‘decisions of the ruler […] deviate from what is right,’ while concurring with some of the most radical Kharijites in holding that the people would have no need for an imam, were they observant Muslims [7].

At the same time, Kuru explains that Islam’s Golden Age (c. 700–1300)—which allowed for the birth of a freer scholarly, political, and commercial atmosphere in the Muslim world, relative to Western Europe—was driven by a ‘bourgeois revolution’ of mercantile capitalism, to which Islam itself contributed [8]. With their private property and contracts ensured, as stipulated by the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s Medina Charter (622–624), Muslim merchants could accumulate the capital with which to maintain financial, political, and intellectual independence from the State. Indeed, in contrast to the clerics who have served the authorities since the medieval congealing of the ulema-State, most Islamic scholars from this period worked in commerce, thus making possible their patronage of creative thinkers and scientists [9]. While the dynamism of dar al-Islam (the world’s Muslim regions)produced renowned intellectuals like al-Rawandi, al-Razi, Farabi, al-Ma’arri, Ibn Sina, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Rushd, among others, freethinking in the West was simultaneously stifled by religious and military elites. In this light, Kuru insightfully compares Islam’s Golden Age to the subsequent European Renaissance, whose coming was indeed facilitated by scholarship from and trade with the Muslim world [10].

The Decline Thesis, and an Anarchist Alternative

Vasily Vereshchagin, “Shir Dor madrasa in Registan Square in Samarkand” (1869–70)

Soon enough, however, the ‘[p]rogressive atmospheres’ created by Islam would yield to reaction [11]. With the proclamation in 1089 of a decree by the Abbasid Caliph Qadir outlining a strict Sunni orthodoxy that would exclude Mutazilites, Shi’ites, Sufis, and philosophers, the ulema-State alliance was forged. This joint enterprise created a stifling and stagnating bureaucratic atmosphere opposed to progress of all kinds. Internally, this shift was aided by the eclipse of commerce by conquest, looting, and the iqta system—a feudal mechanism whereby the State distributed lands to military lords and in turn expanded itself through taxes extracted from peasant labor. Additionally, the eleventh-century founding of Nizamiyya madrasas, which propagated Ashari fatalism and stressed memorization and authority-based learning, was decisive for this transformation. Externally, the violence and plundering carried out by Crusaders and Mongols against the Muslim world led to further marginalization of scholars and merchants on the one hand, and deeper legitimization of military and clerical elites on the other [12].

Through comparison, Kuru contemplates how this joint domination by ulema and State—characterized by bureaucratic despotism, State monopolies, and intellectual stagnation—mimics the backwardness of Europe’s feudal societies during the Dark and Middle Ages. Still, just as anti-intellectualism, clerical hegemony, and political authoritarianism are not inherent to Judaism, Christianity, or Western society, this reactionary partnership is not innate to Islam either, considering the remarkable scientific, mathematical, and medical progress made during Islam’s early period. Only later did the combination of Ghazali’s sectarianism, Ibn Taymiyya’s statist apologism, and the Shafi jurist Mawardi’s centralism result in the consolidation of Sunni orthodoxy and despotic rule. Indeed, Kuru traces the germ of this noxious ulema-State alliance to the political culture of the Persian Sasanian Empire (224–651), which prescribed joint rule by the clerics and authorities. In this sense, the ‘decline thesis’ about the fate of scholarship and freethinking in Muslim society cannot be explained by essentialist views that define Islam by its most reactionary and anti-intellectual forms [13].

More controversially, Kuru equally concludes that the violence, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment seen at present in many Muslim-majority countries cannot be explained solely by either post-colonial theory or a primary focus on Western (neo)colonialism. This is because post-colonial writers, like Islamists, discourage a critical analysis of the “ideologies, class relations, and economic conditions” of Muslim societies, leading them to overlook, and thus fail to challenge, the enduring presence of the ulema-State alliance [14]. In parallel, the caste system persists in post-colonial India, while “British and German scholars did not invent caste oppression,” as much as fascists across the globe have been inspired by it [15]. At the same time, according to the late Marxist scholar Mike Davis, European imperialism, combined with excess dryness and heat from the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, led to famines that killed between 30 and 60 million Africans, South Asians, Chinese, and Brazilians in the late nineteenth century. The Indian economist Utsa Patnaik estimates that British imperialism looted nearly $45 trillion from India between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

Cover of Mike Davis’ book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World.

Currently, bureaucratic authoritarianism in MENA is financed by the mass-exploitation of fossil fuels, which finances the State’s repressive apparatus, hinders the independence of the workers and the bourgeoisie, and disincentivizes transitions to democracy [16]. Certainly, the West, which runs mostly on fossil fuels, and whose leaders collaborate with regional autocrats, is complicit with such oppression, whether we consider its long-standing support for the Saud dynasty (including President Biden’s legal shielding of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against accountability for his murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi), more recent ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the past alliance with the Pahlavi Shahs, or the love-hate relationships with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, launched twenty years ago, killed and displaced similar numbers of people as Assad and Putin’s counter-revolution has over the past twelve years.

Overall, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment helps illuminate the religious, political, and economic dimensions of the legacy of the authoritarian State in MENA. Moving forward, Kuru’s proposed remedy to the interrelated and ongoing problems of authoritarianism and underdevelopment in Muslim-majority countries is political and economic liberalisation. The author makes such liberal prescriptions based on his historical analysis of the progressive nature of the bourgeoisie, especially as seen during the Golden Age of Islam and the European Renaissance. As an alternative, he mentions the possibility that the working classes could help democratize the Muslim world, but notes that they are not an organized force [17]. Moreover, in a 2021 report, ‘The Ulema-State Alliance,’ Kuru clarifies that he is no proponent of ‘stateless anarchy,’ as might be pursued by anarcho-syndicalist or anarcho-communist strategies.

Yet, it is clear that empowering the bourgeoisie has its dangers: above all, global warming provides an especially stark reminder of the externalities, or ‘side-effects,’ of capitalism. Plus, at its most basic level, the owner’s accumulation of wealth depends on the rate of exploitation of the workers, who cannot refrain from alienated labor, out of fear of economic ruin for themselves and their loved ones. This is the horrid treadmill of production. As the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse recognized, capitalism is an inherently authoritarian, hierarchical system [18]. Although bourgeois rule may well allow for greater scientific, technical, and scholarly progress than feudal domination by clerical-military elites, whether in Europe, MENA, or beyond, the yields from potential advances in these fields could be considerably greater in a post-capitalist future. Science, ecology, and human health could benefit tremendously from the communization of knowledge, the overcoming of fossil fuels and economic growth, the abolition of patents and so-called ‘intellectual property rights,’ the socialization of work, and the creation of a global cooperative commonwealth. Considering how Western and Middle Eastern authorities conspire to eternally delay action on cutting carbon emissions as climate breakdown worsens, both Western and MENA societies would gain a great deal from anti-authoritarian socio-ecological transformation.

In sum, then, I reject both the ulema-State alliance and Kuru’s suggested alternative of capitalist hegemony—just as, in mid-nineteenth-century Imperial Russia, the anarchists Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin rebuked their colleague Vissarion Belinsky’s late turn from wielding utopian socialism against Tsarism to espousing the view that bourgeois leadership was necessary for Russia [19]. In our world, in the near future, regional and global alternatives to bourgeois-bureaucratic domination could be based in working-class and communal self-organization and self-management projects, running on wind, water, and solar energy. Such experiments would be made possible by the collective unionization of the world economy, and/or the creation of exilic, autonomous geographical zones. Despite the “utopian” nature of such ideas, in light of the profound obstacles inhibiting their realization, this would be a new Golden Age or Enlightenment of scientific and historical progress, whereby a conscious humanity neutralized the dangers of self-destruction through raging pandemics, global warming, genocide, and nuclear war.

Conclusion: For Anarcho-Communism

In closing, I express my dynamic appreciation for Kuru’s Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment, which aptly contests both essentialist and post-colonialist explanations for the violence, anti-intellectualism, and autocratic rule seen today in many Muslim-majority societies. Kuru highlights the noxious work of the ulema-State alliance to impose Sunni and Shi’i orthodoxies; legitimize the authority of the despotic State; and reject scientific, technological, social, and economic progress. Keeping in mind the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s framing of anarchism as the “confluence” of socialism and liberalism, I welcome the author’s anti-authoritarian proposals to revisit the freethinking of the Golden Age of Islam and liberalise the Muslim world, but contest Kuru’s apparent pro-capitalist orientation. In this vein, the writer’s recommendations could be radicalized to converge with the “Idea” of a global anarcho-communist movement that rejects clerical and political hierarchies as well as capitalism, militarism, and patriarchy, in favor of degrowth, a worldwide commons, international solidarity, mutual aid, and working-class and communal self-management of economy and society.

Western Colonialism and Imperialism – Jihad al-Haqq

Whilst Kuru’s historical description of the ulema-state alliance usefully describes the historical oppressions of Muslim-majority nations, it does not explain their continued existence. Especially not in the face of the Arab Spring and, as Kuru himself cites, the vast popularity of democracy amongst Muslims (page xvi, preface). Indeed, a name search reveals that the term ‘Arab Spring’ is used only four times throughout the entire book—three of those times are in the citations section. It is stunning to have a book talking about Islam, authoritarianism, and democracy, without mentioning the momentous event of the Arab Spring. That is, the concept of the ‘ulema-state alliance’ is useful in describing the internal form of social oppression in Muslim-majority societies, but it does not explain why and how those forms continue to exist, which is primarily due to Western imperialism.

Ahmet Kuru’s discussion regarding the ulema-state alliance seems geared towards explaining the question of why Muslim-majority countries are less peaceful, less democratic, and less developed. The question is primarily a political-economic question, not a question of faith, and thus requires a political-economic answer, which he acknowledges. However, he contends that Western colonialism is not a primary material cause for the unrest and destitution in Muslim majority nations; rather, it is the ulema-state alliance. This is a strange argument, for several reasons.

Firstly, his criticism of postcolonial writers is a strawman. The main hypothesis of postcolonial writers is that oppression in Muslim majority nations, whatever form it takes (including the ulema-state alliance), is primarily financed and armed by Western powers and Gulf nations; it is to explain the prevention of democracy in Muslim-majority nations.

He writes:

‘The anti-colonial approach has some power in explaining the problem of violence in certain Muslim countries. But Western colonization/occupation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for violence. It is not sufficient, as there have been non-Muslim and Muslim countries that were colonized or occupied but where many influential agents did not choose to use violence. Such leading figures as Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–98) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), for example, adopted a position of non-violence against British colonization in India. Western colonization/occupation is not a necessary condition either, because several non-Western countries and groups have fought each other for various reasons. The long list includes the Iran-Iraq War and recent civil wars in several Arab countries. In Turkey, violence has continued between the Turkish state and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) for more than three decades, regardless of whether Turkey was ruled by secularists or Islamists, and regardless of whether the PKK defended or renounced Marxist-Leninist ideology.’

He says that Western colonization and occupation is not a sufficient condition for the violence in Muslim-majority countries, since other countries under the same conditions did not choose to use violence. However, this flies in the face of the history of decolonial movements, since many other countries other than the Muslim-majority ones did choose violence as a method, while several Muslim-majority thinkers did and do advocate non-violence. Decolonization as a process in each country cannot be easily separated into a non-violent and violent category, such as in Indian decolonization being entirely non-violent and decolonization in Algeria being entirely violent, as you will find both non-violent and violent currents in each country advocating decolonization. Moreover, whether a decolonial process is more violent or not overwhelmingly depends on other socio-political factors: the British did not let go of India because they suddenly found enlightenment about the wrongdoing of their ways, and it would be difficult to say that Indian decolonization would not have turned more violent if the British had not ended up letting go of the Raj. We must also question the assumption that colonialism ended at all: there have been many convincing works that effectively argue that instead of colonisation ending, we have simply moved to another form of colonisation facilitated through nation states, rather than overt conquest. Parts of these works make very hard to dismiss cases, backed up by historical records, that show that much of the violence that exists in Global South countries, including Muslim-majority ones, is not due to internal cultural or social institutions, but due to the financing and arming of violent forces in the country. The existence of destitution can be directly linked to such Western-supported authoritarians in these societies.

The United States, for example, armed and supported the dictator Suharto in Indonesia, who is one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century, against the popular Communist Party in Indonesia. The US is also one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest allies, with Saudi Arabia likely having the most institutionalized form of the ulema-state alliance. William Blum’s classic Killing Hope goes through many details of the various democracy movements throughout the world which the United States has crushed, including in Muslim-majority nations. Perhaps amazingly, the list of examples Kuru uses to support the argument that Western imperialism cannot be stated to be a necessary condition of violence do indeed have a traceable Western influence. Furthermore, the phenomenon of imperialism, which is separate from colonialism and the main focus of many postcolonial writers, does not seem to factor into his analysis.

Moreover, violence as a response to colonisation is almost a universal given—it is not the expression of culture anymore than a person being attacked and choosing to fight back is an expression of ideology. Revolutionary violence is a response to violence: the colonised are forced to be violent in response to the violence waged upon them, regardless of what culture they have, and all people have the right to violence for self-defense. For that, I do not think a detailed discussion is required.

The thesis which Kuru is attempting to argue here is that both revolutionary violence and internal violent structures are expressions of the same structures within Muslim-majority nations that cause more violence to happen. I do not believe this conclusion is tenable, since, on the one hand, revolutionary violence is waged defensively in response to colonialism, and on the other, the internal violence of current Muslim-majority nations do have a traceable Western influence: it would be difficult to argue that Iraq today would be as violent as it is if the United States had not diplomatically and militarily supported the rise of Saddam Hussein, and had not invaded Iraq in 2003. Both of these sorts of violence do not have the same social, political, and economic roots, and therefore cannot be classed as expressions of the same socio-cultural phenomenon.

Kuru’s answer to the continued existence of oppression in the Middle East is economic and political liberalisation; however, as demonstrated with the Arab Spring, the idea of political liberalisation will not be tolerated by the various monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East, who are largely supported and armed by the United States. Furthermore, Kuru’s proposal of political and economic liberalisation is not really liberalisation—at the very least, not liberalisation if we understand “liberalisation” to mean liberating. He proposes the introduction of a new class of economic capitalist elites, which is hardly an improvement from the ulema-state alliance—never mind that Middle Eastern nations are already economically liberalised. While Kuru’s text is useful in discussing the form of historical oppressions, it reaches too far in its concluding theory regarding the continued existence of despotism in the Middle East.

Works Cited

Abdou, Mohamed 2022. Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances. London: Pluto.

Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson 2005. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hammond, Joseph 2013. “Anarchism.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Eds. Gerhard Bowering et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 36–7.

Kuru, Ahmet T. 2019. Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Malia, Martin 1961. Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism. New York: Universal Library.

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory. Boston: Beacon Press.

Quran. Trans. Mustafa Khattab. Available online: Accessed 13 August 2022.

Ramnath, Maia 2022. “The Other Aryan Supremacy.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, CA: AK Press. 210-69.

Shariati, Ali 2003. Religion vs. Religion. Trans. Laleh Bakhtiar. ABC International Group.


[1] Kuru 10-12, 71.
[2] Afary and Anderson.
[3] Kuru 89.
[4] Shariati 32; Kuru 95.
[5] Quran 49:9 (emphasis added); Abdou 201.
[6] Kuru 70-2, 88-9.
[7] Ibid 76-80, 131-2, 134, 139-41, 150; Hammond 36.
[8] Kuru 83-87.
[9] Quran 4:29; Abdou 116; Kuru 73.
[10] Kuru 93, 159-61.
[11] Ibid 116-7.
[12] Ibid 96-102, 126-7.
[13] Ibid xvi-xv, 96-7, 112-16, 146-7, 185-203, 227-235.
[14] Ibid 34, 234.
[15] Ramnath 254.
[16] Kuru 49-53.
[17] Ibid 55n107.
[18] Marcuse 9-11, 18-19.
[19] Malia 353-6.

Seeking the Anarchism of Love (Video Recording)

March 23, 2023

Please feel free to listen and/or watch the audio-visual recording of my conversation yesterday (above) with Joe Scheip about Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography. The event was hosted by the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division. Thanks to Joe, the Bureau, and those who tuned in.

Please check out the introduction to my book, which is available open-access, and donate to the Ukrainian anarchists in Solidarity Collectives, if you can afford it. Thank you.

TONIGHT: Queer Tolstoy Discussion at Book Soup!

February 23, 2023

Tonight, I will present Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography at Book Soup! The talk will begin at 7pm, and there will be copies of Queer Tolstoy available for sale at a discount. The event will include a period for questions and answers, plus book signings. My comments will address Tolstoy’s underappreciated queerness, both in life and art, together with Tolstoy’s anti-militarism, in light of Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine—almost a year after the full-scale invasion began.

Book Soup is located at 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA, 90069.

Masks are strongly encouraged for this event. Thank you!

Anarchism and Star Trek: Picard

February 15, 2023

Check out this entertaining interview Joseph Orosco recently held with my mother, María Castro, and myself about our article, “Bibliophilia and Anarchism in Star Trek: Picard.” Our conversation took place on YouTube for the Anarres Project for Alternatives Futures this month, and our review was published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory in October 2022.

Queer Tolstoy and anti-authoritarian struggle today

February 13, 2023

People and Nature

A guest post by JAVIER SETHNESS CASTRO, author of Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography, just published by Routledge Mental Health

By the end of his long life, in 1910, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy had become the greatest public critic of the Russian Tsarist empire. By destabilising the Romanov autocracy through his writings, which amounted to more than eighty volumes, Lev Nikolaevich became Tsar Nicholas II’s most significant rival.

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy in 1897 (from Wikimedia Commons)

As a result, the Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901, a status he retains to this day. Alexei Suvorin, the editor of New Times [the late 19th century Russian journal], afterwards observed that Russia effectively had two Tsars: namely, Nicholas II and Tolstoy.[1]

Indeed, the Imperial state had raided Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s family estate, in 1862; surveilled him for the last twenty-five years of his life; censored, banned…

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Bibliophilia & Anarchism in Star Trek: Picard

October 7, 2022

Co-written by my mother and myself. Published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 6 October 2022

Following up on our previous analysis of the political and philosophical affinities between Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Wagner, in which we discussed social ideologies such as feminism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anarchist revolutionism in the epic opera The Ring (1874), we turn now to an examination of the first two seasons of Star Trek: Picard (2020/2022). We hope our artistic study of this television show might help to elucidate the anti-authoritarian themes present in its first and second seasons, as well as draw attention to the numerous literary allusions and extensive bibliophilia (‘book-love’) present in both. Our purpose here is to illuminate the anarchist values and revolutionary messages conveyed in the show through the presence of literature. Reader be forewarned: this text contains spoilers for both seasons.

Star Trek’s Radical Politics

The brainchild of former Army Air Force officer and ex-LAPD cop Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), Star Trek paradoxically owes debts to the left-wing, counter-cultural, and Civil Rights Movements. As an experiment in psychological and sociological utopianism, set centuries to millennia from now, Star Trek combines “social critique and description[s] of human flourishing in a society […] quite unlike any other.”[1] To begin with, the first two notes of the series’ theme sample “Symphony No. 1” by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a Jewish Romantic composer and socialist-vegetarian.[2] In addition, the design of the flagship of multiple series, the USS Enterprise, is highly suggestive of a mushroom. As such, it may symbolically allude to the therapeutic and mind-altering functions of the fungus psilocybin, as psychedelic youth had learned during the 1960’s, and as psychiatry is now openly recognizing. Moreover, it was on the Enterprise in The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969) that Lt. Nyota Uhura (played by Black actor Nichelle Nichols) served as communications officer. In this sense, the positive future envisioned by Roddenberry would involve Black women in positions of relative authority. It was also on this series, in 1968, that television’s first inter-racial kiss took place—this, between Lt. Uhura and Captain James Kirk.

Although the highest-ranking officers of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-1994) are (as in TOS) white males—Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Executive Officer William Riker—Lt. Geordi LeForge and Lt. Worf (played by LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn, respectively) are crucial to the Enterprise’s missions. Building on these precedents, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) features the Black male Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, just as the Black female Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) stars in Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present). In addition, Discovery is unique in comparison to most of the other series, for it centers women and LGBTQ experience.

Not only does Star Trek promote feminist, internationalist, and LGBT-friendly messages, but it also champions anti-capitalism. The United Federation of Planets (UFP) depicted in the series symbolizes a future vision of ‘cosmic communism,’ whereby member planets unite in a cooperative, inter-species, and post-capitalist association, while the peoples of Earth abolish poverty and class in parallel. As José-Antonio Orosco observes, Star Trek’s “vision of the future is one that puts a radical anti-racist, egalitarian, post-colonial, and environmentalist message at its core.”[3]

That being said, if the Federation is progressive, it is not necessarily anarchist. Although its anti-authoritarian rationalism shares much with the anarcho-communist vision, the UFP has not abolished military rank or bureaucracy. Moreover, as we see during flashback sequences in Picard, season 2, patriarchal family structures exist within the Federation. Speculatively, it may be due to Roddenberry’s rumored attraction to Trotskyism and membership in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that the Federation resembles the Fourth International, which was founded in 1938 by former Red Army commander Lev Trotsky himself. Perhaps echoing such politics, in TNG, the Federation’s totalitarian nemesis, the Borg, brings to mind the “dystopian socialism” espoused by Stalinists. Seen this way, the travels of the Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard’s La Sirena can be viewed as visionary explorations in permanent revolution that champion socialist and anarchist values.

Read the rest on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory!

From “Trotsky in Tijuana” to “Chernobyl”: Caution & Reason

July 22, 2022
“Chernobyl,” photographed by Jorge Fraganillo (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

The promise of historical and speculative fiction is the reconstruction of the past in the present, or of the present in the past, and the contemplation of what might have been, or of what might still be. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote, creative writers furnish “world[s] of [their] own” by “rearrang[ing] the things of [their] world in a new way which pleases [them].”[1] Between Dan La Botz’s novel Trotsky in Tijuana (2020) and Craig Mazin and Johan Renck’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019), we find two fictionalized accounts bookending the tragic history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from the Bolshevik centralization of power following the anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1917 to what Rohini Hensman terms the “democratic anti-imperialist revolution” of 1991.

Trotsky in Tijuana is an intriguing and well-written book of alternate (or counter-) history, in which La Botz imagines Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879–1940) surviving his assassination in Mexico City by the Spanish Soviet agent Ramón Mercader. In La Botz’s vision, the famed Ukraine-born Jewish Marxist then continues to organize against social-democratic reformism and Stalin’s Communist International through his organization, the Fourth International. This book combines neo-Trotskyist critique of Stalinism with libertarian-socialist themes as an imaginative “second world” to our own, illuminating divisions on the left among anarchists, Trots, and “tankies” (who support “anti-imperialist” dictators). Yet, as we shall see, despite the novel’s beauty and insights, Trotskyism appears to overpower anarchism in La Botz’s historical retelling.

For its part, the Chernobyl miniseries dramatizes the explosion that took place on April 26, 1986, within the core of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, located near the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl lays bare the dangers of nuclear energy specifically and technological hubris more broadly, while implicitly critiquing Soviet State capitalism and, perhaps by extension, private forms of capitalism—like those we confront in the United States. Chernobyl shows how the combination of workplace hierarchy, high technology, hyper-masculinity, and the performance principle threatens our collective self-destruction.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine as part of a brutal campaign announced by President Vladimir Putin to supposedly “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. However, this “denazification” campaign in reality represents yet another instance of white Russians carrying out genocide. Having penetrated Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian army quickly overran the Chernobyl site, where, for over three weeks, the facility’s workers were forced by the occupiers to work nonstop. The radiation spike seen at Chernobyl at the start of the Russian invasion—a twenty-fold increase—can be explained by the churning of irradiated soils through the movement of military hardware.

On March 3 and 4, 2022, Russian shelling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine—Europe’s largest nuclear plant—set an administrative building on fire. Fortunately, the site’s six reactors (better protected than their now-deactivated counterparts at Chernobyl) remained undamaged, and as of early March, local levels of radioactivity were normal. Even so, we should bear in mind the warning of Professor Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), that “any […] nuclear even[t]” cannot be “isolated within sovereign borders,” owing to the physics involved. In this light, although Russian forces withdrew from the Chernobyl region in early April, Putin’s threats of nuclear blackmail following the invasion remain unsettling.

In this article, I will review Trotsky in Tijuana and Chernobyl from an anti-authoritarian perspective by exploring some of the overlap with, and divergences from, anarchism in these artistic works. I will also present an overall critique of nuclear energy, to contrast with the ideological support Chernobyl’s screenwriter, Mazin, provides to the industry—regardless of the scope of the disaster he portrays.


Trotsky in Tijuana

In Trotsky in Tijuana, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife, fatefully questions the man she knew as Frank Jacson’s choice to wear a heavy raincoat during a visit to their fortress-home in Coyoacán on August 20, 1940. However, in La Botz’s counternarrative, Sedova’s doubts do not go unheard. Historically, Mercader wore this same coat to cover up the ice ax he would use to fatally injure the exiled communist revolutionary, as the latter reviewed an essay with which his counterpart sought to distract him. Yet, in La Botz’s imagination, Ralph Bucek, a fictional US-American guard of the “Old Man,” enters his charge’s office and hits the Spaniard in the head with a baseball at the last moment, saving the day.

Rather than replay Trotsky’s murder—as John P. Davidson’s novel The Obedient Assassin (2014), Antonio Chavarrias’s film El Elegido (The Chosen, 2016), and the Russian TV miniseries on Trotsky (2017) do—La Botz’s book envisions the founder of the Red Army escaping this brush with death through exile to Baja California, where he continues to theorize about current events, especially World War II, and even find time for erotic love.

Not long after Trotsky, Sedova, and their retinue resettle in the so-called Cantú house in Tijuana, Trotsky’s own anarchistic secretary, Jan van Heijenoort, abandons Mexico for Europe, plotting a long-term mission to assassinate Stalin. La Botz imagines that Van’s plan dovetails with the “doctors’ plot” of 1953, when Soviet Jewish physicians had supposedly conspired with Western imperial powers to murder Stalin, his propagandist Andrei Zhdanov, and other party bosses. In retaliation for the discovery of this “plot,” Stalin ordered the arrests of hundreds of Soviet Jews and/or physicians, and planned to expand the Gulag to imprison more Jews, in a final homage to his “frenemy,” Adolf Hitler. Yet, just as a possible second Holocaust and nuclear war between the USSR and the West are threatened, La Botz’s depiction of Van’s assassination plot succeeds. The same day, the Soviet agent “Étienne” (Mark Zborowski)—who had murdered Trotsky and Sedova’s son, Lev Sedov, in Paris, and then boldly posed (in La Botz’s imagination) as Trotsky’s new secretary in Tijuana—kills Lev Davidovich by poisoning.[2]

While La Botz is sympathetic to his martyred subject, he is not uncritical toward the Bolshevik leader’s legacy. He surely does not shy away from depicting Trotsky’s narcissistic, delusional, and dogmatic tendencies. Rather, he insinuates the need for twenty-first-century updates to the brightest ideas of this “polymath,” who was “lost in time.” These ideas include class struggle, the united front, and the permanent revolution. Historically speaking, Trotsky adapted the last of these from the French anarchist Élisée Reclus, who asserted in 1899 that “[a]s long as iniquity endures, we, international anarcho-communists, will remain in a state of permanent revolution.”[3]

This dynamic only reinforces the anarchist hypothesis that Marxists aim to appropriate revolution for themselves and their bureaucratic franchises, rather than the liberation of the working classes and humanity—as Marx’s own expulsion of Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1872, and Lenin and Trotsky’s crushing in 1921 of the Kronstadt Commune and of the peasant-anarchist Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, prove. While the mutiny by Red sailors at Kronstadt demanded that the Russian Revolution advance without the dead weight of the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army was cofounded by the Ukrainian peasant guerrilla Nestor Makhno, who also organized with the Nabat (Tocsin) anarchist confederation after the fall of Tsar Nicholas I in 1917. Despite the Makhnovists’ proclamation of free soviets and their actions that arguably saved the Revolution through their fierce resistance to the reactionary White armies during the Civil War (1918–21), just as the Kronstadt sailors had previously served the cause at key points, forces loyal to Red Army commander Trotsky crushed both groups.

Notably, La Botz does not acknowledge that Lev Davidovich Bronstein adopted the surname Trotsky in 1898, after his jailer in Odessa. Psychoanalytically, this choice suggests identification with the aggressor, which is consistent with sociopolitical authoritarianism.[4] Arguably in this sense, there is a direct line from Lev’s adoption of his prison warden’s name to his own atrocities in the Revolution. Indeed, Trotsky in Tijuana’s coverage of the Russian Revolution conveys its author’s neo-Trotskyism. For instance, throughout the novel, the totality of the revolution is reduced to the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 seizure of power, with little to no mention of the “people’s epic” from February 1917, which in fact began the earthquake. This elision amounts to a minimization of the role played, specifically, by the proletarian women who lit the spark in Petrograd that overthrew the Romanov Tsars. La Botz even suggests that “revolution” emanated from Lenin’s persona, as though this were his superpower. Likewise, in a 2015 column in New Politics, the author writes that in both “February and October 1917,” the “Bolshevik[s] led the Russian working class to overthrow the Czarist autocracy.” The only problem with this claim is that all of the Bolshevik leaders were in exile during February 1917.[5]

In reality, the book glosses over its subject’s wickedness, in a move that functions to boost Trotsky’s radical credentials. Although La Botz acknowledges that the Bolsheviks “incorporated […] Tsarist officers” into the Red Army early on, the mass murder of the insurgent Kronstadt sailors—overseen by Trotsky in March 1921—is not mentioned until the second half of the book. At that point, La Botz describes the war commissar as merely “support[ing] the decision” to suppress the mutineers, rather than supervising the ex-Tsarist officer Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s use of overwhelming force toward this end.[6] Neither Makhno nor the Makhnovshchina is mentioned at all.

In short, while La Botz’s historical counternarrative champions direct action and critiques bureaucratic authoritarianism, the author’s affection for the “Old Man” somewhat clouds the novel’s treatment of the period between 1917 and 1921. A more anarchist approach might have portrayed Lev Davidovich as haunted by the counterrevolutionary brutality he oversaw and carried out during that time. Although La Botz’s condemnation of Stalinism is most apt—especially in light of “tankie” support for Putin’s war crimes in Syria and Ukraine—and despite the author’s good-natured satire of the titular character, the story neither adequately questions the role of “revolutionary” authority nor proclaims that it is the workers and peasants, not the party, who drive revolutionary change.


“Control room of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” Carl A. Willis (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

Like Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, Trotsky was an enthusiast of bourgeois principles of management, political centralism, and the domination of nature. When crystallized in high-risk technologies such as nuclear energy, it is unsurprising that such Promethean social ideologies, imaginaries, and institutional structures would result in disasters like the one experienced at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, featured in Chernobyl.[7]

The basic idea of nuclear fission is this: uranium, after having been mined and enriched, is subjected to neutron bombardment in a nuclear plant’s reactor core. This leads to the fission, or splitting, of the nuclei of uranium, and the resulting production of intense heat, or radiation. This radiation is then combined with coolant to produce high-pressure steam, which in turn moves turbines, thus producing electricity.[8] The RBMK-type reactor used at Chernobyl, as in many other Soviet nuclear power plants, shared this basic function with the Western light-water reactors (LWRs) presently in use. One of the major differences between the two designs, however, is that RBMK reactors lacked the steel-reinforced containment shields surrounding the core found in LWRs.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test was scheduled to be performed within Chernobyl’s reactor number 4 during the day shift. However, to accommodate the needs of Soviet state capitalism, the test was delayed by ten hours, leaving it to the less-experienced night shift. As part of this experiment, the plant’s crew deactivated the automatic safety and warning systems, including the emergency cooling system. They also removed most of the control rods from the reactor core, lowering energy output far below normal. Accordingly, without adequate power to pump water into the reactor to either remove excess heat or produce electricity, the core became unstable.[9]

At this point, Chernobyl depicts several of the plant’s workers, all of whom present as cisgender men, as protesting the idea of proceeding with the safety test. Nevertheless, reflecting toxic masculinity and the phenomenon of abusive supervision, Anatoli Dyatlov, the plant’s chief engineer, orders the experiment to proceed. Linking megalomania and the performance principle (or the compulsion to keep the capitalist machine going) with the masculine derogation of femininity, Dyatlov bullies his subordinates, Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov, into obedience. He does so by threatening their jobs, and specifically by associating Toptunov with his mother, due to his youthful and androgynous appearance.[10] Then, when the test goes haywire, Akimov engages the emergency shutdown system known as AZ-5, thus introducing graphite-tipped rods into the reactor core. This unexpectedly increases reactivity, leading to a chain reaction that causes a critical buildup of steam, a partial meltdown, and a core explosion that would irradiate much of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the rest of Europe.

Chernobyl tells the dramatic tale of this experiment gone awry, together with some of the responses taken by the state, individuals, and collectives to this unprecedented catastrophe. Mazin and Renck portray desperate scenes of exploited labor, as firefighters and helicopter pilots struggle to douse the numerous fires set off by the explosion, miners are forced at gunpoint to build a tunnel beneath the reactor to accommodate a heat exchanger, and human “bio-robots” are used to clear radioactive debris from the facility’s roof. Notoriously, the firefighters who initially responded were neither warned of the risks of exposure, nor provided any sort of protective equipment. As a result, many of these working-class heroes died of acute radiation syndrome. Still, this grisly story foregrounds the state capitalist domination of (cis) men: with the exceptions of female nurses attending to irradiated patients and the fictional Soviet physicist Uma Khomyuk, who is an amalgam of the scientists investigating the incident, women are mostly absent from Chernobyl.

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

“Monument to Those Who Saved the World,” photographed by Martin Cígler (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

In terms of understanding the destruction of the Russian Revolution, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, we might benefit from contemplating the close relationship between Leninism and Stalinism. In Trotsky in Tijuana, La Botz includes Trotsky’s insightful prediction that the Bolshevik Party would come to be dominated by Lenin, simply due to the pyramidal structure he proposed for it. The author portrays Stalin, as Lenin’s successor, being haunted by Trotsky’s accusation from 1927 that he was the “gravedigger of the Revolution!” Still, he entertains the idea that it was only Grigory “Zinoviev’s military Bolshevism,” a “Bolshevism characterized by authoritarianism and intolerance,” that had “created Stalinism”[11]—thus letting Lenin and Trotsky off the hook.

Even so, almost approaching Paul Mattick’s left-communist critique, La Botz explicitly acknowledges how wrong Trotsky was to consider the USSR a “workers’ state” of any kind.[12] As outlined in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) and other writings, the exiled theorist’s self-serving position about Stalin’s USSR being a “degenerated workers’ state” is perhaps understandable, but it is nonetheless delusional. Indeed, Trotsky’s own responsibility for the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovist peasant-anarchist movement in Ukraine paved the way for his rival’s takeover. As the Bolshevik autocracy eliminated the most radical elements among workers, peasants, and fighters, it sealed the fate of the Revolution: namely, to give rise to a Communist hell.[13]

Along these lines, Chernobyl can be seen as a visual exploration of the horrors of bureaucracy, state capitalism, and high technology. To protect the reputation and power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the Politburo executives covered up and downplayed the news from Chernobyl from the start. Reflecting the lack of freedom of the press, free speech, or freedom of movement evident in the Soviet Union, authorities forced Western correspondents to remain in Moscow in the aftermath of the accident. Meanwhile, the KGB filtered information flows from the disaster site. In reality, the “two million residents of Kyiv,” located eighty miles from the plant, “were not informed despite the fallout danger, and the world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the CPSU’s last general secretary, did not publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation until May 14, well over two weeks after the explosion. In fact, despite Ukrainian appeals to the contrary, Gorbachev ordered the 1986 May Day march to proceed in Kyiv, so as to feign that the explosion posed no health risk to the public—this, despite the fact that the winds were then carrying fallout toward the city.[14]

The injustice of the situation is accentuated by Con O’Neill’s almost mafioso performance as Viktor Bryukhanov, Chernobyl’s manager. Shielded from the risks faced by workers, Bryukhanov keeps a lid on vital information as he sacrifices first responders. Echoing not only tsarist times, when St. Petersburg was constructed on wetlands using the mass conscription of serf labor, but also Stalin’s deportations, forcible collectivization, and the “Great Patriotic War” against the Germans, the CPSU mobilized over six hundred thousand so-called “liquidators” to deal with the fallout from Chernobyl. A 2005 report from the Irish Times finds that since 1986, twenty-five thousand liquidators had died, and that seventy-thousand had been permanently disabled.

While it set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev later admitted, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster caused 350,000 people to be permanently resettled, and its radioactive emissions have coincided with a regional increase in childhood thyroid cancer rates. While Mazin conveys a death toll of between four thousand and ninety-three thousand owing to the accident, Kate Brown estimates that “[b]etween 35,000 and 150,000 people died from cancers, heart problems, [and] autoimmune disorders” resulting from the disaster. Plus, as the recent movements of Russian units have reminded us, the soils surrounding Chernobyl remain highly irradiated. Ominously, less than a month into the all-out war, forest fires began to erupt, sending airborne radiation levels skyrocketing.

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

Perhaps surprisingly for an HBO series, Chernobyl features themes sympathetic to queerness, anarchism, and their intersections. For instance, as Akimov confronts the moral distress of carrying out Dyatlov’s unreasonable orders to proceed with the safety test, he gently whispers to Toptunov: “I’m with you.” We can draw a parallel here to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), which proposes homoerotic union among the crew of the Pequod against the deranged Captain Ahab, who is leading them toward a watery grave. Tragically, in both cases, the crew do ultimately perish, in an allegory of the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, the domination of nature, and toxic masculinity. In parallel, the miners from the Donbas region who are conscripted to build a tunnel under the stricken plant are shown as especially defiant to the authorities, in a way that may recall the Ukrainian peasant-anarchist movement led by Makhno. Though the miners agree to the CPSU’s terms, Mazin and Renck depict them as doing so proudly, in terms of laboring to save humanity. Furthermore, they are shown performing their communal work in the nude, and this verbal image suggests free love as a means to dissolving hierarchy, or what the late researcher Christopher Chitty refers to as “sexual anarchy.”[15]

On the one hand, Chernobyl celebrates the heroic labor and mutual aid performed during and after the disaster by workers, including engineers, first responders, nurses, miners, and scientists. On the other, it portrays party bosses, from Bryukhanov to Gorbachev, as parasites and autocrats. With this dichotomy in mind, in his review for the New York Times, Mike Hale complains about the miniseries’ “one-dimensional heroes and villains.” Perhaps Mazin and Renck exaggerate a bit, but then again, the bureaucratic authoritarianism exhibited by Dyatlov and his superiors follows from the Soviet context, established by “Red hangmen.”[16] After all, the Soviet political system was based on a combination of the Tsarist “administrative utopia” and the “revolutionary statism” preached by Marx and Lenin.[17] Though he ended up killing Trotsky, Stalin “copied and far surpassed” his rival’s plan for the militarization of labor.[18]

In this sense, despite Chernobyl’s production by HBO, the visual narrative may well be influenced by Mazin’s own apparent solidarity with the struggle against class society. In his review on Red Flag (Australia) of the miniseries as an “anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” Daniel Taylor observes that “the disaster we’re seeing is transpiring in, and largely a product of, a bureaucratic, managerial society divided into rulers and ruled, bosses and workers.”[19] Therefore, “strip away the Stalinist veneer and it is easy to recognise the system we have today: a managerial society run by bosses and bureaucrats who lie and kill to maintain their social dominance, and who threaten the whole world as long as they remain in power.” Taylor is right, but let us radicalize the implications beyond the nostalgia he expresses for Lenin and Trotsky. By focusing on the intersection of the exploitation of labor and ecological disaster, Mazin may be conveying implicit and/or unconscious sympathies with green syndicalism and social ecology, beyond democratic concerns about political dictatorship.

In parallel, we can draw lines from Trotsky and his Stalinist assassin Étienne, in La Botz’s presentation, to Dyatlov. Both Trotsky and Étienne are portrayed as automatons incapable of friendship, who typically view others only as tools, to be treated as either subordinates or superiors within a military hierarchy.[20] Such depictions, when juxtaposed with Mazin and Renck’s illustration of Dyatlov’s megalomania, communicate the continuities between Marxism-Leninism and bourgeois society—thus questioning what progress the Russian Revolution really brought. Indeed, in a chilling echo from the past, the blatant lie perpetrated by Trotsky and Lenin that the Kronstadt revolutionaries were led by tsarist officers—which subsequently inspired Stalin during his show trials—is now being reproduced by Putin’s regime, when it claims absurdly that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis.


Proponents of nuclear energy are often quick to dismiss the Chernobyl disaster as an aberration that reflects the flaws of both the reactor’s design and the Soviet autocracy, rather than any problems with nuclear fission as such. While the reactors in use today may be safer than the earlier Soviet designs, the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, provoked by a tsunami, still tells us that the lessons of Chernobyl have been neither learned nor applied. Moreover, besides the immediate safety issues owing to the risk of core meltdown, most nuclear fission plants in operation today share Chernobyl’s problems of radioactive waste disposal, dependence upon mining, and proliferation of materials usable in a nuclear weapon.[21] Much of this would also be true for the much-hyped hypothetical form of energy production known as nuclear fusion. Like the region surrounding Chernobyl, Diné (Navajo) lands and water-sources in the southwestern United States have been made into sacrifice zones for uranium mining concessions, resulting in radiation sickness and unusually high cancer rates among the Diné. Moreover, it is clear that nuclear energy has no role to play in averting catastrophic climate change.

Such critical thoughts, taken together with reflections on Mazin and Renck’s miniseries, may reveal the systemic nature of our predicament, linking Chernobyl with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Fukushima disaster, global warming, the current war by Russia on Ukraine, and ongoing nuclear brinkmanship. Both Chernobyl and Trotsky in Tijuana are cautionary tales and appeals to reason. While the former highlights “the dangers posed by Stalinism as a uniquely bureaucratic system of social organization,” the latter serves as a call for a united front among “all of us on the left who oppos[e] both Hitler and Stalin,” plus their contemporary followers.[22] While La Botz may not be as critical of Trotsky’s authoritarianism as I might like, his counter-history does recognize the importance of anarchism within revolutionary struggle. Looking to the future, the same mechanisms of social hierarchy, aggressive hyper-masculinity, and adherence to the performance principle that have driven catastrophes like Chernobyl and Russia’s war on Ukraine could be opposed and perhaps overcome by autonomous class struggle; internationalist, anti-militarist, and feminist resistance; and a global transition to wind, water, and solar energy.


[1] Sigmund Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Collected Papers, vol. 4, trans. Joan Riviere et al., ed. Ernest Jones (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 421.

[2] Dan La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana (St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Books / BookLocker, 2020), 82–85, 91–92, 185–91, 422–50.

[3] Ibid., 24, 62, 196–69, 242–44, 305, 324, 328–29, 347.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. Ulrike Kistner (London: Verso, 2016), 71–72.

[5] Ibid., 66, 308; Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 136–37.

[6] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 57, 297.

[7] Irvin Sam Schonfeld and Chu-Hsiang Chang, Occupational Health Psychology: Work, Stress, and Health (New York: Springer, 2017), 9; Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 50–52; John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3.

[8] G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions, 12th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2002), 345–46.

[9] Ibid., 350.

[10] Schonfeld and Chang, Occupational Health Psychology, 206–7; Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

[11] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 20, 289, 311.

[12] Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 259–72.

[13] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 171–72.

[14] Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 310–11.

[15] Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). See the discussion on group marriage in Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[16] Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 389.

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

[18] Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” 259–60; Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 242.

[19] Daniel Taylor, “Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” RedFlag, June, 9, 2019. Available at:

[20] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 384.

[21] Miller, Living in the Environment, 349.

[22] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 317.

Video Recordings: “Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today”

May 13, 2022

Please find below audio-visual recordings of last month’s conference on “Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today,” which took place on April 30, 2022.

This is the recording of the entire conference, save for the first panel. Please find links to moments in the conference that correspond to specific panels and presentations below:

This was the first panel (“Fromm, Sex, and Gender”), which I moderated.

Psychoanalysis for Collective Liberation

February 2, 2022

First published in the New Politics Winter 2022 issue.

Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory is available from Bloomsbury in paperback and ebook formats

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a humanistic psychoanalyst, writer, and activist who was principally influenced by the theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, though he was critical of both figures. A German-American Jew from an Orthodox, middle-class family, Fromm studied sociology with Alfred Weber (brother of Max), joined the Institute for Social Research—otherwise known as the Frankfurt School—in 1930, and fled Nazi Germany in 1934 for exile in New York. He embarked on his own iconoclastic journey when his erstwhile comrades Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno expelled him from the Institute in 1939 for questioning Freudian orthodoxy about the libido, or human sexuality. Controversially, in place of Freud’s idea that erotic satisfaction is life’s driving force, Fromm suggested that our goals in existence are in fact relatedness, rootedness, identity, a frame of orientation (or object of devotion), and transcendence (or agency).

While this original thinker is perhaps best known for his book The Art of Loving (1956), in which he develops the idea of authentic and productive bonds of love based on mutual recognition, the editors of and contributors to the new volume, Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future,1 underscore the intellectual’s innovative concepts and enduring relevance to a number of key topics. These include humanism, feminism, the social character, conformity, authoritarianism, and anti-fascism, among others. To this point, co-editor Joan Braune aptly points out the glaring absence of psychoanalysis and critical theory in the numerous books published in recent years that attempt to explain resurgent conservative-authoritarian populist and neo-fascist trends (219, 225n13). New studies of fascism by anarchists are not exempt from this trend, with the result that the left overlooks important considerations and strategies for understanding and resisting the far right. In essence, we ignore Fromm at our peril (40).

Prophetic Messianism, the Social Character, and Trumpism

According to Michael Löwy, one of the contributors to the volume, Fromm was a romantic Jewish intellectual and a “religious atheist,” inspired by the “universal utopian perspective” of Jewish messianism (45). On this reading, Fromm was a “religious romantic anti-capitalist—not [a] Marxist—” who interpreted Weber’s sociology in a critical way (48). Likewise, he hailed the Hasidic Judaic tradition as being critical of capitalist modernity. In The Dogma of Christ (1931), Fromm lauds the early Christian community as an anti-bureaucratic, revolutionary “free brotherhood of the poor” that at once opposed Roman imperialism and instituted “love communism” (49). Anticipating his colleagues Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument about history and fascism in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), and echoing Karl Kautsky’s own analysis of the foundations of Christianity’s betrayal as starting with the empowerment of the bishops over the prophets and apostles (1908), Fromm traces the integration of Christianity with the state as parallel commentary on the destruction of the Russian Revolution by the Bolshevik Party. In Kautsky’s words, “The organization of a proletarian, rebellious communism thus became the staunchest support of despotism and exploitation, a source of new despotism and new exploitation.” Whereas Löwy suggests that this implicit parallelism communicates Fromm’s disgust with Stalin and sympathy with Trotsky’s analysis in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), it may also convey the psychoanalyst’s convergence with anarchism. Indeed, in 1936, Adorno anxiously complained to Horkheimer about Fromm’s “anarchistic deviations” and “sentimental … blend of social democracy and anarchism,” concluding, “I would urgently advise him to read Lenin” (152). Yet Fromm did read Lenin and considered that the “destruction of Socialism” began with him.2

As a critical social psychologist and public intellectual, Fromm is perhaps best known for his creative, neo-Freudian analyses of political and social authoritarianism. Integrating Marx, Freud, and Weber, Fromm theorized about alienation, neurosis, hierarchy, and sadomasochism. Per Freud, neurotic mood disorders may impart an expression of trauma, unmet needs (“the return of the repressed”), or even a rebellion against dominant norms. Fromm, for his part, concluded that alienation results from one’s embeddedness within defective social relations that build “artificial needs and drives”—namely, the will to power, exploitation, and domination—and so lead to the dehumanization and instrumentalization of self and others. To such understandings, writer Michael Thompson adds that neurotic frustration may signal the breakthrough of critical consciousness over pathological social relations, while communicating the losses and sacrifices we must endure due to the systemic “abuse of the social bond” under the iron cage of capitalism, patriarchy, and the state (27). In contrast, robust bonds promote mutual recognition, community, creativity, knowledge, (self)discovery, and autonomous self-determination.

The contributors to Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory justly emphasize the importance of the humanist’s social-character theory and related insights into the psychosocial aspects of political movements. Social character can be defined as an intermediary between consciousness and the given socio-economic structure: the “most frequent pattern typical in a particular society … and also the dominant characteristic” (194). Generally, social character serves adaptive and stabilizing functions, ensuring the persistence of the “pathology of normalcy” (6). Even so, Fromm identified different types. To name just two: the marketing character, which corresponds to the automaton conformity expected of monopoly capitalism, versus the productive character, which channels adversity into the creation of meaning and love. With Hilde Weiss (1900-1981), a brilliant student of the council-communist Karl Korsch, Fromm designed a study into the social character and political attitudes of German workers toward the end of the Weimar Republic (1929-1931). The findings of this survey, which will be discussed in more detail below, illuminate the great error of Marx’s almost mechanistic faith in the working classes, who are “not reliably socialist or anti-authoritarian” (135). In reality, the Weiss-Fromm study confirmed among many participants simultaneous psychical masochism and the idealization of strong men (144).

Connecting past with present, several of the essayists appearing in this volume seek to apply Fromm’s framework to the project of understanding the growth of extreme right-wing movements. This analysis is most welcome in the wake of the Trump regime and the associated legitimization of neo-fascism. Charles Thorpe views the Trumpist phenomenon as “regressive identification,” to quote the English sociologist Anthony Giddens: The disgraced former president’s foot-soldiers “simply become dependent children again” and so surrender their consciences to the would-be dictator (181). Such a diagnosis is especially apt when considering the attempted coup incited by President Trump on January 6, 2021. In a Frommian sense, reactionary countermovements can be understood, at least in part, as anxious backlashes by those privileged in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality to rapid, progressive societal changes that might threaten their dominance in the social hierarchy (85-86). Like Reagan and the shareholders in the 1980s, who rebelled against “bureaucracy” and “Communism” by imposing neoliberalism, the authoritarian syndrome of Trumpism represents a false revolt that re-entrenches privilege, irrationalism, and established tendencies toward aggressive self-destruction. Although the right in the United States often relies on community-building and the development of familial, in-group bonds for its propagation, rightist politics both presuppose and reproduce the bourgeois coldness of life in the capitalist, imperialist, and settler-colonial United States (167).

Humanism, Feminism, and Social Character in a Mexican Village

George Lundskow, in his essay on “The Necessity of Prophetic Humanism in Progressive Social Change,” differentiates between “two basic forms” of spiritual life: universalist emancipation and xenophobic idolatry. In Freudian terms, this conflict can be reinterpreted as the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, libido and mortido, or “a faith in life and a faith in death” (55). Lundskow’s universalist perspective is intimately connected with biophilia, or love of life, whether human or nonhuman, and the prophetic-messianic Judaic tradition. Concurring (perhaps controversially) with Fromm that evolution demands that we all have a “frame of orientation and an object of devotion in order to survive,” Lundskow discusses Black Panther Huey P. Newton’s passion for revolutionary suicide—to sacrifice oneself for the people—in place of the reactionary suicide demanded by capitalism and authority (53). Channeling Hermann Cohen’s understanding of messianism as “the dominion of the good on earth,” the writer advocates the construction of a new “revolutionary religion” as a means of transforming the world (68). In like manner, in The Ministry of the Future (2020), the science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson depicts one of his characters calling for the founding of a new religion to unite humanity and save the planet.3

In her intervention considering the relationship between humanism and feminism, Lynn S. Chancer rightly chastises Fromm for his distance from the feminist movements that surged in the 1960s and 1970s and his related use of sexist language. At the same time, she praises Fromm’s concept of love as mutual recognition, finding it to be a framework that implicitly challenges the gender binary that encodes sadistic male chauvinism on the one hand and masochistic feminine passivity on the other. The struggle against sadomasochistic character orientations and practices—being “mechanisms of escape” that drive wars, exploitation, ecocide, and aggression—would be a process to redirect society toward a more peaceful, egalitarian, and erotic future (197). In such a world, the interrelated “social defense mechanisms” of sadism and masochism would be attenuated, in both the individual and collective, and interdependence would serve as an alternative to the master/slave relationships of past and present (99). Chancer praises Fromm’s concern for “care, loving, sanity, and reason” as implicit critiques of toxic masculinity, sexism, and heterosexism, being systems that “have coercive consequences by limiting people’s gender and sexual freedoms” (101). While she criticizes the psychoanalyst’s gender essentialism and identifies his lack of interest in human sexuality—what fellow contributor David Norman Smith terms a “desexualized psychoanalysis”—as reflecting a “pre-oedipal” orientation that would stress relatedness over the libido, Chancer does not seem to acknowledge the link between Fromm’s own sex-negativity and heterosexist biases (102-05, 131).

In “Sociopsychoanalysis and Radical Humanism,” Neil McLaughlin and Fromm’s own co-author Michael Maccoby note the following paradox: Though he was trained in sociology, Fromm is marginal to the core of this discipline, as to academia as a whole. This is in stark contrast to Pierre Bourdieu, or indeed, Michel Foucault. Dialectically, Fromm’s academic marginality provided him independence of thought but also disregard from the professoriate (109-10). This is sadly the case for his most scholarly late works, such as Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973). In contrast, Bourdieu played the academic game and enjoyed considerable rewards and privilege as a sociologist in universities in Paris and Lille. While both figures were radical public intellectuals who engaged in similar projects of socioanalysis, or sociopsychoanalysis, and criticized Western and Stalinist crimes alike—with Bourdieu protesting in his writings against the Algerian War and Fromm publicly opposing the Vietnam and Cold wars—Bourdieu made such arguments from within the academy, while Fromm made them from without. Insightfully, Maccoby and McLaughlin tie Fromm’s “intellectual decline” to his numerous conflicts “with orthodox Marxists, Freudians, neoconservatives, anti-humanist thinkers,” and his former comrades from the Frankfurt School, especially Herbert Marcuse, who resurrected Adorno’s opportunistic line against him in the 1950s (119).

These contributors productively compare Fromm’s social-character theory to Bourdieu’s theory of an internalized, unconscious habitus. This habitus perpetuates class society and the division of labor by mandating obedient participation and social reproduction. Otherwise known as the “cultural unconscious” or “mental habits,” the theory of habitus, for all its usefulness, “downplay[s] an explicit psychoanalytic analysis of emotions which is the core strength of Fromm’s social character theory” (122-23). Plus, in his focus on elites, structures, and symbolic violence, Bourdieu overlooks the self-defeating and self-destructive psychodynamics that often contribute to the reproduction of exploitation and domination. To this point, he was critical of Frantz Fanon’s concept of internalized oppression. However, Bourdieu’s deficit here can perhaps be corrected by Fromm’s social-character theory, particularly as applied in the Mexican village of Chiconcauc, Morelos state. During the 1950s and 1960s, Fromm and his colleagues carried out an empirical research study there into some of the psychological aspects of class stratification among campesinos (peasants) after the Revolution of 1910-1920. Tellingly, the resulting publication, Social Character in a Mexican Village, found that only single-digit percentages of the villagers interviewed had radically democratic character structures.4 The rest were divided among enterprising-sadistic and passive-receptive campesinos, with the divisions correlated to family status before the revolution. Many of those who capitalized on the new opportunities made available by the redistribution of lands had previously been landowners, while those who suffered greater rates of violence and alcoholism were typically descended from peons of the hacienda system imposed by Spanish colonialism (118).

In this sense, Social Character in a Mexican Village provides insight into some of the psychosocial dimensions of class divisions and social hierarchy as a whole. It confirms the Freudian notion that sadomasochism, or authoritarianism, is a psychosocial system with constituent parts that may either accept their socially expected roles or rebel against them—whether productively or destructively. Similar critical studies could be conducted today into gender, class, caste, and ethno-racial inequalities, as well as political differences, throughout the world. Nevertheless, in light of the hostile and supremacist contemporary discourses around the “culture of poverty,” Maccoby and McLaughlin are right that Fromm’s social-character theory risks blaming the victims of given social structures (119-24). This is certainly a quandary that requires more reflection and investigation.

Authority and The Working Class in Weimar Germany

In his inquiry into “Anti-Authoritarian Marxism,” David Norman Smith explains how, in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, Fromm’s cousin Heinz Brandt sought to organize a united front of all anti-fascist forces against the rising Nazi menace. This initiative was promptly crushed by Stalin, in line with the Soviet despot’s disastrous imposition of the doctrine of “social fascism,” which equated the Social Democrats with the Nazis (135-36). Due to such betrayals, Brandt spent a total of 14 years in Nazi and, later, East German prison camps. Intriguingly, Smith traces Fromm’s instinctual revulsion over Stalinist hegemony, and almost unconscious approximation to Trotsky, about whom the psychoanalyst raved: He is “always stimulating, always alive” and “penetrating to the very essence of reality” (138). Such flourishes about the Red Army commander suggest, firstly, that Fromm was ignorant of the fate of the Russian Revolution’s “Third Revolution,” represented by the Kronstadt Commune, the Greens, and the Makhnovist movement: namely, to be crushed by the “People’s Commissar,” Trotsky. Furthermore, despite the analyst’s explicit homophobia, Fromm’s attraction to Trotsky provides evidence of the Freudian theory of universal bisexuality.

Crucially, as well, Smith introduces Hilde Weiss, a Jewish student of industrial sociology, a mass-striker, and an affiliate of the Red Trade Union International (RTUI). Weiss was the primary author of the study on German workers’ attitudes, The Working Class in Weimar Germany, that is more commonly attributed to Fromm himself.5 Using social-character theory, Weiss and Fromm predicted that small minorities of workers would be militantly for (10 percent) or against (15 percent) a Nazi takeover of Germany, while the vast majority (75 percent) would remain passive and essentially indifferent (217). The study also found a significant discrepancy between the 82 percent of respondents who professed fidelity to left parties (the Communists and Social Democrats), and the 15 percent who consistently responded with anti-authoritarian views.6 In a parallel study, Weiss revealed how workers often deified their bosses, in a revealing example of commodity fetishism and sadomasochism, as well as an exhibition of the persistent psychocultural legacy of Prussian militarism and elitism. These self-defeating ideologies were so pervasive as to even permeate Germany’s pyramidally organized left parties—in turn, laying the groundwork for the rise of Hitler.

Although such critique is very apt, it is unclear why someone like Weiss, who lauded Lenin and conformed to Marxist notions of the “dialectical” use of state authority, should be considered a principled anti-authoritarian herself. After all, she joined the RTUI rather than the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association, co-founded by Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Rudolf Rocker, among others, in 1922. In this vein, Weiss echoes the confusions of the libertarian-communist Otto Rühle, author of “The Struggle Against Fascism Begins with the Struggle Against Bolshevism” (1939), who cherished his personal friendship with his fellow exile in Mexico, one of the leading Bolsheviks—none other than Trotsky himself (151).

Critique: History, Sexuality, and Internationalism

Whereas Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory is undeniably an important intervention in psychoanalytic, humanist, and radical theory, some caution is needed with an expressly Marxist interpretation of Fromm’s lifework. For example, some contributors express anxiety over the “neo-idealism” of critical approaches based in morality or norms, despite the fact that Fromm himself (like Freud) dedicated much of his life to contemplating the mind, dreams, socialization, and ethics, or the superego (37, 77). Plus, as Maccoby and McLaughlin correctly note, Fromm “rejected the inattention to emotions, morality, and human nature in [the] orthodox version of Marxism” (115). This tension may have to do with an unwillingness on the parts of the editors and contributors to do as Fromm did and criticize Marx himself.

Accordingly, some of the volume’s contributors attempt to defend Marx’s legacy in a way that is at variance with the historical record. For example, Smith claims that “Stalin’s new course—which entailed the violent expropriation of the peasantry, the intensified exploitation of workers, and the eradication of opposition—was a sharp reversal of Marxian doctrine” (132). The distinction made here is questionable, considering how Marx arbitrarily expelled the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1872 in order to outmaneuver them, while wrecking the organization, and its cause, in the process.7 Additionally, in Capital, volume 1, Marx welcomes both the expropriation of the peasantry and the regimentation of the industrial workers as historically necessary steps in the “dialectical” struggle for communism.8 For their part, Lenin and Stalin were enthusiasts of Taylorist and Fordist management styles.9

It is true that Fromm’s critical theory elides easy classification as being either primarily Marxist or anarchist. Perhaps, he transcends and sublates both categories. To this point, the Anarchist FAQ Collective identifies the psychoanalyst as a “libertarian Marxis[t] close to anarchism.” Similarly, Roger Foster and Charles Thorpe view Fromm as a socialist interested in “deep democratization rather than a managerial project,” and one who believed in a decentralized, planned economy, as well as humanistic social planning, respectively (90-91, 185). In the end, it was Fromm’s radical iconoclasm, arrived at through reflection and self-discovery, that so disturbed Adorno and doomed the psychoanalyst’s tenure in the Frankfurt School. Then again, it liberated him to follow his own path.

Unfortunately, this volume has little to say about ecological problems such as global over-heating, except in passing, as manifestations of capital’s self-destructive tendencies (75, 184-85, 210). Lundskow curiously equates “raw-food vegan[ism]” with Puritanism, when the Puritans were neither vegetarians nor vegans (59). What is more, in contrast to Puritans, vegans are not necessarily sex-negative. In this vein, we welcome Lundskow’s praise for Huey Newton’s explicit support for the queer community but lament that no one in this volume acknowledges Fromm’s own homonegativity, which is derived from Freud’s paternalistic view that gay people suffer from arrested development (65).10 Rather than be ignored, such limitations must be brought out and criticized.

In terms of international analysis, Langman and Lundskow use a Marcusean term to hail the Arab Spring as an important “great refusal” of domination, but they do not differentiate among the fates of the different uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (205). Thorpe suggests that the “upsurge of imperialist war in the Middle East has been a major cause of the growth of authoritarianism and nationalism” (177). Presumably, he means war in Iraq, Syria, and/or occupied Palestine, but he does not say. While such a view may partially explain the recent resurgence of the far right in Europe and the United States, it overlooks the specific actors and mechanisms involved in the case of Syria, who are themselves quite authoritarian and nationalist: principally, Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. These fascists, in their bloody suppression of the Syrian Revolution over the past decade, have killed up to a million people and displaced millions more across international borders. According to Rohini Hensman, committing atrocious war crimes to provoke mass-refugee flows from Syria has been a deliberate strategy on Putin’s part to destabilize the European Union.11 In the struggle to bring Syrian, Russian, U.S., and Israeli war criminals to justice, and to study their examples in the hopes of preventing similar atrocities from recurring, critical Frommian perspectives have much to contribute.


The co-editors and essayists of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory have performed an important service by re-engaging the public with the history of Fromm’s sociopsychoanalysis, in the hopes that the theorist’s insights be heeded in the cause of humanistic social reconstruction. Both history and the present attest to the strong anti-humanist tendencies professed by many considered to be on the left—from Georges Sorel and Stalin in the past to the GrayZone of today—thus corroborating Maccoby and McLaughlin’s fitting diagnosis of the left as “contradictory, an admixture of tendencies humanist and anti-humanist” (135, emphasis in original). In light of this problem, as well as the realities of global warming and ecocide, persistent political authoritarianism, entrenched sadomasochistic social systems, and disorganized working classes, we see the prospect of new Frommian studies on social character; humanistic, internationalist resistance toward anti-humanist opportunists; and the integration of left psychoanalysis with labor and community organizing as important components in the ongoing struggle for universal emancipation.


1. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune, eds., Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

2. Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (London: Routledge, 1955), 258.

3. Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry of the Future (Orbit, 2020), 254-55.

4. Erich Fromm, Social Character in a Mexican Village (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1996).

5. The version published by Harvard University Press in 1984 lists Fromm as the primary author.

6. Lawrence J. Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (Columbia University Press, 2013), 43-44.

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

8. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 873-95.

9. Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

10. Fromm, The Art of Loving, 31.

11. Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Haymarket Books, 2018), 233-38.

“Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today”: April 30, 2022

December 19, 2021

The world is in turmoil. Although Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, his aggressive spirit lives on. Global leaders meet at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to watch the planet burn. The U.S. Congress can’t even pass popular, much-needed socio-economic or environmental reforms. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic rages unchecked, in no small part due to the everyday capitalist exploitation of workers, not to mention resistance to vaccines and masks, as amplified by conspiracist, right-wing mass-media.

Given these dire circumstances, we believe that the Jewish German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) can equip us with profound insights for the struggle for a more egalitarian society.

Toward this end, we invite you to a one-day online conference on April 30, 2022, dedicated to reflecting on the importance of Erich Fromm’s critical and humanist social psychology for leftist strategy today.

We plan to use Zoom Webinar to cast the conference. Please visit the conference website, consider registering, and stay tuned for more details.