Archive for the ‘Frankfurt School’ Category

Seeking the Anarchism of Love: Transcript

May 9, 2023

From an online conversation hosted by the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, 22 March 2023

Joe Scheip: Lev Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy, Count Tolstoy, or any other of the many names and titles of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, was as diverse in being as in his many names. Complex and sometimes hypocritical, Lev was not just known in his time as a great author and poet, but also as a visionary and a revolutionary in ethics and politics: a believer in Christian anarchism. He challenged power, in all its forms.

Lev Tolstoy lived from 1828 to 1910. He was contemporaneous in his own country with Russian Tsars Alexander II and Alexander III, and later in life, with Nicholas II. He was born into some wealth and rank. Russia at the time was a quasi-feudal capitalist society, with deep disparity in social classes, the scourge of imperial rule, and the horrors of serfdom.

Tolstoy’s life has many epochs: first, a young adulthood that included eventful and traumatizing experiences in the military; then, Tolstoy the great author, writing best sellers even in his own time. Also, Tolstoy the social experimenter: using his homebase Yasnaya Polyana as a springboard for radical experimentation in education, eating, and social ranking. This was a place where holy fools, mystics, seekers and the like would come and stay, to attempt to create new worlds—much to his wife Sofia Tolstaya’s chagrin.

And we shouldn’t leave out Sofia here—as Tolstoy did, deciding to meditate amongst the honeybees during the pregnancy of their first child. Sofia should be credited, amongst many other things, with the countless hours spent copywriting and editing Tolstoy’s work—invisible labor, much like the labor of mothering their 13 children.

And Tolstoy’s hypocrisies and contradictions only continue from there. Yet he seemed to be fully aware. He writes in The Kingdom of God is Within You:

“We are all brothers—yet every morning a brother or sister must empty the bedroom slops for me. We are all brothers, but every morning I must have a cigar, a sweetmeat, an ice, and such things, which my brothers and sisters have been wasting their health in manufacturing, and I enjoy these things and demand them… We are all brothers, but I take a stipend for preaching a false Christian religion, which I do not myself belief in, and which only serves to hinder men from understanding true Christianity… The whole life of the upper classes is a constant inconsistency. The more delicate a man’s conscience is, the more painful this contradiction is to him.”

And while there are many things to examine in Lev’s life, Javier’s project—Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography (2023)—focuses on uncovering the both overt and subliminal queerness in Tolstoy’s life and work, and to link his erotic dissidence with his anarchist politics.

Was Tolstoy queer? In the sense of his lack of integration with mainstream society, the answer can only be a resounding yes. Was Tolstoy homosexual? The answer is more complicated. There are, however, many things that point to Tolstoy’s homosexual and homosocial gravitations, including his own words in his diary and Sofia’s later words, asking forgiveness for being the barrier to his encounters with other men.

Along with Javier’s historical, psychological, and social commentary, the book includes a queer reading of War and Peace, which unveils homosexual and double entendres galore.

On queer and queerness: what drove your interest in studying this under-researched area of Tolstoy’s life?

Javier Sethness: My mother María Castro, who is an art historian, would often tell me in childhood that art is usually autobiographical. The filmmaker Federico Fellini agreed. Take Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell’s volunteering in the Spanish Civil War, which yielded such classic books as For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia. Or consider Steven Spielberg’s films—Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan—and Octavia Butler’s novels, The Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. In much the same way, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s art is highly autobiographical. The count drew from personal and family experiences to create most of his best-known artworks, from the “Sevastopol Sketches” to The Cossacks, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” and Hadji Murat, among others. So when I write that queerness permeates Tolstoyan art, I am also suggesting that this artistic queerness represents autobiographical disclosure, as I engage in a kind of self-analysis—to see how queerness influences my own life, along with Tolstoy’s biography and artworks, plus the human condition.

Initially, I had simply planned to analyze Tolstoy’s artistic critique of war and militarism, which is realistic, humanistic, and anti-authoritarian, while considering some of the implications for left-wing internationalism today, especially in light of the resurgence of fascism and neo-Stalinism. But I was struck in my readings by the palpable homoeroticism that pervades Tolstoyan art, so I refocused the project into a psychoanalytical examination of the links between the artist’s erotic dissidence and his anarchist politics: in other words, of his queer anarchism.

Besides Tolstoy’s writings and biographies, this journey led me to research, among others, Bruce Perry’s findings about Malcolm X’s youthful gay relationships, Edward Carpenter’s progressive studies of homosexuality, Russian and Ukrainian LGBTQ history, the lesbian attractions that Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya includes in her own art, the lesbian and bisexual women’s participation in the Easter Rising of 1916, comrade-love in the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution, and what the late Chris Chitty describes as the “ancient association of same-sex eroticism with the hatred of tyranny,” which dates back at least to classical Greece.

With time, I noticed that intimate emotional bonds with other men were constants in Tolstoy’s “psychogeography,” both in terms of his life and his imagination, as expressed artistically. Besides including a brief review, in Perry’s style, of the subject’s homoerotic life, Queer Tolstoy features Freudian, Frommian, and Marcusean lenses, in the sense that I apply Sigmund Freud’s concepts of infantile sexuality, universal bisexuality, and polymorphous perversity; Erich Fromm’s critique of necrophilia and authoritarianism and simultaneous promotion of meaning and freedom; and Herbert Marcuse’s championing of Eros, or the life drive, to interpret Tolstoy’s life and art within its political and historical context.

Of these concepts, let me briefly explain Freud’s ideas about universal bisexuality and polymorphous perversity. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hypothesized that we are all bisexual, in the sense of both integrating male and female elements, and having pansexual attractions. (By the way, Charles Darwin would appear to agree with the former point, considering his view that “every man & woman is hermaphrodite.”) In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud proposes that human beings are sexual from birth, and that our libido (or sex-drive) expresses itself in “polymorphous-perverse” ways. I for one believe that our attachments and attractions manifest in wide-ranging, kaleidoscopic, and, yes, polymorphous fashion. So, while Freud and many of his followers were not necessarily friendly with the LGBTQ community—two of the notable exceptions here being Marcuse and the anarchist psychiatrist Otto Gross—I believe that some Freudian concepts can still be useful to us.

Moreover, by writing Queer Tolstoy, I sought to resist the heterosexist presumption that LGBTQ people and experience should remain invisible, together with the Russian State’s aggressive homonegativity. This is despite its official boosting and opportunistic use of some of Tolstoy’s lyricism, regardless of his excommunication by Russian Orthodox Church. President Vladimir Putin’s queerphobia is crystallized in the criminalization of “non-traditional” sexual relations and gender presentations—previously limited to minors, but now extended to the entire population. The Russian LGBT Network has been officially branded a “foreign agent.” This is not to mention genocidal crimes committed against the LGBTQ community in Chechnya, under Putin’s satrap Ramzan Kadyrov.

I struggle with the word queer, with its history as a pejorative, but preserving the word queer seems crucial in counter balancing the weaponization of terms like traditional family values, and other, related terms that used to suppress sensuality, art, love, and new ways of being. Tell me about your reaction to the term queer? Why do you think it is fitting word to describe Tolstoy?

I hear that concern, although I suspect that there might be a generational gap here. A recent letter to the editors of the Guardian, apparently written by a 55-year old gay man, requested that the paper not use the “Q-word” because he found it “insulting and derogatory.” By contrast, the queer identity resonates more among younger people from the LGBTQ community, of which I am a part.

In the book, I use “queer” to refer both to “sexual deviance and freely chosen LGBTQ+ desire and experience,” as well as the intersection of LGBT experience and political radicalism. Going back to Freud and Marcuse, I believe “queerness” to be a synonym for “polymorphous perversity” and Eros. Along these lines, I emphasize the “lesbian continuum” hypothesized by Adrienne Rich, together with Freud’s ideas about a parallel gay continuum tying together the homosocial, homophilic, and homosexual worlds, while remaining critical of the toxic masculinity often exhibited by gay, bisexual, and straight men—Tolstoy not excluded!

As you rightly pointed out in your introductory comments, Joe, Tolstoy was not homosexual per se. By no means do I mean to erase his long marriage with Sofia Andreevna, who gave birth to thirteen of their children, much less his sexual relationships with other women. If I had to classify the count, I would say he was bisexual (in keeping, indeed, with Freudian theory). With this in mind, plus considering his dikost—a Russian word which means “daring,” “wildness,” or “iconoclasm”—I thought the title Queer Tolstoy was fitting.

In the introduction to my book, which is now available open-access, I briefly review nineteen same-sex relationships that I could glean from Tolstoy’s homoerotic biography. These include bonds with the Chechen Sado Miserbiyev, the revolutionary Russian youth Vasily Alexeev, the Ukrainian Jewish peasant Itzhak Feinermann, the Russo-Ukrainian composer Peter Tchaikovsky, the Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, and the self-aggrandizing Tolstoyan proprietor Vladimir Chertkov, among others. Lev Nikolaevich himself admits to eight other gay attachments early on in his diaries. Considering the artist’s hyper-sexual impulses, these likely only represent the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” for Tolstoy’s same-sex experiences.

Nina Nikitina, senior researcher at Yasnaya Polyana, writes that Tolstoy “read love signs all the time and was in their power.” He certainly sought love as mutual recognition and connection, as is emphasized by humanistic psychoanalysts like Jessica Benjamin. Such themes feature especially in War and Peace, a canvas on which Tolstoy’s alter egos discover spontaneous same-sex attractions on the battlefields and behind the front lines as comrades collectively resisting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s onslaught. These include platonic, deeply felt lesbian and gay bonds between Princess Marya Bolkonskaya and Julie Karagina on the one hand, and between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Captain Tushin on the other. Plus, as during World War I, soldiers will fraternize homoerotically and agree to cease-fires across the lines of control.

Tolstoy is known for bringing the realities of war and imperialism home to Russians. He was critical of the idea of the strong man, the leader who will bring his people glory. This seems to be very fitting, given the current tragedy of Ukraine and the despotism of Putin. What would Tolstoy say today about the current situation?

As Piro Subrat explains in Invertidos y Rompepatrias (2019), a history of the Spanish LGBTQ community, Tolstoy supported the mission of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which was founded by the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1897. This committee, the first LGBT rights organization in history, sought to repeal Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which was used to criminalize male homosexuality from 1871 to 1994. In this light, Tolstoy would likely have been horrified by Putin’s war on the queer community, which has resonated with Republicans in the US.

Both of these conservative-authoritarian power-groups are dehumanizing and inciting violence against us, with the Daily Wire commentator Michael Knowles even calling at this year’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) for trans* people to be “eradicated from public life entirely.” The state of Tennessee has now criminalized drag. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has sought to cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as retribution for the LGBTQ pride marches the country has hosted—just as Putin’s forces have wielded wanton sexual violence against the LGBT+ community in occupied Ukraine. I believe that Lev Nikolaevich would have spoken out against such queerphobic hatred and ultra-violence.

Although some of his descendants, like the “United Russia” representative Pëtr Tolstoy or Putin’s cultural adviser Vladimir Tolstoy are undoubtedly reactionaries, Lev Nikolaevich, were he alive today, would most likely be condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine and standing in solidarity with Ukrainian defenders and Russian protesters. Concretely, I imagine that he would also be involved with journalistic efforts to uncover the brutal realities of the war, in defiance of State media narratives, official censorship, and Putin’s megalomania, and that he would support war resistance, such as the sabotage taken up by the Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists (BOAK), plus conscientious objection and desertion from the battlefield. He might have highlighted the disproportionate utilization of soldiers from Russia’s ethnic and indigenous communities as cannon fodder, or circulated news about all the land mines planted by the invaders in Ukraine’s agricultural fields. Like his great grand-daughter Maria Albertini, he would likely be involved in directly supporting Ukrainian refugees.

You may have seen that Putin’s regime has cynically used Tolstoy’s face to adorn a high fence set up around the Mariupol Drama Theatre in occupied Ukraine. This was the site of a horrific massacre perpetrated last March by the invading Russians. Up to six hundred Ukrainian civilians were killed as they took shelter there from the ruthless assault. The same month, in Mariupol, a Russian airstrike destroyed the Arkhip Kuindzhi Art Museum, which had hosted paintings by this renowned artist, born in the same city. (His “Rainbow” painting is included in my book.) Needless to say, Tolstoy, who inspired the Revolution so despised by Putin, and who remains excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, would not conceivably have consented to such use of his image.

Considering the fate of Alexei Navalny, the main leader of the anti-Putin opposition, whose views are much more conservative than Tolstoy’s, and who is currently a political prisoner in a maximum-security facility outside Moscow (as Daniel Roher, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary about his poisoning, reminds us), Tolstoy probably would have been imprisoned or assassinated under Putin’s regime—as the critic Boris Nemstov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, among many others, have been. Indeed, as I discuss in the book, Tolstoy very nearly was imprisoned and executed when the translation of an openly anarchist essay of his appeared in the English press in 1891. It was really only thanks to the intervention of his high-ranking cousin, courtier Alexandrine Tolstaya, that Lev Nikolaevich survived this incident.

It is crucial that Ukraine win this war against Russia, and liberate its occupied territories. As the Russian Socialist Movement points out, “Russian history is replete with examples of military setbacks abroad that have led to major change at home.” Tsar Nicholas I’s death from stress and/or suicide in 1855 as his Empire suffered setbacks in the Crimean War brought Alexander II’s formal abolition of serfdom closer, just as it opened up new possibilities for radical struggle from below. During World War I, Russian casualties, poor morale, and mass-desertion (blamed, in part, on Tolstoy’s ideas) contributed to the coming of the Revolution. Rather than continue to blackmail the world with nuclear weapons and mobilize lies about “Ukrainian Nazis” to rationalize his atrocities, Putin must be thoroughly defeated on the battlefield, so that his regime falls, too.

In his life and his works, Tolstoy points to history not being steered by leaders or great men, but by the people. His critical view on the idealization of the “strong man,” the leader who will bring his people glory, again has parallels to what we are witnessing today with Putin in Russia and the U.S. In contrast, he put his faith in “the People.”

Yes, that’s right. As he describes in A Confession (1882), it was the common people’s faith that saved him from taking his life during the spiritual crisis he experienced at the end of the 1870’s, after finishing Anna Karenina. When he was younger, as well, peasant women saved him from drowning in the Volga River, while his wet nurse was a serf woman named Avdotia Ziabreva. In reality, just before he passed away, Tolstoy was asking about the peasants.

In the book, I describe Tolstoy as a champion of anarcho-Populism, or the anarchist current of Narodnichestvo (also translated as Narodism). This was a revolutionary anti-Tsarist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that envisioned an agrarian-socialist future for Russia. Besides Tolstoy, its main proponents were Herzen, Bakunin, Chernyshevsky, and Lavrov. (This was before Plekhanov and Lenin introduced Marxism to the Empire.) Some forerunners of anarcho-Populism included “men of 1812” like Tolstoy’s distant cousin, General Sergei Volkonsky. These “men of 1812” were veteran officers from the 1812 war against Napoleon. Known as a “peasant prince,” Volkonsky was exiled with his wife Marya to Siberian exile for three decades for spearheading the Decembrist conspiracy to overthrow Tsarism in 1825. This man, whose life was spared (in contrast to other Decembrist leaders) only owing to his family’s great prestige—specifically, his mother’s intercession—served as the model on which Tolstoy based Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. (As a side note, the support of Bakunin’s mother was crucial in convincing Tsar Alexander II to commute the rebel’s prison term to Siberian exile, thus facilitating his escape from the Empire.)

In contrast to direction by “great men,” like the Romanov Tsars, Bonaparte, Trump, or Putin, Tolstoy proposes that history is built from below through the collective action of the People. In War and Peace, he presents several examples of collective resistance to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia which have present-day echoes. These include the need to support Ukraine’s legitimate self-defense against the Russian onslaught; the imperative of unionizing and socializing the global economy; and the necessity of a worldwide transition to wind, water, and solar energy (WWS).

It’s interesting, reconciling Tolstoy’s heroization of the collective resistance of the Russian people to expel Napoleon with his transition to advocate of non resistance. And not just any advocate, but an influencer of peaceful resistance of historic proportions…

You’re right. It is quite the contradiction. Tolstoy espoused pacifism in the wake of his ‘conversion’ to rationalist Christianity after suffering a crisis of depression and suicidality in the 1870’s—mirroring the decline of the radical anti-Tsarist movement under Alexander II. Non-resistance follows from Jesus’ command, made during the Sermon on the Mount, to “resist not the evildoer” (Matthew 5:39). While this directive appears to demand servility and passivity, and thus reproduce abusive dynamics, the Unitarian Universalist Adin Ballou interpreted it as meaning that “we are not to resist evil with evil,” but “[e]vil is to be resisted by all just means.” Gandhi, who corresponded with Tolstoy at the end of his life about this very concept (and founded the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa in 1910), likewise promoted civil disobedience as non-violent resistance to abuse, or Satyagraha, in the struggle against British imperialism in India. In turn, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached Gandhian and Tolstoyan non-cooperation in his dream for the non-violent, anti-racist transformation of U.S. society.

Still, the theory of non-resistance has clear limits. If one takes the injunction not to “resist the evildoer” literally, then the Ukrainians would have to surrender to Putin; the Communards of Paris, the Kronstadt sailors, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Haitians, Syrians, and Palestinians should not have risen up; and workers and minorities should not complain or organize—but simply grin and bear everything. This is a self-defeating current in Tolstoy’s thought that amounts to a “betrayal of the cause of the oppressed,” in the words of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, and “an enclosure of his own position,” as my comrade Shon Meckfessel writes. Indeed, this tension may speak to Tolstoy’s war trauma and fragmented sense of identity. After all, throughout his life, he resisted abuse, and admired and enshrined resistance to authority.

As you put aptly in your book, “Alienation is universal under capitalism.” I’m all too familiar with the feelings of alienation, and while Tolstoy wasn’t under modern capitalism’s yoke per se, he lived under a system of extreme disparity and social restriction. In reaction to this, his life appeared to be a journey of seeking a better way, a kingdom of God here on earth. As such, he turned to an interesting form of spiritualism. Could you talk more about that?

Yes, of course. While fighting at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, Tolstoy experienced an epiphany just after the death of Tsar Nicholas. He then proposed the “stupendous idea” of founding a new religion based on the actual teachings of Jesus the Nazarene, rather than established church dogmas or mysticism. This dream-state expressed the artist’s therapeutic desire to contest the death-dealing authority of Church and State by promoting union. It is reproduced in War and Peace during Prince Andrei’s trance, as he lies injured at the battle of Austerlitz, and affirms the utopian desire for peace, while experiencing a psychedelic “queerpiphany.” Tolstoy’s passionate engagement with Christianity is based in the evangelical message of the Gospels, not church rituals. His was a non-orthodox Christianity: Tolstoy’s “new translation” of the Gospels (1881) ends with Jesus’ crucifixion at Golgotha and excludes most mentions of miracles, including above all the resurrection.

Although Tolstoy became more openly didactic after his spiritual crisis, his Christian anarchism can also be gleaned from his earlier writings, including War and Peace. In this work, Pierre Bezukhov, another Tolstoyan alter ego, becomes a Freemason after separating from his first wife, Hélène. By introducing this radical homosocial association, which anticipates Pierre’s joining the Decembrists at the book’s end, Tolstoy presents an interpretation of Christianity “freed from the bonds of State and church, a teaching of equality, brotherhood, and love.” Along these lines, the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin admired Freemasonry for advancing self-organization in Russia, while the Tsars feared precisely the freethinking and autonomy it stimulated.

In middle age, the count took up vegetarianism, renounced hunting, adopted strict pacifism, and condemned the libido—regardless of how unhappy this latter position would leave his wife Sofia Andreevna. Such ascetic changes may have resulted from Tolstoy’s encounters with death-anxiety as he aged; an intensification of underlying bipolar depression; a queer dissatisfaction with straight conventions; and/or the artist’s life-long attempt to observe his principles and so prefigure the Kingdom of God. While he did not succeed in meeting his goal of living simply and peacefully in an egalitarian community, much less of redistributing his lands and estates, these contradictions drove the tragic flight of this “proletarian lord” in October 1910.

You delve deeply into philosophy and psychology in Queer Tolstoy, as you have done in your other works, including in your previous work on Marcuse, Eros and Revolution. What gravitates you to these fields? And further, how can we connect Tolstoy’s philosophy to our own lives?

Like Lev Nikolaevich, I am a seeker: a Resident and Stranger. In my writings, I challenge the divisions that are often drawn between mind and body, idealism and materialism, and psychiatry and medicine. As Marcuse, Gross, and Tolstoy knew, these realms are actually connected.

I’m especially fascinated by Tolstoy as a “forerunner” of the Russian (and Mexican) Revolutions, the tragic experience of his followers in the Soviet Union (which confirms the counter-revolutionary nature of Leninism and Stalinism), and the ongoing relevance of Tolstoyan radicalism. I’m intrigued by the artist’s critiques of violence, hierarchy, and despotism; his work in popular education and famine relief; his engagements with Islam, Buddhism, and Daoism; his support for erotic, moral, and political self-determination; his existential emphasis on creating meaning in the face of death; his queerness (of course); and his inspiration of plant-based, pacifist communes guided by ideals of “peaceful revolution” and “universal brotherhood.”

Still, we must learn from Tolstoy’s mistakes: above all, his gross sexism, which is consistent with the toxic masculinity that is prevalent today in much of the gay community and beyond; his ambivalence sometimes expressed, particularly in War and Peace, about White-Russian chauvinism; his masochistic theory of non-resistance, which advises against resisting abuse; and, ironically, his gay timidity—notwithstanding the constraints imposed by Tsarism. The fates of Prince Andrei and Captain Tushin, and Princess Marya and Julie Karagina, reflect his ambivalence over the libido and queer desire. As Freud knew, this shyness only perpetuated his unhappiness!

Politically speaking, there are a myriad of ways that we can connect Tolstoy’s philosophy to the present day. In contrast to Pushkin and Lermontov’s poetry, Tolstoy’s writings about Transcaucasia—including “The Raid,” The Cossacks, Hadji Murat—are generally humanistic, internationalist, and critical of Tsarist regional expansionism. They can be read to highlight the historical continuum of White-Russian violence, which has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chechens since the collapse of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. In this vein, we must never forget that Tsarist imperialism annihilated the vast majority of the Circassian people, otherwise known as Adyghes, in the Caucasus in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this light, we should channel Tolstoyan anti-war realism (but not dogmatic pacifism) to reject the left-right alliance that is converging against Ukraine. Trump, DeSantis, Fox News hosts, and MAGA extremists in the House all proclaim the fascist slogan “America First” in calling for Ukraine to be cut off, while neo-Stalinists and pseudo-anti-imperialists demand that Ukraine surrender to Russia.

History shows that Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War—which was achieved with the support of Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin’s betrayals, and the non-intervention policy of the Western democracies—set the stage for World War II. In much the same way, Putin’s “anti-humanitarian intervention” in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship from being swept away by the Syrian Revolution prepared the ground for the ongoing full-scale attack on Ukraine. Given the pressing need to stop Putin, I welcome his recent indictment by the International Criminal Court.

We chose the title “seeking the anarchism of love” as the title of our discussion, so I thought it fitting to pull this quote from War and Peace:

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand. I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.”

But what about the anarchism of love? is love integral to anarchism? And is true love anarchic?

Certainly, love, connection, and attachment are integral to anarchism, understood as anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism, anarcha-feminism, and Christian anarchism.

Throughout his life, beyond infancy, Lev Nikolaevich missed his mother, Princess Marya Volkonskaya, who passed away at the young age of thirty-nine. Still, he often yearned for her love, even as an old man, and it is evident how much her pro-social personality marked him. One of War and Peace’s main protagonists is based on her, and what is more, the real-life Marya’s unfinished family novel, Russian Pamela, deeply influenced the themes and characters Tolstoy features in his own prose poem. Akin to the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Princess Marya—who received a classical education at Yasnaya Polyana, thanks to her progressive father—was an “unlikely revolutionary.”

In turn, like Leonardo da Vinci, whose mother may have been, according to new research, a trafficked Circassian, Tolstoy identified with his mother and aunts, together with traditionally “feminine” virtues like care and compassion. Plus, as a cadet in the Caucasus, Tolstoy was intensely attracted to the “God of Love and Reason” that he discovered among the natural beauty there, and the social and sexual freedom practiced by his Cossack hosts, at least within their in-group. He was certainly repelled by Cossack violence against the Muslim Chechens. Your apt quote from War and Peace, which appears just after Prince Andrei’s death due to injuries sustained at the battle of Borodino, frames love in Marcusean terms as Eros, eternally struggling against archaic forces and Thanatos (or the death drive).

Many times in War and Peace, we encounter scenes that recall bell hooks’ concept of the anarchism of love, whereby arousal and attachment contest hierarchy and convention, challenge abuse, and tear down walls. Hence, the spontaneous comrade-love that develops on the battlefield between Prince Andrei and Tushin; Pierre’s homoerotic bonds with his Freemason and peasant mentors and serf-soldiers at Borodino; plus Natasha Rostova’s prayer for “one community, without distinction of class, without enmity, united by brotherly love.” Likewise, if we think of Jessica Benjamin’s idea of love as mutual recognition, we can read War and Peace as an allegorical journey of transition and transformation—from the despotism and violence encoded by Tsarism and Bonapartism (reminiscent of biblical captivity in Egypt and Babylon), to a better future characterized by equality, peace, and freedom (that is to say, the Kingdom of God).

Such insurgent passions reverberated in the Russian Revolution, especially in the nearly 100 Tolstoyan communes and cooperatives founded soon after the fall of the Romanov dynasty, as well as in the Mexican Revolution, with the rebels Praxedis Guerrero, Ricardo Flores Magón, and General Emiliano Zapata looking to the Russian anarchist sage for inspiration.

Lastly, in the 1970’s, hippies from the Soviet counterculture rediscovered Tolstoy as a spiritual guide for their anti-authoritarian journeys and pilgrimages, experiments in pacifism and free love, and protests against the Soviet regime.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and please don’t forget to donate what you can to Solidarity Collectives.


Queer Tolstoy

Open-access introduction (chapter 2)

YouTube recording

Leo Tolstoy archive (English translations)

Bureau of General Services–Queer Division

Michael Denner, “The ‘proletarian lord’: Leo Tolstoy’s image during the Russian revolutionary period” (2010). doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511676246.012

Irina Gordeeva, “Tolstoyism in the Late-Socialist Cultural Underground: Soviet Youth in Search of Religion, Individual Autonomy and Nonviolence in the 1970s–1980s” (2017)

—, “The Evolution of Tolstoyan Pacifism in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, 1900–1937” (2018)

Michael Kazin, “Reject the Left-Right Alliance Against Ukraine” (2023)

Mark Mola, “The Circassian Genocide” (2016).

Book Review Essay: Anti-Authoritarian Internationalism, Then and Now

May 3, 2023
“Fighters on the Aragón front, 1937” by Kati Horna (International Institute of Social History/Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte. Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica)

First published on New Politics, 26 April 2023

In The Politics of Unreason (2017), Lars Rensmann poses an important question about fascism and anti-Semitism: namely, are these oppressive phenomena “specific to German or European culture—or rather universal, the byproduct of universal authoritarian phenomena, susceptibilities, and tendencies in modern society […?].”1

This book review essay seeks to answer this question and explore fascism and the far right by examining five recently published anti-fascist (Antifa) and anti-authoritarian volumes: namely, Lars Rensmann’s own The Politics of Unreason; ¡No Pasarán! (2022), edited by Shane Burley; Ilham Tohti’s We Uyghurs Have No Say (2022); Luke Cooper’s Authoritarian Contagion: The Global Threat to Democracy (2021); and Charles Reitz’s The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse (2022). In general, we agree with the theorists of the Frankfurt School—like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—who held that “fascism could happen anywhere,” and that authoritarianism is a “more or less universal modern phenomenon.”2 Likewise, we concur with Paul Gilroy, who writes that “barbarity can appear anywhere, at any time.”3

Accordingly, as we explore these five books, we will confront not only the “brown” fascism indelibly associated with Benito Mussolini, National Socialism (or Nazism), Trumpism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, but also Black, “red” (Communist), Syrian, Indian, and Chinese fascism and authoritarianism. Then, before concluding, we will present some anti-fascist perspectives on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine—thus converging, hopefully, with Talia Lavin’s interpretation of Antifa as “a movement of protection.”4

¡No Pasarán! and Decolonizing Fascism

In his essay for ¡No Pasarán!, Matthew N. Lyons interprets the strengthening of far-right forces in the U.S. neither as any aberration to its settler-colonial society, as many liberals hold, nor as a mere tool of hyper-capitalist rule, as many radicals (especially Marxists) claim. Instead, by applying his framework of a “three way fight” among leftists, rightists, and the State, Lyons situates fascists and the far-right as “autonomous force[s] counterposed to both the left and the capitalist state.” Through his analysis of what he terms the U.S. right’s “three big upsurges of the past half century,” Lyons demonstrates the far-right’s often-antagonistic stance toward oppressed people, leftists, their intersections, and the established authorities. In this sense, given the right’s deeply anti-egalitarian commitments, its reluctance to call capitalism into question, and its opportunistic and ultraviolent tactics, Lyons’ chapter may be read as a warning that “the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.”5 Such a lesson carries important warnings for anarchists about not only the far-right but also the authoritarian left.

In “The Black Antifascist Tradition: A Primer” and “Five Hundred Years of Fascism,” Jeannelle K. Hope and Mike Bento, respectively, consider the connections between white supremacy and fascism for ¡No Pasarán! from decolonial points of view. Reflecting on Aimé Césaire’s comment in Discourse on Colonialism (1950) that fascism is imperialism brought back to Europe, and working from the Bulgarian Stalinist Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism (presented before the Communist International in 1935) as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” Hope and Bento assert that “[a]ll colonized people [have] lived under fascist rule,” such that their resistance has of necessity been anti-fascist. Along these lines, Hopes interprets the “We Charge Genocide” (1951) report and petition, co-written by Black intellectuals William Patterson, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois; the Black Panther Party; the Black Liberation Army; Black Lives Matter; and carceral abolition movements, among others, as anti-fascist.6

There is little doubt that colonial, imperial, and racist violence, as crystallized in the annihilation of Indigenous peoples, the slave trade of Africans, and slavery, has deeply animated fascist politics. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948), Hannah Arendt describes a set of “boomerang effects,” whereby European imperialism in Africa—specifically, Germany’s genocides of the Herero and Nama peoples in southwestern Africa (1904–8)—served as “the most fertile soil” for Nazism.7 Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis followed the examples of British colonialism in India and the settler-colonial USA, while also looking to the Hindu caste system for inspiration for racial hierarchies.8 Similarly, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists “drew deeply” from the British Empire, just as Spanish Nationalists and Franquists appeal to nostalgia for imperialist domination.9 In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz traces the harrowing ultraviolence carried out by Euro-American settlers against Indigenous communities to observe “Manifest Destiny” and expand U.S. borders.10

Furthermore, history shows that millions of enslaved Africans perished both during abduction to the Americas, and due to bonded labor and racist terror in the thirteen colonies and the independent U.S. As Bento, DuBois, and the Jewish anti-Zionist Norman G. Finkelstein have acknowledged, lynching in the American South was a widespread genocidal practice that predated the legal classification of the crime.11 The ongoing wanton violence visited by police on Black men in U.S. society is a part of this rotten historical continuum. Plus, Ken Burns’ new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust (2022), evinces how widespread anti-Semitic attitudes in the U.S. government, and among average citizens, contributed to a failure to intervene against Hitler’s genocide of European Jews. Prior to U.S. entry into World War II, masses of pro-Nazi Americans propagandized in favor of Hitler via the America First Committee, while agitating against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and advocating for a fascist State.12 In reality, as revealed by one of the Frankfurt School’s studies in exile, Antisemitism among American Labor (1944–5), only a small majority of surveyed workers unconditionally rejected Nazi crimes against Jews, while nearly a fifth supported them.13

For Lars Rensmann, the Shoah, or Holocaust, represents a historical “caesura” and the “world’s ‘central injustice’”: a “previously unimaginable extreme evil.” He is concerned that making comparisons to the Shoah may trivialize its meaning and the “still unmastered legacy of the Holocaust,” just as Benjamin Zachariah worries that the “moral comparison of colonialism and fascism” can “produc[e …] what we might call a ‘concept deflation,’” whereby the term fascism loses its specific meaning.14 Shane Burley, editor of ¡No Pasarán!, expresses similar doubts about the equation of racism and colonialism with fascism in a panel discussion about the book with Firestorm Coop. Despite herself being a Black Panther, Angela Davis likewise disagreed with the Party’s organizing a United Front Against Fascism in 1969, as she found it “incorrect and misleading to inform people that we were already living under fascism.”15 Indeed, the rhetorical equation of liberalism with fascism overlooks how many colonized peoples rejected the Axis powers by supporting the Allies and waging anti-colonial, anti-fascist armed struggle during World War II, thus contributing greatly to formal decolonization in the post-war context.16 Therefore, while liberalism, imperialism, and fascism are related—with the former two opening the possibility for the latter—the means and ends of liberalism cannot be equated with those of fascism.

Black Authoritarianism and Stalinism

By essentializing Black resistance as necessarily being Antifa, Hope ignores the conspiratorial anti-Semitism promoted by individuals and groups like Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam (NOI), Kanye West, and Black Hebrew Israelites. This is not to mention the fascist enthusiasm expressed by Black Hammer after Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Several African states have likewise supported Russia’s ruthless bid to recolonize Ukraine. In contrast to the Black Americans who served in the International Brigades to defend the Spanish Republic, North Africans fought in Francisco Franco’s insurgency against it.17 As well, in 1937, just as Italy occupied Ethiopia, the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Jr.—referring to his mass-organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association—claimed, “We were the first Fascists,” and that “Mussolini copied fascism from me.” The next year, C.L.R. James suggested that Garvey’s “storm troopers” in “parades” anticipated Hitler, too. Indeed, Garvey dreamed of mass-repatriation to an “African Empire” enshrining a “superstate,” and repudiated class struggle while preaching violence and anti-Semitism. Such views, in turn, inspired the founders of the NOI. Echoing his father’s enigmatic Black fascism, in 1974, Marcus Garvey III hailed “African National Socialism” and looked forward to an “African ‘Anschluss’ [… and] ‘Lebensraum.’”18

Besides this, Hope does not contest the highly uncritical attitudes that several of her sources take toward the Soviet Union, as an ostensible alternative to the racial capitalism of the settler-colonial, imperialist USA. In parallel, Bento questionably casts Dimitrov, a Stalinist bureaucrat, as a “revolutionary critic of European society.”19 Together, these authors present authoritarian Communism as progressive, authentic, and left-wing, but these are dangerous misrepresentations, in light of the following historical facts: the Bolsheviks’ suppression of the Kronstadt and Tambov uprisings, and of the Makhnovist movement in Ukraine; the horrors of Holodomor and forcible collectivization; the nefarious part played by Stalin and his agents in the Spanish Civil War (1936–9); the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, which facilitated World War II and the Holocaust, and even involved Stalin leasing Hitler a secret submarine base; the colonialism practiced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in Siberia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe; the mass-deportations of minorities; the widespread detention of political prisoners in the Gulag; escalations toward nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and the Soviet regime’s sexism and criminalization of homosexuality. For all these reasons and more, anti-fascism and internationalism cannot be consistent with support for the USSR. After all, the Soviet Union implemented a model of red fascism that must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Syrian Ba’athism and Hindutva

During his incarceration by the British authorities in the 1930’s, the Indian Marxist M. N. Roy distinguished theoretically among “Italian, German, and Indian fascisms.”20 In ¡No Pasarán!, Leila al-Shami and Shon Meckfessel contribute to this project of analyzing diverse fascist movements by considering Syrian Baa’thism—a form of fascism—and its affinities with the U.S. far-right. The authors note how the Ba’athist state’s centralism, corporatism, militarism, and brazen ultraviolence attract and animate the global fascist movement. Not for nothing did Syria’s Ba’athists grant sanctuary to the Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, who trained the brutal mukhabarat (secret police) in exchange. Authoritarians around the world admire the impunity that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his backer Putin have enjoyed for their genocidal counter-revolution against a widespread popular uprising that began in 2011. Fox News conspiracists and GrayZone bloggers alike harp on the regime’s innocence for atrocious chemical-weapons attacks, in cases where Assad’s forces are responsible beyond any reasonable doubt.21 In this light, GrayZone would appear to mimic Fox‘s business model, as highlighted by the defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems over the 2020 U.S. presidential election, through its airing of demonstrably false claims for profit.

Yet, it has sadly not only been the far-right that has contributed to Assad and Putin’s victories. In the wake of the catastrophic U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq (200311), many Western leftists, especially Marxists, have abandoned the Syrians openly fighting the regime for twelve years now. According to Sri Lankan trade unionist Rohini Hensman, this pseudo-anti-imperialist phenomenon responds to demands for conformity with campist geopolitical notions about unquestionable solidarity with “anti-imperialist” states and power blocs against the West.22 Presumably for similar reasons, many Euro-American anarchists have guarded silence on Assad for years, preferring to focus on the progressive accomplishments of the Rojava Revolution. Still, avoiding a critical confrontation with Ba’athism is to be expected of Marxists, in light of their track record on the USSR and Maoist China, but less so of anarchists, considering our supposedly radical anti-statism. In this sense, recalling the tragic fate of the Spanish Civil War over eighty years ago, the destruction of the Syrian Revolution—which has taken up to a million lives, and displaced millions of others—gravely illuminates the left’s vast shortcomings and contradictions. As al-Shami and Meckfessel observe, such an unfortunate turn of events leads us to muse over what an authentic anti-fascist internationalism might look like.23

Undoubtedly, if we return to Roy’s theoretical distinctions, this cause of global anti-fascism would require that Western antifascists “support their South Asian comrades against Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalism, as Maia Ramnath writes in “The Other Aryan Supremacy,” her essay for ¡No Pasarán! The toxic Hindutva movement, championed by India’s authoritarian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, represents an aggressive repudiation of the secular-democratic pluralism envisioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, the post-colonial country’s first prime minister, and the long-ruling Indian Congress Party, which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now defeated twice at the polls: namely, in 2014 and 2019. Along these lines, the expulsion of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from parliament in March 2023 bodes especially poorly for India’s political future. Modi’s conservative authoritarianism is underwritten by big business, writes Arundhati Roy. According to Ramnath, present-day Hindutva is a mix that “includes precolonial brahminism, internalized colonial-era Orientalist tropes, and pathologies of postcolonial nationalism, which distort anticolonial rhetoric” to shore up convention and social hierarchy.24

After all, it was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist from the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi 75 years ago. Godse was retaliating against the spiritual leader’s secular-republican politics and calls for peaceful co-existence with Muslims following the bloody Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Moreover, as a prominent sanghi (fundamentalist extremist) of the RSS, which created the BJP as a political front in 1980, Modi both incited Hindu mass-violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and ordered police to stand down against pogromists, as the state’s chief minister at the time. In fact, in January 2023, Modi’s government invoked emergency laws to censor a new BBC documentary on the prime minister’s role in this wave of communal violence, just as a feature film about Godse is on the horizon for the Indian market. Demonstrating the entrenchment of Hindu chauvinism, Ramnath reports that “[t]he frequency of lynchings and atrocities against Dalits and Muslims has leaped significantly since 2014,” whereas Modi’s rule has only intensified India’s occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir, in a manner reminiscent of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.25

Ramnath traces the bleak dialectic, whereby Nazi racial theory took after German Indologists’ examination of Brahminical society, while Hindutva enthusiasts in turn have mobilized Brahminism in the fashion of Italian Fascism and German ultranationalism. In India, RSS front groups have targeted Christians, Muslims, communists, and intellectuals, and agitated in favor of the demolition of mosques built during the Mughal Empire (1526–1858), a Muslim dynasty. Meanwhile, many Hindutva sympathizers from the South Asian diaspora in the U.S. have aligned themselves with Trump and white supremacy. In this sense, the uncritical views that Hindu nationalists take toward the caste system complement alt-right, neo-Nazi notions about “natural hierarchies” well.26

Akin to Assadists, Hindu nationalists tend to affirm pseudo-anti-imperialism. In other words, they use post-colonial, anti-Western discourse to strengthen the cause of Brahminical fascism. Sanghis focus on such strategies in rather bad faith, considering Ramnath’s point that “[c]olonialism and empire in South Asia are not just about European versus Asian, but [also about] various centralizing states versus various regions and borderlands, ancient and modern,” such that South Asians, especially Indians, cannot “shun[t] all blame for all ills to colonialism.” In contrast, a more authentic anti-imperialism would be anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, humanist, and caste-abolitionist.27

China’s Genocide of Uyghurs

In The Search for Neofascism (2006), A. James Gregor argues that Maoist (19491978) and post-Maoist China (1978present) have instituted “fascism with Chinese characteristics.” In reality, Gregor recounts how Ugo Spirito, one of Mussolini’s main ideologues, visited China in the early 1960’s, and came to admire Maoism’s anti-liberalism, anti-individualism, and totalitarian regimentation as reminiscent of Fascist Italy. Through its corporatism, hyper-nationalism, militarism, and aggressive expansionism—especially targeting Taiwan—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has arguably imposed a fascist regime.28

We Uyghurs Have No Say (2022) features translations of the writings of Ilham Tohti, a progressive economist from China’s mostly Muslim Uyghur minority whose father died tragically during the Maoist Cultural Revolution (19661976). Tohti himself has been serving a life sentence for “separatism” since 2014. Despite his criticisms of the CCP, he is a minority intellectual who sought to work within its constitutional framework to improve the condition of his fellow Uyghurs, and to increase autonomy through legal channels, while opposing calls for the independence of so-called ‘East Turkestan.’ Though he sought a “win-win situation” for Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese alike, based on his support for ethnic self-determination, national unity, and “Chinese patriot[ism],” Tohti merely ended up being punished by the State for his speech, thought, and action.29

Spanning the years 20052014, the dissident’s essays and interviews collected in this volume trace the increasingly suffocating atmosphere for Uyghurs in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. In parallel, Tohti increasingly senses that “the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me.” As Rian Thum clarifies in the preface, these commentaries predate the CCP’s openly genocidal policies, beginning in 2017, of sequestering millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps, forcibly separating Uyghur children from their families, and destroying thousands of mosques. Through his critical analysis of what he terms another “Great Cultural Revolution that is destroying the indigenous culture,” Tohti provides profound insights, according to Thum, into “a world of multipolar colonialism”—that is, one in which numerous States and power-blocs compete in a ‘Great Game’ of colonialism. As the Indian ex-Stalinist Kavita Krishnan describes, “Multipolarity has always meant multi-imperialism [and] multi-despotism.” Tohti’s text thus provocatively shows that the “West’s monopoly on imperialism has been broken, if in fact it ever existed.”30

Notably, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has sought to rationalize these ghastly policies against Uyghurs and other ethnoreligious minorities by explicitly emphasizing security and stability over human rights. In 2018, an editorial in the official Global Times newspaper declared that the crackdown was necessary to avert Xinjiang becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.” In 2019, The New York Times published the “Xinjiang Papers,” which reveal that Xi had “urged the party to emulate aspects of America’s ‘war on terror’ after the Sept. 11 attacks” in carrying out his orders. Through these actions, Xi has joined not only the U.S. but also Russia, Israel, Syria, and India in mobilizing the War on Terror to exploit and dominate Muslims. In this sense, “China sometimes appears as a distorted mirror image of Trump’s America.” Indeed, Xiism seeks not to change the world, but rather, to maximize China’s position in the world as it is.31

In We Uyghurs Have No Say, Tohti warns of the dangers of “ethnonationalist totalitarianism” in China, openly identifies the Han-Chinese chauvinism encouraged by the CCP as an obstacle to inter-ethnic harmony in Xinjiang, and calls on Han people to “reflect on their own nationalist and fascist attitudes.” Without ignoring ethnic nationalism, extremist movements, or terrorism among Uyghurs, Tohti insightfully identifies how the CCP’s dismissal of minorities’ right to autonomy will lead inevitably either to forcible assimilation or to the intensification of separatist sentiments. As an alternative to both, Tohti yearns for the transformation of China into a democracy that respects human rights and Uyghur self-rule.32

Anti-Semitism, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and The Politics of Unreason

In his chapter for ¡No Pasarán!, Benjamin Case analyzes Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and the far-right today. Case reminds us that, before turning to “Imperialism” and “Totalitarianism,” Arendt begins her study by examining “Antisemitism.” With reference to history and present, Case identifies how anti-Semitism underpins the fascist anti-modernist desire to return to the past (as in MAGA, or “Make America Great Again”); the “socialism of fools,” whereby right-wing forces substitute a crude anti-capitalism with hatred for Jews; and a “nationalist internationalism” that is ironically based on envy of Judaism. Plus, for all the justice of the Palestinian cause, the writer is right to point out that anti-Zionist organizing can sometimes promote and overlap with Judeophobia. This is not to deny worsening tendencies toward Israeli fascism, especially under the current far-right government, much less the Jewish State’s diplomatic normalization with anti-Semitic regimes like the United Arab Emirates. That being said, the left’s discomfort and lack of familiarity with Judaism have often served far-right interests: after all, Mikhail “Bakunin was a canonical anarchist thinker and an outright antisemite” who influenced the proto-Nazi composer Richard Wagner in the nineteenth century, while more recently, unchecked anti-Semitism in the UK’s Labour Party contributed to the Conservative Party’s decisive electoral victory in 2019.33

In The Politics of Unreason (2017), Lars Rensmann contemplates the Frankfurt School theorists’ critique of anti-Semitism as being “linked to a universalistic critique of political and social domination in all its forms […].” In fact, social research performed over the past century has revealed that having anti-Semitic attitudes makes one more likely to be racist, sexist, homophobic, and authoritarian. Plus, history shows the evidently close link between expressions of Judeophobia and the possibility of genocide against Jews. In this sense, Rensmann upholds the “critical cosmopolitanism” and “positive concept of enlightenment” espoused by the Critical Theorists, who “unconditionally oppos[e] the dehumanization of any group, minority, or Other in global society.”34

Though ostensibly Marxist, the Frankfurt School theorists go beyond Marx through their focus on the Holocaust, which leads them to conclude that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of domination.” From this dynamic, the Critical Theorists identify an overriding categorical imperative to avert all future genocides. In sociological terms, the Frankfurt School thinkers are unique, in that they believe anti-Semitism and authoritarianism to not only be encouraged from above, but also be very much driven from below. On this view, the average worker in modern capitalism is “profoundly damaged […] and stultified by universal domination,” such that authoritarianism affects all classes.35

By revisiting Freudian psychoanalysis, Rensmann explains how the Critical Theorists perceive close ties among the imposition of labor and the loss of freedom, mental-sexual frustration, political powerlessness, violence, and the acceptance of existing power structures, as symbolized by the father-figure or superego. Given that capitalism “structurally den[ies] the pleasure principle and enforc[es] the primacy of the repressive reality,” the life-drive known as Eros is attenuated, to the benefit of the death-drive, Thanatos. As Sigmund Freud and his Frankfurt School-affiliated critic Erich Fromm understood, capitalist society encourages the two poles of sadomasochism: that is, authoritarian aggression and submission. By weakening the ego and/or breaking the spirits of children, parents, teachers, and bosses train future generations to surrender themselves and accept the plans of those in power. Bourgeois coldness, anomie, and lovelessness lead to the redirection of erotic energy toward labor and authority, thus reproducing a vicious cycle, whereby social hierarchy perpetuates aggression, and vice versa.36

Following the Critical Theorist Adorno, Rensmann suggests that authoritarians turn their frustration against outgroups, non-conformists, and minorities like Jews, rather than the authorities, whom they follow and obey. Though they forsake individuality, authoritarians are compensated via “narcissistic uplift” by the small part they play in a larger machine. This goes even for the “rebellious conformists,” like Lyons’ conception of far-rightists, who may seek to overthrow the existing authorities, only to establish new ones. Uniting right and left-wing authoritarians, this category would also include conspiratorial anti-Semites, who demonize Jews rather than question capitalism and social domination, starting from the “socialism of fools” and hatred of self and other.37

Critical Theory warns us that fascism and murderous anti-Semitism can be unleashed when social groups are stressed, agitated, paranoid, dominated by instrumental reason, and lacking a theory of liberation. In this vein, the politics of unreason—crystallized in Trumpism, the global right-wing resurgence, and widespread ignorance of Nazi crimes—represents a specter of “anti-civilizational revolt” that threatens “democracy […] in our time.” Just as the concept of “secondary anti-Semitism,” whether expressed in Holocaust denialism or outright sympathy for fascism, constitutes a Freudian return of the repressed, so “Nationalism Socialism lives on,” and “Hitler survives.”38

Authoritarian Illness

Luke Cooper’s Authoritarian Contagion: The Global Threat to Democracy underscores ongoing socio-political struggles between “democratic internationalism” and “authoritarian protectionism”—the latter being another term for conservative or capitalist authoritarianism, having little to do with economic protectionism. Authoritarian protectionism is an outgrowth of the authoritarian individualism promoted during the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980’s. Its proponents reject pluralism and democracy, just as they reject the progressive social changes that have taken place in recent decades. Their aggressive racism, nationalism, and quest for autocratic rule not only inflame far-right and fascist movements—as through viral contagion and mass-psychosis—but also represent significant obstacles to global cooperation for confronting problems like global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic.39

In his book, Cooper rightly focuses on the role of path dependence in facilitating the greatest ills plaguing global society: namely, the insurgent far right, consolidating authoritarianism, global warming, and COVID-19. In other words, the author stresses that past choices have deeply influenced the onset of these socio-political ills, hence also limiting our options for effective resistance. The specter of climate breakdown probably illustrates this dynamic better than anything else. That being said, Cooper’s framing of authoritarian contagion refers dialectically both to threats (replication, spread, colonization) and solutions (infection control). As healthcare workers know, there are many different ways to break the chain of infection. Against authoritarians of all kinds, a radical politics of survival emphasizes internationalism, justice, democracy, cooperation, ecological transition, redistribution, inclusion, and pluralism.40

Critical Theory and Anti-Fascism

In The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse (2022), Charles Reitz focuses on the writings and activism of this Critical Theorist—who, being “very interested in council communism” and a principled opponent of the Vietnam War, was perhaps the most radical of them all—with an eye toward “negat[ing] neofascism definitively,” and aiding “in the establishment, through a global ecosocialist rising, of a culture of partnership power.” Reitz seeks the convergence of the environmental and labor movements to build a cooperative commonwealth that would implement the radical rather than minimum goals of socialism. He applies Marcusean theory to dissect U.S.-American traditionalism, counter-revolutionary authoritarianism, racism, and imperialism, plus Trump and his ilk.41

Reitz’s argument revolves centrally around Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” which the author identifies as “a product of [Marcuse’s] critique of German fascism and […] genocide.” In this polemical piece, the late Critical Theorist denounces the “pure tolerance” observed in bourgeois society, which considers fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism acceptable. Despite the fact that free-speech absolutism effectively “protects hate speech and facilitate[s] hate crimes,” especially in the USA, it must not be tolerated! In this sense, “Repressive Tolerance” represents an important part of the Marcusean “Great Refusal” of domination and the struggle for collective liberation. Reitz even praises my elucidation of this essay in Eros and Revolution (2016/2018) as a clarion call for revolutionary suppression of fascism from below, akin to the anarchist CNT-FAI’s fateful July 1936 uprising, which blocked Franco’s attempted coup d’etat—at least, temporarily.42

Nevertheless, when commenting on Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, Reitz acknowledges its “pronounced brutality against civilians” and total lack of legitimacy, but he insists that “Russia’s war has not emerged from nothing.” He cites an April 2022 international statement signed by groups in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, including the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, which wrongly identifies the “main culprit” of Putin’s assault as “U.S. imperialism.” Rather than critique Russian chauvinism or focus on Ukrainians—beyond citing attacks on Kyiv and the ruins of Mariupol in passing—the author expresses concern about a supposed “war [by the West] against Russia for Ukraine” involving a “new McCarthyism that will try to silence U.S. antiwar dissent.”43 In light of the daily torrent of Russian atrocities in Ukraine over the past year-plus, such framing may conflict with Marcusean principles of “active genocide prevention.”44

Russia’s War on Ukraine

The stricken Russian missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, prior to sinking on April 14, 2022 (Rex/Shutterstock)

Undoubtedly, one of the most important fronts in the global anti-fascist struggle over the past year has been Ukraine, following Russia’s full-scale invasion, as ordered by Putin in February 2022. Guardian editor Julian Borger observed in late January 2023 that “[t]he Bosnian war death toll of 100,000 has most probably already been surpassed” on both sides over the past year. Recalling the fate of Aleppo in 2016, Russia has killed over 25,000 civilians in the city of Mariupol during this time, according to Ukrainian officials. Psychoanalytically speaking, it is evident that Putin’s megalomania and paranoia underpins this genocidal aggression, which has involved the desolation of entire cities, the direct targeting of civilians, rampant sexual violence, and the forcible deportation of Ukrainian children into Russia.45

While the German government and public have changed their minds about the transfer of heavy weapons to Ukraine with time, presumably in light of Putin’s outrageous war crimes, a majority of Germans still believes the West should encourage the embattled Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to accept “peace negotiations”—despite that these would likely take place on Putin’s terms. However, the majority of Ukrainians themselves reject the idea of conceding territories occupied by Russia in exchange for a cease-fire. Rather, they seek to repel the invaders and liberate these territories. Actually, in support of such defiance, in January 2023, Germany, the U.S., and the UK took the unprecedented step of greenlighting the transfer to Ukraine of not only over a hundred armored infantry fighting vehicles, but also dozens of main battle tanks from the Leopard, Abrams, and Challenger classes. Now that Germany has authorized re-export of the Leopards, other countries from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—such as Poland, Spain, and Norway—plan to send more.

Even so, here in the U.S., Republican extremists in Congress and pseudo-anti-imperialist groups like the GrayZone, Code Pink, and the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America have come together to denounce the Biden administration’s policy of strong military, political, and financial support for Ukraine. They grumble about costs, focus on the risks of U.S. policy escalating toward nuclear war, and call for compromises with Russia. At the same time, these conservatives, authoritarian rebels, and neo-Stalinists—being conformists who are performing non-conformism—do not criticize Putin’s use of nuclear blackmail to seize Ukrainian territory and commit horrendous war crimes. In contrast, the Russian Socialist Movement recognizes that a victory for Putin in Ukraine would would merely set the stage for “new military and political catastrophes” across the globe. Likewise, the Japanese Communist Party has condemned the Russian dictator’s open threats to use nuclear weapons. In light of the risk that Putin’s assault on Ukraine could inspire Xi Jinping to attack Taiwan, leading to a Third World War between China-Russia-North Korea and the USA-NATO-Japan, the Japan Revolutionary Communist League calls on workers everywhere to resist the return of Stalinist terror in Ukraine, and “stir up a storm of antiwar struggle in every corner of the world to crush Putin’s war!”46


Returning to the question posed by al-Shami and Meckfessel in ¡No Pasarán!, we conclude that anti-fascist internationalism requires us to take a universally critical attitude toward authoritarianism, wherever it may appear. We must oppose the “kinship” that Gilroy sees “among all supremacist regimes […].”47 Thus, global anti-authoritarianism urgently demands the rejection of fascist oppression, Western or non-Western, “brown” or “red,” whether wielded at present, in the past, or in the future. So let us proclaim, “Down with Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin! Down with Assad, Putin, Xi, and Modi! Russia, Out of Ukraine! Trump, Never Again!”

In closing, when dealing with fascists, we should keep in mind the failures of the 1938 Munich Agreement on the one hand, and, on the other, the lessons of Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”; the struggles of Haitian revolutionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and of Spanish and Austrian workers in the late 1930’s; the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; and the Ukrainian resistance: namely, that appeasement fails, and that direct confrontation with the aggressor is typically necessary. This does not mean that appeals to the rule of law; the use of legal authority; or the spread of information in settings with or without freedom of speech, the press, and/or assembly have no place in the fight against racism, hate speech, anti-Semitism, and violent authoritarianism.48 As part of a diversity of tactics for collective liberation, they arguably do.

Ultimately, though, the consensus from the authors reviewed here is that the anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian causes require profound socio-economic and political changes at all levels of global society. Some specialists in psychoanalysis and Critical Theory, like Marcuse, Rensmann, and Reitz, stress the mental and emotional dimensions of capitalist and fascist aggression. Lyons correctly emphasizes how the protean far-right can both serve and oppose the State and elite. Arendt, Hope, Bento, Ramnath, Case, and Tohti illuminate the intimate and multifaceted ties between racism and fascism. Cooper defies authoritarian contagion with a radical politics of survival. Al-Shami, Meckfessel, Rensmann, and Tohti warn us wisely about the pseudo-anti-imperialists and rebellious conformists who act like the “running dogs” of such non-Western autocracies as Russia, China, Syria, and Iran.49

The question is, can we build a worldwide anti-fascist movement to reconstruct global society before it is too late? Our very future depends on it.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso.

Al-Shami, Leila and Shon Meckfessel 2022. “Why Does the US Far Right Love Bashar al-Assad?” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 192–209.

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

Bento, Mike 2022. “Five Hundred Years of Fascism.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 312–330.

Cooper, Luke 2021. Authoritarian Contagion: The Global Threat to Democracy. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Davis, Angela 1974. An Autobiography. New York: Random House.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Executive Committee for the 60th International Antiwar Assembly 2022. “Working people all over the world, unite to crush Putin’s war!” Japan Revolutionary Communist League. Available online: [insecure link]. Accessed 28 January 2023.

Finkelstein, Norman G. and Ruth Bettina Birn 1998. A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Gilroy, Paul 2000. “Black Fascism.” Transition 81/82. 7091.

Gregor, A. James 2006. The Search for Neofascism: The Use and Abuse of Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Hope, Jeanelle K. 2022. “The Black Antifascist Tradition: A Primer.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 63–87.

James, Leslie 2021. “Debate: Decolonising Fascist Studies.” Fascism 010. 325–7.

Lavin, Talia 2022. “On the Uses and Manifestations of Antifascism.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 1–3.

Liburd, Liam 2021. “Debate: Decolonising Fascist Studies.” Fascism 010. 331–3.

Lyons, Matthew N. 2022. “Three Way Fight Politics and the US Far Right.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 20–41.

Ramnath, Maia 2022. “The Other Aryan Supremacy: Fighting Hindu Fascism in the South Asian Diaspora.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 210–57.

Reitz, Charles 2022. The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse. Wakefield, Québec: Daraja Press.

Rensmann, Lars 2017. The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Thum, Rian 2022. “Preface: Ilham Tohti and the Uyghurs.” We Uyghurs Have No Say. Trans. Yaxue Cao et al. London: Verso. Vii-xvii.

Tohti, Ilham 2022. We Uyghurs Have No Say. Trans. Yaxue Cao et al. London: Verso.

Zachariah, Benjamin 2021. “Debate: Decolonising Fascist Studies.” Fascism 010. 339–43.


1Rensmann 71.

2Ibid 71, 148.

3Gilroy 91.

4Lavin 2.

5Lyons 21–22, 41.

6Bento 314–5 (emphasis added); Hope 65–87.

7Arendt 206.

8Ramnath 253.

9Liburd 332.


11Bento; Finkelstein and Birn.

12Lyons 23; al-Shami and Meckfessel 204.

13Rensmann 156.

14Ibid 5, 20, 277, 385; Zachariah 340.

15Davis 1989.

16James 327.

17Zachariah 340.

18Gregor 11831; Gilroy 70, 75, 86.

19Bento 314.

20James 326.

21al-Shami and Meckfessel 192204.


23al-Shami and Meckfessel 209.

24Ramnath 254, 257.

25Ibid 211, 2267.

26Ibid 212, 217, 242.

27Ibid 24950, 254.

28Gregor 228, 23440, 25055.

29Tohti 30, 130, 142, 153.

30Ibid 116, 126; Thum xvi.

31Cooper 61, 101.

32Tohti 10, 72, 86, 1046, 137, 152, 168.

33Case 36475.

34Rensmann 10, 173, 211, 415, 417.

35Ibid 25, 60, 233, 272.

36Ibid 3358, 659, 839, 95100, 225.

37Ibid 10110, 11424, 12732, 18996, 199, 257, 333.

38Ibid 235, 273, 337, 356, 35977; Adorno 109.

39Cooper 16, 71, 131.

40Ibid 1213, 1339.

41Reitz xv, 111, 14, 667, 81.

42Ibid 17, 27, 38, 40.

43Ibid 150, 153, 155, 173.

44Rensmann 41820.

45Ibid 530n15.

46Executive Committee for the 60th International Antiwar Assembly.

47Gilroy 89.

48Rensmann 353, 415.

49Tohti 165.

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.

Seeking the Anarchism of Love: A Discussion of Queer Tolstoy

March 9, 2023

Please join the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division (BGSQD) online on Wednesday, March 22, for a discussion about the newly released Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography with author Javier Sethness Castro and Joe Scheip, coordinator of Anarchist Political Ecology. Queer Tolstoy is a multidimensional work combining psychoanalysis, political history, LGBTQ+ studies, sexology, ethics, and theology to explore the life and art of Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy. Our conversation will begin by contemplating queerness as a concept, based in the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ideas of universal bisexuality and polymorphous perversity.

We will review Tolstoy’s same-sex attachments, from childhood to old age, and consider how the artist’s underappreciated queerness influenced his anarchist and anti-militarist politics. We will not, however, shy away from Lev’s contradictions and hypocrisy, whether as a landlord, a sexist, or a difficult husband to Sofia Tolstaya. Finally, before turning to Q&A with the audience, we will contrast Tolstoy’s vision of free love and universal peace with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fascist crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community and genocidal wars on Syria and Ukraine.

We encourage attendees to donate to Solidarity Collectives in support of anti-authoritarian fighters in Ukraine.

The introduction of Queer Tolstoy (chapter 2) is now available open-access.

Please register on Eventbrite to participate in our conversation on Wednesday, March 22!

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.

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”