Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Queer Tolstoy Book Launch at Book Soup!

January 31, 2023

Join me next month at the launch for Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography at Book Soup! It will take place on Thursday, February 23 at 7pm. Book Soup is located at 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA, 90069.

Masks are strongly encouraged. Thank you.

Against Orthodoxy and Despotic Rule: A Review of Islam and Anarchism

January 20, 2023
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (The Pink Mosque), Shiraz, Iran (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license), by Mohammadreza Amini.

Published on The Commoner, 20 January 2023

The project of advancing anarchist reinterpretations of history and religion is an intriguing and important one. Due to its emphasis on spontaneity, non-cooperation, simplicity, and harmony, Daoism is a religion with anarchist elements, while the Dharma taught by Buddhism is an egalitarian critique of caste, class, and hierarchy, according to the anarcho-communist Élisée Reclus. B. R. Ambedkar, architect of India’s constitution, similarly viewed Buddhism as seeking the annihilation of Brahminism, as crystallized in the Hindu caste system. Xinru Liu, author of Early Buddhist Society (2022), adds that a key part of Buddhism’s appeal has been its emphasis on care and well-being over statecraft and power.

Likewise, Guru Nanak, the visionary founder of Sikhism, proclaimed human equality through his advocacy of langar, a practice that simultaneously rejects caste while building community through shared meals. In parallel, many notable anarchists have been Jewish: for instance, Ida Mett, Aaron and Fanya Baron, Martin Buber, and Avraham Yehuda Heyn, and Murray Bookchin. The Judaic concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is activist to the core. Plus, in The Foundations of Christianity (1908), Karl Kautsky highlights the radicalism of Jesus’ message, the communism of early Christianity, and the ongoing struggles of prophets, apostles, and teachers against clerical hierarchies and bureaucracies. Lev Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil preached Christian anarchism.

What, then, of Islam?

One way of answering this question would be to consider Mohamed Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism (2022). This long-anticipated study is based on the intriguing premises that Islam is not necessarily authoritarian or capitalist, and that anarchism is not necessarily anti-religious or anti-spiritual. To his credit, Abdou does well in highlighting the transhistorical importance of the Prophet Muhammad’s anti-racist ‘Farewell Address’ (632), and in citing humanistic verses from the Quran. These include ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion,’ and the idea that Allah made us ‘into peoples and tribes so that [we] may get to know one another,’ not abuse and oppress each other [1]. The author constructs an ‘anarcha-Islām’ that integrates orthodox Sunni Muslim thought with Indigenous and decolonial critiques of globalisation. He laments and criticizes the supportive role often played by diasporic Muslims in settler-colonial societies like the USA and Canada, through their putative affirmation of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Although he is a strong proponent of political Islam, Abdou also recognizes that trans-Atlantic slavery had its origin in Muslim-occupied Iberia, known as al-Andalus [2].

That being said, for better or worse, the overall trajectory of Abdou’s argument reflects the author’s orthodox Sunni bias. Even if Sunnis do comprise the vast majority of the world’s Muslim population—and thus, perhaps, a considerable part of Abdou’s intended audience—there is nonetheless a stunning lack of discussion in this book of Shi’ism (the second-largest branch of Islam) or Sufism (an Islamic form of mysticism practiced by both Sunni and Shi’ites). In a new review in Organise Magazine, Jay Fraser likewise highlights the author’s ‘odd choice,’ whereby ‘the Sufi tradition […] receives no mention whatsoever.’ Besides being intellectually misleading for a volume with such an expansive title as Islam and Anarchism, such omissions are alarming, as they convey an exclusionary message to the supercharged atmosphere of the Muslim world.

Islam and Anti-Authoritarianism

At the outset of his book, Abdou proposes that a properly Muslim anarchism should be constructed on the basis of the Quran, the ahadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings),and the sunnah (Muhammad’s way of life) [3]. This is a paradoxically neo-orthodox Sunni approach that overlooks the contributions of both 1) Shi’ites, who place less stress on the sunnah, and 2) several anti-authoritarian and anarchistic Muslim thinkers, individual and collective, who emerged during and after Islam’s so-called ‘Golden Age’ (c. 700-1300). In this sense, although Abdou would follow the ‘venerable ancestors’ (al-salaf al-salih) from Islam’s earliest period, hedoes not discuss Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (?-652), one of the very first converts to Islam. Al-Ghifari was known for his socialist views, and revered by Shia as one of the ‘Four Companions’ of the fourth ‘Rightly Guided’ (Rashidun) caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib (559-661) [4].

Neither does the author examine the utopian radicalism of the sociologist Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who inspired the Iranian Revolution of 1979 against the U.S.-installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In writings and lectures, Shariati espoused a ‘red’ Shi’ism that celebrates insurgency and martyrdom, by contrasting this with the ‘black Shi’ism’ instituted by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1734), one of early modernity’s infamous ‘gunpowder empires,’ which forcibly converted most Iranians to Shi’ism while persecuting Sunnis and Sufis [5]. Despite their separation by sect, this is an unfortunate missed connection between Abdou and Shariati, in light of the similarity of their analysis of tawhid, or the allegiance to God as the sole authority (Malik al-mulk) mandated by Islam [6]. (Likewise, monotheistic loyalty is demanded by the Judeo-Christian First Commandment.)

Through his elucidation of ‘Anarcha-Islām,’ which ‘adopts and builds on traditional [Sunni] orthodox non-conformist Islamist thinkers,’ Abdou does consider the revolutionary potential of Shi’i eschatology—crystallized in the prophesized return of the twelfth imam (or Madhi), who is expected to herald world peace—as evidence of an ‘internalized messiah and savior complex’ [7]. It is in the first place paradoxical for an ostensible anarchist to so overlook messianism, and especially troubling when such a Shi’i tradition is ignored by a Sunni Muslim developing an anarcha-Islām. Still, while Abdou pays lip service to the criticism of Muslim clerics, he hardly mentions the theocracy imposed by the Shi’i ulema (religious scholars) who appropriated the mass-revolutionary movement against the Shah for themselves over four decades ago, having spearheaded the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) since 1981.

Even more, in a November 2022 podcast interview on ‘Coffee with Comrades,’ Abdou complains in passing about the ‘mobilization of gendered Islamophobia’ in Iran following the murder by the ‘Morality Police’ of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish woman, two months prior for rejecting imposed veiling. Presumably, this is in response to criticism of Islamic hijab by Westerners and Iranians alike, but he does not make clear his opinion of the ongoing youth- and women-led mass-protests that have rocked the country since then. By contrast, members of Asr Anarshism (‘The Age of Anarchism’), based in Iran and Afghanistan, stress in an upcoming interview on The Commoner that the ‘struggle with the clerical class […] constitutes a basic part of our class struggles’ [8].

Likewise, the late Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) openly viewed the IRI’s ulema as ‘clerical-fascist[s],’ while Shariati would have likely considered these opportunistic, obscurantist lynchers as part and parcel of the legacy of ‘black Shi’ism’ [9]. In parallel, the Sri Lankan trade unionist Rohini Hensman takes the IRI to task for its abuse of women, workers, the LGBT community, and religious and ethnic minorities, just as she denounces Iran and Russia’s ghastly interventions in Syria since 2011 to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime from being overthrown [10]. Abdou’s lack of commentary on Iran and Shi’ism in Islam and Anarchism is thus glaring.

Furthermore, in the conclusion to his book, Abdou questionably echoes the Kremlin’s propaganda by blaming the mass-displacement of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) into Europe a decade ago exclusively on President Barack Obama’s use of force, presumably against Libya and the Islamic State (IS, or Da’esh)—with no mention of the substantial ‘push factors’ represented by the atrocious crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian states [11].  Worse, in his interview on ‘Coffee with Comrades,’ the author finds himself in alignment with the neo-Nazi Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on Syria. Let us quote him at length:

‘It’s so easy for David Duke to come out and say, ‘Well, I’m against the war in Syria!’ Well, how about that: an anti-imperialist stance coming from a white supremacist? Right? Well, of course I don’t agree with him on much of anything else. […].

And again, this is where we have to be very intelligent and very smart. Of course, I feel for my Syrian kin. They are my own blood. But, if you ask me now with regards to Bashar al-Assad, I will say: keep him in power. Why? I’m able to distinguish between tactics and strategy. Unless you have an alternative to what would happen if Bashar was removed, let alone, what would you do with the State: please, please stay at home. Because what you will create is precisely a vacuum for Da’esh [the Islamic State]. You will create a vacuum for imperialism, for colonialism to seep in.’

Abdou here affirms a cold, dehumanizing, and statist illogic that is entirely in keeping with the phenomenon of the pseudo-anti-imperialist defense of ‘anti-Western’ autocracies like Syria, Russia, China, and Iran [12]. In reality, in the first place, both openly anti-Assad rebels and TEV-DEM in Rojava have presented alternatives to the Ba’athist jackboots, and the Free Syrian Army and YPG/SDF forces have fought Da’esh. The YPG/SDF continue to do so, despite facing a new threat of destruction at the hands of the Turkish State and the regime axis. Beyond this, does Abdou believe Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 somehow not to have been imperialist? Millions of displaced Syrians would likely disagree with the idea. We can recommend For Sama, about the fall of Aleppo in 2016, as documentary evidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war crimes.

According to Leila al-Shami and Shon Meckfessel, ‘[m]any fascists take Russia’s backing of Assad as reason enough to support him,’ and the global far right is even heartened and inspired by the regime-axis’s ultraviolence and unmitigated cruelty [13]. Indeed, in this vein, for over a decade, Russian State media and their fascist and ‘tankie’ (neo-Stalinist) enthusiasts have blamed the West for problems perpetrated by the Kremlin and its allies themselves—from mass-refugee flows from Syria to genocide in Ukraine. It is therefore disturbing to see Abdou betray anarchism and internationalism by not only reiterating deadly disinformation, but also by openly endorsing Assad’s tyranny.

Sufism and the Ulema-State Alliance

Cover illustration of The Confessions of Al-Ghazali (1909)

Although Sunni orthodoxy, jihadist revivalism, institutionalized Shi’ism, and secular autocracies are undoubtedly oppressive, Sufism has been misrepresented by many Orientalists as negating these stifling forces. In reality, while some Sufis have ‘preached antiauthoritarian ideas,’ Sufism is not necessarily progressive [14]. Although the Persian thinker Ghazali (1058-1111, above) resigned from teaching at an orthodox madrasa in 1095 to preach Sufism and condemn political authority—only to return to teaching at a similar madrasa late in life—he played a key role in legitimizing the toxic alliance between ulema (religious scholars) and State. Moreover, by affirming mysticism, asceticism, and irrationalism, Sufi sheikhs have often re-entrenched spiritual and sociopolitical hierarchies [15].

Actually, the Janissary shock-troops of the Ottoman Empire belonged to the Bektashi Sufi Order, and the autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is reported to be part of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order. Furthermore, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762), who inspired the founders of the Deobandi school of Islam—a variant of which the Taliban has imposed on Afghanistan twice through terror—was a Sufi master. On the other hand, so were Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325), who advocated a Sufism critical of class divisions and despotism; Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdallah (1844-1885), a Nubian warrior and self-proclaimed Mahdi who spearheaded a jihad against the Ottomans, Egyptians, and British in Sudan; and Imam Shamil (1797-1871), an Avar chieftain who led anti-colonial resistance to Russian conquest of the Caucasus for decades.

In his compelling study of comparative politics, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment (2019), Ahmet Kuru provides important insights into the historical trajectory of the Muslim world, vis-à-vis Western Europe. He shows how an alliance between the State and ulema was adopted by the Seljuk Empire in the eleventh century, and then inherited and upheld by the Mamluk, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, prior to European colonization. Its noxious legacy undoubtedly persists to this day, not only in theocratic autocracies like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but also in ostensibly secular military dictatorships, such as Syria and Egypt, and electoral autocracies like Turkey. This is despite past top-down efforts to secularize and modernize Islamic society by breaking up the power of the ulema, as Sultan Mahmud II, the Young Ottomans, the Young Turks, and Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) sought to do during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries [16]—notwithstanding the chauvinism and genocidal violence of these Turkish leaders, echoes of which resonate in Azerbaijani attacks on Armenia in September 2022.

In the remainder of the first part of this article, I will review Abdou’s account of anarcha-Islām. The second part will focus on Kuru’s arguments about Islam, history, and politics, tracing the anti-authoritarianism of early Islam, and contemplating the origins and ongoing despotism of the ulema-State alliance.

Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism

Cover of Mohamed Abdou's book, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances

In his book, Abdou mixes post-anarchism (an ideology combining post-modernism, post-structuralism, and nihilism) with Islamic revivalism to yield “anarcha-Islām,” a framework which rejects liberalism, secularism, human rights, and democracy almost as forms of taqut, or idolatry [17]. His study thus bears the distinct imprints of the thought of Egyptian jihadist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whom he regards as a ‘non-conformist militant conservativ[e]’ [18] (Notably, Qutb has inspired al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). In keeping with the Qutbist view that all existing societies are jahili, or equivalent to the ostensible ‘state of ignorance’ in Arabia before the rise of Islam, Abdou laments and denounces the Saudi ruling family’s commercialization of Mecca and Medina, and makes comments that are not unsympathetic toward the egoist Max Stirner, plus Muhammad Atta and other terrorists [19]. He describes the U.S. as a ‘Crusading society.’

Abdou endorses researcher Milad Dokhanchi’s view of decolonization as ‘detaqutization’ (the iconoclastic destruction of idolatry, or taqut) and condemns the ‘homonationalist and colonial/imperial enforcement of queer rights (marriage, pride) […]’ [20]. Even the mere concept that ‘queer rights are human rights’ is irretrievably imperialist for him [21]. Moreover, he focuses more on violence than social transformation through working-class self-organization—in keeping with an insurrectionist orientation [22]. In sum, the author himself confesses to being an ‘anti-militaristic militant jihādi[23].

Ibn Rushd (Averroes), depicted by Italian painter Andrea Bonaiuto (1343-1377)

Through his conventional reliance on the Quran and ahadith and his parallel avowal of anarchic ijtihad (‘independent reasoning’), Abdou mixes the rationalism of Abu Hanifa (699-767) and the Hanafi school of jurisprudence with the orthodox literalism of Shafii (767-820) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855), the ‘patron saint’ of traditionalists who, together with Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), pushed for the ulema-State alliance [24].(By comparison, the Taliban has implemented a combination of the Deobandi school, a branch of the Hanafi tradition founded in British-occupied India in the nineteenth century, and Hanbalism, due to heavy influence from Gulf petro-tyrants.)

Considering the apparent risks involved in legitimizing religious fundamentalism, it is unfortunate that Abdou omits discussion of Muslim philosophers like the proto-feminist Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) and only mentions the Mutazilites—the first Islamic theologians, who espoused liberal-humanist views—and the anarchistic Kharijites in passing [25]. The Kharijites, who arose in the First Islamic Civil War (656-661), rejected the authority of the early Umayyad dynasty (661-750 CE), and even assassinated Ali ibn Abi Talib, the last Rashidun caliph. Some Kharijites rejected the need for an imam altogether [26].  In turn, the Mutazilites advocated reason and moral objectivism, while questioning the theological reliance on ahadith and divine commands. This is despite the mihna, or inquisition, imposed by the caliph Mamun from 833-851 to propagate Mutazila doctrine.

In his book, Abdou goes so far as to claim that ‘anti-authoritarianism [is] inherent to Islām’ [27]. Yet, he omits several important considerations here. For instance, he dismisses that the religion’s name literally translates to ‘surrender’ or ‘submission,’ and ignores that the Quran mandates obedience to ‘those in authority’ [28]. Implicitly channeling the fatalism of the orthodox Sunni theologian Ashari (873-935) over the free will championed by the scholar Taftazani (1322-1390?), Abdou proclaims that ‘[n]othing belongs to our species, including our health, nor is what we “possess” a product of our will or our own “making”’ [29]. The ascetic, anti-humanist, and potentially authoritarian implications of this view are almost palpable: Abdou here asserts that neither our life nor our health is our own, and that we have little to no agency.

Against such mystifications, in God and the State (1882), Mikhail Bakunin describes how organised religion blesses hierarchical authority, while in The Essence of Christianity (1841), Ludwig Feuerbach contests the idea that religious directives are divine in origin, showing that they are instead human projections made for socio-political ends. According to the Persian iconoclast and atheist Ibn al-Rawandi (872-911), in this vein, prophets are akin to sorcerers, God is a human creation, and neither the Quran nor the idea of an afterlife in Paradise is anything special. Therefore, although Abdou claims to disavow authoritarian methods throughout his book, it is unclear how a fundamentalist belief in the divine authority of the Quran can be reasonably maintained without mandating a particularly orthodox approach to religion and politics.

Furthermore, Abdou presents his puzzling view that Islam is anti-capitalist, just as he affirms the faith’s emphasis on property, banking, charity, and market competition—most of which are fundamentally bourgeois institutions [30]. The French historian Fernand Braudel is more blunt: ‘anything in western capitalism of imported origin undoubtedly came from Islam’ [31]. Indeed, Kuru observes that ‘the Prophet Muhammad and many of his close companions themselves were merchants,’ and that the name of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, is itself ‘derived from trade (taqrish)’ [32]. Economic historian Jared Rubin adds that ‘[t]he Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries […] provided security and a unifying language and religion under which trade blossomed.’ Baghdad during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) was a riverine commercial hub, with each of its four gates ‘leading outward to the major trading routes’ [33]. In this sense, Islam may have influenced Protestantism, not only due to certain Muslims’ critiques of political authority resonating in the Protestant Reformation, but also due to the two faiths mandating similar work ethics and fixations on profit [34]. That being said, ‘unlike Jesus, Muhammad commanded armies and administered public money’ [35].

Abdou avoids all of this in his presentation of anarcha-Islam. While such lacunae may be convenient, to consider them is to complicate the idea of coherently mixing orthodox Islam with the revolutionary anti-capitalist philosophy of anarchism [36].

As further evidence of Abdou’s confused approach, the author engages early on in outright historical denialism regarding Muslim conquests during the seventh and eighth centuries, which involved widespread erasure of Indigenous peoples, but later block-quotes the poet Tamim al-Barghouti, who contradicts him by referring to these as ‘expansionary wars’ [37]. In one breath, Abdou praises the pedophile apologist Hakim Bey as an ‘influential anarchist theorist,’ and in the next, he asserts that truth regimes are different in ‘the East and Islām,’ compared to the West [38]. Such claims are consistent with the post-modern denial of reality. In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution (2005), Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson convincingly show the risks of this very approach, considering how Michel Foucault’s belief that Iranian Shi’ites had a different ‘regime of truth’ from Westerners led this philosopher not only to uncritically support Khomeinism, but also to legitimize its newfound ulema-State alliance in the eyes of the world [39]. Unfortunately, Abdou’s perspective on the Syrian regime is not dissimilar.

A painting of two Arabic men sitting astride one another on camels and embracing.
“Farewells of Abu-Zayd and Al-Harith” from the Maqamat of al-Hariri, c. 1240

Meanwhile, the author avows Muslim queerness with reference to bathhouse (hammam) cultures and the Maqamat of al-Hariri (see above). He could also have incorporated the hadith al-shabb, which conveys the Prophet’s encounter with God in the beauty of a young man; quoted some of the homoerotic ghazals written by Persian poets like Rumi (1207-1273), Sa’adi (c. 1213-1292), and Hafez (c. 1325-1390); or considered the complaints of Crusaders about the normalization of same-sex bonds in Muslim society [40]. Indeed, the bisexual German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe viewed the meditative recitation of the ‘99 Names’ of God (al-asma al-husna) as a ‘litany of praise and glory’ [41]. Even so, Abdou does not acknowledge or critique the existence of homophobic and lesbophobic ahadith, much less contemplate how the Quranic tale of the Prophet Lut associates gay desire with male rape, thus closing off the possibility of same-sex mawaddah (or love and compassion) [42]. Instead, he cites an article from 2013 on the role of Islam in the treatment of mental illness, which explicitly perpetuates the reactionary view of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, without comment or condemnation [43]!

In contrast, researcher Aisya Aymanee Zaharin deftly elaborates a progressive revisionist account of queerness in Islam that is critical of social conservatism and heteronationalism among Muslims, particularly in the wake of European colonialism and the Wahhabist reaction, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Zaharin builds her case from the vantage point of an essentialist belief in the naturalness of same-sex attraction, the importance of human dignity and affection within Islam, and supportive Quranic verses mentioning how Allah has ‘created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may find comfort in them. And He has placed between you compassion and mercy’ [44].

Overall, Abdou endorses the classic shortcomings of post-colonialism and post-left anarchism in his conclusion. Here, he simultaneously provides an overwhelmingly exogenous explanation for the rise in Islamic-fundamentalist movements, denounces the ‘destructive legacy of liberalism,’ condemns Democrats’ ‘obsession’ with Donald Trump, and provides discursive cover for Assad and Putin’s crimes [45].  His downplaying of the dangers posed by Trump is clearly outdated and ill-advised. Although Abdou is right to criticize certain factors external to MENA, such as Western militarism and imperialism, he does not convincingly explain how anarcha-Islam can overcome existing authoritarianism and prevent its future resurgence, whilst simultaneously committing itself to the authority of a particular theology. Indeed, Abdou at times prioritises fundamentalism over progressivism and libertarian socialism—thus proving anarchist scholar Maia Ramnath’s point that the ‘same matrix […] of neoliberal global capitalism […] provides the stimulus for both left and right reactions’ [46].

Conclusion

In closing, I would not recommend Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism very highly, principally because the author’s vision of ‘anarcha-Islām’ is exclusive rather than cosmopolitan, in keeping with post-modern, anti-humanist, and sectarian trends emanating from MENA and the West. In his own words, as we have seen, Abdou is a ‘militant jihādi[47]. Besides preaching revivalist, neo-orthodox Sunni Islam, he uses a primarily post-colonial perspective to critique settler-colonialism, white supremacy, and Western imperialism. There is no question that these are real ills that must be contested, but the post-colonial framing espoused by Abdou crucially overlooks internal authoritarian social dynamics while facilitating the avowal of the orthodoxies he affirms. This problem also extends to South Asia and its diaspora, as Hindu-nationalist sanghis have taken advantage of the naïveté of many Western progressives to normalize Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fascist rule [48]. Still, authoritarian rule does not appear to be Abdou’s goal, and his efforts to produce a non-authoritarian vision of Islam are at times noteworthy. A question this review poses is how, in mental and material terms, can adherence to an exclusive doctrine produce an anti-authoritarian world?

Whereas Abdou focuses on challenging and defeating Western hegemony, he avoids mention of the ills propagated by states other than the USA, the European Union, and their allies. Indeed, the disinformation he advances in the conclusion about Assad and Putin’s lack of responsibility for atrocious crimes against humanity in Syria is one with post-colonialists’ downplaying of Russian imperialism, especially in Ukraine. His outright ‘strategic’ support for Assad and lack of sympathy for the women’s protests in Iran, as revealed in the aforementioned podcast interview, typify pseudo-anti-imperialism. Beyond this, the author’s post-anarchist views inform his denial about the expansionism practiced by Islam’s early adherents, and his omissions about the close historical relationship between the new faith and commerce. It is apparent how far his anti-rationalist perspective is from that of the Mutazilites, al-Rawandi, and Ibn Rushd.

The Reality of a Diverse Islam and Diverse Anarchism – Jihad al-Haqq

While Abdou acknowledges the diversity of Islam, this is not reflected in the epistemology he attempts to write. Indeed, like the breadth and width of anarchist beliefs—from anarcha-feminism to egoist anarchism—any weaving together of Islamic belief and anarchism must respect that anarchist beliefs should be able to be built on the many different kinds of Islam that are practiced: Sunnism, Shi’ism, Isma’ilism, and so forth. This is something Abdou should have made clear. The mission of his work was to tie together Islam and anarchism in only one of its possible iterations, in the same way any anarchist proposing a future anarchist society in some theoretical work must concede that such a theoretical work only proposes how one anarchist society might look. This view is correct regardless of anarchist considerations: anthropologically, it is a basic truth that the religions practiced worldwide have many variations (much the same that languages have many variations over certain populations), that are themselves greatly affected by sociological factors, such as socio-economic status, existing power structures within a society, political beliefs, and so on.

Mohamed Abdou did mention this in the last chapter:

‘After all, as the Qur’ān emphasizes: “There is no Coercion in Religion,” and acknowledges: “And had thy Lord willed, all those who are on the earth would have believed all together. Wouldst thou compel people till they become believers?”20 There is no concept of favoritism in Islām. In the Creator’s sight the “best” are the tribes and nations that maintain social justice, egalitarian relations, and ethical and political conduct towards others and nonhuman life. The Qur’ān states: “Not all people are alike”…’

In other places, he reaffirmed the existing diversity of Islamic belief, but did not take it in the direction I hoped.

Ultimately, I fear that because of this precise consideration, Abdou’s project may have been doomed from the start. The synthesis of Islam and anarchism is up to the individual, and such syntheses might go on to become socially popular. Indeed, one of Abdou’s major pillars is that of “ijtihad,” that is, independent reasoning—even if one did not take ijtihad into account, Islam regardless would be diverse politically. The best a work like this can do is to point out anarchistic considerations in developing an interpretation of Islam that is anti-state, anti-capitalist, and so forth; but not establish an anarcha-Islam in its own right. The aim of this work ought to be like a commentary, not a second Qur’an. Nevertheless, it is, in the grand scheme of things, worthy of consideration for both praise and criticism.

Works Cited

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

Achcar, Gilbert 2009. The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

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

Ahmad, Aijaz 1998. “Right-Wing Politics, and the Cultures of Cruelty.” Social Scientist, vol. 26, no. 9/10. 3-25.

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.

Asr Anarshism 2022. Forthcoming interview. The Commoner (https://www.thecommoner.org.uk).

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 2010. West-East Divan. Trans. Martin Bidney. Albany: State University of New York.

Haarman, Ulrich 1978. “Abu Dharr: Muhammad’s Revolutionary Companion.” Muslim World, vol. 68, issue 4. 285–9.

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

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

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

Lewinstein, Keith 2013. “Kharijis.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Eds. Gerhard Bowering et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 294–5.

Quran. Trans. Mustafa Khattab. Available online: https://quran.com. Accessed 13 August 2022.

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

Rubin, Jared 2013. “Trade and commerce.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Eds. Gerhard Bowering et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 552–4.

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

Williams, Wesley 2002. “Aspects of the Creed of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal: A Study of Anthropomorphism in Early Islamic Discourse.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 34, no. 3. 441–463.

Zaharin, Aisya Aymanee M. 2022. “Reconsidering Homosexual Unification in Islam: A Revisionist Analysis of Post-Colonialism, Constructivism and Essentialism.” Religions 13:702. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13080702.

[1] Abdou 115; Quran 2:256, 49:13 (emphasis added).
[2] Abdou 138.
[3] Ibid vii, 14.
[4] Haarman.
[5] Shariati; Kuru 181.
[6] Abdou 10-11, 84; Shariati 26-7.
[7] Abdou 101, 127-46.
[8] Asr Anarshism, forthcoming interview in The Commoner.
[9] Ahmad.
[10] Hensman 119-50.
[11] Abdou 231-2; Hensman.
[12] Hensman.
[13] al-Shami and Meckfessel 198, 208.
[14] Hammond 36.
[15] Kuru 40-2, 48, 103-112, 143-5.
[16] Ibid 216-30.
[17] Abdou 5-8, 32-3, 75, 226.
[18] Ibid 23.
[19] Kuru 25-6; Abdou 168-9, 175, 181.
[20] Abdou 41, 74-5.
[21] Ibid 81.
[22] Ibid 188-220.
[23] Ibid 209 (emphasis in original).
[24] Kuru 17-18, 94-5, 202, 227; Williams 442.
[25] Abdou 17-18.
[26] Lewinstein.
[27] Abdou 207, 228.
[28] Quran 4:59.
[29] Kuru 129; Abdou 149.
[30] Abdou 147-64.
[31] Quoted at Kuru 159.
[32] Kuru 80-1.
[33] Rubin 553.
[34] Ibid 81n86, 200.
[35] Kuru 94.
[36] Abdou 13.
[37] Abdou 47, 123-4, 195.
[38] Ibid 30, 54-5.
[39] Afary and Anderson 50.
[40] Williams 443-8; Zaharin 3, 9.
[41] Goethe 201.
[42] Zaharin 4-8.
[43] Abdou 97, 271n84.
[44] Zaharin 12-17 (emphasis added); Quran 30:21-2.
[45] Abdou 230-2.
[46] Achcar 104–8; Ramnath 244.
[47] Abdou 209 (emphasis in original).
[48] Ramnath.

Bibliophilia & Anarchism in Star Trek: Picard

October 7, 2022

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

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

Star Trek’s Radical Politics

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

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

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

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

Read the rest on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory!

Queer Tolstoy Now Available for Pre-Order!

September 23, 2022

I am very excited to announce that my newest book, Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography, will soon be available from Routledge! Pre-orders will begin on January 26, 2023, and it will come out on February 16, 2023.

Book Description

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.

Using a psychobiographical framework, Sethness Castro uncovers profoundly queer dimensions in Tolstoy’s life experiences and art. Deftly contributing to the progressive and radical analysis of gender and sexuality, this book examines how Tolstoy’s erotic dissidence informed his anarchist politics, anti-militarist ideals, and voluminous literary production. Sethness Castro analyzes the influence of Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Cervantes, Rousseau, Kant, Herzen, Proudhon, Chernyshevsky, and his mother Marya Volkonskaya on Tolstoy’s writings. Furthermore, he details the artist’s emblematic linking of LGBTQ+ desire with moral and erotic self-determination and resistance to Tsarist despotism—especially, in War and Peace.

This book is vital reading for those interested in the intersection of literature, psychoanalysis, Queer Studies, and Russian history.

Table of Contents

1. Theoretical Preface on Queer Anarchism

2. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy: A Queer, Christian-Anarchist Writer

3. The Life and Death of a “Holy Fool”

4. Humanism, Militarism, and Imperialism in The Cossacks

5. War and Peace: An Anarcho-Populist Verbal Icon

6. War and Peace, Book One: “Andrei Bolkonsky”

7. War and Peace, Book Two: “Natasha Rostova”

8. War and Peace, Book Three: “The Year 1812”

9. War and Peace, Book Four: “Pierre Bezukhov”

10. Conclusion: The Psychodynamics of Hierarchy

Praise

‘Sethness’s excellent book is a wide-ranging and erudite examination of Tolstoy through the lenses of queerness and anarchism, and what is remarkable is how many contradictions and mysteries in Tolstoy’s life and work get clarified by this double focus. It is as if he had suddenly popped into three dimensions. The close reading of War and Peace is full of startling new insights, and the study as a whole brings Tolstoy into our time in a new and important way. Wonderful to see!’

  • Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Ministry for the Future, USA

‘This passionate, ground breaking study of Tolstoy’s bisexuality, politics and art offers fascinating new insights into our understanding of the Russian writer’s life. By detailing Tolstoy’s relationships, experiences and creative process, the author reveals Tolstoy’s far sighted literary support for what we would now call LGBT+ liberation, his resistance to war and oppression, and his support for egalitarian social change. Bravo!’

  • Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner and Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation, UK

Available for pre-order in January 2023 here!

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

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

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front-5

Trotsky in Tijuana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ChNPP_Unit1control

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

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

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

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

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

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

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

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

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

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

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

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

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

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

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

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 350.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

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

[19] Daniel Taylor, “Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” RedFlag, June, 9, 2019. Available at: https://redflag.org.au/node/6814.

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

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

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

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

May 13, 2022

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

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

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

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

March 21, 2022

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

“Art should cause violence to cease.”2

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

Originally published on New Politics, 20 March 2022

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

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

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

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

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

The Sevastopol Sketches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad and Putin’s Counter-Revolutionary Aggression

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

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

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

Conclusion: Justice for Syria and Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 Zorin 26-7; Bartlett 109-11.

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

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

18 Tolstoy 2006: 304, 187, 192.

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

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

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

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

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

24 Evtuhov et al. 370.

25 Tolstoy 2006: 204.

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

27 Chouliaraki 124; Hillman 49.

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

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

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

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

32 Tolstoy 2010: 27, 677.

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

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

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

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

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

38 Munif 43-6, 90.

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

40 Munif 33-6.

41 Jabbour et al.

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

43 Borshchevskaya 169.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

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

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

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

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

Cover image of Elysium

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

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

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

Cover of Octavia’s Brood

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

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

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

Heavenly Communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Guin’s Ambiguously Utopian Futures

Cover of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Trek: Communism in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mars Trilogy and Red Moon

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

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

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

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

Cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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


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

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

[3]Gerth and Mills 288; Cohn 269.

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

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

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

[7]Cohn 63, 287.

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

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

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

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

[12]Stites 32-3, 172.

[13]Stites 174.

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

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

[16]Morris 215, 223.

[17]Cohn 209.

[18]Ibid, 322-4.

[19]Stites 185-6.

[20]Cohn 228.

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

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

[23]Ibid, 390.

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

[25]Le Guin 379-80.

[26]Jameson 67.

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

[28]Stites 176-7.

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

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

[31]Jameson 409-16.

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

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

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

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

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

[37]Stites 189, 226.