Archive for the ‘nuclear’ Category

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

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

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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


Trotsky in Tijuana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

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

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

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

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

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

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

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

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

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

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

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

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

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

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 350.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

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

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

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

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

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

Science Fiction as Protest Art (Part II): Dystopias of Domination

September 21, 2021

This is the second entry in a three-part response to Thomas Wilson Jardine’s December 2020 essay, ‘Cyberpunk: An Empty Rebellion?’ In this section, we will briefly examine around twenty instances of dystopian “capitalist hells” in speculative fiction, whether literature or films. See our final installment for an analysis of alternative and anti-modern utopias, together with the dialectic between dystopia and metaphorical heavens in Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels and the Deus Ex game universe. Originally published in The Commoner, 18 September 2021. See part 1 here.

The protest art made by Soviet utopian sci-fi writers last century, and many of the producers of speculative and visionary fiction who have followed them since, share a common concern with the infernal nature of capitalism, whether openly or by implication. In this sense, Thomas Wilson Jardine is surely right to warn that media corporations cynically exploit these ‘rebellious’ themes for profit and self-aggrandisement. At the same time, the unfortunate existence of this dynamic in no way delegitimises the righteous concerns raised by speculative artists throughout history to the present.

As we have argued in part I of this essay, visionary fiction has a rich history. Here, in part II, we will focus mostly on the meaning of negative, dystopian art. In this sense, many Soviet sci-fi writers followed Jack London’s lead in The Iron Heel (1908), a novel that foresees an authoritarian-capitalist US State calling in the military to suppress an insurgent Chicago Commune—much as the Communards of Paris had met a brutal fate in 1871, at the hands of forces loyal to Versailles. In Tomorrow (1924), Yakov Okunev inverts the dismal conclusion of The Iron Heel, envisioning the defeat of global capitalism as ‘the Atlantic fleet goes red, the German workers’ army attacks Paris, and the Soviet army liberates India [from the British Empire], setting the stage for a world-wide federation of soviets with its capital in London.’[1]

Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin (r. 1924-1953) notoriously banned utopian science fiction in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and mandated its replacement with the upbeat and uncritical genre of socialist realism, as an integral part of his counter-revolutionary ‘war on the dreamers.’ However, the late historian Richard Stites emphasised that the anti-capitalist and anti-militarist ‘scaretopias’ produced during the first decade of the 1917 Russian Revolution themselves anticipated the horrors of World War II. These included ‘the 1941 skies blackened with German aircraft,’ the ‘huge herds of machine-powered vehicles and tanks rolling across the flat landscape,’ and ‘millions of civilians perishing in a war without well defined rear areas.’[2]

Along similar lines, the Terminator (1984) series begins with apocalyptical scenes of machines hunting down human survivors of a nuclear war, by employing battle tanks and aircraft that resemble the ‘Osprey’ used by the US Marines Corps. With his dystopian vision about ‘the very real possibility of the destruction of the human race by its own machine-based creations,’ Karl Čapek, author of Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921), sampled from the individualist anarchist Henri Ner’s 1896 novel, La Révolte des Machines,[iii] and projected the grim lessons of World War I into the future. In this sense, it should not be surprising that the US, UK, Israel, Australia, and Russia presently oppose any regulation of lethal autonomous weapons systems, otherwise known as ‘killer robots.’

Cover of a 1979 edition of Captain America

Perhaps ironically, in light of the role he has played in legitimising US imperialism in the post-war social imaginary, the superhero Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America, is made into a Super Soldier during the Second World War to assist the Allies against the Nazis. In parallel, the Red Guardian, his Soviet counterpart, fights heroically against the fascists, too. After the war’s end, comic writers of Captain America, Batman, and the X-Men—many of them, like Stan Lee, being Jewish in background—used their platforms to raise consciousness about the Holocaust and denounce Nazi crimes. Indeed, the militant mutant leader Magneto from X-Men, whom some have compared to Malcolm X (and Professor X, in turn, to Martin Luther King, Jr.), is given an origin story in the 1990s as a Holocaust survivor. Along these lines, Magneto can also be read as an extremist Zionist and follower of the Rabbi Meir Kahane, and his rival Professor X as a Jew who instead preaches assimilation. Similar conflicts surge in Black Panther between T’Challa, the scientist-king of the African realm of Wakanda—played by the late Chadwick Boseman in the comic’s 2018 film adaptation—and his insurgent Machiavellian rival, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan).

Below, we will briefly examine twenty instances of dystopian ‘capitalist hells’ in speculative fiction, both in literature and films, or games.

The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926): Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian Jew, typifies the rebel pariah-intellectual analysed by the anti-fascist theorists Hannah Arendt and Enzo Traverso.[3] Influenced by German Romanticism, Jewish messianism, and anarchism, Kafka conveyed his revulsion with industrialism, capitalism, and bureaucracy through his art. Labouring at the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institution by day, he would subvert its ossified grip over the imagination by night. In the absurdist novels The Trial and The Castle, Kafka portrays alien, frustrating ‘world[s] without freedom in which redemption asserts itself only negatively.’ In the absence of any ‘positive message,’ Kafka’s iconoclasm corresponds to a theologia negativa and a negative anarchism.[4]

To this point, in 2009, The Onion reported satirically on the ‘oppressive atmosphere’ at the fictional Franz Kafka International Airport, and in ‘Kafka’s Last Laugh’ (2015), Vagabond foresees the figure known as ‘Resister’ being subjected to forced labor at a ‘Prison Mall’ as a means of being rehabilitated into bourgeois society—this, after she had been arrested while occupying the New York Stock Exchange.[5]

In The Castle, the author’s alter ego K arrives at an unnamed village posing as a surveyor of a certain castle, the administration of which has mysteriously hired him. Then, suddenly, it decides it does not need him—but cannot clarify his work status either way. ‘It could mean that the affair is in process, but it could also mean that the official process hasn’t even started at all.’[6] Metaphorically attempting to salvage his dignity in the face of stifling bureaucracies, K questions ‘why I should allow myself to be interrogated, or why I should go along with a joke or some official whim.’[7] In keeping with his vision of a utopia negativa, and his weakly optimistic anticipation of a different world, Kafka implies in the final chapter of this unfinished manuscript that the State’s systematic deception ‘would not last forever, as the people have eyes, and after all, their eyes would tell them the truth.’[8]

We (1921): Serving as the main inspiration for George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist dystopia 1984 (1948), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We contrasts the mechanised, ultra-centralised, and conformist urban life of the United State (the Soviet Union, a thousand years in the future) with nature, Eros, and fantasy, which are banished to the countryside that lies ‘beyond the green wall.’ This liberated space, in turn, is reminiscent of the ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ of Daoist antiquity, and suggestive of the contemporary anarchic and exilic movements of the Russian Revolution, which had sought a ‘Third Revolution’ against the Bolshevik autocracy. In fact, Zamyatin and the insurgent Kronstadt sailors shared a common revulsion over the Communist Party bureaucrats’ enthusiasm for the propagation of enslaving Fordist and Taylorist forms of management and workplace organisation. Indeed, the nameless citizens of the United State are reduced to mere Numbers in this novel, in keeping with the Soviet and Western fetishization of machines. As a fierce critique of Marxism-Leninism, We was first published in the USSR only during the period of glasnost (‘openness’) in 1988, and Ursula K. Le Guin considered it the best sci-fi work ever written.[9]

In a similar vein, Alexander Belyaev’s Battle in the Ether (1927) and A. R. Palei’s Gulfstream (1928) anticipate workers in the USA being ‘made into robots of the Taylor System.’ In Palei’s vision, proletarians are subjected to ‘extreme specialisation of labour, mind-blunting routine, regimented family and homelife, mandatory TV, and a gradual reduction of human speech.’[10] In this light, speculatively, we can say that these titles may have influenced the creative process for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In this work, Bradbury condemns the stifling conformism and anti-intellectualism of post-war American society, drawing an implicit link between the contemporary McCarthyist persecution of artists, labour organisers, and political dissidents—and the Nazi practice of burning books, and people.

Metropolis (1927), Modern Times (1936), Playtime (1967): These films—directed by Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and Jacques Tati, respectively—satirise the ‘new high-velocity’ worker, the capitalist ‘frenzy for order,’ the dehumanising pace of the assembly line, and the ‘thorough-going Americanisation of life,’ together with the concomitant sacrifices borne by the working classes, in terms of freedom, health, sexual satisfaction, and even survival.[11] According to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the capitalist combination of Taylorism and puritanism amounted to ‘the biggest collective effort [ever made] to create, with unprecedented speed and a consciousness of purpose unique in history, a new type of worker and [person].’[12]

Like Zamyatin, these filmmakers were critical of bourgeois society’s instrumentalisation of the proletariat. Metropolis reveals how the majesty of industrialists depends upon structural violence against the working class. Still, the reformist nature of Lang’s conclusion—wherein the male protagonist brings together the foreman with his father, the city’s boss—suggests an affinity with social-democratic, rather than revolutionary anti-capitalist politics. Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s recurring protagonist, is endlessly disoriented and bewildered by the frenetic and impersonal nature of life in modernity. He stands instead for friendliness and social connection, a slower pace of life, the pre-modern moral economy, and the integration of city with countryside.

Moreover, we know that Charles Dickens’ novels, which depict the dreary impacts of early industrial capitalism on English society, resonated with the young Charlie Chaplin. In Modern Times, his cinematic alter ego burns out due to speed-up on a conveyor belt, and ends up jailed numerous times for his radical iconoclasm—including being mistaken for the leader of a workers’ strike. According to Michael Chaplin, the artist’s eldest son, The Great Dictator (1940) was ‘the only film at that time that showed what was happening to the Jews in Germany’: that is, dispossession and ghettoization, as preludes to genocide. In his iconic speech at the film’s end, the elder Chaplin, who considered himself an anarchist,[13] outlines his humanist-internationalist vision:           

“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible: Jew, Gentile, Black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery […].

Soldiers, don’t give yourselves to brutes! Men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines; you are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate […]. Soldiers, don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written: ‘the Kingdom of God is within [you]’ […]. In you! […] Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all [people]’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

Dune (1965): Set in the deep future over twenty millennia from now, the novels comprising Frank Herbert’s Dune universe contain themes critical of ecological destruction and political centralism. Feuding aristocratic dynasties and capitalist rackets merely reproduce the imperialist depredation our world knows so well, until the messianic figure Duke Paul Atreides—loosely based on the British Orientalist officer, T. E. Lawrence (AKA ‘Lawrence of Arabia’)—leads the autonomous, desert-dwelling, and Arab-coded Fremen in overthrowing the galactic fascism upheld by the Harkonnen and Corrino dynasties.

That being said, the sequel, Dune Messiah (1969), merely proves the Fremen ecologist Pardot Kynes right: ‘No more terrible disaster could befall [one’s] people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.’ In this vein, the revolution led by Paul merely reproduces previously-existing authoritarianism, raising it to an even higher level: billions lose their lives, and nearly a hundred planets are sterilized, as the ‘fanatic hordes’ plunder the universe in his name.[14] Presumably, this is in part a comment on the course of modern revolutions in the real world, whether American, French, Russian, or Chinese.

Yet, in a disturbing parallel to Georges Sorel, the syndicalist theorist who inspired Fascism by advocating a synthesis of socialism and nationalism, Herbert—an agent of the US Republican Party—betrays worrisome fixations with genetics, racialism, caste, myth, and violence in his six Dune novels. For example, Dr. Yueh, who betrays the Hellenic House Atreides to their Harkonnen rivals in the original story, is described as having Asian features, including a Chinese name.[15] Considering the profit to be made by new films revolving around such reactionary themes, in light of the Trumpist intersection of ‘rebellion’ with persistent hypermasculinity, we can expect Legendary Pictures to produce several sequels to the much-anticipated film version of Dune (2021) in the near future. After all, this year’s film adaptation covers only the first half of the first volume in the series.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971), The Word for World is Forest (1972): In these visionary works, Ursula Le Guin fashions her own “anti-Dune” worlds.[16] Reading The Left Hand of Darkness, audiences vicariously visit the icy planet Gethen and meet its inhabitants, who are abstinent and genderless for most days of every month, save for their brief cyclical entrance into ‘kemmer,’ when they become transiently male or female and erotically inclined. In The Lathe of Heaven, set in Portland, Oregon, Le Guin retells Frankenstein to critique the intersection of science with hierarchy and abuse. The Daoist protagonist George Orr discovers that he has a superpower which allows him to change history and the present through his dreams. He is an ‘effective dreamer,’ who, fearing his dreams, avoids them. Seeking out the psychiatrist William Haber, Orr finds that his emergent psychokinetic abilities will be exploited for Haber’s own purposes by means of an ‘Augmentor.’ Haber’s sadistic and technocratic visions, inserted into Orr’s consciousness while in the Augmentor, result in evermore bleak outcomes—until turtle-aliens invade the moon, and then Earth, ultimately for peaceful purposes.

The Word for World is Forest, which unfolds on the fictional forested planet of Athshe, functions to denounce colonialism, genocide, and ecocide in an allegory for the Vietnam War. Le Guin portrays humans from Earth as enslaving the indigenous humanoid Athsheans and logging the planet’s woods for profit. Echoing the real-life repulsion of the French and American imperialists from Vietnam through guerrilla warfare, such super-exploitation leads the Athsheans to rise up and expel the humans from the planet altogether.

THX 1138 (1971), Star Wars (1977): George Lucas’s first film, THX 1138, examines the title-character’s rebellion against—and ultimate escape froma politically repressive and sex-negative future-society. The plot alludes to Plato’s allegorical ‘ascent of the soul’ from the darkness of the underground cave to the sunlight. In this hell envisioned by Lucas, humans serve as little more than automatons who labor to construct robot-police, and so reproduce their own oppression. As in Palei, Zamyatin, and Bradbury’s dystopias, the social control of workers in THX 1138 is attained through television, religion, the pharmaceutical suppression of Eros and emotion, and police brutality. In this way, the film shows human love, exile, and bricolage (‘making do with what is on hand’) to be important anti-authoritarian strategies for rebellion and survival.

In the film, ‘Thex’ falls in love with ‘Luh’ after she switches out his sex-inhibition drugs. Then, after Luh is summarily executed for her erotic disobedience, Thex appropriates a police-car to escape from this dim world. The robot-police retreat, just as Thex reaches the surface by ladder, simply because the operation to neutralize him had by that point surpassed its allocated budget.

The Star Wars saga,which has produced billions of dollars for its producers, directors, and investors over the past near half-century, extends the political anti-authoritarianism of THX 1138 into a space opera, set—as we know—in a distant galaxy, ‘a long time ago.’ The classic struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire at the heart of the original trilogy (1977-1983) served as allegories for the Vietnam and Cold Wars, and the mysteriously productive concept of the light side of ‘The Force’ can be likened to the paradoxical advantage that guerrillas fighting for a cause often have over their technologically and numerically superior opponents. (It is also reminiscent of the Fremen’s incredible power arrayed against Houses Harkonnen and Corrino in Dune, and perhaps ironically, of the Taliban’s recent blitzkrieg to seize power in Afghanistan.) The Death Star recalls the atomic and thermonuclear weapons developed and used by the US, and the dark side of the Force brings to mind the violence of the Nazis, the British Empire, and US settler-colonialism. Therefore, Star Wars can be viewed as Lucas’ symbolic rebellion against the father figure represented by Uncle Sam. At the same time, for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the double-sided meaning of Star Wars for the US-American imaginary is this: ‘we were rebels; we are Empire.’ [17]

Terminator (1984-present): The six films that comprise the grimdark Terminator series explore the concern that the Russian astrophysicist Iosif Shklovsky and the Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem had expressed in the 1960s about humanity’s future prospects: specifically, that, besides the risk of self-destruction through weapons of mass destruction, artificial intelligence (AI) must be considered a threat to our survival. The first two Terminator films (1984, 1991), co-written and directed by James Cameron, peer into this future dystopian world, based on the established power of technocratic bureaucracy, capitalism, and militarism in our own. The result is a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, marred by nuclear war, and ‘controlled by a vast Terminator army, seeking daily to destroy the remnants of humanity. The ground is littered with human skulls and corpses. [Humanity] is completely subjugated, and those who haven’t been killed are forced to work for the machines to clean up the bodies.'[18]

As cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, the Terminators sent back through time by the military AI known as Skynet ruthlessly target the leaders of the future Resistance—Sarah and/or John Connor, Dani Ramos, and their friends. They will stop at nothing to complete their missions: they will drag anyone ‘beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital.’ Ironically, though, in the original Terminator, we learn that the machine overlords send their cyborg assassin back in time in a bid to change the past, given that the Resistance ultimately overwhelms them on the battlefield—in an illustration of quintessential human resilience.

As profitable social-protest films, the Terminator series helpfully illuminates the ultra-violence lurking just beneath everyday life under capitalism. Along these lines, we see that violence against women and political reaction go hand in hand; that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is simultaneously the Terminator’s self and Other; that the T-800 and T-1000 sent by Skynet in the first two films clearly resemble neo-Nazi terrorists; and that the ‘right to bear arms,’ enshrined by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, facilitates mass-murder. Likewise, the machinery used in construction to destroy buildings resembles the tanks and artillery used in shooting wars—much as the concept of a ‘Walking Cargo Vehicle’ inspired George Lucas’s design of the Imperial AT-AT’s in Star Wars. Living out disaster communism, Sarah Connor crushes the first Terminator inside a hydraulic press.

In her Cyborg Manifesto (1985), the feminist ecologist Donna Haraway asserts that we are all, by this time, ‘fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.’ Although cyborgs such as the Terminators are born of militarism, ‘patriarchal capitalism,’ and ‘state socialism,’ they too can join the anti-fascist rebellion, and aid in its victory.[19]

Jurassic Park (1993 film): Based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park amounts to a ‘scaretopia’ warning us of the risks of genetic engineering in particular, as well as of capitalism and instrumental rationality more broadly. This latter concept of instrumental reason refers to the compulsion to “get things done.” Under capitalism, this is accomplished by workers complying with orders handed down by the bosses, rather than through the free use of the mind. In this case, for workers to have autonomy would allow them to ‘stop to think if they should’ in fact proceed with the plan to resurrect dinosaurs 65 million years after their extinction. Considering how the dinosaurs rebel against their confinement and smash the infrastructure encaging them for the purposes of commodification and human entertainment, Jurassic Park can be viewed as a variation on Frankenstein that implicitly affirms the cause of animal liberation and the subversive meaning of chaos theory and fractals—Crichton’s disastrous late turn to climate-denialism notwithstanding. In this light, it appears that the investors currently backing the Colossal biotech firm’s bid to resurrect woolly mammoths in the Arctic to help preserve the melting permafrost missed the lessons of Crichton’s novel, and of Spielberg’s film adaptation of it.

The Parable of the Sower (1993): The first installment in the two-part Earthseed series, Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower integrates this Black feminist author’s adverse childhood experiences with racism, poverty, and depression into a social novel which champions struggle to transform the world. Butler’s youthful alter ego, Lauren Olamina, is an empath who begins the story living with her family in a gated ‘company town’  in Southern California that effectively provides slave labor for corporations. Marauding murderers and rapists linger just outside the compound’s walls. One day, robbers break into their community, killing Lauren’s family, destroying her home, and turning her out. Suddenly made homeless, Olamina sets out for northern California by foot, finding companions, comrades, and a lover along the way. Following from her Buddhistic discovery that the ‘only lasting truth is change,’ Olamina founds the humanistic Earthseed religion, which emphasizes proactive social reconstruction, community, and proselytization, proposing a destiny for its adherents among the stars.[20]


Visionary science fiction flourished in early Soviet Russia until Stalin banned it, according to this autocrat’s goal of figuratively performing a ‘fantasectomy’ of the radical imagination[21]. Such repressiveness facilitated social control and sounded the death-knell of the Russian Revolution, as we see portrayed in We, in much the same way that Puritanism, Taylorism, and Fordism have reproduced capitalist oppression in US society—as the dystopias Metropolis, Battle in the Ether, Gulfstream, Modern Times, Fahrenheit 451, and THX 1138 show. In this vein, the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker was right to observe that Stalinism and Fascism formed, ‘part of a transnational process reinforcing hierarchies in which the worker was inevitably reduced to an anonymous piece of machinery in mass society.’[22] As such, the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany represented not alternatives to capitalism, but, rather, intensifications of its governing maxims: namely, to manipulate, instrumentalise, and dominate the working classes and nature. Following the resolution of the Communard(e)s of Paris, and anticipating the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, Jack London’s The Iron Heel envisioned the State adopting an authoritarian, militaristic strategy to ensure that the workers in revolt would not succeed in overthrowing capitalism. Along similar lines, Henry Ford and Hitler mutually admired each other, whereas Ford and Stalin made a deal in 1929. In turn, a decade later, Stalin would effectively ally with Hitler to conquer Poland, the home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, and launch World War II.

That being said, it is remarkable to consider how utopian and dystopian anti-capitalist themes from early Soviet art have resonated in the literature, films, and games created over the past century—even, and especially, by Western artists, to this day. The Terminator and Matrix franchises are testaments to this dynamic, and the same could be said about the Star Trek and Deus Ex universes, as well as the utopian literature of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. In the concluding part to this series, we will explore these works—alongside News from Nowhere, Octavia’s Brood, ‘Imagining the Future in the Middle East and North Africa,’ and others—as ingenious attempts to reach communist h(e)avens.

For now, we are left to marvel at The Lathe of Heaven and Jurassic Park as variations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Implicitly, all three works function to critique the instrumental or technical reason underpinning bourgeois society. In parallel, Star Wars borrows heavily from Dune in its critique of imperial domination, although George Lucas integrates his opposition to the Vietnam War into the original trilogy, thus presenting a more humanistic, and optimistic, resolution to his films than does the left-right syncretist Frank Herbert in the Dune universe. For his part, Franz Kafka was right to portray life under bureaucracy (whether capitalist or ‘socialist’) as a nightmare. Finally, Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series vividly portrays the intersections of racism, patriarchy, and the exploitation of labor in late-capitalist society, while tracing the dialectical struggle between oppression and liberation—the movement from dystopia to utopia.

[1]Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 181.

[2]Ibid, 182.

[iii]Jesse Cohn, Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 167.

[3]Michael Löwy, “Jewish Messianism and Revolutionary Utopias in Central Europe: Erich Fromm’s Early Writings (1922-30),” Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future, eds. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 43-4.

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

[5]Vagabond, “Kafka’s Last Laugh,” in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 177-86.

[6]Franz Kafka, El castillo, trans. Luis Rutiaga(México, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2006),165 (my translation).

[7]Ibid, 117 (my translation).

[8]Ibid, 265 (my translation).

[9]Stites, 52, 147-8, 169, 187-9.

[10]Ibid, 181.

[11]Ibid, 145-61.

[12]Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 170.

[13]Charlie Chaplin and Kevin Hayes, Charlie Chaplin: Interviews (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2005), 121.

[14]Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: ACE Books, 1965), 269, 309.

[15]Ibid, 37.

[16]Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso: London, 2005), 268.

[17]Mumia Abu-Jamal, “Star Wars and the American Imagination,” in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 257.

[18]Jeffrey Ewing, “James Cameron’s Marxist Revolution,” in Richard Brown Kevin S. Decker (ed.), Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am (2009), 103.

[19]Donna Haraway, Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 7, 9-10.

[20]Tananarive Due, “The Only Lasting Truth,” in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 259-77.

[21]Stites 236.

[22]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.

On the Knife’s Edge: We Must Rewind the Doomsday Clock!

January 27, 2019


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board has released its annual metaphorical assessment of the risks faced by life on Earththe Doomsday Clockfor 2019 as being 11:58pm, or 2 minutes before utter destruction. 🚨 🚨

Citing lack of progress on nuclear risks and climate change dangers as “the new abnormal,” the Doomsday Clock remains at 2 minutes to midnight, as close to the symbolic point of annihilation that the iconic Clock has been since 1953 at the height of the Cold War. […]

“A new abnormal: It is still two minutes to midnight. Humanity now faces two simultaneous existential threats, either of which would be cause for extreme concern and immediate attention. These major threats—nuclear weapons and climate change—were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger… The ‘new abnormal’ that we describe, and that the world now inhabits, is unsustainable and extremely dangerous. The world security situation can be improved, if leaders seek change and citizens demand it. It is 2 minutes to midnight, but there is no reason the Doomsday Clock cannot move away from catastrophe. It has done so in the past, because wise leaders acted—under pressure from informed and engaged citizens around the world.”

In January 2017, the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand edged forward by 30 seconds, to two and a half minutes before midnight. For the first time, the Doomsday Clock was influenced by statements from an incoming US President, Donald Trump, regarding the proliferation and the prospect of actually using nuclear weapons, as well as statements made in opposition to US commitments regarding climate change.  Last year, the Doomsday Clock moved forward again to two minutes before midnight.

In addition to this dire prognosis, the Bulletin’s authors present some serious suggestions.

#RewindtheDoomsdayClock is a major message of the 2019 Doomsday Clock statement, with the following action steps among those recommended:

  • US and Russian leaders should return to the negotiating table to resolve differences over the INF treaty; to extend the nuclear arsenal limits of New START beyond 2021 and to seek further reductions in nuclear arms; to discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; to limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and to start talks aiming toward elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.
  • The United States and Russia should discuss and adopt measures to prevent peacetime military incidents along the borders of NATO. Provocative military exercises and maneuvers hold the potential for crisis escalation. Both militaries must exercise restraint and professionalism, adhering to all norms developed to avoid conflict and accidental encounters.
  • US citizens should demand climate action from their government. Climate change is a serious and worsening threat to humanity. Citizens should insist that their governments acknowledge it and act accordingly. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change agreement was a dire mistake. The Trump administration should revisit that decision, which runs counter to credible science.
  • The temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement—to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and, ideally, below 1.5 degrees—is consistent with consensus views on climate science, eminently achievable, and economically viable, if poor countries are given the support they need. But countries have to act promptly and redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions well beyond their initial inadequate pledges to the Paris agreement.
  • The Trump administration should revisit its lamentable decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for limiting Iran’s nuclear program. The Iran agreement is not perfect, but it serves the interest of the international community in restraining the spread of nuclear weapons. […]

Of course, it is doubtful that the U.S. government will do any such thing. Therefore, it is our collective human responsibility to ensure that either they are pressured into doing this (as through the walk-outs/wildcat strikes which arguably ended Trump’s shutdown)or we do it instead.

Eros and Revolution Now Available

July 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse is now available in hardcover from Brill Academic Publishers.  Being the eighty-sixth title in the Studies in Critical Social Sciences (SCSS), this 400-page political and intellectual biography examines Marcuse’s life, focusing on the German critical theorist’s contributions to the realms of philosophy, radical politics, and social revolution, while also reflecting on critiques made of Marcuse and the continued relevance of critical theory, libertarian communism, Marxist-Hegelianism, utopian socialism, radical ecology, and anti-authoritarianism today.

The volume will be republished in paperback in a year’s time with Haymarket Books.

For review copies, please contact Anne Tilanus:

For author inquiries, contact

Feria Libertaria del Libro y la Publicación (FLLP 2016) Monterrey

February 24, 2016

Agenda FLLP 2016

El fin de semana que viene, estaré presente en Monterrey para dar dos ponencias en la Feria Libertaria del Libro y la Publicación (FLLP 2016).  El primer será presentar un ensayo conjunto que he escrito con Andrew Smolski y Alexander Reid Ross, “Tierra y Libertad: El Anarquismo y las Alianzas Campesinas-Proletarias en México y Rusia, 1848-1924” (el sábado 5 marzo a las 16:30).  Por otra parte, presentaré la traducción de mi libro Clima, Ecocidio y Revoluciónpublicada por Revuelta Epistémica hace un año, el domingo a las 16h.  Muchas gracias a l@s organizadores de la feria por darme esta oportunidad.  Además estoy contento que voy a estar compartiendo espacio de nuevo con mi compa scott crow.

Next weekend, I will be in Monterrey to give two talks at the Anarchist Bookfair (FLLP 2016).  The first will be to present an essay I have written jointly with Andrew Smolski and Alexander Reid Ross, “Land and Liberty: Anarchism and Campesino-Proletarian Alliances in Mexico and Russia, 1848-1924” (Saturday 5 March at 4:30pm).  Next, I will present the translation of my book, Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophepublished by Revuelta Epistémica a year ago, this on Sunday at 4pm.  Many thanks to the organizers of the bookfair to allow me this opportunity.  I am pleased as well that I will be sharing space again with my comrade scott crow.

Publicación de Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución con Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica en México

May 3, 2015

CER portada

Durante la Sexta Feria Anarquista del Libro en México Distrito Federal que tuvo lugar el 25 y 26 de abril, salió a la luz pública la traducción al castellano de mi primer libro, Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución, que originalmente llevaba el título de Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (Institute for Anarchist Studies/AK Press, 2012).  Gracias a la colaboración de mi madre, quien tradujo el texto, y la voluntad de los compañer@s integrantes de Bloque Libertario y la casa editorial Revuelta Epistémica de publicar la obra, ya está disponible para l@s lectores hispanoparlantes.  La obra se puede pedir a través del sitio web de Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica.  Cuesta $60 pesos mexicanos el ejemplar.

El texto es casi lo mismo que el original, aunque incluye un prólogo nuevo que actualiza la situación ambiental y climatológica en el mundo, cubriendo los tres años que han transcurrido desde la fecha original de publicación.  A continuación, el resumen:

Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución sintetiza los avisos alarmantes procedentes tanto a partir de los análisis de l@s climatolog@s como acerca del estado actual de nuestro planeta Tierra que indican las consecuencias potencialmente terminales del cambio climático que el capitalismo ha impulsado hasta ahora.  A pesar de ello, esta obra reivindica la posibilidad de una salida de emergencia.  En su contemplación de este fenómeno catastrófico en sus vertientes climatológicas, políticas y sociales, Javier Sethness Castro promueve el cambio de nuestra trayectoria historica por medio del pensamiento crítico, y ofrece una visión regeneradora que se inspira en las tradiciones intelectuales ácratas.

“Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución es una disección rabiosa y urgente del sistema económico omnívoro actual, que despiadadamente está conviertiendo el planeta Tierra en un campo de aniquilación.”

— Jeffrey St. Clair, redactor de Counterpunch y de Caso Perdido: Barack Obama y la Política de Ilusión

Counterpunch repost: “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis” by Rob Urie

September 27, 2014

"Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American." (from Rob Urie, "Hank Paulson Does Global Warming," Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

“Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American.” (from Rob Urie, “Hank Paulson Does Global Warming,” Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

Note: the following are selections from Rob Urie’s latest piece, “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis,” published on Counterpunch, 26 September 2014

“Such now is the place of the early twenty-first century U.S. with systemically generated polices accumulating toward self-inflicted Armageddon and threatening to take the rest of the world with it. In the same week that saw renewed war for oil in Iraq and Syria it was reported that the Obama administration is rebuilding the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In this same week that saw the largest climate resolution demonstration in history a series of dim shills for empire, a/k/a ‘leaders,’ went before the United Nations to offer the statistics of misdirection, ten times more than, thirty percent less than, that in context confirm the truism that something times nothing is nothing […].

With his recent misdirection on renewed war against Iraq and Syria and climate crisis the precise question of whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama is the most cynical person who ever lived remains irrelevant. The social ontology that suggested difference, as well as the words of the man himself, back into his fact as President of American empire. His assertion that IS (Islamic State) and Khorasans represent a direct threat to Americans places it in the set of all direct threats to Americans that has around 300,000 thousand dying every year from preventable medical errors. Climate crisis poses greater risks than any Mr. Obama will ever factually address. And his duplicity in undermining climate ‘negotiations’ in 2010 and 2014 while publicly proclaiming support is now a matter of public record.

Remarkably, or perhaps not so much, the Western commenting class is content with technocratic discourse on military tactics and ‘sectarian’ divisions in Iraq and Syria playing into the diversion that U.S. and ‘coalition’ actions have ‘political,’ as opposed to economic, basis. This isn’t to dismiss political consequences, but they are borne of economic motivations — the unifying theme between wars in the Middle East and climate crisis is oil. The U.S. is bombing oil fields ‘held’ by IS in Syria under the rationale that oil is the ‘currency’ it is funding itself with. Oil, munitions and credit default swaps are the currency the U.S. funds itself with.

Matters that are ‘externally’ related like wars for economic resources and climate crisis risk confusing ‘the issues’ that respective ‘experts’ find unsatisfying in their combined dimension. But discursive silos make addressing joint causes of global catastrophe in imperial capitalism impossible. The true threat that IS poses is in exposing oil as the currency of empire. Oil ties to political power through its economic power and it ties to military power through its fact as fuel for the machinery of war. Climate chaos, along with a century or more of slaughter and destruction for oil, is the concentrated product of empire […].

[T]he oceanic dead zones that surround capitalist economies are their own fact and metaphor for the Western creation of land-based dead zones through wars of conquest and slaughter for economic resources. Petroleum-based agricultural run-off and the dumping of massive quantities of consumer and industrial garbage create these oceanic dead zones. The misdirection of lip-service paid to greenhouse gas emissions while ignoring the other detritus of consumer and industrial ‘culture’ is to reframe global catastrophe as technocratic wrangling over ‘parts per million’ when the problem is political economy of death and destruction. Source: National Geographic.

The American tendency of personalizing the political leads to permanent misdiagnosis of the genesis of Western political dysfunction. Attributing Barack Obama’s pro-war, pro-Wall Street, anti-environmental policies to the man himself is to get it backwards. These policies serve his constituency. This constituency — Wall Street, arms manufacturers and extractive industries, determine the policies. Mr. Obama has his job as President through his ability to keep his nominal constituency of liberals and progressives on board with policies of permanent war, use of state power to deliver ever more economic resources to the already wealthy and end-times environmental policies. So will the political mis-leadership that follows him no matter their political Party.

What President Barack Obama’s actual policies have demonstrated — drone murders, surveillance and repression, persistent economic chicanery in favor of the already wealthy, war wherever the U.S. can find it and undermining all efforts at environmental reconciliation, is that the political space he occupies, the moderate center, is the true radical fringe when viewed through the lens of the continued existence of a ‘world’ that includes the rest of us. Rebuilding the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in 2014 is insane. There exists no conceivable explanation — bluff, taunt, economic stimulus, etc. that could frame the decision as the product of anything but a radically deranged system run amok, a genocide-suicide machine running on auto-pilot […].

If / when it comes, resolution in any of these dimensions will be brought about through acts against the corporatist moderates in Washington, London and Brussels, against Wall Street, the arms manufacturers and the extractive industries. Until these are gotten out of the way there is no hope for resolution. Divestment will not be effective — there are infinite sources of funding for industries that can turn guaranteed profits and even for those that can’t. Fracking is a financing and trading scam — the actual gas taken out of the ground doesn’t even pay for itself in the aggregate. Cap-and-trade requires a developed infrastructure of regulations; inspectors and global coordination that will never come into being because the economic interests being ‘regulated’ are the same ones developing these policies […].

The governments of the West are currently pulling out all of the stops to frighten people into supporting yet another war for oil resources in the Middle East. The threat of ‘terrorism’ is a cynical diversion and nothing more. Thirteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001relevant portions of the investigation report laying blame on Saudi Arabia for the attacks remain redacted. Terrorism in the Middle East is state sponsored misdirection. True terror is having children that you cannot feed because bankers destroyed the economy. True terror is having fracking companies destroy your farm’s water supply and having no alternate source. True terror is having global warming raise sea levels to bury the island where you and everyone you know live. True terror is having a U.S. ‘humanitarian intervention’ bomb your village / town / city / country into the Stone Age to make way for a new pipeline.

The American Empire is in the death throes of decline. The powers that be are increasingly desperate and this makes them increasingly dangerous. Fracking, nuclear weapons, bombing Afghan wedding parties and banker scams is all that this leadership knows how to do. Resolution within Western political economy is decades past possible. People can divert themselves with incremental reform but consider this: the ‘evolution, not revolution’ crowd now has about four decades of devolution to answer for. Nuclear weapons? In 2014? Really? Really?

National Geographic redraws Arctic Ocean to reflect observed ice loss to date; May 2014 the hottest May on record

June 24, 2014

National Geographic has seen it necessary significantly to revise the extent of sea ice it depicts as existing in the Arctic Ocean in its forthcoming 2014 atlas.  In comparison with 1989, when the currently depicted Arctic sea-ice extent was first drawn, the loss looks to be about half, if not more–in keeping with the death spiral the Arctic has been forced into by the capitalist mode of production.

old atlas

1989 atlas

new atlas

2014 atlas

Intimately related to this horrid trend, of course, is the progressively warmer state of Earth’s climate: May 2014 was the hottest May experienced since records began, being 0.74C hotter than the twentieth-century average for the month.

may 2014

“The forms of humanity’s own global societal constitution threaten its existence, if a global self-conscious subject does not develop and intervene.”

 — Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress”