Archive for the ‘reformism’ Category

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

May 13, 2022

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

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

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

Psychoanalysis for Collective Liberation

February 2, 2022

First published in the New Politics Winter 2022 issue.

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

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

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

Prophetic Messianism, the Social Character, and Trumpism

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

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

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

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

Humanism, Feminism, and Social Character in a Mexican Village

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

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

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

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

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

Authority and The Working Class in Weimar Germany

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

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

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

Critique: History, Sexuality, and Internationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism

October 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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]

Conclusion

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.

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

August 29, 2021

Originally published on New Politics, 28 August 2021

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

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

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

Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical Climate Politics and Green Syndicalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2]    Ibid, 54.

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

Salvaging the Future: A Review of The Ministry for the Future

June 12, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (New York: Orbit, 2020)

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 7 June 2021. Also reprinted on Anarchist Agency, 4 July 2021

“After the basics of food and shelter that we need just as animals, first thing after that: dignity. Everyone needs and deserves this, just as part of being human. And yet this is a very undignified world. And so we struggle. You see how it is” (551).

The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest contribution to the emerging genre of climate fiction, known as “cli-fi.” Climate fiction is a subset of science fiction, set in the near or distant future, that centers the projected dystopian effects of global warming and the sixth mass extinction on humanity and nature, while exploring creative and utopian ways of salvaging the future of our species, together with that of millions of others.

As in his other recent speculative works, from Aurora (2015) to New York 2140 (2017), Robinson here draws implicitly on the concept of “disaster communism” developed by the Out of the Woods climate collective—a form of mutual aid that relies on “a kind of bricolage.” Some concrete examples of this bricolage (“work made from available things”), as the collective explains in a 2014 article, include trucks being “repurposed to deliver food to the hungry, retrofitted with electric motors, stripped for parts, and/or used as barricades,” and ships being “scuttled to initiate coral reef formation.” Indeed, in Ministry, Robinson alludes to the repurposing of destroyed container ships as reef beds, and praises Robinson Crusoe for ingeniously “ransack[ing] the wreck of his ship” (229, 367). Thus history—and, by extension, the future—can be remade at the intersection of communal self-organization and the autonomous reconfiguration of existing technologies and infrastructures. As the Out of the Woods collective argues, “the unfolding catastrophe of global warming cannot and will not be stopped” without the “transgressive and transformative mobilization” of disaster communities agitating for a new, post-capitalist global system. As we will see, Robinson’s Ministry is animated by a parallel desire to put an end to the “strip-mining [of] the lifeworld,” and to “help us get to the next world system” (163, 317).

Compared with most of Robinson’s other twenty-five published works, Ministry is among the closest in time frame to our own. It starts in the mid-2020s, just five years after its publication date. Measured in terms of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, the world of Ministry begins at 447 parts per million (as compared to earth’s current level of 417ppm). Unlike Aurora, Red Moon, the Mars trilogy (1992–1996), Galileo’s Dream (2009), or 2312 (2012), the plot in Ministry—with the exception of some lyrical scenes depicting airship flight—is earthbound, focused on terrestrial humanity and nature, rather than interplanetary or interstellar life and travel. Despite this difference, all of Robinson’s cli-fi books share humanistic, ecological, scientific, and historical themes, lessons, and quandaries, and Ministry is no exception. Efforts to address the catastrophic twin threats of a melting polar ice and sea level rise are central to the narratives of Green Earth and Ministry alike.

Although set centuries apart, and/or in differing parts of the solar system or galaxy, Robinson’s novels commonly feature radically subversive political struggles, journeys of existential discovery and loss, interpersonal romances, explorations of the relationship between humanity and other animals (our “cousins”), historical optimism, an emphasis on human stewardship and unity, and the creative use of science to solve social and ecological problems (502). In this sense, his latest work is no exception.

A Global Scope

The Ministry for the Future begins with a shocking illustration of capitalist hell, as Frank May, a young, white US aid worker, witnesses climate devastation firsthand in India, where an estimated twenty million people perish in an unprecedented single heat wave induced by global warming. As the only survivor of the heat wave in a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Frank experiences significant trauma and guilt, and goes somewhat mad. In this, he echoes the quixotic crossover of neurodivergence and heroic agency seen in several other of Robinson’s male protagonists, from Saxifrage Russell in the Mars trilogy to Frank Vanderwal in Green Earth and Fred Fredericks in Red Moon.

At the national level, this catastrophe delegitimizes the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is voted out in favor of the nascent Avasthana (“Survival”) Party. In turn, the new government switches the Indian energy grid from coal to renewables, and launches thousands of flights to spray aerosols into the stratosphere, in an effort to double the effects of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. This unilateral geoengineering scheme effectively cools global temperatures by 1 to 2°F (0.6–1.2°C). Dialectically, this “New India,” a formidable “green power,” promotes land reform, biosphere reserves, “communist organic farm[ing],” the decentralization of power, and a questioning of patriarchy and the caste system (141–42). Thousands of miles away, these sweeping changes resonates in arid California, where the state government recognizes all water as a commons, “blockchaining” it for the purpose of collective accounting and use in the face of sustained drought. This is before an “atmospheric river” destroys Los Angeles, “the [capitalist] world’s dream factory,” and a heat wave ravages the US Southwest, taking the lives of hundreds of thousands (285, 348–49).

Just prior to the South Asian heat wave, in 2025, the Ministry for the Future is founded as a “subsidiary body” to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016. Headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, the ministry is tasked with representing the interests of future generations, as well as the defense of entities that cannot represent themselves, such as nonhuman animals and ecosystems. Much like the US National Science Foundation (NSF) featured in Green Earth, this ministry is led by cutting-edge, clear-minded scientists; it is distinguished, however, by its international and global scope, as well as its use of artificial intelligence (AI). Part of its mission involves the identification and prosecution of climate and environmental criminals across the globe. Initially, the ministry utilizes legalistic methods to pursue these offenders, but, after a late night confrontation between the deranged Frank and the ministry’s Irish director, Mary Murphy (whom he kidnaps and harangues), decides to quietly support a black ops wing headed by the Nepali Badim Bahadur. The parallel organization, which may be the same as the “Children of Kali” group, and other underground cells, execute weapons manufacturers, disrupt the World Economic Forum at Davos, destroy airliners, sink container ships, and purposely infect cattle herds to prevent their consumption, all as part of the “War for the Earth.” Soon, the Children of Kali are joined by Gaia’s Shock Troops, along with fictionalizations of the real-world Defenders of Mother Earth and Earth First!

Under Bahadur’s direction, the ministry, led by Mary Murphy, not only pursues covert campaigns, but also develops two major proposals to save the world from the menaces of ecocide and militarism: First, it aims to appeal to the central banks of the most powerful states to stimulate decarbonization by replacing the dollar with a new global currency called “carboni.” This new currency is backed, in turn, by long-term bonds and applied in conjunction with progressive carbon taxes, intended to incentivize survival. But it is only after popular occupations of Paris and Beijing, demanding a “kind of commons that was post-capitalist,” and “millions [coming out to] the streets,” transferring their savings to credit unions, and launching a debt strike after the climatic destruction of LA, that the “useless” bankers and “corrupt” lawmakers feel compelled to take steps to adopt “carbon quantitative easing” and remove the profit motive from the fossil fuel industry (214, 252, 344). Second, to slow down the retreat of polar sea ice (and similar to a plan outlined in Green Earth), the ministry backs a proposal to drill into glaciers and pump their melted remnants back onto the surface for refreezing.

After Intervention, the “Good Future”

Once carbon taxes and the carboni currency have been introduced in Ministry’s world, progressive political changes begin to follow. The despotic al-Saud family is overthrown in Arabia, and the interim government pledges to immediately finance the suspension of oil sales and a full transition to solar power through compensation in the form of carboni. Likewise, the “Lula left” makes a roaring comeback in Brazil, stopping the country’s sale of oil and promising to protect and restore the Amazon rain forest, all in response to the newfound incentives created by carboni. The African Union backs the nationalization of all foreign firms, and their transformation into worker cooperatives, as a means of presenting “a united front toward China, [the] World Bank, [and] all outside forces” (324–25, 355).

In Russia, a democratic opposition movement overwhelms Putin’s regime. Refugees in Europe—overwhelmingly Syrian—are given global citizenship and worldwide freedom of movement. Reacting to the pressures of a “brave new market” on the one hand, and of relentless eco-saboteurs on the other, the transport and energy sectors decarbonize. New container ships are designed, partly with the assistance of AI, integrating a return to sail technology and innovative electric motors that run on solar energy. In line with E. O. Wilson’s proposal for “half of earth” to be set aside for nature, a number of habitat corridors are established in North America, connecting the Yukon with Yellowstone, and Yellowstone with Yosemite, incorporating the Rocky, Olympic, and Cascade Mountain Ranges. In these corridors, hunting is banned, roads are ripped up, and underpasses and overpasses are built to facilitate the safe movement of animal populations.

Across the globe, communal, national, and regional socio-environmental organizations coalesce to rewild, restore, and regenerate ecosystems and the human social fabric. Atmospheric carbon concentration peaks at 475ppm, then begins a sustained decline (454–55). The British, Russian, and American navies collaborate to support “Project Slowdown,” the systematic pumping of glacial meltwaters, in Antarctica. The Arctic Sea is dyed yellow, to salvage some degree of albedo, or reflection of solar radiation, in light of melted sea ice. Social inequality declines sharply as universal basic income is adopted and land is increasingly converted into commons.

Rights are extended to nonhuman animals. More and more people shift to cooperative, low-carbon living and plant-based diets, just as communism, participatory economics, workers’ cooperatives, and degrowth emerge as reasonable components of a “Plan B” response to a climate-ravaged world. Frank accompanies Syrian and African refugees, volunteers with mutual aid organization Food Not Bombs, and expresses his love for both Mary and his fellow animals (372–73, 435, 447).

This alternate future is not free of tragedy, however. Tatiana, the ministry’s “warrior,” is assassinated by a drone, presumably directed by Russians seeking revenge for the ouster of Vladimir Putin—much as the anarchist Arkady Bogdanov and his comrades are firebombed by capitalists toward the end of Red Mars. This leads Mary Murphy to go into hiding, something the revolutionaries on Mars and Chan Qi, the female Chinese dissident in Red Moon, must also do. [Frank succumbs to brain cancer, likely as a result of the great stresses he suffered during the heatwave in Uttar Pradesh. Mary attends to him with tenderness, much as Natasha Rostova nurses the dying Prince Andrei in War and Peace (1869).]

Questions and Critique

“She clutched his arm hard. We will keep going, she said to him in her head—to everyone she knew or had ever known, all those people so tangled inside her, living or dead, we will keep going, she reassured them all” (563).

The Ministry for the Future is an engaging, entertaining, and enlightening read. It presents a hopeful vision of the future, whereby mass civil disobedience and direct action against corporations and governments serve as the necessary levers to institute a scientific, ecological, and humanistic global transition beyond capitalism. The plot features conflicts between the market and the state, and it is obvious where Robinson’s allegiances lie. As Mary declares, in this struggle, “we want the state to win” (357). Paradoxically, as an internationalist and an ecologist, Robinson endorses the “rule of law” as an important means of bringing capital to heel (61). At least for the time being, he believes that money, markets, and banks will themselves need to be involved in the worldwide transition toward social and environmental justice—that is, their own overcoming: “Without that it’s castles in air time, and all will collapse into chaos” (410).

Undoubtedly, this vision is different than that of anarchism, which foresees bypassing the hopelessly compromised state and overthrowing capitalism directly through the self-organization of the international working classes. Robinson admits his narrative does not advocate “complete revolution,” as left-wing radicals would (380). Rather than advocating the overthrow of the state, he calls for changing the laws. Indeed, in his construction of an alternate future, Robinson defines the Paris Agreement as the “greatest turning point in human history,” and the “birth of a good Anthropocene” (475). Mary Murphy’s ministry seeks to appeal to the same “bank/state combination” that has caused, and continues to perpetrate, the very climate crisis that threatens humanity and the rest of complex life on earth (212).

To advocate such a statist strategy as a means of salvaging the future, even as an “insider” counterpart to the direct actions carried out by revolutionary “outsiders,” several assumptions must hold—many of them questionable. For instance, Robinson assumes that all countries will adopt the Paris Agreement in good faith; that the ministry would be allowed to come into existence in the first place; that the BJP in India would not only be voted out of power but also accept its electoral defeat peacefully; that Trumpism and the US Republican Party would be out of the picture; that the masses would mobilize radically for socio-environmental justice across the globe and not be brutally repressed, as they were in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Occupied Palestine, Syria, or Myanmar/Burma, to name just a few examples; and that the bankers would consider, much less implement, a new global currency based on one’s contributions to carbon sequestration.

Of course, it is partly, if not largely, due to the imaginative assumptions and visions elaborated by speculative writers that audiences are so attracted to the genres of science fiction and fantasy. We must not chide Robinson for exercising his utopian imagination, as it has produced so much beautiful and critical art, including Ministry. At the same time, it is fair to question the intersection of philosophical statism and psychic optimism in his cli-fi. Such a constellation, for instance, unfortunately leads Robinson to compliment the organization of the US Navy, and to praise Dengist China as socialist (155, 381–83). An anarchist approach, in contrast, would prioritize the mobilizations, strikes, and other direct actions present in the text, while adopting a more critical and immediately abolitionist stance toward the state and market.

Conclusion

The Ministry for the Future continues Robinson’s critically visionary, optimistic, and reconstructive speculative fiction. In narrative form, he explains why we must change the system, and presents us with a panoply of means—revolutionary and reformist alike. He emphasizes the need for a “Plan B” to be developed ahead of time, to sustain the revolution, once it breaks out—much as the martyred Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz believed, and as the Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse’s own tombstone declares: Weitermachen! (“Keep it up!”)

Compared with the disastrous eco-futures depicted in such cli-fi novels as Aurora or New York 2140, The Ministry for the Future depicts a dynamically utopian story of estrangement, self-discovery, and creative struggle to ensure a better future. In this sense, it is reminiscent of Pacific Edge (1990), the most hopeful of Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy. At its best, Ministry conveys what could be.

Book Review: Richard Gilman-Opalsky, “The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value”

May 29, 2021

My critical review of Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s The Communism of Love has been published in Philosophy in Review, Vol 41 No 2 (May 2021).

The review, which is available open-access, can be found here. It is reproduced below.

Richard Gilman-Opalsky. The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value. AK Press 2020. 336 pp. $22.00 USD (Paperback ISBN 9781849353915).

In The Communism of Love, Richard Gilman-Opalsky expands on the findings of the critical psycho-analyst Erich Fromm to explain how interpersonal love challenges capitalism, namely by rejecting the place of ownership and hierarchy in social life. ‘Love is communism within capitalism,’ assert Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Bernsheim (87). As such, the experience of love is a unifying, disruptive, and enlivening one connected with affection, hope, and revolt. For Gilman-Opalsky (G-O), it corresponds to a Gemeinwesen, or communal sensibility, and a Gemeingeist, or collective spirit. We humans yearn for humanizing loving connections, and the erotic movement from self to Other functions as ‘connective tissue’ which ensures social reproduction and wards off dehumanization, instrumentalization, and death (197).

Despite having a promising premise, G-O relies on rhetorical manipulation, marring [the text] with conceit. For example, without evidence or argument, he conveys his disagreement with Jacques Camatte’s dystopian insistence on the subjection of all life to capitalist domination, ‘even in the face of more recent ecological catastrophe[s]’ (47). Such a perspective would block out the ongoing melting and burning of the Arctic and Siberia. Likewise, there is a glaring absence in this book of an internalization of Fromm’s principled critique of Stalinism. Instead of discussing the anarcha-feminist Emma Goldman, G-O centers the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and the Maoist Alain Badiou. Notably, G-O belittles Fromm, who criticized Marx’s centralism and dogmatism in the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), as an ‘anemic social democra[t]’ (The Sane Society, Routledge 1956, 251), while he portrays Marx—who expelled the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the IWMA in 1872 on baseless charges, and arguably wrecked the organization in so doing—as wholesome (8).

Unconsciously undermining the very raison d’etre for his book, G-O asserts that ‘Fromm’s concept of socialism has been long outstripped in the years after the Cold War and is no longer useful to communist philosophy’ (11). In light of the dire need for the application of Fromm’s anti-bureaucratic politics and anarchistic psychosocial concepts, the social character above all, in the face of Trumpism and global conservative-authoritarian reaction, such a dismissive attitude remains untenable. G-O reproduces the living past, channeling Theodor W. Adorno’s unease about the ideological threat that Fromm’s ‘sentimental… blend of social democracy and anarchism’ might pose to the Marxist-Leninist affirmation of the authority principle.

Considering Adorno’s point, which is not rhetorically far-removed from the stark Lenino-Stalinist dismissal and purge of ‘utopian socialists’ who were, in fact, true revolutionaries, taken together with Fromm’s view of the continuities between Marx and Lenin, it is odd to choose this economist as a source on love. Through his rejection of idealism and psychology, Marx ended up envisioning a totalitarian overcoming of moral and emotional reasoning in the historical process (117-8). Accordingly, the Russian science-fiction writer Evgeny Zamyatin, author of We (Avon 1920), which inspired George Orwell’s 1984, implicitly criticized not only Lenin—being a premonition of Stalin—but also Marx in his dystopian portrayal of a mechanized-centralized future (Stites, R., Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press 1989, 187-8). In parallel, Fromm rejected Marx’s ‘inattention to emotions, morality, and human nature,’ such that his theory improves upon that of his predecessor (Maccoby, M. and N. McLaughlin, ‘Sociopsychoanalysis and Radical Humanism: A Fromm-Bourdieu Synthesis,’ in Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future, ed. Durkin, Joan Braune, Bloomsbury, 2020, 115).

G-O neither mentions that Marx rejected the anarchist call for gender equality and the abolition of the family, nor considers Marx and Engels’ own homophobia, and precisely how their anti-gay animus influenced the decision to summarily expel Bakunin from the IWMA in 1872. Whereas G-O is right to condemn the misogyny exhibited by many queer men toward women throughout history, he does queerness a disservice by implying that male homosexuality tends as through compulsion to be sexist and lesbophobic (66-71). It is also questionable whether sex-love necessarily promotes isolation and privatization, as G-O implies. His own consideration of the love-bonds in war between Socrates and Alcibiades and Spartacus and his newly unearthed female partner contradict such a view.

Despite leaning heavily on Kollontai’s avowal of love as comradeship, G-O admits that this Bolshevik’s approach was ‘too bound up with statist initiatives’ (11). Though Kollontai was a leader of the Workers’ Opposition, such a concession to anarchist readers is unconvincing, in light of the book’s pallid critiques of Leninism, Stalinism, and the Soviet Union. The Russian Civil War ended with the Red Army victorious over the White reactionaries and the ‘Green’ partisans and Makhnovist anarchist peasants; the Kronstadt Commune was suppressed in March 1921, the very day before the Reds publicly celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune in Petrograd. Despite being a far more principled critic than either Kollontai or G-O of Marxism-Leninism, as well as a champion of feminism and free love, Emma Goldman does not appear once in the text. While G-O’s brief integration of bell hooks’ sex-positive ‘anarchism of love’ into the study is welcome, it is significant that Goldman, eyewitness to the Kronstadt massacre, is entirely missing. Other than for one mention on the book’s last page, Stalin, the homophobic patriarchal despot and ally of Hitler, is similarly conspicuous in his absence.

Perhaps, rather than The Communism of Love, this volume might have been entitled ‘The Love of Marxism.’ G-O betrays his biases when he recognizes bell hooks as an anarchist-communist, but then immediately describes her as ‘never [having been] committed to any kind of communism’ (216). Here, we must differentiate between Marxism and communism, for communism is a form of life that originates in our individual and collective development and evolution as a species. It was not invented in modernity, and certainly not by Marx. Indeed, Marxism can be viewed as a problematic theory for the communist goals it proposes. Despite this, in The Communism of Love, Marx often appears as a Deus ex Machina. G-O wants to reinterpret Marxism as anti-state communism, but his account is suspect, for he too easily elides the catastrophes of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, and the obvious links between Marxism and Marxism-Leninism as bureaucratic ideologies. G-O promotes distrust when he implies that Kollontai’s 1923 letter to the Soviet Komsomol (Communist Youth League) was written during the ‘revolutionary period in Russia’ (131). In reality, a reconstituted Tsarist Empire whose survival was secured through the Bolsheviks’ destruction of the Makhnovshchina and the Kronstadt and Tambov Communes, and the forcible reincorporation of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Siberia, and Turkestan, cannot be revolutionary.

In his book, G-O examines familial love, friendship, compassion, and Eros from an anti- Freudian and sex-negative vantage point that is consistent with Marxism’s Victorianism. Accordingly, G-O reproduces the puritanical sexual taboo of early Soviet utopian science-fiction writers. Having teased readers by introducing Rosa Luxemburg’s love-bond with Leo Jogiches, G- O writes: ‘If you would like to pursue that story, you will have to do it elsewhere’ (128). Along these same lines, G-O inconceivably argues that love is fundamentally communist, just as he ‘caution[s] against any romanticization of the power of Eros,’ all the while glossing over Freud’s hypothesis that all love is either libidinally based, or a sublimated libidinality, except in passing (10, 91, 155, 286-7). In this sense, if Fromm improved on Marx and Freud, G-O’s text represents a regression to second-International Marxism and a ‘desexualized psychoanalysis,’ rather than a creative application of the Freudo-Marxism of Critical Theory.

In his zeal to combat ‘romantic individualism,’ ‘romantic utopias,’ and the reduction of partnership to shopping and investment, G-O overcompensates by dismissing free love as ‘bourgeois.’ Making such arguments, he reproduces Fromm’s error in de-emphasizing erotic satisfaction as an important component of human happiness (175, 225, 286). Both thinkers thus miss ‘the indivisibility of love [Eros], friendship and comradeship’ (Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 214). Likewise, G-O does not consider the essentially maternal aspects of love, a point which is emphasized by Freud, Fromm, John Bowlby, and Jessica Benjamin. Rather, he idealizes the patriarchal Marx family as instituting maternal values by somehow not having been governed by exchange relations (110). The author praises Karl’s wife Jenny as an ‘unrecognized coauthor of Marx’s work,’ and mentions Helene Dumuth, the Marxes’ live-in servant, whom Karl may have exploited sexually (112-5). G-O does not pause to question whether this feudal vestige within the Marx household—much less the unit’s maintenance through the profits extracted from the workers employed by Engels’ father—might not challenge his designation of the family as a ‘little commune’ (112).

In summary, G-O’s study on love combines fruitful and thought-provoking scholarship with revisionist, fantastical history. Presumably, this dialectical mosaic seeks to rehabilitate Marxism by simultaneously appropriating its anarchist rival, reinterpreting its own meaning as anti-statist, denying and repressing strong historical and theoretical evidence to the contrary, and transposing it as the sole meaning of communism and love. Undoubtedly, those who live and seek love, especially in the alien globe transformed by COVID-19, also seek a different and better world (271). Yet above all, in the struggle to find meaning and connection in this life by changing the world, we lovers and friends must recognize the revolutionary virtue of truth when confronting history, the present, and the future.

Stop Israeli Attacks on Gaza! For Joint Struggle against Racism and Militarism!

May 17, 2021
The al-Jalaa building in Gaza, which housed media offices and residential apartments, is destroyed by the Israeli military on Saturday, May 15, 2021. Courtesy Ashraf Abu Amrah/Reuters

Also published on Ideas and Action, 17 May 2021

The WSA Solidarity Committee strongly denounces the Israeli military’s merciless assault on the Gaza Strip, beginning on Monday, May 10, which has killed at least 137 Palestinians, including 36 children. This new shooting war—the fourth since 2008, and the third overseen by the far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—began in the context of a Palestinian uprising against the imminent colonial displacement of several refugee families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

On Monday, Israeli police, who were engaged in brutalizing Muslim worshippers observing Ramadan at the al-Aqsa mosque, defied Hamas’ ultimatum to withdraw their forces, leading to mass-rocket fire into Israel. 8 Israelis (Jewish and Palestinian), including a child, plus an Indian care worker have died in these barrages. The advanced “Iron Dome” system—funded and developed in no small part by the US government and aerospace corporations—has intercepted most incoming fire. In the Occupied West Bank this past week, the Israeli State has killed at least a dozen Palestinian protesters.

Emboldened by his enabler, the U.S. government, Netanyahu has been especially cruel during these latest escalations. Yesterday, May 15, Nakba Day—which marks the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948, and the start of a vast ethnic-cleansing campaign that formed the basis of the Jewish State—an Israeli strike on a refugee camp in Gaza took the lives of ten members of the al-Hadidi family: eight children, and two women. Faced with the deliberate targeting of their homes, thousands have fled with their families to shelter in U.N. schools, but many have nowhere to go. Unlike other victims of war throughout the world, Palestinians in Gaza cannot flee the warzone. They lack the shelter and warning systems that simultaneously protect Israelis. Many Palestinian residents of Gaza, interviewed by Al Jazeera, have expressed the direness of the situation. “’It has been absolutely ruthless,’ [Abedrabbo al-Attar said].”

In a brazen bombing Saturday afternoon, Israel demolished the very building housing the offices of Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, and Middle East Eye in Gaza. Though the affected journalists appear to have escaped in time, this attack is part and parcel of the Israeli State’s “information war,” designed to cover up its past, ongoing, and future atrocities in the besieged enclave. Al Jazeera is now broadcasting from al-Shifa hospital, supposedly the “safest place” in the territory.

Not only is violence flaring in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, but inter-communal violence has also broken out in Israel proper, otherwise known as the “1948 territories,” between Jews and Palestinians. In Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Lod (Lydda), marauding Jewish Israelis, enabled and protected by the police, have terrorized Palestinian homes and workplaces during these Muslim holy days of Eid al-Fitr. Such mobs have carried out lynchings and stabbings and fire-bombed Palestinian residences. Meanwhile, five synagogues in Lod/Lydda have been burned. In response, the authorities have declared a state of emergency in the city.

As the Libertarian Workers Group observed in 1982, Israel “is merely a unit in the international pecking order of competing nations, with the superpowers on top.” Its disregard for humanity, as evinced in Gaza, Sheikh Jarrah, and the West Bank, is consistent with the history of settler-colonialism and the establishment of State bureaucracies across the globe. Now, in the wake of the Trump regime and the parallel rise of the “Alt-Right,” and considering the far right’s contempt for “cultural Marxism,” anti-Semitism is on the rise internationally. But the Jewish State does not solve for this problem. Rather, through its egregious violations of international humanitarian law, it provides ammunition to anti-Semitic opportunists throughout the world. We must reject both the Israeli State’s crimes, as well as the supremacists who would utilize such atrocities for nefarious purposes.

To construct freedom for all in Israel/Palestine, the first step is an immediate and enduring ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. This would involve the Israeli military indefinitely ceasing all military operations in and against the Gaza Strip, and Hamas and affiliated groups likewise ending rocket fire into Israel. Moreover, Israel must suspend its campaign to expel Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and the rest of East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlers, and Jewish Israeli lynch mobs must forthright withdraw from the streets.

We support a vision of Jewish and Palestinian workers, peasants, and oppressed people questioning and ultimately breaking with supremacist, nationalist, and militaristic imaginaries and ideologies, and coming together in joint struggle to overcome power, privilege, and hatred by building mutual aid, inter-communal solidarity, and collective self-management.

Externally, we welcome U.S. workers supporting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, and publicly protesting against the ongoing violence in Occupied Palestine.

– WSA Solidarity Committee

Recommended readings:

U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Thoughts on Internationalism

May 1, 2021
A U.S. gunner looks out the rear cargo doors over the mountains of Afghanistan (Reuters)

Ending a nearly two-decade long presence, U.S. and NATO troops began their “final withdrawal” today from Afghanistan. Is this momentous shift to be celebrated, lamented—both, or neither?

In October 2001, four weeks after the attacks of September 11th, George W. Bush’s administration ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, following the ruling Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s (IEA, or Taliban) refusal to extradite the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the presumed material author of 9/11. A decade ago today, when special forces killed bin Laden in a nighttime raid on Abbotabad, Pakistan, there were 100,000 U.S. soldiers occupying Afghanistan, together with 40,000 from other countries. Since 2001, an estimated 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians have been killed in the transnational war zone, whether by occupiers, allied national governments (Afghan/Pakistani), or the Taliban insurgency. Such statistics, of course, do not include casualties from the genocidal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989); the subsequent Civil Wars (1989-1996); or Taliban rule (1996-2001), which was backed in turn by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). During occupation by the Red Army, an estimated two million Afghans died, and at least six million Afghans became refugees in Iran and Pakistan.

The murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (1958-2018), center with an RPG, reported on the mujahideen in the 1980’s

Though undoubtedly difficult throughout the past two decades, the war’s toll on civilians became especially acute during the Trump administration, which encouraged “relaxed” rules of engagement and an empowerment of local commanders overseeing indiscriminate aerial bombardment. In keeping with Trump’s expressed desire to “win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted,” civilian casualties at the hands of foreign air forces rose 330% between 2016 and 2019. Now, Biden consummates his predecessor’s planned withdrawal of the U.S. military, albeit on a less dramatic timetable: rather than be gone by today, as Trump had envisioned, the remaining 10,000 U.S.-NATO troops will have exited by September 11, 2021.

Interviewed last month on Democracy Now, the Afghan-American professor Zaher Wahab welcomed Biden’s decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, declaring that the U.S. and its allies should “never have attacked and occupied Afghanistan [in the first place]. It was wrong. It was illegal. And I think it was immoral.” At the same time, Wahab distinguishes between the three dimensions of the conflict: domestic, regional, and global. Whereas the regional and global outlook for U.S. imperialism is potentially enhanced by this withdrawal (due to fewer expenditures and casualties, and the possibility of troop redeployment to more critical theaters, such as East Asia), Wahab believes that “leaving now would be highly irresponsible” for the domestic Afghan context: while the war “may end for the United States,” “war amongst the Afghans will definitely continue.” Indeed, the Taliban view this withdrawal as a victory. Considering the entrenched power of warlordism, corruption, and ethnic strife in the devastated country, together with the menace of the so-called Islamic Emirate reconquering all of Afghanistan within mere months, Wahab calls for immediate intervention by a “U.N. security force or peacekeeping force,” and the establishment of a trust fund for development.

The journalists Filippo Rossi and Emanuele Satolli, writing in Newlines Magazine, aptly observe that, “In their quest to end the war, Western powers, the Taliban, and Afghan government have so far excluded the population from discussions” about their future. In this light, for the cause of “lasting peace,” the voices of ordinary Afghans must be heard.

Many Afghan women themselves fear a return of the Taliban, in terms of threats to their right to education, bodily integrity, freedom of movement, and participation in government and society. Metra Mehran, from Feminine Perspectives Afghanistan, concurs with Wahab that, in the absence of concessions from the Taliban, an abrupt withdrawal “would not be responsible.” Raihana Azad, an Afghan member of Parliament, observes that women are the victims of men’s wars—and “of their peace, too.” Members of the mostly Shi’ite Hazara ethno-religious minority are especially anxious about a resurgent Taliban, having been brutalized under their rule and targeted numerous times since in grisly attacks. In the late nineteenth century, in his bid to bring the Hazarajat to heel, the Pashtun Emir Abdur Rahman Khan killed an estimated 60% of the Hazara population, possibly amounting a million people. Taliban rule, which similarly persecuted the ethnic minority as apostates, may have cost the lives of 20,000 Hazara. Indeed, twenty years ago, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) cited the precedents of atrocities in Cambodia and Bosnia to call on the U.N. to deploy “large peace-keeping forces in Afghanistan” toward the end of defying fundamentalists and disarming all armed groups.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo poses with Taliban Political Deputy Mullah Beradar in Doha, Qatar

Commenting on the peace agreement negotiated between the Taliban and the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020, Zaman Sultany, from Amnesty International South Asia, insisted that

“Any peace process involving the parties to the conflict in Afghanistan must not ignore the voice of victims. It must not disregard their calls for justice, truth, and reparation for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations and abuses – committed by all sides in the conflict. It must also guarantee the rights of women and girls and the rights of religious minorities in Afghanistan.

(Emphasis added)

Given that the treaty agreed to between Mike Pompeo and the Taliban excluded consideration of the woman question and the rights of ethno-religious minorities, and that emboldened ultra-misogynist elements have recently been wantonly murdering female journalists and a doctor in targeted killings in Jalalabad, we concur with the urgency of Sultany’s message, and agree with his demands, as with Wahab’s calls for U.N. peacekeepers and an alternative model of development. We would ask the militants of RAWA whether they still see an important place for international peacekeepers disarming the Taliban and the warlords in 2021.

Therefore, in a spirit of self-critique, we reject the reflexive and confused defense of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan we made last week out of fear of the Taliban, in the context of acute illness due to work-related stress. Whether Afghans want foreign troops to help defend against a Taliban takeover is a matter for them to decide. But critically, thinking of Bosnia, Syria, and even World War II, international intervention is not an option which must be dismissed out of hand as “imperialist,” especially when the alternative is fascism and genocide. We must not prioritize the regional and global implications of power politics, overlooking domestic dimensions. To this point, despite the U.S. boycott of the International Criminal Court, we strongly support the project of prosecuting U.S. soldiers and commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as we support international accountability for crimes perpetrated by Israeli, Syrian, Russian, Indian, Afghan, Burmese, and Chinese State officials (among others), together with the Taliban. We furthermore support the Hazaras Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary’s call for Australia—and, by extension, the U.S., U.K., Russia, and other former occupiers—to resettle Afghan refugees, and welcome Afghan asylum seekers.

Afghan Sufi teacher Fahima Mirzaie uses song and dance to promote education. (Stefanie Glinski)