Posts Tagged ‘Herbert Marcuse’

Psychoanalysis for Collective Liberation

February 2, 2022

First published in the New Politics Winter 2022 issue.

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

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

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

Prophetic Messianism, the Social Character, and Trumpism

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

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

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

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

Humanism, Feminism, and Social Character in a Mexican Village

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

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

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

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

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

Authority and The Working Class in Weimar Germany

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

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

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

Critique: History, Sexuality, and Internationalism

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Fromm, The Art of Loving, 31.

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

Video Recording: “Ecology and Revolution”

November 18, 2021

This is the recording of a panel on “Ecology and Revolution,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

Speakers in order of appearance:

– Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus”
– Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, Capitalism and Critique”
– Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work”
– Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home”

A Critical Theory of Authority

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Marcusean Politics Today.” My co-panelists were Shon Meckfessel and Rocío Lopez.

In Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (1954), the sociologists Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills observe that, “from a psychological point of view, the crux of the problem of power rests in understanding the origin, constitution, and maintenance of voluntary obedience.” They add that “Authority, or legitimated power, involves voluntary obedience based on some idea which the obedient holds of the powerful or of his position” (Gerth and Mills 194-5). Indeed, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577), Étienne de la Boetie came to much the same conclusion: namely, that authority persists because we allow it to. Although the reproduction of hierarchy under capitalism is not so simple as that, considering the threats of unemployment, imprisonment, starvation, and assassination for those who rebel, there is something to Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment about a kind of “complicity between the oppressor and the oppressed” (Sartre 338).

In turn, the models of sexual sadomasochism and socio-political authoritarianism developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Jessica Benjamin, and Lynn Chancer highlight the psychodynamic dimensions of erotic frustration and gender and class oppression. In other words, under generalized relations of dependence on capital and male authority, the power of the boss, man, sadist, and/or ‘top’ is ultimately derived from the psychological self-subordination of the worker, woman, masochist, and/or ‘bottom.’ In this sense, the specter of revolt can function as a destituent power that reverberates throughout society, as we have seen on many occasions in history, up to and including the present.

At the same time, not all revolt is emancipatory, and “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression” (Rancière xvii). In Reason and Revolution (1941), Marcuse controversially defends G. W. F. Hegel’s criticism of the “pseudo-democratic” opponents of the post-Napoleonic Restoration régime, likening them—in their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and German nationalism—to precursors of the Nazis (Marcuse 1999: 179-81).1 Along similar lines, Ze’ev Sternhell sees the fascist cultural and political revolt against Enlightenment values like humanism and rationalism not as anomalous to European history, but rather, as integral to it (Sternhell 3, 250-1). The anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker likewise saw in fascism a “reaction to progress […] rooted in German history but concerning the whole of Europe” (Bernardini 9). Unfortunately, as was confirmed not only by the descent of the Russian Revolution into a Stalinist nightmare, but also by the collaboration of revolutionary syndicalists in the birth of national socialism, the phenomenon of the “leftist right,” or what Jürgen Habermas termed a “left fascism,” certainly exists (Rancière 72; Gandesha). Both in the past, as in the present, we see “discourse[s] of order composed in the vocabulary of subversion” (Rancière 116). In this sense, the Russian Marxist Georgii Plekhanov was right to accuse Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “Father of Anarchy,” of having combined “extreme Radicalism of mind with extreme Conservatism of mind” (Plechanoff 57, 63). Along similar lines, the neo-Stalinism of the GrayZone bloggers and the Trumpists’ coup attempt at the Capitol in January 2021 are arguably just two sides of the same coin.

Thus, in this presentation, I will analyze the ‘reactionary rebellion’ of the revolutionary French syndicalist Georges Sorel (1847-1922), follower of Proudhon and mentor to Benito Mussolini, the first Fascist leader, whose 1922 March on Rome animated Adolf Hitler’s failed “beer hall putsch” (1923). I will also explore the bureaucratic anti-humanism of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), who sided with his Party (the French Communist, or PCF) in rejecting the May 1968 uprising. I will then conclude with an analysis of national-socialist currents among ‘anti-imperialists’ today, and offer some reconstructive, anti-authoritarian ideas for anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists going forward.

Georges Sorel’s National Revolution

Perhaps ironically, George Sorel—who infamously synthesized revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism to inspire Fascism—shared some concerns with the anti-fascist Marxists of the Institute for Social Research, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School theorists. They commonly focused on symbols, emotions, and socio-political psychology in their respective intellectual projects, although admittedly, for vastly different reasons: Sorel sought to “mobilize the masses and to change the world” by annihilating bourgeois society while upholding the authority principle and the place of “revolutionary ‘élites,’” whereas the critical theorists aimed at a non-repressive, anti-authoritarian transformation of global society (Marcuse 2008: 105; Sternhell 59). Across different generations, both the Frankfurters and the Sorelians worried that the working classes of advanced-industrial societies had been integrated into capitalism. Sorel despaired that the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was more interested in reform than revolution, and Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man (1964) under the impression that workers in the U.S. would not rise up against capitalism (Sternhell 96). In the prologue to Negative Dialectics (1970), Theodor W. Adorno laments that “Philosophy […] remains alive, because the moment of its realization was missed,” given that “the transformation of the world failed.” Along similar lines, Sorel and Walter Benjamin shared a belief in the heroic potential of pessimism.

Of course, neither Adorno nor Marcuse (much less Benjamin) turned, as Sorel and Martin Heidegger did, to national socialism as a “new revolutionary path” (Sternhell 25, 123). Rather, as German-Jewish Marxists, they were forced to flee Nazi Germany and relocate to New York as refugees. After scaling the Pyrenees Mountains in late September 1940, Benjamin poignantly lost his life in the Spanish border town of Portbou, where he overdosed on morphine rather than be deported by Franco’s guards to the Nazi-collaborating Vichy régime. In the U.S., their newfound home, the surviving Frankfurt School theorists continued their principled anti-authoritarian analysis of society, rather than betray the cause, as Sorel so egregiously did.

According to Sternhell’s account in The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), fascism can be interpreted as a revolt against the principles of the Enlightenment (3). Certainly, this thesis can explain Heidegger’s own attraction to, and promotion of, Nazism. Like his intellectual mentor Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger sought to demolish the “post-1789 moral-political dispensation [and] replace it with a new radically illiberal and anti-egalitarian dispensation” (Beiner). In Reason and Revolution, Marcuse analyzes the Counter-Enlightenment philosophers who rejected German Idealism and inspired Nazism. In this sense, he highlights F. J. Stahl (1802-1861), who affirmed anti-rationalism, repudiated natural law, and sought to replace the category of reason with obedience (Marcuse 1999: 360-74). Likewise Sorel: “a horror of the Enlightenment [was] basic to his thinking” (Sternhell 69). Indeed, this devout Catholic had no truck with the anti-clerical cause. As a white supremacist, Sorel condemned what he saw as the Jacobins’ “recklessness” for “abruptly abolishing slavery in the colonies’”—particularly, in Haiti (Abromeit 396). Many of his followers encouraged Italy’s invasions of Libya (1911) and Ethiopia (1936) as “labor imperialist” projects. Like his protégé and fellow revolutionary syndicalist Mussolini, Sorel found Nietzsche’s ideas attractive, especially the philosopher’s contempt for “English ideas,” liberalism, and bourgeois society—and presumably, as well, the Nietzschean affirmation of slavery (Beiner; Sternhell 101, 110, 126, 196, 200). Sorel attacked the idealist tradition while hailing “proletarian ‘violence’” as a new form of authority (Marcuse 2008: 104).

Like Stahl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Sorel rejected rationalism, humanism, and natural law. His infamous “revision” of Marxism involved advocacy of the destruction of liberal democracy and parliamentary socialism through class struggle. Paradoxically, like Proudhon, Sorel “refused to touch private property and […] believed neither in equality nor in social justice […].” In reality, this “antidemocratic socialis[t]” envisioned the creation of a “producers’ civilization,” which would effectively function as a “revolutionary capitalism—[or] a capitalism of producers.” In this vein, the Sorelians “had nothing to put in place of capitalism and they did not conceive of a postcapitalist era.” As such, it is not hard to see how such a vision of stripping away liberal norms while retaining the capitalist mode of production could morph into Mussolini’s class-collaborationist, corporatist strategy (Sternhell 22, 28-9, 33, 37, 46-50, 69, 75, 80-2, 91, 117).

In this sense, the birthplace of fascism was neither Italy nor Germany, but rather, France. Though Mussolini would not seize power until 1922, on Sternhell’s account, all the requisite conditions for the propagation of the fascist ideal were in place before the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). In the years after the publication of his Reflections on Violence (1908), a volume that exhorted the proletariat to wield violence to annihilate the bourgeoisie, Sorel abandoned socialism in favor of ultra-nationalism and the “conservative revolution.” In turn, Sorel inspired the founding of the national-syndicalist Cercle Proudhon in late 1911 as a clearing house for “nationalists and leftist anti-democrats.” The futurists and Sorelians in this Cercle highlighted Proudhon’s defense of private property, militarism, traditionalism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. As champions of anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, pessimism, a “revolutionary” hatred of democracy, and fidelity to Sorel’s masculinist cult of violence, these left-right syncretists proclaimed their ideal “the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution” (Sternhell 4, 7, 27-9, 69, 75, 78, 80, 86, 90, 124, 130). As Marcuse might say, the Sorelians failed to question, much less overcome, technical reason; instead, they inspired Mussolini and Hitler to build on Sorel’s vision of a future wherein the “cult of energy” and “authority would emerge victorious all along the line” (Sternhell 24-7, 129, 168, 236-7).

Crucially, Sternhell distinguishes between the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism and anarchists. For Sorel and his followers, “the principle of authority was never in question.” In fact, “Sorelism detested anarchism,” and the master’s right-hand man, Édouard Berth, “wrote that ‘a real abyss’ divided the ideas of the syndicalists from those of the anarchists.” Paradoxically, the Sorelians opposed the concept of self-management, whether individual or collective; effectively, they proposed a hierarchical and productivist society run by syndicates (Sternhell 31, 103-104, 127, 218-223). Ultimately, these revolutionary unionists were just used by the Fascists to seize power. After all, conceptually speaking, national syndicalism and corporatism utterly contradict the cause of worker autonomy. As we know from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), the Nazi regime was run in the interests of the industrialists, the bureaucracy, the military leaders, and the National Socialist Party (Neumann). Accordingly, Sternhell is right to conclude that fascists’ use of leftist discourse always has “’rightist’ results” (211), just as Rocker is right to denounce Stalinism and Fascism as totalitarian ideologies that “both grew on the same tree” (Bernardini 7).

Even so, the case of Sorel is a disturbing one, considering how it illuminates the overlap between left and right, which are categories that are often considered to be mutually exclusive. How can it be that Jacques Rancière describes Sorel (perhaps unfairly) as an anarcho-syndicalist, that Mussolini and the Sorelian George Valois had had anarchist sympathies before embracing national socialism, and that so many Italian revolutionary syndicalists became Fascists? (Rancière 61; Sternhell 96, 143) In reality, many leftists and fascists commonly emphasize direct action, energy, violence, heroism, and sacrifice, while championing the will to power and conquest and critiquing “moralism” (Sternhell 29, 176-9). Mussolini and the Nazis admired Bolshevik authoritarianism, and Stalin trusted and allied with Hitler—rather irrationally, it turns out (Arendt 308-9; Bernardini). Part of the appeal of Sorelianism to syndicalists and nationalists alike was (and remains) its claim that both groups share(d) common enemies in liberalism and parliamentarism. Especially in the wake of postmodernism, many self-proclaimed leftists share a reactionary commitment to anti-universalism (Sternhell 163, 250-1). Whether a century ago or now, it is apparent that Sorelians, neo-Stalinists, and national socialists merely seek the worst of all possible worlds: that is, capitalism without any rights at all (Hensman).

Althusser’s Lesson

In Althusser’s Lesson (1974), the French philosopher Jacques Rancière takes his former professor to task for siding with the Communist Party of France (PCF), which opposed the revolutionary student movement of May 1968 as “petit bourgeois.” In regurgitating the Party line, Althusser effectively defended the division between mental and manual labor, privileging the former over the latter, while affirming the “very model prescribed by the philosophy of educators: enlightened despotism.” (In contrast, Sartre supported May 1968.) Besides Althusser’s disgrace, Rancière’s volume is focused “on the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order” (Rancière xvi, 11, 19, 54).

In this vein, Rancière identifies Althusserianism as a discourse of order wrapped up “in the language of leftism.” He traces its origin to “the desire to combat the revisionist tendencies that had seeped into philosophy following the Twentieth Congress” of 1956, when Nikita Khrushchëv denounced the crimes of Stalin, his then-deceased predecessor. In other words, Althusser followed Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in their questionable defense of Stalin, announced during the Sino-Soviet split in the post-1956 context. Broadly speaking, for Rancière, Althusser’s career amounted to the “fight of a ‘communist philosopher’ against that which threatens both the authority of his Party and of his philosophy: [namely,] Cultural Revolution on a global scale.” Both Althusser and the PCF leadership were anxious about the discovery of Marx’s Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which so moved Fromm, Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others, because they feared the creation of a “political authority other than the Party.” Accordingly, Althusser maligned these pieces as having been written during Marx’s “petit bourgeois” as opposed to “proletarian” communist phase—despite the fact that this distinction is entirely arbitrary. In terms of theory, Althusser insisted that “Marxism is a[n] anti-humanism,” proposing instead that humanism is “bourgeois idealism,” while championing Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies through his promotion of “an unofficial version of Stalinism” (Rancière xx, 9, 21, 23, 33, 72, 78-9, 83, 113, 116).

Indeed, by the time the May 1968 uprising began with student revolt, Althusser had long given up on any ideas he may have had about questioning and dissolving State power, factory despotism, or wage labor. His attacks on the syndicalist left, and his disgrace over May 1968, speak for themselves. Some of the reconstructive proposals that Rancière considers in closing are ideas about proletarian humanism, self-management, and the independence of labor leading to the autonomy of producers and “a world [re]made for and by the labour community.” At its best, society would operate as a network of cooperatives “which impos[e their] own rhythm on the work [through] non-hierarchical organization” and the democratic recognition of human equality (Rancière 37, 89-90, 93, 108, 117; May).

Conclusion: National Socialism, ‘Anti-Imperialism,’ and Anarcho-Syndicalism

Returning to the attempted Capitol putsch of 2021, we see that this disturbing neo-fascist moment united hyper-masculinity, white-male rage, anddirect action with anti-parliamentarian and anti-democratic politics. As Eric Alterman describes, “Trumpism’s release of suppressed sexual and aggressive drives is a far cry from [what Marcuse termed Eros]. Rather, it represents what Marcuse called the ‘political utilization of sex’ and aggression to reinforce social domination” (Alterman). That being said, this moribund marriage of opportunism with authoritarianism has not been limited in recent years to the far right. In the wake of the rise of self-described ‘leftist’ streamers and ‘anti-imperialist’ bloggers who claim independence from mainstream media while reproducing their brand competitiveness and associated ‘spins’ on reality, many neophyte ‘socialist celebrities’ have profited from “preach[ing] a contempt for democracy and parliamentarism,” as revolutionary syndicalists and ultra-nationalists did a century ago (Sternhell 108, 153).

Along these very same lines, the political comedian Jimmy Dore bases his appeal in a call for the left and the right to “join forces” against “the Establishment.” Likewise, the GrayZone conspiracy theorists deny the existence of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other ethno-religious minorities that are maintained by the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang. Appallingly, one of GrayZone’s main shticks is to deny Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for hundreds of chemical-weapons attacks carried out against insurgents and civilian communities alike in Syria over the past decade. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that Dore and GrayZone have now switched to promoting disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and agitating in favor of the use of ivermectin to treat COVID.

Rancière mentions the case of Pierre Daix (1922-2014), a journalist who first “denied the existence of labour camps in the Soviet Union [in 1949]; he never convinced anybody,” and then he resigned from the PCF in 1974, after having engaged with Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago (1973) (Rancière 107). Given the profit and self-promotion involved, we cannot expect the GrayZone editors to argue in good faith about history or current events, much less renounce their absurd positions. The problem is that they do seem to convince their audiences, who admittedly may already be predisposed to aggressive, delusional, and sadistic thought-patterns and behaviors. Like Althusser over May 1968, ‘anti-imperialist’ authoritarians—ostensibly on the left—have built up their brands by denying the existence of the Syrian Revolution over the past decade on the one hand, and covering up the egregious atrocities carried out by the counter-revolutionary axis on the other: that is, Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. With nearly a million Syrians murdered, and millions more displaced internally and across borders, the “line” of GrayZone and its sympathizers—of allying with the executioners—is a fundamental violation of leftist and Enlightenment principles around internationalism, humanism, and egalitarianism. In short, this ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse is merely another discourse of order and a “consecration of the [status quo] in the language of revolution” (Rancière 124).

Around Syria, the Trump regime, and COVID-19, we have seen a clear convergence between Stalinists and fascists who seek to marry revolution with tradition by advancing anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, and a hatred of democracy (Stites 250; Sternhell 240-1). The risk is that contrarian bloggers and streamers in touch with these currents are implicitly and paradoxically promoting neo-Nazism by espousing “an authoritarian and corporatist national revolution based on an ‘anticapitalist’ alliance” (Sternhell 248). Though this risk may seem exaggerated, the experience of four years of Trump, plus the resentment that persists over his electoral loss, show us just how much support the Counter-Enlightenment continues to enjoy.

Within this struggle, in the hopes of avoiding contributing to a reinvigorated fascism in our time, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should restate our opposition to private property, and our universal support for worker and community self-control of the economy and polity. Plus, we should revisit implicit or explicit futurism, anti-rationalism, and anti-humanism in the movement, and in our history, plus reconsider to what extent sharing a Nietzschean, Heideggerian, or Sorelian critique of liberal democracy is helpful. Furthermore, the cause of worker autonomy, which is realistically the only means of ensuring the preconditions for collective liberation and protection of the Earth from climate destruction, might greatly be assisted by integrating the insights from Critical Theory about the psychological dimensions of overcoming hierarchy, which ultimately is based on voluntary obedience, into labor organizing. Therefore, I conclude: anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists, unite!

Works Cited

Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” Transformations of Populism in Europe, the United States and Latin America: History, Theories and Recent Tendencies. Ed. John Abromeit. Unpublished manuscript. 367-413.

Alterman, Eric 2021. “Altercation: Authoritarians Amok.” The American Prospect. Available online: Accessed 25 September 2021.

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

Beiner, Ronald 2021. “Dangerous Minds in Dangerous Times.” Thesis Eleven, vol. 163, no. 1. 29-42. doi:10.1177/07255136211005989.

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.

Gandesha, Samir 2019. “The “Authoritarian Personality” Reconsidered: the Phantom of ‘Left Fascism.’” American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 79(4): 601-624. doi: 10.1057/s11231-019-09227-w. PMID: 31745203.

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

Marcuse, Herbert 1999. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

— 2008. A Study on Authority. Trans. Joris de Bres. London: Verso.

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

Neumann, Franz 1942. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. London: Victor Gollancz.

Plechanoff, George 2014. Anarchism and Socialism. Trans. Eleanor Marx. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Rancière, Jacques 2017. Althusser’s Lesson. Trans. Emiliano Battista. London: Bloomsbury.

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1983. Cahiers pour une morale. Paris: Gallimard.

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

1Marcuse comments: “Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right as a defense of the state against this pseudo-democratic ideology, in which he saw a more serious threat to freedom than in the continued rule of the vested authorities” (1999: 180).

Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Ecology and Revolution.” My co-panelists were Thais Gobo, Sergio Bedoya Cortés, and Dan Fischer.

“’Is the world at its end?’

[…] ‘There is no end.’” (Le Guin 281)

In the realm of speculative fiction, the late historian Richard Stites identified three emergent themes in art from the early Soviet period: namely, portrayals of capitalist hells (or dystopias), alternative and anti-modern utopias, and communist heavens (Stites).1 In the century since the Russian Revolution, utopian and dystopian anti-capitalist themes have resonated in science fiction, including literature, films, and games. For instance, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) inspired George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), while the visionary anarcha-feminist Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) pays tribute not only to Zamyatin but also to their common predecessors: namely, the anarchist novelist Lev Tolstoy, and the anarcho-communist theorist Peter Kropotkin. A generation before the Russian Revolution overthrew Tsarism and landlordism, the British poet William Morris had written News from Nowhere (1890) as an imaginative journey to a liberated England of the future, organized along free-communist and ecological lines.

In this sense, Le Guin’s award-winning2 novel Always Coming Home combines elements of heavenly communism with anti-modern and alternative utopianism to seek out a “good place” for humanity, even within the precarious context of a future climate-devastated Earth (Le Guin 19). In the words of John P. Clark, this book “is a critique of ‘living outside the World.’ And it is a critique aimed at us” (Clark). In this presentation, I will elucidate Le Guin’s reconstructive vision, which heralds our potential for harmony and “liv[ing] inside the world,” while also contemplating her portrayal of the grim realities of socio-political oppression and ecological crisis (156). I will then compare Le Guin’s views on technology, gender, and authoritarianism with the critical perspectives of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, before concluding.

Always Coming Home

Rendering homage to her parents, the ethnologists Alfred Louis and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin (1929-2018) uses anthropological approaches to narrate this exploration of ‘future history.’ As an interdisciplinary work, Always Coming Home combines speculative ethnology with poetry, parables, music, spiritual journeys, and emblematic memoirs to (re)construct the world of so-called Kesh culture. In “the Valley” of California in the deep future, the Kesh have set up an egalitarian society based on anarcha-feminist principles of care, free love, and the gift economy.3 Among the Kesh, hierarchies between mental and manual labor are relics of the past. Valley people practice both hunting and gathering as well as communal horticulture, insofar as the two-season climate (wet-dry) allows. The lands surrounding each Kesh settlement are divided into “hunting” and “planting” sides. Although five Houses exist in the Valley, they are “not arranged in any hierarchy of power, value, etc., nor [i]s there rivalry among them for status.” On the one hand, to be “rich” in Kesh society means to be generous; on the other, Kesh culture associates violence with masculinity (Le Guin 44, 70-1, 83, 93, 128n123, 158, 175), such that, in this work, “[t]he patriarchal […] is identified with the imperialistic” (Jameson 67).

The Kesh practice matrilineal exogamy: in other words, men go live with their wives’ families after marriage, and partners bond across communities (8-9, 44). They are also sex-positive: men proposition women erotically from positions of supplication, not domination, as adolescent boys engage in gay banter, and LGBT couples freely cohabitate (219, 366). The Kesh “dance the Moon” every year, when all marriages and partnerships are temporarily dissolved, and men and women ritualistically join together for nights of lunar-inspired group sex. Comprised of groups of towns within the wilderness rather than cities dominating the countryside, Kesh settlements are organized around the heyimas, a sacred space dedicated to learning, book-making, and the creation of art (Le Guin 242-50, 274, 298, 314-6).

Through the practice of “heyiya,” or the recognition of the sacred and boundless interconnectedness of humanity, flora, and fauna,Valley peoples practice a religion lacking gods. As such, their belief-system recalls Daoism, Buddhism, Hermann Cohen’s vision of a “religion of reason,” and the Lakota philosophy of mitakuye oyasin (or the interrelatedness of all life). It hearkens back to the Neolithic, when it is believed that there was “no separation between the secular and the sacred” (Eisler 23). Moreover, Le Guin’s concept of heyiya resembles the traditional Chinese idea of qi, or “life-force,”and the Freudian libido. The interconnected spirals of the heyiya-if, known as “the visual form of an idea which pervaded the thought and culture of the Valley,” strongly resemble the Daoist taijitu, with the latter’s dualities of light and dark (Le Guin 45).

Through heyiya, the Kesh do not repress contemplation of mortality, but rather, integrate reflection on death into song, dance, and poetry. Like Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, they acknowledge that existence is pervaded by pain and suffering. Valley people recognize rather than deny humans’ animality, and seek to emulate the mutual aid practiced by our cousins, who “live softly” and peacefully, and “don’t make it hard to live.” Though they utilize animal products, the Kesh refer to non-human animals as people, as in the Russian животные (“living beings”) (Le Guin 83-94, 112, 114, 160, 366-7).

In ecological terms, this future-world is marked by capital’s desolation of the global climate. Implicitly speaking to the threat of sea-level rise posed by the melting of the world’s glaciers and polar ice caps, Grey Bull recalls a journey by sailboat to what must previously have been the San Francisco Bay Area, whose houses, buildings, streets, and roads now lie at “the bottom of the sea” (Le Guin 138).

“Under the mud in the dark of the sea there

books are, bones are […].

There are too many souls there” (Le Guin 390).

Speculatively, there may be an intertextual connection between this estranging journey into the effects of global warming portrayed by Le Guin, and the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), which features a future wherein the polar icecaps have melted, with New York—like other low-lying cities—irreversibly inundated. Steven Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence (2001) is similarly set in a flooded Earth of the future. Likewise, at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes (1968), audiences learn that this dystopian world is in fact our own, deep in the future, after human society has collapsed. By contrast, in Always Coming Home—despite the ecological constraints imposed not only by catastrophic global warming, but also by chemical and radioactive pollution of the environment—Le Guin’s sympathetic portrayal of Kesh society arguably constitutes an (an)archaeology of the future: a vision, in other words, of “what [we] can become” (Le Guin 136-41, 159; Eisler 5). With the help of an information “Exchange,” the Kesh use soft technologies, including cybernetics, railways, and solar energy, to decentralize production and decision-making—thus integrating the past visions of Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Lev Tolstoy, Murray Bookchin, and Marshall Sahlins, among others (Le Guin 379-80).

Valley vs. Condor: Kesh vs. Dayao

Le Guin’s narrator and alter ego Stone Telling emblematically experiences “two radically different cultures” (Clark): namely, that of the “introverted but cooperative” Valley people (or Kesh), and that of the Condor people, otherwise known as the Dayao. The Condor are a nomadic group of marauders who practice militarism, ultra-misogyny, slavery, and cruelty toward animals (Le Guin 29). Being the daughter of a Valley woman known as Willow and the Condor commander Terter Abhao, Stone Telling finds herself between worlds. As an adolescent, she embarks on a dystopian spiritual journey of exile from the Valley north with Abhao, and suffers in the City of Condor for seven years.

Named by the Kesh for the gruesome carrion bird, the Condor are “Men of no House [or home],” who are “at war with every peoples of the lands […]” (Le Guin 16, 192, 379). Theirs is a dominator society, where “male dominance, male violence, and a generally hierarchic and authoritarian social structure [are] the norm” (Eisler 45). Farmers known as tyon serve the military bureaucracy, which in turn invests in “Great Weapons” with which to conquer, extract, and enslave. Stone Telling describes with dismay how Condor men brutalize non-human animals, and questions why they ever had tried to resurrect imperialism. For the author, hyper-masculinity, domination, and violence are all linked: “Everything among the Dayao had to have a chief […]. Everything they did was war.” In other words, they “stood in no relation to anything in the world” (Le Guin 38, 190, 199, 349, 380).

In this pyramidal society, “True Condors” can only be men, and literacy is violently restricted to the soldier caste. “Condor Women” occupy an intermediate position in the social hierarchy, while “all other women, foreigners, and animals” are viewed with contempt as “hontik,” or “half-animal[s].” The Dayao effectively practice purdah, or gender apartheid, as well as polygamy, and wives are expected “to have babies continuously.” Given the hegemonic view among the Dayao that women are viewed as men’s property, honor killings are normalized and even encouraged. This contrast starkly with Kesh grammar, thought, and social practice, which—like the Anarresti language in Le Guin’s other ‘ambiguous’ anarchist utopia, The Dispossessed (1974)—“makes no provision for a relation of ownership between human beings” (Le Guin 42n40, 193-9, 200, 340-8, 345-6).

Through their casteism, gross sexism, and ultra-violence, the Condor soldiers recall the ancient Greeks, Vikings, Mongols, conquistadores, and other slaveowners of yore, plus the Hindutva and Taliban of today—not to mention Frank Herbert’s fictional portrayal of House Harkonnen in Dune (1965). The reactionary modernism and technical reason they practice—evinced in their use of napalm, and in their reconstruction of battle tanks—bring to mind U.S. and Nazi imperialism.

Having realized the “wrong way” of life in the City of Condor, Stone Telling recruits her father into helping her leave with her infant daughter Ekwerkwe and servant Esiryu. Though Terter is killed for his insubordination, the female trio succeed in escaping. Returning to the Valley not to intimidate or colonize, as Abhao—who “was in mind and heart no warrior at all”—had done under orders decades prior, Stone Telling renames herself “Woman Coming Home” (Le Guin 34-6, 353-8, 368). Ultimately, the author closes by denouncing “the manipulative world of domination we actually find ourselves in,” and affirming “the cooperative world of freedom we are capable of creating” (Clark).

Elements of Critical Theory in Always Coming Home

Le Guin was an anarcha-feminist who was well-versed in the writings of Bookchin, Kropotkin, and presumably also Tolstoy. I am unaware of her having read or directly engaged the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Nonetheless, they were contemporary radicals for many years, and many of the concerns raised in Always Coming Home closely parallel the critical analyses made by Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. Indeed, Le Guin all but cites Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955) when she concludes that “[w]hat we call strength [the Condor] calls sickness; what we call success it calls death” (Le Guin 380). Here, I will briefly examine three common themes found in Le Guin, Fromm, and Marcuse’s social theories: the dialectical analysis of technology, the avowal of feminist humanism, and the framing of psychosexual sadomasochism and political authoritarianism as dynamic systems.

Considering that the Kesh ‘economy’—such as it is—bases itself on hunting, gathering, and communal horticulture, and that the world depicted in Always Coming Home has been devastated by global warming and industrial pollution, some might take Le Guin to be a Luddite, and/or sympathetic to undialectical “anti-civ” discourses. Yet, neither such interpretation would be convincing. The author clearly favors literacy, learning, and life-long education for all, together with the egalitarian practice of medicine, and the use of “soft” technologies, such as gardening, sailboats, trains, and solar energy. In this sense, Le Guin takes a dialectical view of technology, whereby the so-called “Exchange” can help the Kesh designs tools with which to build an anarchist society, but it can also facilitate the Dayao’s militarist and genocidal expansionism.4 In turn, as we know, Marcuse and Fromm saw modern technology as a double-edged sword that could radically reduce the need for alienated labor and provide enough for all while also greasing the wheels toward fascist authoritarianism and collective self-destruction through war and ecological collapse.

Beyond this, Le Guin’s anarcha-feminist vision overlaps with aspects of Marcuse’s socialist feminism and Fromm’s psychosocial interest in matriarchies. Dialectically, the psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow critiques Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) as advancing an “anti-masculinist stance,” while also “manifest[ing] a near-complete invisibility […] of women as subjects” (Chodorow 140). Although it is true that Marcuse took several decades to advance a specifically feminist critique, in his last decade of life, he strongly endorsed the feminist movement for the potential he saw in it to transform society in a non-repressive way. In “Marxism and Feminism,” Marcuse hails the women’s rights movement, envisions a “feminist socialist” future, and endorses the androgynous ideal (Marcuse 165-172). Likewise, Fromm studied the findings of anthropologists like Robert Briffault to contest the orthodox-Freudian idea that the Oedipus complex is universal. Taking into account matriarchal and matrilineal societies of the past, such as Minoan Crete and Çatal-Hüyük, Fromm proposed that all love and altruism derives from the relationship between mother and child. Like Le Guin, he found in matrilineal societies a life-affirming alternative to Puritan and capitalist oppression (Jay 94-6).

Lastly, Le Guin closely echoes Fromm’s humanistic psychology in her examination of the psychodynamics of hierarchy: that is, of “the slave mind” (Le Guin 358). Particularly regarding gender, Le Guin illuminates domination as contingent: she shows that patriarchy and women’s self-derogation are upheld by attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that affirm male privilege and authority, and that, for the same reasons, such forms of oppression can be undone. For Le Guin, as for Fromm, defective social relations—including sexism, authoritarianism, and exploitation—persist because the less powerful party within such relationships—whether they be partners, workers, or slaves—resign themselves to such dehumanization. At the same time, as Hegel recognized in his dialectic of lordship and bondage, such relations of domination can be upset, if and when the subordinated party chooses to rebel. After all, mutual recognition is the humanistic alternative to involuntary sadomasochism (Chancer).

In Always Coming Home, we see how Terter Abhao professes his thoughtless faith in hierarchy: “As I give orders, I obey orders. In this matter I have no choice.” Additionally, when Stone Telling is enthralled to Condor culture in exile, she considers Esiryu “my slave, whom I obeyed.” Yet, back in the Valley, expressing anarcha-feminist humanism, Stone Telling returns to reason. She proclaims that “[t]here is no way that men could make women into slaves and dependents if the women did not choose to be so” (Le Guin 39, 198, 355).


Ursula Le Guin’s ‘ambiguously’ utopian anarchist masterpiece, Always Coming Home, is not only a classic of visionary fiction, but also an allegorical exploration of how we might salvage the future, within the context of catastrophic global warming. Following Bookchin’s framework of social ecology, and echoing the foundational message of Critical Theory, Le Guin shows how social, political, and economic domination are irrevocably tied in with ecological destruction. Her anarcha-feminist critique is disturbing in its persistent relevance: like the shocking recent femicides of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, and of Gabby Petito in Wyoming, Le Guin’s book speaks to the centrality of “[m]ale violence against women […] in the fabric of our society,” and the need to “rip[ it] out” (Bate). Ultimately, against those who, with “their heads on wrong,” would perpetuate authoritarianism and self-destruction, Always Coming Home proposes that our best recourse is mutiny, rebellion, exile, and autonomy (Le Guin 159).

Works Cited

Bate, Marisa 2021. “Sarah Everard’s murderer has been sentenced. Now, Cressida Dick must go.” Open Democracy, 30 September. Available online: Accessed 3 October 2021.

Chancer, Lynn S. 2020. “Feminism, Humanism, and Erich Fromm.” Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future. Eds. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune. London: Bloomsbury. 96-107.

Chodorow, Nancy 1999. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Clark, John P. “On Living in the World: Always Coming Home Revisited.” Fifth Estate, forthcoming.

Eisler, Riane 1987. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: HarperCollins.

Enzinna, Wes 2017. “Bizarre and Wonderful.” London Review of Books, vol. 39, no. 9.

Jameson, Fredric 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso: London.

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 2004. “Marxism and Feminism.” The New Left and the 1960’s: Collected Papers, volume 3. Ed. Douglas Kellner. London: Routledge. 165-172.

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


1For example, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), Alexander V. Chayanov’s My Brother Alexei’s Journey into the Land of Peasant Utopia (1920), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Yakov Okunev’s Tomorrow (1924), Alexander Belyaev’s Battle in the Ether (1927), V. D. Nikolsky’s In A Thousand Years (1927), or A. R. Palei’s Gulfstream (1928).

2The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize (1985).

3Indeed, the portrayal of this “Valley” in California may be Le Guin’s tribute to the peaceful, stateless Valley community envisioned in the Daoist story, “Peach Blossom Spring,” written by Tao Qian in 421 C.E.

4Referencing her earlier work, The Dispossessed, Le Guin wrote to Bookchin, saying that she had based her novel in part on his idea of post-scarcity anarchism (Enzinna).

Panels on “Alternative Futures” at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference

September 27, 2021

On Saturday, October 9, 2021, I’ll be participating on three panels at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference. The theme this year is “Alternative Futures: Marcuse’s Dialectic of Technology.” While the conference will be held both virtually and in-person at the University of Arizona in Tempe, all panels will be accessible online via Zoom.

“Ecology and Revolution”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 8:00-9:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Thais Gobo

  • Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus
  • Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, capitalism and critique
  • Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work
  • Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

“The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the Twenty-First Century”: Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, 10:00-11:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Javier Sethness

  • Myself, “Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism
  • Bill Weinberg, “For Solidarity; Against Dictators and Campism
  • Anner G., “The Responsibility to Protect in Tigray”

“Marcusean Politics Today”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 3:00-4:50pm Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Andrew T. Lamas

  • Shon Meckfessel, “Anti-Humanism on the Left”
  • Rocío Lopez, “Fascism as Bourgeois Reaction”
  • Myself, “A Critical Theory of Authority”

We welcome discussion, and hope you can join us!

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.


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.

On Syria, Fascism, Authoritarianism, and Hong Kong: Upcoming Panels and Film Screening at the 2019 International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference and Left Coast Forum

September 17, 2019

Please find below an announcement of upcoming panels and a film screening I am helping to organize and will be participating in at the 2019 International Herbert Marcuse Society conference and the Left Coast Forum. Hope to see you at either conference, or both!

At the eighth biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society conference, “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right,” to be held at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB):

Syria, the Eros Effect, and Pseudo-Anti-Imperialism (Saturday, October 12, 2019, 8:30-10am)

Lara El Kateb​, “Local Councils in Syria: Formations and Limitations”

Javier Sethness​, “Eros and Thanatos in the Syrian Revolution”

Rohini Hensman​, “Syria: Freedom and solidarity versus pseudo-anti-imperialism”

Terry Burke​, “Syria Disinformation Targeting the Left”

Wagner, Bakunin, and Antisemitic Propaganda: Then and Now (Saturday, October 12, 2019, 2:45-4:15pm)

María Castro​, “Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and Anti-Capitalism in Wagner’s ​Ring”

Javier Sethness​, “Wagner and Bakunin’s ‘Dangerous Minds’ Amid Fascist Resurgence Today”

Bill Weinberg​, “Ilhan Omar, Antisemitism and Propaganda”

Also, at the third annual Left Coast Forum, to be held at Occidental College in Los Angeles:

Sunday, 13 October 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12p.m. Film screening of No. 1 Chung Ying Street (2018).

This film compares the 1967 Hong Kong Leftist Riot with the ongoing the Mainland China-Hong Kong conflict. Discussion to follow with the director (to be confirmed)

And on Sunday, 13 October 2019, 1-2:15 p.m. Today’s Challenges for the Left: Stopping Fascism Globally and Standing against Authoritarian Regimes – Rocio Lopez and myself

Call for Papers – 8th Biennial Conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society: “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right”

April 15, 2019

Please see the following call for papers, panels, and presentations at the 8th biennial Herbert Marcuse International Society conference, entitled “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right,” to be hosted from October 10-13, 2019, at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I’ve presented at three of these conferences and can highly recommend them. The deadline for proposals is May 1st. Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be sent to by that date. Panel proposals and student abstracts are welcomed and encouraged.

A populism of the radical right is on the rise across the globe. What are the counter-strategies of the left? What role does critical theory play in the current context? Embedded in the critical theory of Herbert Marcuse is the promise that reason, with a proper critical orientation, can provide an emancipatory alternative to the deforming oppressions of a given order. But critical reason is occluded in a one-dimensional society, resulting in a society without meaningful alternatives.

Marcuse reminds us that a one-dimensional society with a “smooth, democratic unfreedom” is a society in which there is no fundamental opposition, or where opposition is absorbed and reified into the logic of the system itself. From openly nationalist/fascist/racist parties gaining power in governments across the globe, to institutions manipulated by elites to widen inequalities of wealth and power, to ecological degradation and climate change, to debt traps as a result of uneven development, to mass incarceration and refugee detention policies, freedom becomes an increasingly abstract illusion under the guise of the “normally” functioning global economic system.

We seek papers that address the concerns, challenges, commonalities, and spaces for opposition in the current political context of one-dimensional neoliberal authoritarianism, as well as papers that engage the continued relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s analyses/theoretical insights to critical theory. This includes, but is not limited to addressing questions such as:

  • What is Marcuse”s influence today toward a Critical Theory from the Americas? How might we draw on his theoretical perspectives to interpret structural violence, as well as relations among race, class, and gender and the rise of right-wing populism on both American continents?
  • As the crises and contradictions of neoliberalism expand, how does a Marcusean analysis sharpen the criticism or explain the rise of the radical right? What networks and/or apparatuses are sustaining authoritarianism(s)?
  • Since one-dimensional societies absorb oppositional movements, what steps can we take to move towards a more multi-dimensional consciousness? In what ways are the Black radical tradition, youth, LGBTQ, labor, workers, and indigenous peoples at the forefront of fundamental resistance?
  • What are the pathways for revolutionary and systemic change? What are the dialectics of resistance today?
  • What role can or should forms of education, including higher education, play as and in forms of resistance?
  • Can violence play a role as a means of support and resistance? For precipitating system change?
  • How might we theorize an alternative to the “democratic” unfreedom of today that engages human rights?
  • What are the implications for radical class or group consciousness in a time of rising right-wing populism? What role might it play? Is there potential for a populism of/on the left?
  • How might Marcuse”s vision of radical socialism, a new social order committed to economic, racial and gender equality, sexual liberation, liberation of labor, preservation and restoration of nature, leisure, abundance and peace, inspire organizing today? What is the role of Marcusean aesthetic theory/praxis today?
  • How do the culture industry and digital culture create new forms of propaganda and/or sites of resistance?
  • What is the relationship between movements or organizing ideas such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MariellePresente, #MeToo, #EnoughisEnough, #EleNão and Refugees Welcome, and the “new left”?
  • As basic liberal-democratic values and institutions break down or suffer crises of legitimacy, in what ways does a Marcusean critical theory reveal alternatives to the xenophobic nationalism of the radical right?

John le Carré: A Radical Spy Novelist Playing with the System

March 2, 2019

“I am not a nihilist. I am a humanist. If it is given to us to play a part for the future, we must play it.” – Katya Orlova, The Russia House (1989)

Spanning five decades, from the Cold War to the present, John le Carré’s best-selling collection of spy novels are well-known for the way they immerse the reader in the world of international relations, espionage, and statecraft. The author’s aptitude for transporting his audiences in this way stems at least partly from the six years he worked in British Intelligence, both MI5 and MI6 (1958-1964). Yet, while le Carré—or David Cornwell, to use his given name—was a spy and focuses his literary output mostly on spying and the State intrigue, he shows himself in his fictional writings to also be highly critical of the hegemony of State and capitalism.

In a dialectical sense, le Carré “plays” with his novels to similarly “play” the system: while, at first glance, readers of le Carré are suffused with the ruthless worlds of statist power plays, militarism, and realpolitik, soon they are confronted with grand indictments of the domination of capitalism, imperialism, and the State over humanity. The novelist’s political perspective is generally anti-authoritarian, rationalist, and humanist—like that of Katya Orlova from The Russia House, who is an enthusiast of the anarchist Alexander Herzen, the “father of Russian socialism” and Populism—and it was opposed to both sides of the Cold War during its existence, just as the author has been critical of the persistence of capitalist hegemony that has followed during the past two-plus decades. In a sense, le Carré’s writings may be considered a sort of Trojan Horse within the capitalist citadel, but we can’t be sure exactly how much his subversive attitudes concretely influence or have influenced ongoing or future revolt against the system.

From Call for the Dead (1961) to The Mission Song (2006), le Carré weaves stories and conflicts that lay bare the dehumanization, instrumentalization, and super-exploitation underpinning capitalist society—accomplishing this precisely through gaming the system, by setting such critique within mass-, seemingly mainstream media. Absolute Friends (2003), a novel about two revolutionary anarchists, British and German, may come closest to le Carré’s own views—or if not, we can at least say that he is very sympathetic to such ideas.

To investigate how le Carré presents his social critique in discreet and then increasingly fervent fashion over the course of his career, this essay summarizes the pertinent details of the plots of 11 of the author’s novels, and then passes to a discussion and conclusion about the militant perspectives found therein, being like collectivities of free radicals joyously roaming to destabilize unjust structures.

Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The story of Call for the Dead (1961) revolves around one Samuel Fennan, a former Marxist and Communist Party member working in the British Foreign Office (FO), who unexpectedly dies in his home by gunshot, presumably due to suicide. Yet le Carré’s hero George Smiley, an MI6 officer who had just met with Fennan hours before his death, probes more deeply into the case, only to discover that he was in fact murdered by Hans-Dieter Mundt, a hitman working under Dieter Frey. Dieter is an operative of the Abteilung—the East German Security Service1—and a former radical student of Smiley’s whose father had been killed by the Nazis and who himself concretely resisted Fascism by bursting into the British consulate in Dresden during World War II, demanding that the Allies do more to protect the Jews. The cover-up of Samuel’s murder is assisted by his wife Elsa, who herself is Jewish.

Dieter orders Fennan’s murder out of suspicion that he had become Smiley’s agent after seeing the two together, afraid that the Abteilung’s operation in Britain had been compromised. While Fennan had been sharing intelligence with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a continuation of sorts of his former Marxism and anti-fascism, Smiley discovers that he had to some degree cooled in his fervor for sharing information in the months leading up to his death, possibly reflecting disillusionment with the USSR after its suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This finding leads Smiley to realize that it was really Elsa who was spying for East Germany, and that Samuel had initiated contact with him precisely to raise the point. Although her performance sustaining the lie that Fennan had indeed killed himself does not in the end save her from being sacrificed by Dieter as he tries to escape a trap set by Smiley—one that ends with the East German agent dying at Smiley’s hands, drowned in London’s Thames River—the British spy concludes that her support for the GDR could not be divorced from her desire for world peace as well as her immediate horror at a resurgent, militaristic West Germany. Dieter and Mundt, on the other hand, come in for criticism for their established Lenino-Stalinist tendency to violate the means toward the end of realizing socialism, as seen in their disregard for the lives of Samuel and Elsa Fennan, among others.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) continues depicting the struggle between MI6 and the Abteilung. It opens with the British protagonist, Alec Leamas, head of MI6 in Berlin, watching as an East German agent of his is shot dead while trying to escape the Eastern Sector. This is the fourth agent of Leamas’ murdered in succession by the GDR—precisely on the orders of Mundt, the new head of the Abteilung’s Counter-Espionage division, following his return after having escaped Britain. These killings lead Leamas to be declared useless to British Intelligence, and he falls into a downward spiral of alcoholism and illness. Yet this disregard for self is to some degree feigned, a ploy to attract the attention of the Abteilung within the larger goal of vengeance and the destruction of Mundt. In their conversation discussing this mission, Leamas and Control—MI6 chief—acknowledge the similarity in methods used by the Soviet and Western powers. Referring to Mundt, Control observes:

“‘He is a very distasteful man. Ex-Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war.’

“’Like us,’ Leamas observed drily.”

After formally leaving MI6, Leamas briefly works at a library in London, there to meet the Communist Elizabeth Gold. The two become lovers. Yet Leamas cuts the relationship off to proceed with his mission, which sees him imprisoned for three months for having assaulted a grocer who denied him credit—with all of this being part of his cover. Just after his release, Leamas is recruited by the East Germans, who take him to the Netherlands and then to the GDR to be “debriefed” regarding the secrets he knows. After passing into the GDR, Leamas is interrogated by Fiedler, a prominent German-Jewish member of the Abteilung and the son of Marxist refugees from WWII, who explains to him the Stalinist view that human life is but a means toward the end of the construction of Party Socialism, thus delineating his theoretical differences with Christianity, which the Western authorities putatively follow but in reality utterly ignore.2 Leamas reveals to Fiedler that the latter’s superior, Mundt, is in fact a British agent, and that he was allowed to leave Britain following the various murders he committed after coming to an agreement with MI6, which has been sending him vast quantities of money in exchange for information from the East German State. Mundt becomes aware of this plot to oust him, and orders the arrest of both Leamas and Fiedler—with the latter receiving “special treatment” by Mundt the former Nazi for being Jewish—but not before Fiedler had applied to the State for a warrant to arrest Mundt as an imperialist agent.

Thereafter follows a dramatic tribunal at which Fiedler argues his case, detailing the ease with which Mundt turned to murder “in the name of the people to protect his fascist treachery and advanc[e] his own career,” whereas the defense accuses Fiedler in turn of collaborating with imperialism to undermine GDR security, claiming the prosecution’s evidence to be merely circumstantial. The counter-coup is completed, nonetheless, when Mundt’s counsel calls Liz Gold as a witness—Gold having been mysteriously and suddenly “invited” as a member of the British Communist Party to visit the GDR—to have her reveal how George Smiley in fact had supported her financially following Leamas’ disappearance. Smiley, it would seem, did so specifically to discredit the accusations against Mundt and so allow for the elimination of his subordinate Fiedler, who had been suspecting the British mole for some time. As the tables are turned and Fiedler comes to be the one to be immediately executed, MI6’s “filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin” is revealed. The saved Mundt then provides Leamas and Gold with the means to escape to the West. During this journey, Gold becomes le Carré’s voice, which critiques the authoritarian instrumentalization of life carried on by East and West alike: the supposed opposites are seen to converge in their grossly inhuman behavior, discarding Fiedler to uphold an ex-Nazi double agent. Ultimately, as Leamas and Gold arrive at the Berlin Wall and attempt to scale it, they are shot dead by GDR sentries.

The Karla Trilogy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) concerns the fall of Control and dismissal of Smiley following a botched mission in Czechoslovakia, the ascendancy to top MI6 positions of four officers suspected of being double-agents, and Smiley’s counter-mobilization to investigate and defeat these moles. The text introduces Karla, the Soviet intelligence chief, who is shown to have penetrated MI6 through the recruitment of Bill Haydon, head of London Station. Smiley continues to face off against his Soviet counterpart in the next two volumes of the so-called Karla trilogy.

In The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), le Carré portrays a shaken British Intelligence being resurrected by Smiley, as he focuses on the new MI6 chief’s machinations to avenge the “fall” engineered by Karla through his compromise of Haydon. In his study of Haydon’s treason, Smiley discovers a “gold seam” of half a million dollars run by Karla to a bank in Vientiane, Laos. The journalist Jerry Westerby, an aristocrat by origin and a Southeast Asia correspondent, is dispatched to begin investigating in British-occupied Hong Kong. There, amidst the raging U.S. war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Westerby discovers that the gold seam is being directed to Drake Ko, a prominent exiled Chinese capitalist and former Kuomintang (KMT) conscript, whose brother Nelson, having fought the KMT as a Communist in Shanghai and thereafter studied shipbuilding in the USSR, is a high-ranking insider within the Chinese Defense Ministry and an agent of Karla’s (that is, Soviet intelligence). The gold seam sent to Drake, then, represents the sum to be paid to Nelson if he can manage to escape China. Continuing his investigation, Westerby travels to a Phnom Penh besieged by the Khmer Rouge to learn that Drake had commissioned a Mexican pilot, Ricardo—himself a collaborator with the U.S. military in its wars on the region—to run opium into Red China in exchange for extracting his brother. Though this plan didn’t come to fruition, Westerby suggests to Ricardo that MI6 will use this information to blackmail Drake—and shortly thereafter his fellow journalist Luke is assassinated, having been mistaken for Westerby.

At the same time, MI6 and its CIA “Cousins” learn that Drake is imminently orchestrating a new operation to extract his brother, this time by sea. The Western spy agencies’ plans to instead capture Nelson for exploitative purposes, taken together with Luke’s murder, lead Westerby to rebel and warn Drake as Nelson’s fleet of fishing junks approach the rendezvous point on Po Toi Island, south of Hong Kong. Yet this intervention proves useless, for MI6 and the CIA launch a joint strike involving helicopters to interdict Nelson and kill Westerby just as the former’s sampans reach shore—with the hope of reuniting the brothers thus crushed. Once the honorable schoolboy is eliminated, the CIA proceeds to transfer Nelson to the U.S. for thorough interrogation, and the MI6 chief is awarded retirement for having secured a major agent of Karla’s.

Smiley’s People (1979) brings the titular character out of retirement following the murder in London of General Vladimir, a former Soviet general who had been Smiley’s agent. Vladimir, the Estonian believer in communism, is killed on Karla’s orders after having been written by the Soviet émigré Maria Andreyevna Ostrokova regarding contact she had had with a Soviet agent who suggested that she could soon be reunited with her daughter Alexandra if she would only apply for French citizenship on her behalf. Yet as Smiley discovers through his probe into Vladimir’s murder, this entreaty was made as an unprofessional attempt by Karla himself to secure treatment in Switzerland for his mentally ill daughter Tatiana, alias Alexandra, who was diagnosed politically in the USSR with schizophrenia. In parallel, Tatiana’s own mother and Karla’s mistress had been purged for holding that “history had taken the wrong course” in the Soviet Union, and for not being “obedient to history.” It was presumably to avoid a similar fate for his daughter as a psychical non-conformist that led Karla to smuggle her to a hospital abroad.

As Soviet agents relentlessly pursue Maria Ostrokova to silence her once and for all and so complete the cover-up of General Vladimir’s murder, Smiley mobilizes to counter Karla, ultimately presenting him with an ultimatum whereby he could defect to the West and save his daughter’s life or remain in the Soviet Union as MI6 released this information to the Soviet authorities, inexorably leading to Karla’s destruction and presumably Tatiana’s as well. How ironic that the top Soviet spy master would be compromised through love for his daughter! Smiley and le Carré alike recognize this gambit as representing the utter ruthlessness by which is secured relative superiority and hegemony in the Cold War in particular and international relations generally. This is commentary that clearly critiques the infamous “prisoners’ dilemma” of game theory, which has been used by the ‘experts in legitimation’ to excuse militarism and oppression.

The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) depicts a Mossad operation to use Charlie, a young radical British actress, to penetrate and disrupt a militant group called Palestine Agony, being comprised of two brothers, Salim and Khalil. The context is a series of deadly bombings against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe ordered by Khalil in reprisal for the ongoing Occupation of Palestine and the intensifying bombardment of the positions of exiled Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Salim and Khalil’s family themselves had been displaced first from Palestine to Jordan, then to Syria, and lastly Lebanon.

Following a new Mossad directive to diversify the identity of its operatives beyond being exclusively Jewish, the Israeli agent Joseph kidnaps Charlie on vacation in Mykonos and transports her to his handlers, Martin Kurtz and Litvak, who exploitatively subject her to interrogation, psychologically manipulating her—an anti-apartheid activist, pacifist, nuclear marcher, anti-vivisectionist, anti-fascist, and critic of Israel—into becoming the very opposite of who she believes herself to be. After having thus been broken, Charlie is guided through her transition by her captor Joseph, who takes the protagonist on a journey of discovery of Palestine, whereby he becomes Salim and she plays the part of his lover.

Though this education is imparted by an Israeli oppressor rather than a Palestinian survivor, le Carré makes clear that the entire colonialist project of Israeli State-building is built on the dispossession of the Palestinian population, and that with each act of counter-violence taken by Palestinian militants, the Israeli military takes the lives of dozens times more Palestinians. Yet her first mission as an Israeli-Palestinian double agent is to drive a car laden with explosives from Greece through Yugoslavia to Austria. This same car explodes after arriving to its destination, while Salim is driving it to Munich with an accomplice.

Fleeing to the UK after this naked assassination, which is entirely consistent with established Israeli policy,3 Charlie learns that she is under investigation by the Home Office for being an Israeli agent—only that, while her house is ransacked by the police, she is allowed to leave the place unharmed. She then activates emergency channels with Khalil’s group, and clandestinely she is sent to Beirut, where she experiences Israeli siege first-hand and commits herself to the Anti-Imperialist Revolution, having become enamored by the beauty of the Palestinians’ sumoud, or steadfastness. Among other things, Charlie’s Commander Tayeh teaches her to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—echoing Salim and Khalil’s view that anti-Semitism is a Christian invention (as well as Hamad Dabashi’s emphasis on the common Judeo-Islamic philosophical tradition).

After being recalled from Beirut, Charlie finally meets Khalil, who convinces her to accept a mission to assassinate the Jewish Professor Minkel, a public advocate of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories who does not agree with the Palestinian demand for a single, bi-national State. As he is a “moderate,” Minkel must be eliminated, according to Khalil, who believes in an extreme employment of counter-violence by Palestinians against both Israel and all Jews. Charlie ruthlessly delivers the suitcase-bomb to Minkel before he is scheduled to give a public address, presumably killing him and several others off-stage. Subsequently, Charlie presents Mossad with its coup, for she meets the delighted Khalil again and reveals his position, leading Joseph and company to burst in and kill him in cold blood. Charlie then returns to the UK, where the Mossad has once again made inquiries with the police to ensure that she need fear no prosecution, in addition to giving her access to the inheritance of a recently deceased friend, just as the Israeli war-machine assassinates Tayeh and invades Lebanona development that, as le Carré summarizes, “meant roughly that bulldozers were brought in to bury the bodies and complete what the tanks and artillery bombing raids had started.”

The book’s title is a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s depiction in Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) of Kattrina, one of Anna Fierling’s three children, all of whom perish over the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648): Kattrina most courageously by constantly drumming to inspire the peasants’ defense of the town of Halle from the Emperor’s troops, leading to her targeted assassination.

The Russia House

The Russia House (1989) tells the story of the publisher-spy B. Scott Blair, or Barley, and his intrigues in the USSR with Katya Orlova, a romantic revolutionary, and Yakov Savelyev, a dissident Soviet nuclear physicist known as “Goethe” to his friends. During the gradualist period of glasnost and perestroika overseen by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985, Savelyev/Goethe writes a manuscript detailing Soviet military secrets in order to precipitate the collapse of the arms race between the US/NATO and the USSR. Orlova acts as his go-between with Barley, specifying that the first-hand report Goethe has composed reveals Soviet research into the development of particularly atrocious weapons of mass destruction, makes public Soviet strategic nuclear-weapons policy, and explores various other vast ethical failures of the “Red Tsars” in the Cold War. Goethe, whose father was killed while participating in an uprising at the Vorkuta Gulag, is said to primarily be influenced by a certain nineteenth-century Russian known as Vladimir Pecherin, though this may well be a pseudonym for Mikhail Bakunin, for Pecherin “hates [his] native land and avidly await[s] its ruins,” and in the prospect of these “discern[s] the dawn of universal renaissance.”

In seeking to make public the nuclear secrets to which he has special access, Goethe aims at cutting short the Cold War, thus putting an end to the grave threat posed by nuclear weapons amidst highly militaristic competition between the superpowers.iv In this way, he expresses his belief in the revolutionary potential of science without borders—his “frantic dream of unleashing the forces of sanity.”

Barley, whose father was a Fabian socialist publisher who promoted Soviet literature, is a bit of a rogue himself. During his first meeting with Goethe, he tells his counterpart, presumably in good faith, that the Western States consciously accelerated the arms race to try to bankrupt the USSR, and that such imperial militarism in turn served as the pretext for the Soviets to continue “run[ning] a garrison state.” Barley scoffs at the hegemonic Western idea that the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) through nuclear annihilation had “kept the peace” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pointing to the wars on Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. He expresses clearly his belief that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that does away with militarism, imperialism, and the “elective dictatorship” of parliamentary capitalism. He thus finds a willing partner and co-conspirator in Orlova, as she wishes to “move together to destroy the destruction and castrate the monster we have created”—this, by facilitating the publication of Goethe’s manuscript. Indeed, when faced with Barley’s inquiries into Orlova’s national pride and love for her two children in light of her participation in this plot, the militant replies by saying that she and Goethe prefer the fall of the USSR to the destruction of the world, and that she must think of all the world’s children, not just her own, when considering her choices. Her courageous commitment is likely inspired to some degree by her uncle Matvey, a revolutionary follower of Lev Tolstoy.

The tragic hero Goethe is ultimately discovered by the Soviet authorities and summarily executed. Barley is similarly arrested and imprisoned as a political prisoner, but he escapes death and saves Katya and her family in exchange for divulging secrets of British intelligence to his tormentors.

Modern Trilogy

Le Carré’s Tailor of Panama (1996) is set in a Panama City marred by gross social inequality, with the “cocaine towers” of the financial district overlooking vast swathes of impoverished proletarian districts in this riverine environment. The action takes place after the U.S. invasion (1989-1990) to depose Manuel Noriega—a former CIA agent—in the run-up to the transfer of control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. military to local authorities that occurred in 1999.

Andy Osnard, a former MI6 agent assigned to the country by a revanchist conglomerate of private interests tasked with the mission of preventing the Canal from being sold off to any rivals of the West, coercively recruits Harry Pendel, a British expatriate tailor with a past history of imprisonment in the UK for insurance fraud, into being his source among the Panamanian elite he serves. Threatened by Osnard with having his criminal past revealed to his wife and children, Pendel learns from the Panamanian president of a Japanese plot to purchase the Canal and communicates this to his handler, setting in motion a joint mobilization by the British and U.S. military-security apparatuses to reinvade Panama and thus ensure continued neocolonial control.

Toward this end, Osnard exploits Pendel’s largely invented idea of a “Silent Opposition” to be led by personal friends who previously had organized against Noriega, including the tailor’s assistant Marta and his comrade Mickie. When Mickie in turn takes his life out of fear of returning to political imprisonment after the authorities, having become aware of the propagation of Pendel’s fantasies, increasingly harass him, the U.S. and British use the pretext of his execution for renewed military intervention. Osnard then appropriates for himself the $15 million destined emergently by the U.S. and Britain governments for the operations of the spectral oppositional group, fleeing in a private jet to Switzerland as U.S. attack helicopters initiate their assault on Panama City.

The Constant Gardener (2001) revolves around the partnership of Tessa Abbott, a British radical, and Justin Quayle, a British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The book opens with the announcement that Tessa has been found murdered with her medical colleague, Dr. Bloom, near Lake Turkana. Justin investigates the killings, ultimately discovering that the victims had co-authored a report exposing medical experimentation carried out by KDH, a Western pharmaceutical corporation, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and submitted it to the British government—only to meet precisely this fate as a consequence. Fatally, Justin learns that, while Dr. Bloom sought to publish the findings directly, Tessa had insisted that they go through official channels first, in deference to her husband’s example. She did not consider the possibility that the State might be captured by these same corporate interests.

Quayle determines that dozens of Kenyans had died in the trials for Dypraxa, a tuberculosis drug, and that KDH covered up this “side effect” to press forward with the medication’s development, thus avoiding the costs of redesign and further delay. After all, KDH expected a considerable futures market for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the twenty-first century. In the end, Quayle makes Tessa and Dr. Bloom’s findings known, exposing the scandal and State-corporate nexus, but meets the same fate they did on the very shores of Lake Turkana.

This work title alludes to Voltaire’s always-germane conclusion to Candide (1759), a parody of optimism à la Leibniz (and, by extension, contemporary conservatives and apologists): “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Sharing affinities with the previous two works, The Mission Song (2006) is centered around the plot of a shadowy international Syndicate nominally dedicated to providing agricultural equipment to African countries which conspires to finance an armed uprising in eastern Congo to plunder the region’s mineral resources: coltan, gold, and oil. Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, who is half-Congolese and a graduate of languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), interprets the planning meeting set up between the Syndicate and representatives of two militias and a trading family from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—Dieudonné, Franco, and Haj, respectively—on a remote island in the North Sea. Naturally, the ruling Rwandan invaders, who have gravely exploited the eastern Congo since overrunning it two decades ago, having fled the coming to a power of a Tutsi-led government that put an end to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Hutus of Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus, were excluded from this meeting.

The Syndicate proposes to the Congolese warlords staging an insurgency that would disrupt the existing “peace” in order to create a crisis that would result in the installation of the Mwangaza, an aging semi-messianic figure who promises to unite all of Kivu, or eastern Congo, against the Rwandan militias and armies as well as central control from the capital city, Kinshasa. The Mwangaza speaks about installing an interim government that would expel the Rwandans and take control of the airport, mines, and cities of Kivu, though it is clear that, above all, he desires political power, and is willing to endorse the Syndicate’s proposal to amply supply arms, ammunition, and mercenaries toward this end. Indeed, part of the contract negotiated during these talks stipulates that the Syndicate would be granted special investment access after the coup’s success in exchange for its contributions up front to bringing the war about, while the Kinshasa government is to be bought off using the revenue extracted from Kivu’s mines that was supposed to be set aside as “The People’s Portion.”

Salvo does not take this plan lightly, however. He discreetly manages to appropriate seven cassettes of recordings of the meeting and keeps his own notes upon return to London. Then, unsure of whom to turn to, he first approaches Lord Brinkley, a distinguished “friend of Africa” in the British Parliament, with the idea of bringing the plans to light so as to prevent their execution—only to find Brinkley conspiring to have Salvo’s evidence destroyed or secured so that the coup can proceed. After taking leave of Brinkley, though, Salvo and his partner Hannah, a Congolese nurse, approach the Mwangaza’s London-based aide, Baptiste, who completely denies the possibility of the Mwangaza participating in such a plot. Salvo then meets with Mr. Anderson, his contact at MI6 who first assigned him to the clandestine meeting as interpreter, to express his concerns, only to find Anderson reacting much the same way as Brinkley—even going so far as to rationalize the plundering of Africa’s mineral wealth as based on the prerogatives of supposedly more highly civilized European peoples.

Upon escaping from Anderson, Salvo resorts to contacting his ex-wife’s colleague in the press about running the story before the coup is staged, yet he finds that the two most important cassettes have been taken by Hannah to be recorded and sent to Haj to disrupt the plans once and for all. This courageous effort that finally breaks with Salvo’s “misguided loyalty” to the system indeed saves Kivu from a new war, as the mercenaries’ conspiracy is foiled, but it leads Hannah immediately to be deported to Congo, while Salvo is stripped of his British citizenship and placed in a migrant camp similarly to await deportation to central Africa.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends (2003) is likely le Carré’s most openly subversive and radical spy novel. In this work, le Carré depicts the life-long friendship of the British subject Ted Mundy and Sasha, a German anarchist. Mundy, the son of a Scottish military officer and Irish maid born in British-occupied India, begins his “radical reappraisal” of Britain and the Raj in childhood due to the horrors of Partition (1947) and his sense, as suggested later by his father, that the British authorities were largely responsible for these atrocities, and specifically the deaths of the entirety of the family members of his beloved Muslim nurse, Ayah. In adolescence, the protagonist further develops his critical perspective in concert with Dr. Mandelbaum, his radical German-language and cello tutor, who suggests that, “as long as [humanity] is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.” The development of Ted’s radical spirit continues precipitously at Oxford University, where he enrolls to deepen his knowledge of German and meets Ilse, his first partner and a militant anarchist. They participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the junta of Greek colonels, and then decide to go study together at the Free University of Berlin. The only problem is that Ilse reneges at the last moment, but not before referring Ted to Sasha, a well-known revolutionary in Berlin. As Mundy departs by train from Waterloo Station in London, the narrator regards him and asks:

“Is he an anarchist? It will depend. To be an anarchist one must have a glimmer of hope.”

Certainly, both Mundy’s anarchism and radical hope are considerably nourished upon making the acquaintance of Sasha in Berlin. Listening to Mundy’s answer to the question of what the meaning of revolution is at their first meeting, Sasha at once tells Mundy that “[a]ll authority is irrational” and inquires into his knowledge of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer’s writings. Their relationship of fraternal love is thus immediately forged, and they become roommates. Le Carré shows how Mundy’s participation in the radical youth movement in Berlin represents an epoch of self-realization for him, as he becomes “part of a brave new family determined to rebuild the world.” Such immersion leads Mundy to rejoice: “So many brothers and sisters everywhere! So many comrades who share the dream!” The author clearly acknowledges that this militant movement, impelled by the children of the Auschwitz generation, sought to purge from the world the “multiple diseases of fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colonization, imperialism, and pseudo-democracy.”

At the Free University, Sasha is depicted giving a speech at an action denouncing the Vietnam War, specifically demanding that the Nuremburg Tribunal be reconvened to prosecute the “fascist-imperialist American leadership […] on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.” Le Carré then shows the West German State brutally suppressing the demonstration, with Mundy valiantly rescuing Sasha from the riot police and becoming injured, hospitalized, and deported in the process.

After his formative time in Berlin, Mundy spends some years wandering: he briefly works at a journalist in the East Midlands, until he publishes an unauthorized exposé of labor conditions for Asian workers at a local cannery itself owned by the newspaper’s owner; he tries life as an artist in Taos, New Mexico; he gets married with Kate Andrews, a dedicated Labor Party member who wishes to rout the Trotskyists, Communists, and “closet anarchists” she sees as threatening the Party’s future, and fathers a son with her; and he himself secures employment with the British Council.

As part of this work, Mundy once again meets Sasha in East Germany, and the militant reveals to him intelligence vital to GDR security—a move that speaks to the anarchist’s integration into the State, yet also his continued dialectical commitment to destabilizing it. By sharing this information in turn with MI6 upon return to West Berlin, Mundy himself becomes an agent, and so begins a new phase in this “absolute friendship” whereby Mundy handles Sasha’s efforts to undermine what the latter considers to be the “Red Fascist” State. For Sasha, in so compromising the GDR and the USSR, it is not a matter of serving Western interests, but rather of fighting “tyranny wherever I have found it, with whatever weapons were available to me.”

The conclusion of Absolute Friends is contemporary, set in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mundy mobilizes against this mad plot, encouraging his son to organize protests at his university, but can find no concrete way for himself to do so until Sasha approaches him with a proposal to join a mysterious billionaire known as Mr. Dimitri from the New Planet Foundation in his ploy to supposedly create a global “Counter-University” and advance the revolutionary cause through the creation of “intellectual guerrillas” who will resist the “insane [capitalist] concept of limitless expansion on a limited planet, with permanent conflict as its desired outcome” (orig. emphasis). Yet Dimitri is not all he seems: following 9/11, the CIA claims, he increasingly comes to insist on an “alliance” between European anarchists and Islamist terrorists—given the view imputed to him that “[t]hese Al Qaeda boys have brought off just about everything Mikhail Bakunin ever dreamed of [sic]”—and he uses Mundy to rent out a school in Heidelberg at which the Brit used to teach for the first “demonstration project” for the Counter-University.

Though Mundy increasingly suspects Dimitri, Sasha faithfully does not doubt the sincerity of the project. Ultimately, one evening, as Mundy is preparing the shipments that he understands to be filled with books for the Counter-University’s Heidelberg campus, he realizes that he and Sasha have been set up: he discovers boxes of grenades, bomb-making devices, and so on. Just then, a massive police-military operation descends on the school, and the friends are killed off as putative terrorists who had been planning to attack the U.S. airbase at Heidelberg.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is revealed as enjoying Witness Protection in Montana for having warned the authorities about the radical friends’ non-existent terrorist plot, and the heist is shown as amounting to a “second burning of the Reichstag,” whereby an ex-CIA operative representing a coalition of oil barons, arms dealers, and security executives framed Mundy and Sasha as extremists who were preparing to bomb the air-force base precisely in order to silence the opposition from the German and French States to the U.S. drive to war on Iraq and thus expanded profits for such corporate sectors. Le Carré depicts the Heidelberg siege as blunting the Germans’ criticisms of Bush and company, whereas Russia is seen as capitalizing on the terrorized Zeitgeist to clamp down on protests and intensify its terrible war on Chechnya.

Conclusion: Let’s Start the Avalanche

We can see, then, that le Carré is a very serious and astute thinker and commentator about a number of pressing socio-economic, political, and ethical issues of recent history and our day. Yet it is evident that le Carré wields his critique of Statism, authoritarianism, and exploitation in an ironic fashion: generally speaking, it is not from an external standpoint, such as that of a protester or victim of militarism, that such critique issues in le Carré’s novels, but rather through the operation of the internal dynamics governing the system. Le Carré’s writings are therefore unexpected or “playful” in the sense that, unlike an external critique of the system raised for example by anarchists who want to take down that system, they typically begin from inside the system and move outward, developing into condemnations of the same. Clearly, le Carré’s spy writings are quite apart from those by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy, novelists who start from within the State-capitalist system and have no wish to critique or overthrow it. This is another reason why the author’s art-works are consciously ironic, for the genre of espionage generally connotes mainstream, statist perspectives, not critical ones.

While le Carré achieves his purposes of entertainment and enlightenment by “playing” in a certain way, the content of his art is clearly very serious. More often than not, the protagonists of his novels serve as martyrs who are sacrificed by the State or capital to ensure stability and expanded profitability in the Cold War and subsequent neoliberal period: there are Samuel and Elsa Fennan in Call for the Dead; Fiedler, Leamas, and Gold in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Jerry, Luke, and Nelson in The Honourable Schoolboy; Salim and Khalil in The Little Drummer Girl; Savelyev in The Russia House; Mickie in The Tailor Panama; Tessa, Dr. Bloom, and Justin in The Constant Gardener; Salvo and Hannah in The Mission Song; and Mundy and Sasha in Absolute Friends. Within his earlier Cold War-era novels, le Carré advances a critique of the bureaucratic “grey men” on both sides, showing the way forward as developing through the courageous and tragic resistance of people like Savelyev and Katya Orlova, who dream of a better world as they labor to undermine the system; a very similar analysis could be made of Absolute Friends. The question which Katya poses to Barley about his intentions to publish Savelyev’s manuscript underpin much of le Carré’s subversive commentary throughout his oeuvre:

“Ask them which is more dangerous to [humanity]: to conform like a slave or resist like a [person]?”

As part of this dynamic of submission versus resistance, le Carré clearly acknowledges the extensive participation of former Nazi officers in the Western intelligence and security services after World War II, and he communicates the hegemonic Western concept that, once Hitler had been defeated, the rest of the West could get back to the “real war” against the Soviet Union and the “Red Menace.” Indeed, Absolute Friends opens with Mundy announcing to his tour group that Britain and the U.S. initially did not oppose Hitler, and indeed saw in him an attack-dog to be unleashed on the Reds. Moreover, our author does not shy from illustrating mainstream British anti-Semitic and bourgeois prejudices or depicting an MI6 officer making a Nazi salute. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré adopts the view of the Palestinian resistance that the Zionist State is fascist and genocidal, and in The Honourable Schoolboy, he has Ricardo’s fellow pilot express the thanotic imperative that drives individual capitalists and the system as a whole:

“hear me? They kill me, they kill Ricardo, they kill you, they kill the whole damn human race!”

In sum, then, le Carré, through his critical plots and his alter egos (Smiley, Gold, Barley, Mundy), examines the violence of despotism, brilliantly revealing the depths of nihilism and destruction for which the ruling class is responsible. In his more contemporary works, our author forthrightly points to the capitalist super-exploitation of the non-Western world, as Western firms and powers mobilize to extract evermore resources through militarism and genocide. The results are plain for all to see, or they should be; keeping these in full view, le Carré denounces the system as a whole. In parallel, he identifies the State’s established tendency to crush the possibilities of liberation, as seen in The Russia House, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, and The Mission Song, and even the authorities’ willingness to exploit radicalism to promote reaction, as we see in The Little Drummer Girl.

Yet le Carré strongly endorses Barley’s view that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that abolishes militarism, imperialism, and capitalism. The author even depicts this type of non-cooperation in a number of his works, especially in his illustration of State officials who defect, rebel, or otherwise sabotage their work. Nonetheless, the critique he raises against the State for instrumentalizing human life applies also to movements resisting oppression: that the Israelis, British, Soviets, or Americans cannot cease violating the means toward the ends they seek does not justify those who oppose them doing the same, even if the revolutionary end is superior to the end of maintaining the status quo. The Little Drummer Girl’s plot makes this clear. Like Lev Tolstoy and Albert Camus, then, le Carré is concerned about the replication of nihilism and authoritarianism within resistance movements, and he advises us—quite rightly, I think—to do all we can to harmonize means and ends. Quite like Tolstoy, le Carré declares through Barley that “[w]e must cut down the grey men inside ourselves, we must burn our grey suits and set our good hearts free, which is the dream of every decent soul, and even—believe it or not—of certain grey men too.”

Works Cited

1 Compare the East German Abteilung with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi brownshirts, followers of the Strasser brothers, who were purged by the Waffen SS on Hitler’s orders. Is this etymological similitarity between the names of the respective State agencies just coincidental, or actually reflective of red-brown cross-over?

2 Compare Lev Trotsky’s declaration in Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky (1920), published in response to Kautsky’s criticisms of Bolshevik repressiveness and the brutality of the Russian Civil War: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’”

3 See Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007), especially ch. 9, “Targeted Assassinations: The Airborne Occupation.”

Book Review: Ronald Beiner’s Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right

July 27, 2018


First published on Marx and Philosophy, 27 July 2018

This volume presents compelling critiques of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger as far-right agitators who inspired (Nietzsche) or actively supported Nazism (Heidegger). Author Ronald Beiner connects Nietzsche’s affinities for feudalism with the philosopher’s critique of compassion, morality, and egalitarianism, and he shows how such despotism of thought was reproduced by the Nazi enthusiast Heidegger as well. Beiner details Heidegger’s disturbing commitment to Nazism not only under Hitler, whom he wholeheartedly welcomed in his infamous inaugural address as Rector of the University of Freiburg, “The Self-Assertion of the Germany University” (May 1933), but also within the post-war context and for decades thereafter. In light of the menace posed by the neo-Nazi alt-right, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, and Narendra Modi, Beiner is rightly worried that the philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger, as anti-liberal critics of modernity, are coming back in a rude way. However, it is doubtful whether the Rawlsian or Habermasian liberal alternative Beiner endorses is the correct treatment for this diagnosis, or rather part and parcel of the same disastrous problematic that is driving the consolidation of neo-fascist forces.

Besides the acute political-philosophical commentary to be found in Dangerous Minds, the author reflects movingly on the inevitable difficulties related to death within the context of Heidegger’s identification of the everyday suppression of the recognition of our individual and social finitude, or finiteness, as raised in Being and Time (1927).

In Dangerous Minds, Beiner discusses the influence Nietzsche has had on notorious contemporary ultra-rightists such as the U.S.-based white supremacist Richard Spencer and the Russian neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin, as well as the historical Italian fascist Julius Evola, who was an “explicit disciple of Nietzsche” (3). Like Evola, Spencer declares himself a Nietzschean, and Dugin swears by the iconoclast’s ominous statement that “man [sic] is something that should be overcome” (2, 12). These prominent figures of an increasingly powerful Fascist International find inspiration in Nietzsche’s aristocratic differentiation between the putatively “elect” and “unfit peoples” (4) as well as the philosopher’s anticipation of Nazism’s practice of große Politik (“great [or noble] politics”) in his militaristic critique of Otto von Bismarck from the right, as György Lukács points out in The Destruction of Reason (1952), and his “imperialistic critique of nationalism” (136n2). Today’s far-rightists also admire the Nazi Heidegger, who himself took a great deal from Nietzsche, particularly his critique of liberal modernity as nihilistic. To date, reports Beiner, Dugin has dedicated four volumes to discussing Heidegger, with “more to follow” (139n27).

Yet it has not just been the right which has found Nietzsche and Heidegger of use; in fact, Beiner endorses Geoff Waite’s view that Nietzsche also left his mark on the Frankfurt School critical theorists, Albert Camus, and post-structuralists like Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze, among others. Whereas one finds few positive references to Nietzsche in Herbert Marcuse’s oeuvre, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno admittedly incorporated a Nietzschean skepticism toward instrumental rationality, though they both, like the other Frankfurt School thinkers, held an overall more Hegelian view of rationality, viewing it as also having strong emancipatory potential. As for Camus, his position is ambiguous, given his view in The Rebel (1951) that, on the one hand, Nietzsche’s appropriation by the Nazis represented a great injustice to the philosopher, while also acknowledging that “Nietzscheism was nothing without world domination” and that, when “[p]laced in the crucible of Nietzschean philosophy, rebellion, in the intoxication of freedom, ends in biological or historical Caesarism” (Camus 1951, 75-80). For his part, Beiner illustrates the relevance of Foucault’s adoption of Nietzsche’s critique of truth as power, yielding “post-truth” and “fake news.” Notably, Foucault’s Nietzschean-Heideggerian preference for pre-modern alternatives to capitalist modernity may help to explain his uncritical support for the Khomeinist faction of the Iranian Revolution, whose seizure of power in 1979 effectively put an end to the revolutionary process, as Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (2005) detail.

Crucially, Beiner clarifies Nietzsche and Heidegger’s philosophical critiques of the modern world as being reactionary assaults on the egalitarian legacy of the French Revolution which quite openly sought to entrench imperialistic domination and re-establish feudalistic modes of social organization. Hence, Beiner argues, we should take Nietzsche seriously when he endorses the ideas of social castes and slavery (18, 144n35), just as we should take seriously Heidegger’s explicit admission in 1948 to his former student Marcuse of his uncritical view of Nazism, from which he had reportedly “expected […] a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms, and a deliverance of western Dasein [‘Being’] from the dangers of communism” (Marcuse 1998, 265-7). Such pseudo-radical posturing by a thinker who sides with the Nazi dictatorship is precisely what many far-rightists find so attractive in Heidegger: this dramatic perspective, shared by Nietzsche, Dugin, and also the Counter-Enlightenment traditionalist and irrationalist Joseph de Maistre, amounts to the paradoxical concept of ‘conservative revolution,’ whereby the socio-political goal becomes the overthrow of liberal society, the cancellation of the ideas of the French Revolution, and even the abolition of Christianity due to the egalitarianism of the doctrine of Jesus the Nazarene.

Indeed, Beiner argues that, for Nietzsche, “repudiation of Christianity constitutes the necessary condition of a return to an aristocracy-centered culture” (27 emphasis in original). Little surprise, then, that his The Anti-Christ (1895) has been adopted by contemporary white supremacists as a neo-pagan tract—and that his celebration of the idea of the Supermen (Übermenschen) who would overthrow egalitarianism necessarily presupposes “subhumans” (Untermenschen), as the Nazis rather catastrophically put in practice. Moreover, neo-Nazi movements have appreciated Nietzsche’s classification of Judaism and Christianity as ‘slave religions,’ a position that is inseparable from the philosopher’s analysis of compassion as reflecting resentment and weakness—a view which is arguably itself a reflection of rightist resentment. Nietzsche’s explicit affirmation of the “protracted despotic moralities,” which on his account predominated in premodern contexts, demonstrates the degree to which his philosophy is an inversion of that of Arthur Schopenhauer, who emphasizes compassion as being the basis of morality (32 emphasis in original; 161n72). Steeping himself in irrationalism, Nietzsche expressly saw his philosophy as a wholesale destruction—or, to use contemporary parlance, ‘owning’—of “the left,” understood as German Idealism, the principles of the French Revolution, Christianity, and even Platonic and Socratic rationalism.

In contrast to Nietzsche, who died in 1900 and did not necessarily frame his concept of the Superman in ethno-racial terms, Heidegger clearly was a völkisch fascist, an enthusiastic Nazi, and a rabid anti-Semite, as the recently published Black Notebooks (1931-1938) attest. This so-called ‘intellectual’ displayed a swastika at the well outside his cabin in the Black Forest until the war’s end in 1945 (114), and we have already seen his view from 1948 as expressed to Marcuse above. Beiner correctly notes that “[o]nly a real Nazi […] could have written such a letter” to Marcuse, a left-wing German Jew (120). Moreover, in his 1947 response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” contrasts the rationalism and humanism extending from Plato and Socrates to Johann Wolfang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller with the supposedly nationalistic attitude found in Friedrich Hölderin which emphasizes the overthrow of contemporary “uncanniness” (otherwise known as ‘homelessness’) and the goal of establishing a strong homeland, or Heimat. He clearly considers the latter approach more authentic, two years after the end of World War II, regardless of the genocidal implications of Nazism.

As Beiner writes, “[o]ne feels compelled to say that here is a man who experienced political events without really experiencing them” (101). Yet this is perhaps too kind an assessment, as Heidegger could not deny what Nazism had wrought on the world. Marcuse for one had brought it up to him in his 1946 meeting with Heidegger in the Black Forest, and then again during their subsequent correspondence. Still, as Beiner relates, never once did the author of Being and Time apologize for his collaboration with Hitler’s regime, let alone concede any wrongdoing. On the contrary, he would continue to publicly defend National Socialism until at least 1966. His friend Rudolf Bultmann reports that Heidegger utterly ignored his request that the philosopher write a confession, like Augustine of Hippo (119).

Beiner’s “call to arms” to liberals and leftists about Nietzsche and Heidegger’s very “dangerous minds” and the resurgence of ‘conservative revolutionary’ rightism is certainly an important and relevant study. The author is justified in finding it “bizarre” that the Nazi Heidegger became one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, and that several leftist intellectuals take after his thought and even describe themselves as Heideggerians (21). Nonetheless, in light of Heidegger’s fascism, Beiner has a point in arguing that left-Heideggerianism should “close up shop” (67). Considering in turn that Heidegger clarified how decisive Nietzsche’s influence was in his becoming a Nazi (111), ‘left-Nietzscheanism’ presumably should do the same. Hence, if Beiner were to be heeded, post-structuralism and postmodernism would likely have to be rethought and overhauled—as they arguably should be anyway, given the ties between these schools of thoughts and the ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger in the first place. In this sense, Beiner’s volume recalls Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (2009), and has a similar critical force.

One qualification to this conclusion relates to Beiner’s ideological support for liberal capitalism as an alternative to Nietzsche and Heidegger’s ultra-reactionary actionism. The author of Dangerous Minds at times equates liberalism with egalitarianism, when clearly—as Marxists, anarchists, and other socialists have long noted—liberalism has in fact greatly violated egalitarian principles in upholding capitalism and its inevitably associated racial, gender, and labor hierarchies. Indeed, one cannot overlook Marcuse’s point in “The Struggle against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State” (1934) that fascism grew out of liberal-bourgeois society itself; Lukács makes a similar point overall in The Destruction of Reason. The ongoing transnational resurgence of far-right authoritarianism shows this playing out in real time. Taking all of this into account, instead of the minimalist demands for social-democracy made by Rawls and Habermas and endorsed by Beiner, we should advance and support egalitarian and transformative anti-capitalist critique and social reorganization.

Works Cited

Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson Foucault and The Iranian Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Knopf, 1956).

Marcuse, Herbert. Technology, War, and Fascism: Collected Papers Volume 1, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 1998).

Wolin, Richard. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).