Posts Tagged ‘Hungarian Revolution’

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.”

Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

July 25, 2016

Mao Stalin 2

Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction (PM Press, 2016).

This work, the sixth volume in PM Press’ “Revolutionary Pocketbooks” series, provides a compelling review of the philosophy and historical practices of Maoism before, during, and after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Liu, an organizer with Take Back the Bronx in New York, shows Maoism to be essentially totalitarian—an “internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism.” In parallel to Loren Goldner’s argument in “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” (2012), Liu accuses Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of imposing state-capitalism onto the Chinese masses and, indeed, of preparing the way for the liberalizing reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death—this, precisely by means of the CCP’s repeated suppression of the revolutionary self-organization of peasants and workers, in keeping with the Lenino-Stalinist tradition. Though Liu focuses more on developments within China than international relations, any investigation of Mao’s foreign policies—supporting the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, opening negotiations with Nixon, being among the first countries to recognize Pinochet’s coup in Chile, backing UNITA over the MPLA in Angola—shows the clear error of holding Maoism to be a liberatory philosophy. In this text, Liu analyzes the Chinese Revolution using a libertarian-communist or anarchist perspective.

The origins of Maoism as an insurrectional-peasant ideology owe much to the power of the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern), which, in an effort to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, disastrously ordered the Chinese Communists to ally with the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927, Chiang murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes, leading Mao to undertake the Long March to Yanan and a reorientation toward the Chinese peasantry as a potential mass-base. Although the CCP vastly expanded its presence in rural China by mandating land reforms that largely deposed the landlord class, in turn swelling the ranks of the Red Army, Mao’s cadres in certain cases protected the property of gentry who supported the war against the occupying Japanese power, or who were allied to the KMT, as during the case of the United Front strategy again mandated by Moscow to oppose Japan. In playing this conservative role, the CCP foreshadowed the moment it would replace the bourgeois-feudalist ruling class by capturing the State in the Chinese Revolution (1949). Even at this point, the height of victory, Liu notes that the CCP was unwilling to countenance mass-land seizures by peasants or proletarian self-management in the cities.

Instead, Mao largely followed the Stalinist model of nationalization and expansion of heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture, as outlined and directed by the Party in Five-Year Plans designed in the interests of securing “primitive socialist [i.e., state-capitalist] accumulation,” as previously theorized by the Soviet economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky. In response to the widening class inequalities induced by such developments, Mao in 1956 called for “a hundred flowers to bloom” and manifest popular discontent—or “criticism”—but when “ultra-left” critiques surfaced and mass-strikes broke out in Shanghai, he dismissed such “deviations,” associating them with the “deceived” Hungarian revolutionaries put down by the USSR. The prominent student leader Lin Hsiling expressly identified the CCP as a bureaucracy ruling over the working classes without democracy, and she gained a following for this reason. In response, Mao commenced the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” to purge such critical-intellectual elements together with more conservative forces. Then, the Great Leap Forward (1956-1958), which was launched principally for the purpose of the accumulation of capital, burgeoned China’s industrial and agricultural output as the State extracted evermore from the peasants, tens of millions of whom succumbed to famine conditions.[1] As Liu writes, the hyper-exploitation of the country’s laboring classes implemented by Mao and the CCP caused not only state-capital but also corpses to accumulate. Hence, it is little surprise that, in assessing the revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev about Stalinist atrocities at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956) that would ultimately lead to the Sino-Soviet Split, Mao declared Stalin to have been “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”

Initiated by Mao to putatively oust bureaucratic rivals and stave off the threat of “capitalist restoration,” the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) brought about a similar dynamic to that induced by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, whereby the CCP summoned revolt from below, only to crush it once it came to threaten Party domination. Whereas the Red Guards called up to defend the Revolution engaged in varying critique of their “black” opponents—the progeny of the deposed feudal-bourgeois class—and CCP cadres proper, workers in Shanghai were inspired to dismiss the local Party leadership and found a “People’s Commune” altogether, leading to the January Revolution of 1967 that spread to several provinces. Though the Commune was defeated through the efforts of Mao and his loyalists, Liu identifies that these developments yielded a distinct “ultra-left” tendency advocating for proletarian organization outside the CCP, “a revolutionary split in the army, and a new revolution in China.” According to Liu, the most prominent crystallization of the ultra-left in the Cultural Revolution found expression in Shengwulian, or the Hunan Provisional Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose member Yang Xiguang wrote the highly influential Whither China?, advocating the establishment of a “People’s Commune of China” and recommending that the working classes organize autonomously against the “‘Red’ capitalist class.” Nevertheless, the CCP redeployed the forces of repression to break up Shengwulian in 1968 and thereafter utilized the State to maintain the domination of labor domestically and support enemies of the Soviet Union—UNITA in Angola, Pinochet in Chile—internationally, all the while moving to normalize relations with the US. Lastly, prior to Mao’s death in 1976, the Shanghai Textbook was published, containing a summary of the Communist leader’s views on the supposed transition to socialism—though in reality, as Liu observes, the text is more concerned with the “proper management of state capitalism.”

In essence, then, we see the arc of the CCP’s developments in history over time, from active collaboration with the bourgeois-nationalists of the KMT to the subsequent replacement of feudalist-capitalist relations of production with state-capitalist ones. While Mao and the CCP may have sought to avoid some of the excesses of Stalinism by introducing more participatory elements such as the mass-line, criticism, and self-criticism into the world of politics, in truth they worked systemically to coopt and repress any possibility of a more radical revolution that would institute self-management and autonomy among the Chinese workers and peasantry—in yet another parallel to the Bolsheviks, against whom arose the Third Revolution championed by insurrectional peasants and workers, from the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovshchina to other devastating rural rebellions, as developed in the Tambov region in response to famine caused by the Red State’s grain-requisition schemes. As Liu summarizes: “Mao subjectively aimed to prevent capitalist restoration [during the Cultural Revolution] but objectively strengthened its hold, preventing the emergence of any force capable of challenging it.” It is not an exaggeration, then, to assert that, just as Khrushchev continued to propagate Stalinist politics after having denounced his predecessor in the “Secret Speech,” Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms do not constitute a total contradiction to Mao’s established approach, either.

Philosophically, Maoism does not go far beyond Stalinist reductionism, as it cannot. On Liu’s account, Mao’s conception of dialectics rationalizes Party substitutionism in place of autonomous proletarian struggle, and claims that the class politics of a given State should be analyzed with reference to the ideology of its leadership, not the actual class makeup of said leadership. It is due to such facile reasoning that Mao’s CCP could so readily judge Khrushchev’s regime as “bourgeois,” as against Stalin’s supposed revolutionism previously. With the progression of the Chinese Revolution, the CCP came to increasingly slander—much like the Bolsheviks—all oppositional forces as reactionary-bourgeois, even and especially if movements like Shengwulian and the Shanghai Commune were far more revolutionary than it was. As Liu notes, the labels “revolutionary” and “reactionary” in Maoist China were usually decided with reference to one’s relationship to the Party, rather than to the actual nature of one’s politics. Finally, one could likely say that Maoist gender politics are preferable to feudalist-capitalist ones, but these cannot easily be separated from the overall imperatives of Maoist state-capitalism—such that autonomist feminism holds greater promise for collective liberation.

In light of these considerations, Liu’s conclusion is quite right: “[f]or revolutionaries who aim at a free anarchist and communist society, Maoism as a whole must be rejected.” As an alternative to Maoism and all other strains of authoritarian socialism which irremediably substitute Party and State in the place of radical proletarian self-activity, today’s revolutionaries should struggle for “forms of mass, federated, armed and directly democratic social organization” at the regional and global levels, working to “maintain and expand rebel territories that allow for revolutionary activity” as much as possible.

[1] See Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

Dialectical Communitarian Anarchism as the Negation of Domination: A Review of The Impossible Community

December 8, 2013

imposs community

John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

First published on Truthout on 30 November 2013 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

Professor John P. Clark’s The Impossible Community is a masterful work, one which seeks radically to invert the destruction of nature and oppression of humanity as prosecuted by capitalism, the State, and patriarchy by encouraging the intervention of a mass-confluence of anarcho-communist—or communitarian anarchist—socio-political movements. This project is only “impossible” because its realization is heterotopic—inherently contradictory—to the prevailing system of domination, such that it demands the very abolition of hegemony in favor of a different, liberated world: that of the “third great epoch of history,” in Clark’s vision, when “humanity finally frees itself and the earth from the yoke of dominion.” Taking equally from Buddhism as from dialectical philosophy, Clark stresses the importance of enlightenment, mindfulness, and awakening as preconditions of revolutionary political praxis, and though he implicitly seems to agree with the overall thesis of the (anti)catastrophist line developed by Sasha Lilley and company, he also affirms the productivity of a commitment to truth which squarely confronts the profoundly shocking, traumatic, and even convulsive nature of such truth: the very first page of his preface acknowledges the sixth mass extinction in which terrestrial life is at present entrapped and notes the “horror” of a capitalist world in which billions go without the basic necessities of a good life. Advancing the philosophy and practice of communitarian anarchism as an exit from the depraved present, Clark dedicates much of his text to examining the anti-authoritarian and cooperative spirit of humanity, as embodied in many of the customs of pre-modern or “traditional” societies, as in the history of Western revolutionary movements. In this sense, Clark does well to distance himself from the Eurocentrism advanced by many Western radical thinkers, including the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, whose imprint on The Impossible Community is otherwise nearly palpable.

Much of Clark’s introductory commentary focuses on the problem of individual and collective human enlightenment: the question is how to induce what Paulo Freire termed “conscientization” (conscientização), a catalyst for a societal awakening which would take into account normally overlooked social and ecological problems toward the end of engaging with and ultimately resolving them. How might a shattering intervention break the mass of humanity from much of its observed complacency and complicity with the capitalist everyday, which, “if we are to speak honestly, must be called a culture of extinction, a culture of extermination, and ecocidal culture”? In response, Clark presents a revival of classical anarchism, as developed in the thought of Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Gustav Landauer, and Murray Bookchin, and he works to integrate the perspectives of such theorists together with the life-affirming aspects of various traditional cultures of the world to advance his communitarian anarchist vision. Practically, Clark argues that the notion of communitarian anarchism (or anarcho-communism) should be understood as referring to activity which renders the life-world common, as against its largely privatized nature now. In Clark’s vision, a multitude of strong international communitarian anarchist movements would work together to overturn the historical trend toward popular disenfranchisement, as promulgated by the expanding hegemony of State and capital seen in modernity, in favor of decentralized participatory democracy. Philosophically resisting much of the dominant dogmatism, nihilism, cynicism, and relativism which he sees as evinced by many contemporary anarchists, Clark defends a dialectical theoretical vision, whereby the world comes to be seen as a “site of constant change and transformation that takes place through processes of mutual interaction, negation, and contradiction.” Clark declares that one of the main goals of his Impossible Community is “to be fully and consistently dialectical,” such that the given social reality comes under challenge and “new possibilities for radical social transformation” are opened up. I should note that it is within this vein strange that, next to declaring Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Sarvodaya (“common welfare”) movement the “largest anarchist-inspired movement to appear between the Spanish Revoluton and the present moment,” Clark favorably cites the “radical kibbutzim” of Palestine/Israel on two occasions in the first two chapters of the work without noting a word about the imperialist dispossession processes directed against indigenous Palestinians with which such kibbutzim were complicit. The recognition that the kibbutz might function as a “tool of colonialism and oppression” is made only in a footnote during its third and last mention in the book’s sixth chapter. One wonders how this lapse jibes with Clark’s stated desire to preserve the positive communalist customs of non-Western cultures and overcome the strong tendencies toward Eurocentrism within much of anarchist thought.

Within his discussion of the philosophy of communitarian anarchism, Clark notes the mainstream’s puzzling perpetuation of mechanisms of denial, even amidst the depths of the various interlinking crisis of corporate capital. Against such uninspiring trends, Clark argues for a “Phantom of Possibility,” one that presently haunts left-wing and ordinary consciousness alike: it is “the chance that revolutionary, liberatory social transformation is still possible.” Evaluating the prospect for the embodied realization of such rebellious specters, Clark here expresses pessimism for the “mass of humanity” which continues to fail to act autonomously and radically to resolve the threats which imperil its future existence, particularly through looming eco-apocalypse: in observing this alarming violation of collective human self-responsibility, Clark would seem to agree with Karl Marx, whom he cites as declaring that history “progresses by its bad side.” Gloomily, though perhaps rationally, the author declares a “spectrum of possible ecofascisms” to be the most likely future outgrowth of society’s present structure, though his focus clearly is on making visible the chance of a “turning”—as in the etymology of the word revolution, a “turning around.” Bracketing his recognition of the frightening power of reactionary grassroots movements in the U.S., Clark considers Occupy, cooperative labor, the possibility of economic decommodification, and the solidarity and marginalization of immigrant communities as important popular counter-trends which point the way forward. At both the individual and social levels, Clark calls for a total revolt of the organism, one reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s Great Refusal, whereby individuals associate and develop autonomous alternatives that promote an institutional framework, social ethos, and social imaginary different from those on offer from the dominant death-culture. Equating the ecological crisis with the “ultimate intrusion of the traumatic real” into human life—a veritable “death sentence for humanity and much of life” on Earth—Clark raises the question of why there still is nothing approximating an anarchist Masdar City, in reference to the project currently financed by the Emir of Abu Dhabi in conjunction with private capital to create a waste-free, carbon-neutral settlement for 50,000 people in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. Given the very real existence of strong left-wing movements—for example as seen in the solidarity volunteerism engaged in by many youth in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—Clark recognizes that the struggle continues, but, like Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” he leaves open the practical question of how to change the world at this point in the text.

One of Clark’s major contributions to anti-authoritarian struggle comes with his conceptualization of the “third concept of liberty,” a Hegelian-anarchist supplement to the two concepts of liberty identified famously by Isaiah Berlin: negative liberty, or freedom from arbitrary interference and coercion, and positive liberty, or the freedom to flourish as a human and experience happiness through self-realization. To these two—with the former historically more associated with right-wing propertarian and liberal thought, and the latter related more to German idealism, materialism, and socialism—Clark adds a third, which he takes largely from the youthful and critical Hegel: freedom as self-determination. In fact, such a positive concept of freedom echoes Immanuel Kant as well, given the importance this German idealist placed on enlightenment as autonomous reason. Hegel took this concept seriously, and in his early works the element of Freigabe—the “renunciation of attempts to dominate and control the other” while simultaneously “allowing the other to be […] as she determines herself to be”—is central to his thought. Clark points to the interest Hegel expresses in his early religious studies (the Theological Manuscripts) for the Christian anarchist Joachimite tradition which calls for a “third age” in which human society would be organized along the principles of love and solidarity. Clark integrates Hegel’s youthful rejection of all “coercion, force, and violence” into his concept of the free community, one which is to be comprised of “self-realizing beings who are agents in their own development.” Alongside Hegel, Clark here also calls on the romatic German anarchist Gustav Landauer in theorizing his third concept: Landauer, unlike Hegel, acknowledges the value of traditional communal culture and, breaking importantly with progressivism, recognizes the tremendous destruction which history can caused—in contradistinction to Hegel’s mature apologism for the various genocides and slave-regimes of history, given his view that such brutality is a necessary prologue to the realization of reason. Thus, Landauer takes the World Geist (Spirit) to mean solidarity, and he calls on humanity to work practically for liberation:

“The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by pepole relating to one another differently […]. We, who have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions.”1

Clark sees Landauer’s advocacy of a new, liberated society based on human creativity and mutual respect as advanced in contemporary times by his comrade Joel Kovel, who in History and Spirit (1991) envisions political transformations aiming at a Hegelian reconciliation of society and individual, or universal and particular. Here, Clark importantly mentions Kovel’s relationship with the emerging ecosocialist movements, particularly given the theorist’s co-authoring of the 2001 “Ecosocialist Manifesto” and the 2007 “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration.” Clark affirms the necessity of such a melding of ecological and anti-capitalist thought, given the self-evidently profound nature of the environmental crisis, and he soberly declares the most likely means of addressing this world-historical problem to be some future form of eco-fascism, if a libertarian ecosocialism does not develop and intervene.

I will for the most part skip consideration of Clark’s fourth chapter, “Against Principalities and Powers,” which amounts to an elucidation of well-known anarchist critiques of liberalism, an ideology which bases itself in respect for the negative liberty mentioned above. Yet I will note two important points he makes in this intervention: one, that liberalist philosophy fails to acknowledge social domination in the present as deriving from an overarching system of domination manifested principally in the hegemony of patriarchy, capital, and State; and two, that liberalism fatally ignores the domination of nature, which as Clark rightly notes corresponds to “the most fateful form of domination presently existing.” In an intriguing amalgam of biocentric and anthropocentric thought, Clark here argues that interference with and destruction of the “self-activity of beings (organisms, populations, species, ecosystems, etc.) within the biosphere” and the concomitant prevention of “their flourishing, self-realization, and attainment of the good” must become realities with which social anarchists should concern themselves centrally today, toward the end of resisting such life-negating trends.

Clark provides a number of compelling reflections in “Anarchy and the Dialectic of Utopia,” where he distinguishes among different manifestations of utopianism: utopia as domination, utopia as escapism, and utopia as critique or (subversive) desire. With regard to the “dominant utopia,” Clark identifies some of the salient fantasies it advances, particularly its capture of the imagination via consumer spectacle on the one hand and the capitalist everyday labor routine on the other. As in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the “good life” advanced by the dominant imaginary is held out as available to “all who buy the right commodities, and know how to perpetually refashion their very selves into the right kinds of commodities.” Clark is clear to state that this false type of utopianism leads inexorably to the “destruction of all diversity and complexity—of ecosystems, cultures, personalities, and imaginations,” and indeed ultimately tends toward the very “reduction of the world” to a “condition of nowhere,” as through the threats hegemony poses to the future of life on Earth. As an alternative to this type of utopianism, Clark considers the escapist utopian forms which he finds notoriously to be subscribed to by academics and “leftist sectarians” like Leninists and libertarian municipalists; utopia for them becomes an idealist means of transcending their political frustrations with the state of society, or even “compensation for being denied real power or having real efficacy.” Clark criticizes such escapist utopians for their contempt for the people, given their belief that revolution will come “only [once] the masses finally learn how to pay attention and fall in line with the intended course of history.”

More positively, Clark comes to consider the concept of utopia as critique and desire. Against the deadening tendencies of late capitalism, Clark quotes a statement made by Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim: “[W]ith the relinquishment of utopias, man [sic] would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.”2 Naturally, this quote nicely mirrors the quip famously made by Oscar Wilde on the geography of utopia, that “[a] map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” In terms of geographical utopianism, Clark presents a fascinating discussion contrasting the repressive rationalism expressed by Kant with the sensual romanticism of Denis Diderot and Paul Gauguin in terms of these Europeans’ views of Polynesian society: the former was horrified by the prospect of social relations like those he saw as being practiced by the “inhabitants of the South Sea Islands”—“idleness, indulgence, and propagation”—while the latter two held such non-Western social environments to demonstrate the historical possibility of reconciling “pleasure, beauty, freedom, and harmony.” It is clear which of the two approaches Clark favors. Within this discussion, he approvingly cites the thought of Charles Fourier, William Blake, William Morris, and Gary Snyder as well, and declares forthrightly that “[t]he most liberatory utopianism affirms this existence of the eternal, the sublime, the marvellous, as a present reality and an object of present experience.” As concrete illustrations of this point, Clark considers the beauty of the lotus flower and the wondrous world experienced by many in childhood. He moreover mentions Reclus’ Man and the Earth, an encyclopedic examination of radical freedom movements which have represented undercurrents to the hegemonic course of world history, such as

“cooperative and egalitarian tribal traditions, anarchistic millenarian movements, dissident spiritualities, antiauthoritarian experiments in radical grassroots democracy and communalism, movements for the liberation of women, and the radically libertarian moments of many of the world’s revolutions and revolutionary movements.”

Practically, Clark notes some of the various impressive anarchist examples of modernity—from the sections of the French Revolution to the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and proletarian self-management in Spain and Hungary—and gives special consideration to the revolutionary anarchist culture developed in Spain for a half-century before Francisco Franco’s attempted coup in 1936: such cultural anarchism included movements for “libertarian schools, cooperatives, ‘free love’ advocacy, feminism, vegetarianism, nudism, rationalism and ‘free thought,’ mysticism, and early ecological and pro-nature tendencies.”

In “The Microecology of Community,” Clark considers social organization theory and applies it to the current situation in the U.S. Negatively, he claims grassroots organization today to be “overwhelmingly in the hands of the reactionaries,” given the well-funded right-wing coordination of fundamentalist churches and irrationalist media networks. The Left has largely failed to present any comparable base social movement since the end of the 1960s, argues Clark, when many former activists seem to have opted instead for reformism and a “long march through the institutions.” The question today then becomes whether there will develop a convergence of mass-radical social movements based on the principles of solidarity and liberation in time to save off looming socio-ecological catastrophe. Clark expresses hope in the catalyst model of small affinity groups which aim to secure “very joyful, fulfilling lives” for their participants and, it is to be hoped, society at large, as through an emanating radical cascade. As Clark notes, it is critical in this sense to ask whether such a small-scale model of transformation will be able to expand in scope and help along the struggle for a “new just, ecological society” and a “free life in common.” Clark seems to have an optimistic answer, for he endorses the evolutionary view that both biophilia and sociophilia are deeply rooted within us as humans, holding out promise for the eventual intervention of a “strong and hopeful movement for the liberation of humanity and nature.”

As he moves to close The Impossible Community, Clark provides an extended case study of the dialectical theories he has been examining throughout the text by considering the impacts—both negative and positive—Hurricane Katrina has had on his hometown of New Orleans. As he explains, his reflections on Katrina are written “a bit in the spirit of a jazz funeral,” for they “mourn” the “collective tragedy” yet “speak out also for our collective hope.” Incidentally, part of his chapter on Katrina had been written as a paper for an international conference in Milan on the thought of Reclus which was to take place just weeks after the hurricane struck, such that Reclus appears here as a sort of stand-in for Dante’s Virgil as we descend into an exploration of the hell of environmental destruction on the one hand and the affirmation of anarchist resurgence on the other. Situating the impacts of the storm systemically, Clark argues that the oil industry’s systematic destruction of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands—2000 square miles lost over the past half-century, as corporations extracted 20 billion barrels of oil from offshore sources—certainly worsened the impacts Katrina had on the population of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers, the State, and the Red Cross similarly come under fire here—quite rightly, given their well-documented ineptitude. Clark also discusses the “disaster fascism” on hand in post-Katrina New Orleans, given “de facto ethnic cleansing” of African Americans, the “mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers,” as well as “widespread police brutality, denial of prisoners’ rights, collapse of the courts and legal system, […] and [the] gutting of the health care system.” Grimly, Clark also acknowledges the “troubling” thought that, however devastating Katrina proved, New Orleans stands to face even more intense and frequent tropical storms due to the ever-accelerating processes of global climate change; one can think similarly of the plight of the Philippines and many other climatically vulnerable regions of the world—the tropics—in this sense.

Against the twin “disaster capitalism” and “disaster fascism” seen before, during, and after Katrina, Clark nonetheless gives space to the “disaster anarchism” which flourished in the hurricane’s aftermath, as in the founding of the Common Ground collective and the radical volunteer work engaged in by thousands of anti-authoritarian youths in the months which followed. In these efforts Clark sees the embodiment of Reclus’ view of mutual aid, “the principal agent of human progress.” Indeed, as he writes dialectically, despite the great “suffering and tragedy” inflicted by the storm, the weeks after the hurricane “have undoubtedly been one of the most gratifying periods in [his] life,” for they demonstrated very clearly to him “a sense of the goodness of people, […] their ability to show love and compassion for one another, and […] their capacity to create spontaneous community.” Clark speaks to the critical opening provided by the Katrina disaster, given the very clear “break with conventional reality” this event signified: like John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism, Clark identifies Katrina very clearly to have represented a “system crack” that provided for the possibility of different future realities. Clark cites the commonly shared view of many post-Katrina volunteers who held that the catastrophe provided an unprecedented possibility to experience “the beauty, the wonder, and the sacredness of the place, and of the people of the place.” The catastrophist shock-value of such experiences forms a critical basis for the mass-expression of a transformative disaster anarchism, argues Clark; in breaking radically with prevailing state of affairs, disaster anarchism provides for the chance of “a qualitatively different way of life,” one based in “love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation.”

As another important case study of communitarian anarchism, Clark next examines the Gandhian Sarvodaya (“common good”) movement in India and the radical movement it inspired in neighboring Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadana. Clark here illuminates the general political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, largely ignored despite his world-famous advocacy of nonviolence: that of an “Indian version of anarchism,” one commensurate with the communitarian anarchism Clark is advancing in The Impossible Community. Citing previous anarchist studies of Gandhi’s thought, Clark claims Gandhi to have desired an India freed from State rule, private property, organized religion, and police and military forces, and he sees several commonalities between Gandhianism and much of Western anarchism, particularly given the former’s support for decentralization, local control, and popular direct action, yet he notes important differences between the two, including the Gandhian stress on spirituality, asceticism, nonviolence, and gradualism. Moreover, clearly, Gandhi’s philosophy emerges from a different social and geographical context than that of Western Europe; it focuses more on the radicalization of traditional indigenous institutions and customs than on the insurrectional break desired by many Western anarchist theorists. Importantly, Gandhi’s concept of swaraj or “self-rule” depended in large part on the devolution of power from the State to the gram sabha, or village assembly, and the panchayat, the village committee elected by the gram sabha. Thus did Gandhi favor the council system, or a radical participatory democracy. Moreover, besides nonviolence, Gandhi’s philosophy emphasized the following anti-authoritarian values, as Clark recounts: truthfulness, vegetarianism, celibacy, nontheft, nonpossession, fearlesslessness, rejection of untouchability, and the promotion of the equality of women.

In practical terms, the Sarvodaya movement continued to work in Gandhi’s spirit after his assassination in 1948, promoting economic transformation in India through the application of the ideas of bhoodan and gramdan (“gift of the land” and “gift of the village”), such that millions of acres of land have been voluntarily redistributed as collective property to be managed by landless peasants and villages themselves. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, Gandhi’s philosophy has inspired the impressive rise of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, which, like the neo-Zapatistas of Chiapas, has promoted a “community-based, participatory, and ecologically conscious development movement” involving millions of people. Finding its basis more in Buddhism than in Gandhi’s Hinduism, Sarvodaya Shramadana stresses four basic virtue: upekkha, or mental balance; metta, or goodwill toward all beings; karuna, or compassion for the suffering of all beings; and mudita, or sympathetic joy for all those liberated from suffering. As with Gandhi, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana, is described as moving away from hegemonic technocratic and State-oriented development models in favor of the embrace of the “spiritual and ethical traditions” of Sri Lanka, particularly the self-help and mutual aid practiced at the local level. The movement also seeks to transform Sri Lanka into a commonwealth of village or community republics; concretely, it aids communities in bringing self-determined development projects to fruition. Additionally, Sarvodaya Shramadana has organized massive peace meditations, People’s Peace Dialogues, and Youth Peace Camps amidst the devastation of the nearly three-decade long civil war which raged in the country until 2009. Clark closes this section by noting the vast gap in wealth of community and self-management between places like Sri Lanka and the United States. He looks forward to the day when the villages of Sri Lanka will “send teams of advisors to the West to help it come to terms with its communitarian underdevelopment, and begin to discover a way out of its political poverty.” Finally, he calls on Western radicals to “make more serious attempts to learn from societies in which a long history of communal practice and a deeply rooted sense of social solidarity make possible exemplary experiments in social cooperation.”

Before turning to consideration of Clark’s final chapter, I would here like to note some problematic aspects of his discussion of Gandhianism and the Sarvodaya movement in India. Clark deals with Gandhi’s pacifism in only a handful of paragraphs in “The Common Good,” and he gives the Mahatma the benefit of the doubt when counterposing the non-violence of satyagraha (“truth-force”) with the horrible violence faced in recent years by indigenous adivasi communities at the hands of paramilitaries acting in the interests of mining companies and the Indian State, as Arundhati Roy has observed. On this, Clark merely says that “a case can be made that Gandhi himself would have rejected a rigid adherence to [strict pacifism] in situations such as this one,” and then drops the question entirely. There is no mention made in Clark’s chapter of the armed resistance undertaken by the Naxalites in central India for the past several decades, nor is the example of left-wing militant Bhagat Singh or the Telangana insurrection of 1946-1951 against the indigenous landowning aristocracy discussed at all. These lapses I find troubling, if not somewhat disingenuous. Moreover within this vein, Clark’s presentation of Gandhi’s advocacy of voluntary land redistribution is not terribly critical. Though Clark does acknowledge that Gandhi’s strategy is flawed, in that the goodwill of the wealthy will not likely result in the abolition of exploitation, there is little sense in his account that contemplation of such a deluded approach—which so radically contradicts the Western anarchist emphasis on the outright expropriation of capitalists and feudalists by revolutionary workers, whether urban or rural—should lead us precisely to call into question the putatively anarchist nature of Gandhi’s political philosophy. Lastly in these terms, Clark fails to discuss or even mention the fact that Gandhi’s views on the caste system evolved over time, such that in the 1920’s before meeting the Dalit radical intellectual Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Mahatma held the caste system in an uncritical light, declaring it to be the “natural order” of Hindu society. In 1921, indeed, Gandhi declared that he was “opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.3

Clark’s closing chapter, “Beyond the Limits of the City,” is comprised of rather severe criticisms of the mature political philosophy of his former friend and mentor Murray Bookchin, an approach the latter termed libertarian municipalism. For all the critique to which Clark subjects Bookchin’s late philosophy—granted, some of it certainly justified—it is important to note here the profound political commonalities between the two thinkers. It is unfortunate—and once again disingenuous—that Clark fails to acknowledge the great influence Bookchin has had on the development of his own perspectives, and indeed on many of the principal points set forth in The Impossible Community! To take but one example of this dynamic, the very list of “revolutions within revolutions” which Clark cites favorably in his chapter on utopia—the “impressive historical examples” which “continu[e] to inspire the radical imagination,” from the section assemblies of the French Revolution, self-management in the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and the embodied anarchism of the Spanish and Hungarian Revolutions—is literally the same one Bookchin repeatedly pointed to in his writings as hopeful historical developments which validated his dialectical social-anarchist approach. Yet Clark fails to mention Bookchin at all in this discussion. It would seem that Clark has allowed his issues with Bookchin’s late views to paper over the great deal the two have in common: near the outset of this last chapter, Clark defines Bookchin’s ultimate political goal as being “the creation of a free, ecological society in which human beings pursue self-realization through participation in a nondominating human community, and further planetary self-realization by playing a cooperative, nondominating role within the larger ecological community.” Rather obviously, these lines also describe the author’s political tasks in The Impossible Community rather well, but Clark refuses explicitly to make this evident.

As I have suggested, some of the criticisms Clark makes of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism are justified. Bookchin was rather infamous for his sectarianism, and Clark illuminates this tendency well in his discussion of the rejection Bookchin and his partner Janet Biehl made of the 1991 Draft Program of the Left Green Network, which called for a 95% reduction in the Pentagon budget, a universal $10 minimum wage, a workers’ superfund, and a thirty-hour work-week, among other things. Bookchin and Biehl refused to support the proposal, for it did not mandate the elimination of the remaining 5% of the military budget. Clark argues that the main reason they rejected the Program, though, was that the Left Greens did not adopt libertarian municipalism as their specific socio-political approach—in this he likely has a point. Moreover, Clark makes the legitimate point that the mere devolution of decision-making power to “the People” may very well not result in the anti-authoritarian, rational outcomes Bookchin expects from an application en masse of his libertarian municipalist approach. Indeed, with regard to the U.S., Clark worries that a libertarian municipalist politics could well have “extremely reactionary consequences” within certain geographical contexts, considering the likelihood of a popular extension of anti-immigrant and anti-poor legislation, capital punishment, and religious impositions, to name a few examples. In the last few pages of the text, Clark ultimately leaves the question open as to whether people’s power is an appropriate strategy to pursue at present, but he does not suggest any alternatives here for realizing the admittedly “admirable goals” of libertarian municipalism. It is highly unlikely that he is implying support for some sort of enlightened Leninist vanguard here, but if the way forward is not through the people—then what?

In closing, I will say that Clark raises some good points against Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, particularly in challenging his former mentor’s questionable assumption that popular empowerment has an “almost miraculous” ability to nullify the negating socio-cultural values that have been ingrained so long by capitalist hegemony. Yet I am unconvinced that this consideration is reason enough to reject an approach to politics summarized well in the famous slogan of the Black Panthers: “All Power to the People!” Rationality and humanity will not arrive spontaneously through the machinations of State, capital, and patriarchy, as Clark makes clear throughout his text. Despite my problems with aspects of his final two chapters in The Impossible Community, Clark’s intervention with this book represents a crucial contribution to the struggle against domination and for liberation—with neither side of this struggle lacking evident justification in our day.

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1Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, ed. and trans. Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 214.

2Karl Mannheim, Ideology and History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1936), 263.

3Bhimrao Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches (12 vols., Bombay 1979-93), ix, 275f.

Intervention as Radical Struggle: On Arendt, Negativity, and Resistance

October 7, 2013

poles-on-santo-domingo-by-suchodolski

First published on Truthout (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

NB: This essay is a modified version of the author’s submission for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize

“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition1

Doubtless, there exists much reason to study disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge,” as Gaston Bachelard claims in his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. I would argue that Albert Camus is right to claim rebellion—which, as he says, can only ever be a social project infused by notions of solidarity, rather than individualism—intimately to be related to the defense of human existence—survival, in the first place—as well as to the political task of advancing human flourishing.2 Alarmingly, both such struggles today confront especially severe threat: as Noam Chomsky describes it plainly, the prospect of decent human survival is presently imperiled by the twin specters of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.3 Given the totally inadequate approaches that constituted power have presented vis-à-vis these world-historical problems—radical denial on the one hand, and conscious exacerbation on the other—the question becomes whether we can hope for revolutionary interventions from below, emanating from that which Giorgio Agamben terms “the non-State, which is humanity,” to address these pressing dangers in rational and humane fashion.4 As we have seen in recent years with the shattering entrance onto the public stage of oppressed humanity seeking to manage its affairs autonomously from and antagonistically against the State and capital, such hope does not seem entirely without merit.

In this sense, Arendt is correct to note, as she did in reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that the tide of history can shift radically and rapidly, once established hierarchies are disrupted by the broad-based delegitimization of prevailing power relations.5 Indeed, such a perspective seems to be one of the major, optimistic conclusions to be gleaned from George Katsiaficas’ sweeping study of People’s Power movements throughout much of Asia—that despotism is doomed once the demos struggles together to overthrow it, and that the militaristic repression perennially visited on dissident movements reflects the oppressors’ very fears of the power of the people.6 Hence, I completely reject the nihilistic notion that intervention constitutes little more than a “decoy or distraction in the face of futility” or a “cover or compensation for hopeless battles and set-ups.” Consider for a moment the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794: one would be at a loss to think of a similarly shattering event in human history, one that abolished monarchy and feudalism at a stroke—not to mention recognizing the end to formal slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, following the radical struggle of the slaves there themselves to destroy the system oppressing them. I claim that G.W.F. Hegel was right to celebrate this intervention as “a glorious mental dawn,” one that led “[a]ll thinking beings” to experience “jubilation.”Similarly, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just justifiably declared the Revolution as promoting the concept of happiness, which heretofore had been denied by existing social arrangements; it was for this reason “a new idea in Europe,” and a new reality.8

So while fatalism, defeatism, and any sense of Schopenhauerian pessimism should be considered misguided—as well, indeed, as reactionary, given the effective legitimization such orientations afford the powers that be—it would also seem questionable to claim, as Bachelard does in his Fragments, that human progress “amounts to a series of Promethean acts.” Granted, my concern here may have more to do with my conception of Prometheus and the common use of the adjective Promethean: Prometheus is rightly celebrated as a rebel who opposes divine authority in order to make critical scientific knowledge readily available to humanity. Yet the charge of prometheanism is often made, I think rightly, against certain interpretations of Marxism—arguably following from Marx’s own works—and other ideologies which base their social projects on the unquestioning domination of nature and the “development of the productive forces.” In light of the undeniably pressing contemporary ecological problems which have resulted from the uncritical productivism advanced systemically by capital—species loss, ocean acidification, the progressive melting of the polar ice caps, a greater incidence of drought and famine—any sense of Prometheus as the founder of an unbounded quest for scientific and technological development should not be welcomed today: consider Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”), or J. Robert Oppenheimer. Against Prometheus, Herbert Marcuse likely is more justified to present Orpheus the lyre-player as an alternative mythological figure from which to draw inspiration: tranquility, aestheticism, and eroticism (particularly queer varieties) seem more germane to the depth of the current crisis.9

Turning, then, to the questions of how intervention might become “powerful and compelling” within the current juncture, and what role thought should have in this process, I would strongly agree with the major figures of the Frankfurt School in their emphasis on the centrality of negativity within conceptualization and interpretation. Their “critical negativism,” as identified by C. Fred Alford, is particularly relevant today: thought cannot assent to any social arrangement which perpetuates deprivation, suffering, and alienation as radically as does capital—as T.W. Adorno writes, “So long as there is still a single beggar, […] there is still myth.”10 Put plainly, thought should today ceaselessly be pointing out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the State. Philosophy, in sum, should serve the end of agitation, indignation, and education, toward the end of organization, to paraphrase B.R. Ambedkar. This final concern—that of praxis—would to my mind be the principal goal toward which thought should strive today; basing itself in the prospects for dialectical affirmation against capitalist barbarism, philosophy would do well to counterpose the range of possibilities which we know are readily at hand, from our own personal desires for alternative societal arrangements, as from the compelling history of revolutionary social movements across the globe. Waxing, then, between an Adornian disgust at the machinations of hegemony and a Blochian emphasis on the principle of hope, philosophy could come to serve radical struggle—that is, intervention.

Passing from idealist critique to material intervention, it would seem that the world-Geist [Spirit] should take on the form of revolutionary, anti-systemic mass-movements. Engaging in direct action—with the examples of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and other black blocs in mind—this mass-movement would prioritize participatory democracy via popular control of all social institutions, from the means of production to cultural production and beyond. In this sense, I envision a mass-dual power strategy, whereby Agamben’s “non-State,” or humanity, both prefigures the emancipated future it desires and works actively to bring such into being—by doing- and being-other, as theorized inter alia by John Holloway.11 Concretely, this praxis would involve the physical blockade of capital, as seen recently in protests against the tar sands infrastructure or the planned Koondankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, as well as in the “mass disturbances” seen in China over ecological devastation, in addition to the disruption of its operations throughout the life-world, particularly through sustained general strikes. Indeed, the Industrial Workers of the World’s recent introduction of the concept of the ecological general strike, whereby laborers refuse their participation in capitalism’s ecocidal projects toward the end of developing participatory models that would allow for ecological balance, is an especially inspiring model for current and future intervention.12

In sum, it seems clear that radical struggle is the order of the day. Intervention, if it is to have concrete meaning or be relevant at all, seeks human happiness, tranquility, liberation—like art that is worth its name, in Marcuse’s formulation.13 Undoubtedly, the threats which are today aligned against the realization of these ends are considerable; Hegel was largely correct to identify history as a slaughterbench which sacrifices the happiness of humanity to hegemony. We can clearly see such analysis confirmed throughout the calamitous world today: think of the recent Tazreen and Rana Square disasters in Bangladesh, or the 2011 Somali famine.

However, it is also clear that humanity is capable of far more affirming projects than those which hold power today. Dialectical thought, and the praxis which may follow from it, can serve to overturn negation.

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1>Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 5.

2Albert Camus, The Rebel (trans. Anthony Bower, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1956).

3Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories, 2013).

4Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 65.

5Hannah Arendt, On Violence (San Diego: Harcourt, 1969), 48.

6George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013); for the author’s review of Volume 2, please see “A Review of ‘Asia’s Unknown Uprisings,” The White Rose Reader, 21 July 2013.

7G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Colonial, 1899), 447.

8Quoted in Sophie Wahnich, In Defense of the Terror (trans. David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2012), 69.

9Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1966).

10C. Fred Alford, Science and the Revenge of Nature (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985), 15-16; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 1974 [1951]), 199.

11John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010).

12For the IWW’s Environmental Union Caucus, see http://ecology.iww.org/.

13Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon, 1978).