Posts Tagged ‘Populism’

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

April 15, 2019

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

I’ve presented at three of these conferences and can highly recommend them. The deadline for proposals is May 1st. Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be sent to ihms2019@gmail.com by that date. Panel proposals and student abstracts are welcomed and encouraged.

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

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

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


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

Call for the Formation of a Transnational Socialist-Humanist Solidarity Network

April 2, 2019

Dear Friends:

Critical developments around the globe compel the creation of a new type of transnational socialist and anti-authoritarian solidarity network.

Objectively, we are facing the growth of authoritarian capitalist governments, an increasing economic and military competition between the U.S. and China, and the ominous consequences of climate breakdown. In addition, we confront insurgent white-supremacist and other racist ethno-nationalist movements which, similar to ISIS in their extremist views, are willing to employ mass-violence against Muslims, Jews, and other marginalized people.

Subjectively, a new generation of youth is getting interested in socialism because capitalism’s inhumanity and exploitation does not offer it a better future. The Me Too movement challenging sexual abuse is growing among women around the globe and targeting the abuse of women in government, all fields of work, and the family. The Black Lives Matter movement which emerged in the U.S. in response to state-sanctioned police murder and abuse of Black people has struck a chord internationally. There is no lack of popular protests and strikes around the world, from Sudan, Algeria, Iran, and Palestine to Europe, and from China and India to Latin America, Haiti, and the U.S. However, some of these struggles are being crushed by various authoritarian and imperialist forces, and others face the danger of rightwing populism.

In response to these struggles, the international Left has been disappointing. The Syrian revolution was not only crushed by the Assad regime with the help of Russia and Iran. It was also abandoned or rejected by the majority of the international Left. The poor and starving masses in Iran and Venezuela are being told by supposed “socialists” and “peace and justice” advocates that their miseries are only caused by U.S. imperialism and that they have to live with authoritarian regimes like the Islamic Republic or Maduro’s state as the “lesser of the two evils.”

There is no doubt that U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism are the cause of much misery and death in the world both presently in the actions of the Trump administration and historically. Nonetheless, the U.S. is not the only capitalist-imperialist power exploiting and oppressing humanity. We live in a world of various imperialist and sub-imperialist power rivalries. In particular, Chinese and Russian imperialism are competing with U.S. imperialism for global dominance.

In the face of this reality, however, many leftists are rationalizing the actions of authoritarian regimes such as those of Putin in Russia, Assad in Syria, Khamenei in Iran, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Maduro in Venezuela—simply because these governments use the rhetoric of anti-U.S. imperialism. Some socialist observers have named this rationalization or support the “red-brown alliance” which follows the “campist” approach of dividing the world into competing military camps, and negating the role of the working class and oppressed peoples within those “camps.”

Given the evidently sordid and bloody history of U.S. imperialism, many Western leftists justifiably endorse Karl Liebknecht’s declaration, made in 1915 amid the depths of World War I, that “the main enemy is at home.” Liebknecht was expressing what he thought should be the position of socialists in an inter-imperialist war. His statement should not be used as an excuse to abandon working-class struggles around the world. Unfortunately, today, many on the Left have twisted this principle to minimize or deny well-documented chemical-weapons attacks by the Assad regime in Syria; murders of protesters in Russia, Venezuela, and Iran; mass-internment concentration camps such as those holding a million Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region; and other heinous attacks of state violence carried out by regimes that claim to be against U.S. imperialism. Such views greatly violate the core ethical principles of humanism, egalitarianism, and human solidarity with oppressed peoples, and confuse the struggles of workers and the oppressed against capital and the State with inter-imperialist intrigues.

We need a transnational socialist and anti-authoritarian solidarity network that breaks with such careless and undiscerning views of the world and instead sets human emancipation, not inter-imperialist rivalry, as its aim. We need to create a network that offers in-depth analyses, genuine grassroots socialist solidarity, and forums for working out real solutions—such as alternatives to capitalism, tackling climate breakdown, and overcoming patriarchy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

We believe that the essence of socialism is humanism, the idea that human beings have the potential to use their reasoning capacity to move forward, establish intercommunication and relations free of domination and servitude.

The signatories of this call include a variety of socialist and Marxist humanists, anarchists, and anti-authoritarians. We reject the systems that existed in the former USSR and the People’s Republic of China as authoritarian. We oppose capitalism both in private and state form as well as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. We seek humanist, intersectional, and sustainable ecological alternatives to oppression and ecocide.

Please join us in an effort to create a transnational and anti-authoritarian socialist solidarity network with the initial aim of organizing speaking tours and building a speakers’ bureau with a related website aimed at the following:

  1. Concrete expressions of solidarity with ongoing progressive and revolutionary popular struggles on the basis of opposition to capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and xenophobia.
  2. Genuine dialogue and debate on humanist alternatives to capitalism, visions of a free and sustainable society, liberation of women, and LGBT persons, the right to self-determination, and a commitment to truth, reason, and human emancipation.

We propose a speakers’ bureau that would offer a resource list of speakers/topics and coordinate speaking tours which would bring together local, national, and international issues and struggles.

This is an international effort aimed at concrete solidarity work and dialogue on the burning questions of our day, and hopes to prove that the idea of emancipatory socialist solidarity can be credible in theory and practice.

If you agree with these ideas and would like to be part of this effort to form a Transnational Socialist-Humanist Solidarity Network, please contact us at transnationalsolidarity@protonmail.com

Original signatories:

Abou Jaoude, Elias, Software Developer, Lebanon

Al-Kateb, Lara, Syrian socialist feminist

Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists

Al-Saadi, Yazan, Syrian Canadian Writer

Amina, Syria solidarity activist, U.S.

Ayoub, Joey, Writer, editor and researcher, IFEX, Global Voices, Scotland

Botta, Emma Wilde, Independent Socialist Feminist, U.S.

Castro, María, Professor of Spanish and French Studies, U.S.

Chelliah, Lalitha, Maternal and Child Health Nurse – Socialist, Australia

Cuffy, Robert, Socialist Workers’ Alliance, Guyana

Dehkordi, Sara, Manjanigh Collective, Germany

Fareid Eltayeb, Amgad, Spokesperson of Sudan Change Now movement & producer of Sudan Seen blog

Fischer, Dan, Graduate worker, U.S.

Galyon, Shiyam, Syrian American feminist and campaigner

Hensman, Rohini, Writer, independent scholar and author of Indefensible, India

Hirsch, Michael, New Politics Editorial Board member, U.S.

Independent journalist and activist, Argentina

Kaylen, Student, U.S.

La Botz, Dan, Teacher, writer, co-editor of New Politics, U.S.

Language professor, U.S.

Lopez, Rocío, Mexican-American writer, U.S.

LeFage, Shanelle, Climate activist, U.S.

Leonard, Ralph, Writer and student, U.K.

Masjedi, Fatemeh, Iranian feminist and history scholar, Europe

Melcher, Thorne, transgender activist, writer and coder, U.S.

Munif, Yasser, Syrian Sociology Professor, U.S.

Noor, Yalda, Psychologist, U.S.

Petersen-Smith, Khury, Socialist and geographer, U.S.

Ram, Joshua, Writer, U.S.

Ramírez, Krys Méndez, Disability Justice organizer and Ethnic Studies scholar, U.S.

Reid Ross, Alexander, geography professor, and author of Against the Fascist Creep, U.S.

Reimann, John, Former Recording Secretary of Carpenters’ Local 713 and current producer of OaklandSocialist.com blog, U.S.

Rizzo, Mary, Editorial Staff of Le Vocci de la Liberta, Italian blog for the Syrian Revolution, Italy

Ruder, Eric, socialist and journalist, U.S.

Saravi, Jose, writer and translator, Argentina

Schulman, Jason, New York City Democratic Socialists of America

Sethness, Javier, Family Nurse Practitioner and author, U.S.

Shurmand, Azadeh, Iranian women’s studies scholar, Europe

Sloughter, Tristan, Denver Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Soeller, Peter, Anti-fascist activist and writer, U.S.

Smith, Ashley, Socialist writer and activist, U.S.

Weston, Matt, Social Worker, U.S.

Wind, Ella, Middle East Studies scholar and member of Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Zekavat, Sina, Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, Germany

Zuur, Cheryl, former president, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 444, U.S.

Subsequent signatories:

American Studies Professor, Atlanta, U.S.

Bojcun, Marko, independent socialist, UK

Etzbach, Harald, Journalist and Translator, Germany

Grannies4Equality, Dublin, Ireland

Heimbach, Wayne, Member of Service Employees International Union (Retired), U.S.

Heller, Stanley, Host, “The Struggle” Video News, author, The Uprising We Need, U.S. 

Khan, Tulsi Das, India

LeftEast Editorial Collective, Europe

McDonald, David, activist, U.S. 

McBurney, Sandy, Glasgow, Ireland

Modiano, Richard, Executive Director Emeritus, Beyond Baroque Foundation, U.S.

Mola, Mark, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ongerth, Steve, co-founder, IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus*

PhD Student, Lancaster University, UK

Nachawati Rego, Leila, Spanish-Syrian writer and professor of communications, Madrid

Shalom, Stephen R., Editorial Board, New Politics, U.S.

Sutton, Edward, climate activist & member of Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Thomsen, Nicholas, anarchist activist, Australia

(*listed for ID purposes only)

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.”

Marxist-Anarchist Dialogue: Partial Transcript

March 20, 2017

Baku map

Please find below the partial transcript of the “Marxist-Anarchist Dialogue” that took place on February 12, 2017, at the Sepulveda Peace Center in Los Angeles.

I’d just like to begin with a quote from Bakunin in Statism and Anarchy (1873):

“To contend successfully with a military force which now respects nothing, is armed with the most terrible weapons of destruction, and is always ready to use them to wipe out not just houses and streets but entire cities with all their inhabitants—to contend with such a wild beast, one needs another beast, no less wild but more just: an organized uprising of the people, a social revolution […] which spares nothing and stops at nothing.”

As Ukrainian revolutionary Nester Mahkno and his comrades point out in their “Organizational Platform for a General Union of Anarchists,” written in exile in Paris in 1926, it was in the life of the toiling masses, particularly the Russian practices of mir, obshchina, and artel, or the agrarian commune and cooperative labor, that Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin discovered anarchism.  Yet, as Paul McLaughlin (2002) observes, Bakunin’s anarchism is also one with his atheism and anti-theologism, or atheistic materialism.  Bakunin (1814-1876) extends Ludwig Feuerbach’s exposé of the mystification of religious authority by illuminating the reification of political and scientific authority while summoning the negative Hegelian dialectic to sweep away feudalism, capitalism, despotism, and the State.  Bakunin famously expounds on this view in “The Reaction in Germany” (1842), where he stipulates the existence of an “either-or” dialectic demanding the victory of either the Negative (Revolution) or the Positive (the State or the status quo).  Yet instead of a battle between two opposing forces leading to a synthesis, as Hegel imagined, Bakunin envisions a dyadic conflict leading to the full victory of the Negative, yielding “democracy” in 1842, or “anarchy” 25 years later.  Bakunin views history as a gradual evolutionary progression that contains episodes of revolutionary acceleration—hence his famous conclusion to “The Reaction,” where he professes his faith in the “eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life.  The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

For Bakunin, history progresses through the principle of revolt, which together with the principles of human animality and reason for him express the human essence; reason is the emancipatory force of history, as it illuminates freedom.  Besides Herzen, the anarcho-Populist “father of Russian socialism” with whom Bakunin worked closely in favor of Polish independence from tsarism, developing the slogan “Zemlya i Volya” (“Land and Freedom”) as a summary of their visionary program that would resonate around the world (perhaps most famously, indeed, as Tierra y Libertad in the Mexican Revolution), his philosophical and political influences are many: there is Hegel; Feuerbach; Konstantin Aksakov, a notable anti-Statist figure within the Stankevich Circle in Moscow; Johann Fichte, from whom Bakunin took the emphasis on action and the vision of a conscious, collective movement striving to institute reason, freedom, and equality in history; Bruno Bauer, who sees in Hegel a radical critique of the State and religion; and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, from whom Bakunin took anarchism and atheism.  In stark contrast to Proudhon the sexist, however, Bakunin is a militant feminist who was called “Hermaphrodite man” by Marx in 1868 for demanding the “equalization of classes and individuals of both sexes” in the Program of the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy, or “the Alliance.” The roots linking Bakunin’s atheism or anti-theologism with anarchism were established by 1842, though Bakunin wasn’t explicitly anarchist until 1866, when he declared the goal of the International Brotherhood, forerunner of the Alliance, as being the “overthrow of all States and at the same time all […] official Churches, standing armies, centralized ministries, bureaucracy, governments, unitary parliaments and State universities and banks, as well as aristocratic and bourgeois monopolies.”

Now I’d like to come to some of the differences between Bakunin’s thought, or anarchism, and Marx and Marxism, and illuminate this through a few issues. For one, there is the matter of Prometheanism and productivism. Marxism has been accused for a very long time of being both: that is to say, that Marx and Marxism are obsessed with progress and the development of productive forces, equating human liberation with the domination of nature—despite the considerable efforts that have been made in recent decades by eco-Marxist to rescue Marx on these two grounds. So the question arises: is anarchism any better?

Bakunin adheres to naturalism, a post-Enlightenment philosophical movement associated with materialism and atheism, which lay the foundations for modern science while criticizing its excesses and abuses. As such, Bakunin takes aim at René Descartes and Immanuel Kant for their anthropocentrism. Therefore, Bakunin’s naturalism can be said to be associated with ecology.  Indeed, it was through anarchism that Murray Bookchin developed the philosophy of social ecology decades before John Bellamy Foster and others “discovered” Marx’s questionable environmentalism.  Bakunin considers Cartesian anthropocentrism to be anti-naturalist.  For these reasons, naturalism arguably holds greater ecological potential than historical materialism.

Now, coming to the question of history, racism and imperialism, anarchists disagree, as McLaughlin notes, principally with Marxists over the usefulness of historical materialism and the stages theory of history,  whereby history inevitably progresses from primitive communism to the slave societies of antiquity, feudalism, capitalism and then communism in the end.

Instead of the determinism set forth by Marx as early as 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, a volume that presents a devastating (if opportunistic) critique of Proudhon, where Marx argues that socialism can only be achieved after the full development of critique, Bakunin and the anarchists believe in spontaneity. Plus, anarchists do not consider the industrial proletariat necessarily to have more revolutionary potential than the peasantry, as Marxism does; instead, anarchists seek to unite both proletariat and peasantry against capitalism and the State.

To illustrate the difference between the two approaches, consider how Engels responded to Bakunin’s “Appeal to the Slavs,” which sought to mobilize the concepts of justice and humanity to unite the Slavs in a federated struggle against Russian and Austro-Hungarian imperialism in the wake of the failed 1848 Revolutions.  In “Democratic Pan-Slavism,” Engels declares that, other than for the Poles and Russians, “no Slav people has a future” outside of subordination to centralizing Prussian and Austrian imperialist “civilization.”  In addition, reflecting on the recent Mexican-American War, which had just ended that year, Engels trolls Bakunin, asking, “will [he] accuse the Americans of a ‘war of conquest,’ which […] was […] waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it?”

Bakunin was not dominated by the questionable reasoning that leads Marx and Engels to express uncritical opinions about capitalism and colonialism (per the stages theory).  Instead, he espouses a decolonizing perspective that initially supported national-liberation struggles but then came to understand the need for coordinated global revolution—hence his popularity in the more agrarian Mediterranean and eastern European countries (Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia) within the International, as well as in India, Mexico, and much of the rest of Latin America after the First International.  This is not to overlook Marx’s late revisions of his deterministic, callous reasoning, especially after his study of the Russian mir, nor is it to ignore the fact—as Kevin Anderson reminds us—that Marx was among the first Europeans to call for India’s independence from British domination!

There is also the issue of Marx’s own anti-Semitic comments against Ferdinand Lasalle and himself and his family, as in On the Jewish Question (1844), which nonetheless cannot compare to Bakunin’s far more wretched Jew-hatred, based on conspiracy and the “anti-Semitism of fools.”

Politically, Marxism and anarchism diverge principally on the questions of the State, religion, tactics, and strategy.

Robert Graham, author of We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It, has identified 6 principles by which Bakunin distinguished anarchism from other approaches: anti-authoritarianism, anti-Statism, anti-parliamentarianism, federalism, libertarianism (that is to say, the consistency of means and ends),  and social revolution as means to emancipation.

We see conflict with Marxism on all of these questions. But the primary contradiction is really between statism and centralism, which is on the Marxist side, and the anti-state or federalist position, which accords with anarchist principles.

So to illustrate the distinction, I just want to quote a couple of things by Marx and Engels.  In their 1850 address of the Communist League, they argue that the German workers’ movement must strive for the “most determined centralization of power in the hands of the state authority.  They must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom for the communities, of self-government, etc.” There’s also a letter that Engels sent to Carlo Cafiero, who was an Italian Alliance member, in 1872: “Bismarck and Victor Emmanuel had both rendered enormous service to the revolution by bringing about political centralization in their respective countries.”

And so, as an alternative, the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy (“the Alliance”) was a specifically anarchist organization through which Bakunin sought to deepen the revolutionary struggle of the International.  The Alliance “stands for atheism, the abolition of cults and the replacement of faith by science, and divine by human justice.” In addition, it sought to collectivize means of production via the agricultural-industrial associations rather than through the State.

To conclude here, I want to illustrate this conflict very practically in a historical way by analyzing the conflict between Marx, Bakunin, and their followers in the First International, or the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), which was founded in 1864.  Their conflict really happened between 1868 and 1872.  This conflict really revolves around the incompatibility of the anarchist and protosyndicalist emphasis on direct action with the Marxist electoralist or statist strategy.

And just as a background to this conflict, it bears mentioning that Marx and Engels slanderously accused Bakunin of being a tsarist agent, first in 1848.  These charges were resurrected by Marx’s allies in Spain and Germany in the runs-up to the Basel (1869) and Hague (1872) Congresses of the International. In fact, curiously, this echoes the World Socialist’s Web Site’s denunciation of the Antifa protesters against Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, condemning them as agents provocateurs.

So, just to go briefly around some of the highlights of the International and its Congresses: at the Brussels Congress of 1868, the Belgian federalists introduced a principle whereby European workers would launch a general strike in order to either prevent or respond to the declaration of war in Europe, whereas at the Basel Congress of 1869, the IWMA’s “most representative congress” (Graham), the IWMA’s majority voted in favor of revolutionary syndicalism as the preferred strategy for the International.  In Basel, the Belgian internationalists argued for each local of IWMA to become a commune or “society of resistance” (a union), whereas Bakunin and other federalists were hailing collectivism in the form of cooperatives, mutual aid societies, credit unions, and the tactic of the general strike.

Then, of course, the Paris Commune of 1871 showed the brutality of counter-insurgent suppression and demonstrated Proudhon’s error, in fact, in believing that the transition to socialism or anarchism could come about peacefully. And during this time, Marx and Bakunin more or less did converge for a short time in their analysis of the Commune. Karl Marx believed that the experience of the Commune demonstrated that the workers cannot “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purposes.”  However, at the London Conference of 1871, Marx tried to reverse the Basel Conference consensus by imposing an electoral strategy through the General Council, despite the fact that the majority of the International did not agree.  Marx was actually prepared to ally with the Blanquists to do this. And thereafter, at the next Congress in the Hague (1872), Bakunin and his Swiss assistant James Guillaume were expelled from the International so as to uphold the London precedent on parliamentarianism, and the General Council was transferred to New York—leading the Blanquists who in fact had allied with Marx to have this done to resign from the International.

In this way, the First International was reduced from being a multi-tendency platform to an exclusively statist one, and then reconstituted as the Second International in 1889.  From 1896 on, the Second International excluded anarchists altogether for not agreeing with the same electoral strategy.

However, the anarchists did go off in 1872 right after the expulsion of Bakunin and Guillaume and founded their own Congress in St. Imier, Switzerland, where they had a series of different conferences that led to the creation of a rather significant anti-authoritarian, anarchist international movement that reaffirmed syndicalism and the social revolution. This gave way to the dominance of anarcho-syndicalism within the international labor movement from the time of the Second International up to World War I.

And so I just want to conclude here, because we are talking about the time now being under Trump, and I want to share some of the continuities between the history and theory that I’ve been telling you about and what Black Rose/Rosa Negra tries to glean from that in the current moment. While we haven’t discussed this very profoundly, we can glean some points from the statements that we have published:

We must actively shut down fascists as we saw happen at UC Berkeley with Milo and in opposition to people like Richard Spencer and so on.

We should also be engaging with people who are becoming increasingly mobilized recently. Rather than be dismissive of them, we should be building popular power, and we should be coordinating with other revolutionary groups.

We also reaffirm Bakunin’s idea of anti-electoralism. We believe that the struggle against Trump and Trumpism should not bring us closer to the Democrats but rather to the social revolution, and we think specifically that we should be organizing and participating in revolutionary social movements, such as the asambleas populares or popular assemblies that have been sprouting up around the city and around the country. In fact, some of our comrades are involved in these asambleas, which are trying to bring together resistance to the deportations with building popular power through the theory of libertarian municipalism or communalism, which are more or less anarchist ideas.

Then there’s also of course the Standing Rock struggle, which is a great challenge to Indigenous autonomy and also ecology.

And we also have the question of feminism as our comrades have written recently in an analysis of the current moment with regard to feminism: in fact, they are saying that the Women’s March represents an opening for revolutionary materialist class struggle feminism to gain some ground.

There’s also the antimilitarist and syndicalist struggle for workplace autonomy as well as the general strike. There’s a very recent piece by the Shutdown Collective published on Truthout about the general strike which I recommend highly.

Furthermore and lastly, we are trying to expand our presence geographically and engage with the white working class, which we understand as having been a very clear contributing factor to the current situation we have with Donald Trump as our president. Thank you very much for listening.

Internal Panel Discussion

Thank you, [anonymous Marxist]. I think you began by saying that anarchism is seen on the streets but not on the home or workplace. And I mean, as I was mentioning in my presentation, with regard to the Basel Conference and protosyndicalism, the entire opposition between the Marxists and anarchists in the original break within the First International is very much about that question—anarchism being in the workplace—and Marx and Engels’s centralist opposition to this due to their interest in presenting a statist or electoral strategy.

Also, I don’t think it’s true that anarchism isn’t found in the home, either. Bakunin had a very militant feminist critique of the Russian Commune and of society in general; it wasn’t just his opposition to capitalism and the State. I push back on that.

I think I understand what you mean by the Marxist critique of anarchists—that they have an abstract conception of liberty—but I don’t think it’s very abstract at all. I mean, if you look again at the history I was just retelling about the struggles that anarchists have been involved with, both at the individual and collective level, there’s nothing abstract about it. So I’m a little puzzled what you meant by that. I would just comment to say that it did remind me a bit of Engels’s critique of utopian socialism, saying that only scientific socialism has the correct insight, and that all the other schools that are revolutionary and socialist in fact are nothing.

And then your comments about Antifa are interesting.  I completely disagree that Antifa has “empty content”! I think that that was completely contradicted by what we saw at UC Berkeley. This was a neo-Nazi agitator and a Trump agitator who was planning on publicly outing trans* and undocumented students at UC Berkeley, and that was shut down by the coordinated action of anarchists and Antifa.  I don’t think there is anything empty about that at all.

Nor do I think that anarchists lack future vision. As I was saying of Bakunin, anarchism is all about the liberation of humanity. There is nothing…  It’s not a present-oriented type of thing; it’s not lacking a future vision in any sense.

You know, there is a lot of debate among anarchists about what is the meaning of anarchism, with regard to the variety or heterogeneity which you pointed to in terms of the development within anarchism. You cited “anti-civilizational” anarchism as an example. There is some debate regarding the question of whether that can even be considered a form of anarchism. I personally would say that it’s not a form of anarchism: it’s actually not interested in abolishing hierarchies, but more simply interested in abolishing technology, agriculture, and things like that. That’s not very much consistent with the anti-statist and anti-hierarchical critique that anarchism brings about. In fact, I think it’s very important not to reduce the anarchist or green or eco-anarchist position to that; that’s very reductive. There is Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, which is a very profound, rich, Hegelian tradition that develops the critique of the destruction and domination of nature with the critique of social domination as well.

And the last thing: toward the end of your comments, you suggested that anarchists deny that humans are dependent on each other, but that is completely false. If you look at Peter Kropotkin, he theorized the idea of mutual aid being a major factor of evolution, both within the animal world as well as in social evolution. His entire volume is dedicated to that. He studied biology in Siberia for a great number of years. […]

I think to some degree within the socialist tradition, with its anarchist, Marxist, and other wings, there is a lot of miscommunication and so on. So I think that what you are suggesting about the science of society being before the revolution is actually very consistent with the naturalistic approach that I was mentioning to you about Bakunin and the way you have to certainly analyze society first, and nature first—nature first, then society—and from there you progress to critique and action. […]

Actually, within the debate or the conflict between Marx and Bakunin or Marxism and anarchism within the First International, there was a back-and-forth about this very same question [Marxism as a statist form of capitalism]. And you know, I did mean to get to a discussion of the Russian Revolution, but there was no time. There is certainly an anarchist tradition from the time of the conflict in the First International as well as during and after the Russian Revolution that did identify the Bolsheviks, even before Stalin, as State capitalists, according to what Lenin was writing—advocating for the creation of State capitalism as a transitional strategy in Russia. Bakunin very clearly identified that even if you had a statist power that was proclaiming itself as anti-capitalist, it would be composed of a small elite, as all States are, and would necessarily be reproducing these systems of domination of hierarchical authority. Bakunin was very visionary in this sense; he very much anticipated what happened in Russia.

Laurence Davis: “Only a Bold and Popular Left Radicalism Can Stop the Rise of Fascism”

March 11, 2017

Written by Laurence Davis and published on Open Democracy, 12 February 2017

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition.

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Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, Heidelberg, 1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Some right reserved.

Two new worlds are now struggling to be born amidst the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation. The first is the waking nightmare now unfolding in the United States in the glare of the international media. A reality show with a cast of horrors, its politically successful mix of faux right-wing populism and neo-fascism has inspired and emboldened autocrats everywhere and threatens in the absence of an effective counter-power to become our new global reality.

The second, a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist world, may be detected in what Colin Ward once described as scattered ‘seeds beneath the snow’. Deeply rooted in a rich soil of ideas and grounded utopian imagination nourished by countless counter-cultural critics of capitalism, industrialism and grow-or-die economics from William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus to Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Murray Bookchin and Ursula Le Guin – as well as a long history of popular movements from below working together to resist regimes of domination and develop progressive and sustainable alternatives to them – the tender shoots of another world are emerging all around us.

They are visible in a wide range of grassroots practices, movements, and practical utopias, from Buen Vivir in the Andes, Ubuntu in South Africa, Ecoswaraj in India, Zapatismo in Mexico, and the budding degrowth movement in Europe to solidarity economies, commoning activities, permaculture projects, re-localisation movements, community currencies, transition towns, co-operatives, eco-communities, worker occupied factories, indigenous people’s assemblies, alternative media and arts, human-scale technologies, basic and maximum income experiments, debt audit movements, radical democratic movements such as Occupy and democratic confederalism in Rojava, and emerging anti-fascist fronts and coalitions uniting immigrant solidarity groups, anti-racists, feminists, queers, anarchists, libertarian socialists and many others.

The great danger we now face is that newly empowered forces of reaction will use that power to repress progressive alternatives before they are able to coalesce as an effective counter-power, sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance instead.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic or centre-left political persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and suggested that the most effective antidote to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to social democracy and market globalisation with a ‘human face’. Rather than seek to understand the complex mix of reasons why American citizens voted for a demagogue like Trump, they blame an undifferentiated ‘populism’ and advocate more elite democracy instead.

The breathtaking naivety of this commentary is perhaps matched in recent memory only by Francis Fukuyama’s equally naïve and now risible prediction in 1989 of an ‘end of history’, i.e. an end to mankind’s ideological evolution with the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.

Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1939

Now more than ever, it is vital that we recognise and articulate careful ideological distinctions between competing right and left wing varieties of populism, and that those of us committed to values like equality, democracy and solidarity take urgent action to oppose Trumpism and the rise of fascism not with more of the same failed elite-led liberal democracy, but with a bold left egalitarian and inclusive radicalism.

The Trump campaign gave voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political establishment. It castigated the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasised its ineffectuality in the face of sinister threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could ‘make America great again’. It succeeded by peddling false solutions and scapegoats for real social problems generated by the governance of interconnected political and economic elites.

By contrast, a bold and inclusive left populist radicalism would expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. It would offer a generous vision of a better world, and a sweeping programme for revolutionary social change that can be translated into everyday practice.

This will require a reconnection with revolutionary roots. Historically, revolutionary ideas and social movements have tended to emerge out of, and give ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late.

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