Posts Tagged ‘Russian Revolution’

Seeking the Anarchism of Love: Transcript

May 9, 2023

From an online conversation hosted by the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, 22 March 2023

Joe Scheip: Lev Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy, Count Tolstoy, or any other of the many names and titles of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, was as diverse in being as in his many names. Complex and sometimes hypocritical, Lev was not just known in his time as a great author and poet, but also as a visionary and a revolutionary in ethics and politics: a believer in Christian anarchism. He challenged power, in all its forms.

Lev Tolstoy lived from 1828 to 1910. He was contemporaneous in his own country with Russian Tsars Alexander II and Alexander III, and later in life, with Nicholas II. He was born into some wealth and rank. Russia at the time was a quasi-feudal capitalist society, with deep disparity in social classes, the scourge of imperial rule, and the horrors of serfdom.

Tolstoy’s life has many epochs: first, a young adulthood that included eventful and traumatizing experiences in the military; then, Tolstoy the great author, writing best sellers even in his own time. Also, Tolstoy the social experimenter: using his homebase Yasnaya Polyana as a springboard for radical experimentation in education, eating, and social ranking. This was a place where holy fools, mystics, seekers and the like would come and stay, to attempt to create new worlds—much to his wife Sofia Tolstaya’s chagrin.

And we shouldn’t leave out Sofia here—as Tolstoy did, deciding to meditate amongst the honeybees during the pregnancy of their first child. Sofia should be credited, amongst many other things, with the countless hours spent copywriting and editing Tolstoy’s work—invisible labor, much like the labor of mothering their 13 children.

And Tolstoy’s hypocrisies and contradictions only continue from there. Yet he seemed to be fully aware. He writes in The Kingdom of God is Within You:

“We are all brothers—yet every morning a brother or sister must empty the bedroom slops for me. We are all brothers, but every morning I must have a cigar, a sweetmeat, an ice, and such things, which my brothers and sisters have been wasting their health in manufacturing, and I enjoy these things and demand them… We are all brothers, but I take a stipend for preaching a false Christian religion, which I do not myself belief in, and which only serves to hinder men from understanding true Christianity… The whole life of the upper classes is a constant inconsistency. The more delicate a man’s conscience is, the more painful this contradiction is to him.”

And while there are many things to examine in Lev’s life, Javier’s project—Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography (2023)—focuses on uncovering the both overt and subliminal queerness in Tolstoy’s life and work, and to link his erotic dissidence with his anarchist politics.

Was Tolstoy queer? In the sense of his lack of integration with mainstream society, the answer can only be a resounding yes. Was Tolstoy homosexual? The answer is more complicated. There are, however, many things that point to Tolstoy’s homosexual and homosocial gravitations, including his own words in his diary and Sofia’s later words, asking forgiveness for being the barrier to his encounters with other men.

Along with Javier’s historical, psychological, and social commentary, the book includes a queer reading of War and Peace, which unveils homosexual and double entendres galore.

On queer and queerness: what drove your interest in studying this under-researched area of Tolstoy’s life?

Javier Sethness: My mother María Castro, who is an art historian, would often tell me in childhood that art is usually autobiographical. The filmmaker Federico Fellini agreed. Take Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell’s volunteering in the Spanish Civil War, which yielded such classic books as For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia. Or consider Steven Spielberg’s films—Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan—and Octavia Butler’s novels, The Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. In much the same way, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s art is highly autobiographical. The count drew from personal and family experiences to create most of his best-known artworks, from the “Sevastopol Sketches” to The Cossacks, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” and Hadji Murat, among others. So when I write that queerness permeates Tolstoyan art, I am also suggesting that this artistic queerness represents autobiographical disclosure, as I engage in a kind of self-analysis—to see how queerness influences my own life, along with Tolstoy’s biography and artworks, plus the human condition.

Initially, I had simply planned to analyze Tolstoy’s artistic critique of war and militarism, which is realistic, humanistic, and anti-authoritarian, while considering some of the implications for left-wing internationalism today, especially in light of the resurgence of fascism and neo-Stalinism. But I was struck in my readings by the palpable homoeroticism that pervades Tolstoyan art, so I refocused the project into a psychoanalytical examination of the links between the artist’s erotic dissidence and his anarchist politics: in other words, of his queer anarchism.

Besides Tolstoy’s writings and biographies, this journey led me to research, among others, Bruce Perry’s findings about Malcolm X’s youthful gay relationships, Edward Carpenter’s progressive studies of homosexuality, Russian and Ukrainian LGBTQ history, the lesbian attractions that Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya includes in her own art, the lesbian and bisexual women’s participation in the Easter Rising of 1916, comrade-love in the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution, and what the late Chris Chitty describes as the “ancient association of same-sex eroticism with the hatred of tyranny,” which dates back at least to classical Greece.

With time, I noticed that intimate emotional bonds with other men were constants in Tolstoy’s “psychogeography,” both in terms of his life and his imagination, as expressed artistically. Besides including a brief review, in Perry’s style, of the subject’s homoerotic life, Queer Tolstoy features Freudian, Frommian, and Marcusean lenses, in the sense that I apply Sigmund Freud’s concepts of infantile sexuality, universal bisexuality, and polymorphous perversity; Erich Fromm’s critique of necrophilia and authoritarianism and simultaneous promotion of meaning and freedom; and Herbert Marcuse’s championing of Eros, or the life drive, to interpret Tolstoy’s life and art within its political and historical context.

Of these concepts, let me briefly explain Freud’s ideas about universal bisexuality and polymorphous perversity. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hypothesized that we are all bisexual, in the sense of both integrating male and female elements, and having pansexual attractions. (By the way, Charles Darwin would appear to agree with the former point, considering his view that “every man & woman is hermaphrodite.”) In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud proposes that human beings are sexual from birth, and that our libido (or sex-drive) expresses itself in “polymorphous-perverse” ways. I for one believe that our attachments and attractions manifest in wide-ranging, kaleidoscopic, and, yes, polymorphous fashion. So, while Freud and many of his followers were not necessarily friendly with the LGBTQ community—two of the notable exceptions here being Marcuse and the anarchist psychiatrist Otto Gross—I believe that some Freudian concepts can still be useful to us.

Moreover, by writing Queer Tolstoy, I sought to resist the heterosexist presumption that LGBTQ people and experience should remain invisible, together with the Russian State’s aggressive homonegativity. This is despite its official boosting and opportunistic use of some of Tolstoy’s lyricism, regardless of his excommunication by Russian Orthodox Church. President Vladimir Putin’s queerphobia is crystallized in the criminalization of “non-traditional” sexual relations and gender presentations—previously limited to minors, but now extended to the entire population. The Russian LGBT Network has been officially branded a “foreign agent.” This is not to mention genocidal crimes committed against the LGBTQ community in Chechnya, under Putin’s satrap Ramzan Kadyrov.

I struggle with the word queer, with its history as a pejorative, but preserving the word queer seems crucial in counter balancing the weaponization of terms like traditional family values, and other, related terms that used to suppress sensuality, art, love, and new ways of being. Tell me about your reaction to the term queer? Why do you think it is fitting word to describe Tolstoy?

I hear that concern, although I suspect that there might be a generational gap here. A recent letter to the editors of the Guardian, apparently written by a 55-year old gay man, requested that the paper not use the “Q-word” because he found it “insulting and derogatory.” By contrast, the queer identity resonates more among younger people from the LGBTQ community, of which I am a part.

In the book, I use “queer” to refer both to “sexual deviance and freely chosen LGBTQ+ desire and experience,” as well as the intersection of LGBT experience and political radicalism. Going back to Freud and Marcuse, I believe “queerness” to be a synonym for “polymorphous perversity” and Eros. Along these lines, I emphasize the “lesbian continuum” hypothesized by Adrienne Rich, together with Freud’s ideas about a parallel gay continuum tying together the homosocial, homophilic, and homosexual worlds, while remaining critical of the toxic masculinity often exhibited by gay, bisexual, and straight men—Tolstoy not excluded!

As you rightly pointed out in your introductory comments, Joe, Tolstoy was not homosexual per se. By no means do I mean to erase his long marriage with Sofia Andreevna, who gave birth to thirteen of their children, much less his sexual relationships with other women. If I had to classify the count, I would say he was bisexual (in keeping, indeed, with Freudian theory). With this in mind, plus considering his dikost—a Russian word which means “daring,” “wildness,” or “iconoclasm”—I thought the title Queer Tolstoy was fitting.

In the introduction to my book, which is now available open-access, I briefly review nineteen same-sex relationships that I could glean from Tolstoy’s homoerotic biography. These include bonds with the Chechen Sado Miserbiyev, the revolutionary Russian youth Vasily Alexeev, the Ukrainian Jewish peasant Itzhak Feinermann, the Russo-Ukrainian composer Peter Tchaikovsky, the Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, and the self-aggrandizing Tolstoyan proprietor Vladimir Chertkov, among others. Lev Nikolaevich himself admits to eight other gay attachments early on in his diaries. Considering the artist’s hyper-sexual impulses, these likely only represent the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” for Tolstoy’s same-sex experiences.

Nina Nikitina, senior researcher at Yasnaya Polyana, writes that Tolstoy “read love signs all the time and was in their power.” He certainly sought love as mutual recognition and connection, as is emphasized by humanistic psychoanalysts like Jessica Benjamin. Such themes feature especially in War and Peace, a canvas on which Tolstoy’s alter egos discover spontaneous same-sex attractions on the battlefields and behind the front lines as comrades collectively resisting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s onslaught. These include platonic, deeply felt lesbian and gay bonds between Princess Marya Bolkonskaya and Julie Karagina on the one hand, and between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Captain Tushin on the other. Plus, as during World War I, soldiers will fraternize homoerotically and agree to cease-fires across the lines of control.

Tolstoy is known for bringing the realities of war and imperialism home to Russians. He was critical of the idea of the strong man, the leader who will bring his people glory. This seems to be very fitting, given the current tragedy of Ukraine and the despotism of Putin. What would Tolstoy say today about the current situation?

As Piro Subrat explains in Invertidos y Rompepatrias (2019), a history of the Spanish LGBTQ community, Tolstoy supported the mission of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which was founded by the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1897. This committee, the first LGBT rights organization in history, sought to repeal Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which was used to criminalize male homosexuality from 1871 to 1994. In this light, Tolstoy would likely have been horrified by Putin’s war on the queer community, which has resonated with Republicans in the US.

Both of these conservative-authoritarian power-groups are dehumanizing and inciting violence against us, with the Daily Wire commentator Michael Knowles even calling at this year’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) for trans* people to be “eradicated from public life entirely.” The state of Tennessee has now criminalized drag. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has sought to cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as retribution for the LGBTQ pride marches the country has hosted—just as Putin’s forces have wielded wanton sexual violence against the LGBT+ community in occupied Ukraine. I believe that Lev Nikolaevich would have spoken out against such queerphobic hatred and ultra-violence.

Although some of his descendants, like the “United Russia” representative Pëtr Tolstoy or Putin’s cultural adviser Vladimir Tolstoy are undoubtedly reactionaries, Lev Nikolaevich, were he alive today, would most likely be condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine and standing in solidarity with Ukrainian defenders and Russian protesters. Concretely, I imagine that he would also be involved with journalistic efforts to uncover the brutal realities of the war, in defiance of State media narratives, official censorship, and Putin’s megalomania, and that he would support war resistance, such as the sabotage taken up by the Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists (BOAK), plus conscientious objection and desertion from the battlefield. He might have highlighted the disproportionate utilization of soldiers from Russia’s ethnic and indigenous communities as cannon fodder, or circulated news about all the land mines planted by the invaders in Ukraine’s agricultural fields. Like his great grand-daughter Maria Albertini, he would likely be involved in directly supporting Ukrainian refugees.

You may have seen that Putin’s regime has cynically used Tolstoy’s face to adorn a high fence set up around the Mariupol Drama Theatre in occupied Ukraine. This was the site of a horrific massacre perpetrated last March by the invading Russians. Up to six hundred Ukrainian civilians were killed as they took shelter there from the ruthless assault. The same month, in Mariupol, a Russian airstrike destroyed the Arkhip Kuindzhi Art Museum, which had hosted paintings by this renowned artist, born in the same city. (His “Rainbow” painting is included in my book.) Needless to say, Tolstoy, who inspired the Revolution so despised by Putin, and who remains excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, would not conceivably have consented to such use of his image.

Considering the fate of Alexei Navalny, the main leader of the anti-Putin opposition, whose views are much more conservative than Tolstoy’s, and who is currently a political prisoner in a maximum-security facility outside Moscow (as Daniel Roher, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary about his poisoning, reminds us), Tolstoy probably would have been imprisoned or assassinated under Putin’s regime—as the critic Boris Nemstov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, among many others, have been. Indeed, as I discuss in the book, Tolstoy very nearly was imprisoned and executed when the translation of an openly anarchist essay of his appeared in the English press in 1891. It was really only thanks to the intervention of his high-ranking cousin, courtier Alexandrine Tolstaya, that Lev Nikolaevich survived this incident.

It is crucial that Ukraine win this war against Russia, and liberate its occupied territories. As the Russian Socialist Movement points out, “Russian history is replete with examples of military setbacks abroad that have led to major change at home.” Tsar Nicholas I’s death from stress and/or suicide in 1855 as his Empire suffered setbacks in the Crimean War brought Alexander II’s formal abolition of serfdom closer, just as it opened up new possibilities for radical struggle from below. During World War I, Russian casualties, poor morale, and mass-desertion (blamed, in part, on Tolstoy’s ideas) contributed to the coming of the Revolution. Rather than continue to blackmail the world with nuclear weapons and mobilize lies about “Ukrainian Nazis” to rationalize his atrocities, Putin must be thoroughly defeated on the battlefield, so that his regime falls, too.

In his life and his works, Tolstoy points to history not being steered by leaders or great men, but by the people. His critical view on the idealization of the “strong man,” the leader who will bring his people glory, again has parallels to what we are witnessing today with Putin in Russia and the U.S. In contrast, he put his faith in “the People.”

Yes, that’s right. As he describes in A Confession (1882), it was the common people’s faith that saved him from taking his life during the spiritual crisis he experienced at the end of the 1870’s, after finishing Anna Karenina. When he was younger, as well, peasant women saved him from drowning in the Volga River, while his wet nurse was a serf woman named Avdotia Ziabreva. In reality, just before he passed away, Tolstoy was asking about the peasants.

In the book, I describe Tolstoy as a champion of anarcho-Populism, or the anarchist current of Narodnichestvo (also translated as Narodism). This was a revolutionary anti-Tsarist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that envisioned an agrarian-socialist future for Russia. Besides Tolstoy, its main proponents were Herzen, Bakunin, Chernyshevsky, and Lavrov. (This was before Plekhanov and Lenin introduced Marxism to the Empire.) Some forerunners of anarcho-Populism included “men of 1812” like Tolstoy’s distant cousin, General Sergei Volkonsky. These “men of 1812” were veteran officers from the 1812 war against Napoleon. Known as a “peasant prince,” Volkonsky was exiled with his wife Marya to Siberian exile for three decades for spearheading the Decembrist conspiracy to overthrow Tsarism in 1825. This man, whose life was spared (in contrast to other Decembrist leaders) only owing to his family’s great prestige—specifically, his mother’s intercession—served as the model on which Tolstoy based Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. (As a side note, the support of Bakunin’s mother was crucial in convincing Tsar Alexander II to commute the rebel’s prison term to Siberian exile, thus facilitating his escape from the Empire.)

In contrast to direction by “great men,” like the Romanov Tsars, Bonaparte, Trump, or Putin, Tolstoy proposes that history is built from below through the collective action of the People. In War and Peace, he presents several examples of collective resistance to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia which have present-day echoes. These include the need to support Ukraine’s legitimate self-defense against the Russian onslaught; the imperative of unionizing and socializing the global economy; and the necessity of a worldwide transition to wind, water, and solar energy (WWS).

It’s interesting, reconciling Tolstoy’s heroization of the collective resistance of the Russian people to expel Napoleon with his transition to advocate of non resistance. And not just any advocate, but an influencer of peaceful resistance of historic proportions…

You’re right. It is quite the contradiction. Tolstoy espoused pacifism in the wake of his ‘conversion’ to rationalist Christianity after suffering a crisis of depression and suicidality in the 1870’s—mirroring the decline of the radical anti-Tsarist movement under Alexander II. Non-resistance follows from Jesus’ command, made during the Sermon on the Mount, to “resist not the evildoer” (Matthew 5:39). While this directive appears to demand servility and passivity, and thus reproduce abusive dynamics, the Unitarian Universalist Adin Ballou interpreted it as meaning that “we are not to resist evil with evil,” but “[e]vil is to be resisted by all just means.” Gandhi, who corresponded with Tolstoy at the end of his life about this very concept (and founded the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa in 1910), likewise promoted civil disobedience as non-violent resistance to abuse, or Satyagraha, in the struggle against British imperialism in India. In turn, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached Gandhian and Tolstoyan non-cooperation in his dream for the non-violent, anti-racist transformation of U.S. society.

Still, the theory of non-resistance has clear limits. If one takes the injunction not to “resist the evildoer” literally, then the Ukrainians would have to surrender to Putin; the Communards of Paris, the Kronstadt sailors, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Haitians, Syrians, and Palestinians should not have risen up; and workers and minorities should not complain or organize—but simply grin and bear everything. This is a self-defeating current in Tolstoy’s thought that amounts to a “betrayal of the cause of the oppressed,” in the words of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, and “an enclosure of his own position,” as my comrade Shon Meckfessel writes. Indeed, this tension may speak to Tolstoy’s war trauma and fragmented sense of identity. After all, throughout his life, he resisted abuse, and admired and enshrined resistance to authority.

As you put aptly in your book, “Alienation is universal under capitalism.” I’m all too familiar with the feelings of alienation, and while Tolstoy wasn’t under modern capitalism’s yoke per se, he lived under a system of extreme disparity and social restriction. In reaction to this, his life appeared to be a journey of seeking a better way, a kingdom of God here on earth. As such, he turned to an interesting form of spiritualism. Could you talk more about that?

Yes, of course. While fighting at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, Tolstoy experienced an epiphany just after the death of Tsar Nicholas. He then proposed the “stupendous idea” of founding a new religion based on the actual teachings of Jesus the Nazarene, rather than established church dogmas or mysticism. This dream-state expressed the artist’s therapeutic desire to contest the death-dealing authority of Church and State by promoting union. It is reproduced in War and Peace during Prince Andrei’s trance, as he lies injured at the battle of Austerlitz, and affirms the utopian desire for peace, while experiencing a psychedelic “queerpiphany.” Tolstoy’s passionate engagement with Christianity is based in the evangelical message of the Gospels, not church rituals. His was a non-orthodox Christianity: Tolstoy’s “new translation” of the Gospels (1881) ends with Jesus’ crucifixion at Golgotha and excludes most mentions of miracles, including above all the resurrection.

Although Tolstoy became more openly didactic after his spiritual crisis, his Christian anarchism can also be gleaned from his earlier writings, including War and Peace. In this work, Pierre Bezukhov, another Tolstoyan alter ego, becomes a Freemason after separating from his first wife, Hélène. By introducing this radical homosocial association, which anticipates Pierre’s joining the Decembrists at the book’s end, Tolstoy presents an interpretation of Christianity “freed from the bonds of State and church, a teaching of equality, brotherhood, and love.” Along these lines, the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin admired Freemasonry for advancing self-organization in Russia, while the Tsars feared precisely the freethinking and autonomy it stimulated.

In middle age, the count took up vegetarianism, renounced hunting, adopted strict pacifism, and condemned the libido—regardless of how unhappy this latter position would leave his wife Sofia Andreevna. Such ascetic changes may have resulted from Tolstoy’s encounters with death-anxiety as he aged; an intensification of underlying bipolar depression; a queer dissatisfaction with straight conventions; and/or the artist’s life-long attempt to observe his principles and so prefigure the Kingdom of God. While he did not succeed in meeting his goal of living simply and peacefully in an egalitarian community, much less of redistributing his lands and estates, these contradictions drove the tragic flight of this “proletarian lord” in October 1910.

You delve deeply into philosophy and psychology in Queer Tolstoy, as you have done in your other works, including in your previous work on Marcuse, Eros and Revolution. What gravitates you to these fields? And further, how can we connect Tolstoy’s philosophy to our own lives?

Like Lev Nikolaevich, I am a seeker: a Resident and Stranger. In my writings, I challenge the divisions that are often drawn between mind and body, idealism and materialism, and psychiatry and medicine. As Marcuse, Gross, and Tolstoy knew, these realms are actually connected.

I’m especially fascinated by Tolstoy as a “forerunner” of the Russian (and Mexican) Revolutions, the tragic experience of his followers in the Soviet Union (which confirms the counter-revolutionary nature of Leninism and Stalinism), and the ongoing relevance of Tolstoyan radicalism. I’m intrigued by the artist’s critiques of violence, hierarchy, and despotism; his work in popular education and famine relief; his engagements with Islam, Buddhism, and Daoism; his support for erotic, moral, and political self-determination; his existential emphasis on creating meaning in the face of death; his queerness (of course); and his inspiration of plant-based, pacifist communes guided by ideals of “peaceful revolution” and “universal brotherhood.”

Still, we must learn from Tolstoy’s mistakes: above all, his gross sexism, which is consistent with the toxic masculinity that is prevalent today in much of the gay community and beyond; his ambivalence sometimes expressed, particularly in War and Peace, about White-Russian chauvinism; his masochistic theory of non-resistance, which advises against resisting abuse; and, ironically, his gay timidity—notwithstanding the constraints imposed by Tsarism. The fates of Prince Andrei and Captain Tushin, and Princess Marya and Julie Karagina, reflect his ambivalence over the libido and queer desire. As Freud knew, this shyness only perpetuated his unhappiness!

Politically speaking, there are a myriad of ways that we can connect Tolstoy’s philosophy to the present day. In contrast to Pushkin and Lermontov’s poetry, Tolstoy’s writings about Transcaucasia—including “The Raid,” The Cossacks, Hadji Murat—are generally humanistic, internationalist, and critical of Tsarist regional expansionism. They can be read to highlight the historical continuum of White-Russian violence, which has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chechens since the collapse of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. In this vein, we must never forget that Tsarist imperialism annihilated the vast majority of the Circassian people, otherwise known as Adyghes, in the Caucasus in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this light, we should channel Tolstoyan anti-war realism (but not dogmatic pacifism) to reject the left-right alliance that is converging against Ukraine. Trump, DeSantis, Fox News hosts, and MAGA extremists in the House all proclaim the fascist slogan “America First” in calling for Ukraine to be cut off, while neo-Stalinists and pseudo-anti-imperialists demand that Ukraine surrender to Russia.

History shows that Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War—which was achieved with the support of Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin’s betrayals, and the non-intervention policy of the Western democracies—set the stage for World War II. In much the same way, Putin’s “anti-humanitarian intervention” in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship from being swept away by the Syrian Revolution prepared the ground for the ongoing full-scale attack on Ukraine. Given the pressing need to stop Putin, I welcome his recent indictment by the International Criminal Court.

We chose the title “seeking the anarchism of love” as the title of our discussion, so I thought it fitting to pull this quote from War and Peace:

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand. I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.”

But what about the anarchism of love? is love integral to anarchism? And is true love anarchic?

Certainly, love, connection, and attachment are integral to anarchism, understood as anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism, anarcha-feminism, and Christian anarchism.

Throughout his life, beyond infancy, Lev Nikolaevich missed his mother, Princess Marya Volkonskaya, who passed away at the young age of thirty-nine. Still, he often yearned for her love, even as an old man, and it is evident how much her pro-social personality marked him. One of War and Peace’s main protagonists is based on her, and what is more, the real-life Marya’s unfinished family novel, Russian Pamela, deeply influenced the themes and characters Tolstoy features in his own prose poem. Akin to the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Princess Marya—who received a classical education at Yasnaya Polyana, thanks to her progressive father—was an “unlikely revolutionary.”

In turn, like Leonardo da Vinci, whose mother may have been, according to new research, a trafficked Circassian, Tolstoy identified with his mother and aunts, together with traditionally “feminine” virtues like care and compassion. Plus, as a cadet in the Caucasus, Tolstoy was intensely attracted to the “God of Love and Reason” that he discovered among the natural beauty there, and the social and sexual freedom practiced by his Cossack hosts, at least within their in-group. He was certainly repelled by Cossack violence against the Muslim Chechens. Your apt quote from War and Peace, which appears just after Prince Andrei’s death due to injuries sustained at the battle of Borodino, frames love in Marcusean terms as Eros, eternally struggling against archaic forces and Thanatos (or the death drive).

Many times in War and Peace, we encounter scenes that recall bell hooks’ concept of the anarchism of love, whereby arousal and attachment contest hierarchy and convention, challenge abuse, and tear down walls. Hence, the spontaneous comrade-love that develops on the battlefield between Prince Andrei and Tushin; Pierre’s homoerotic bonds with his Freemason and peasant mentors and serf-soldiers at Borodino; plus Natasha Rostova’s prayer for “one community, without distinction of class, without enmity, united by brotherly love.” Likewise, if we think of Jessica Benjamin’s idea of love as mutual recognition, we can read War and Peace as an allegorical journey of transition and transformation—from the despotism and violence encoded by Tsarism and Bonapartism (reminiscent of biblical captivity in Egypt and Babylon), to a better future characterized by equality, peace, and freedom (that is to say, the Kingdom of God).

Such insurgent passions reverberated in the Russian Revolution, especially in the nearly 100 Tolstoyan communes and cooperatives founded soon after the fall of the Romanov dynasty, as well as in the Mexican Revolution, with the rebels Praxedis Guerrero, Ricardo Flores Magón, and General Emiliano Zapata looking to the Russian anarchist sage for inspiration.

Lastly, in the 1970’s, hippies from the Soviet counterculture rediscovered Tolstoy as a spiritual guide for their anti-authoritarian journeys and pilgrimages, experiments in pacifism and free love, and protests against the Soviet regime.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and please don’t forget to donate what you can to Solidarity Collectives.


Queer Tolstoy

Open-access introduction (chapter 2)

YouTube recording

Leo Tolstoy archive (English translations)

Bureau of General Services–Queer Division

Michael Denner, “The ‘proletarian lord’: Leo Tolstoy’s image during the Russian revolutionary period” (2010). doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511676246.012

Irina Gordeeva, “Tolstoyism in the Late-Socialist Cultural Underground: Soviet Youth in Search of Religion, Individual Autonomy and Nonviolence in the 1970s–1980s” (2017)

—, “The Evolution of Tolstoyan Pacifism in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, 1900–1937” (2018)

Michael Kazin, “Reject the Left-Right Alliance Against Ukraine” (2023)

Mark Mola, “The Circassian Genocide” (2016).

Seeking the Anarchism of Love (Video Recording)

March 23, 2023

Please feel free to listen and/or watch the audio-visual recording of my conversation yesterday (above) with Joe Scheip about Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography. The event was hosted by the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division. Thanks to Joe, the Bureau, and those who tuned in.

Please check out the introduction to my book, which is available open-access, and donate to the Ukrainian anarchists in Solidarity Collectives, if you can afford it. Thank you.

Anarchism and Star Trek: Picard

February 15, 2023

Check out this entertaining interview Joseph Orosco recently held with my mother, María Castro, and myself about our article, “Bibliophilia and Anarchism in Star Trek: Picard.” Our conversation took place on YouTube for the Anarres Project for Alternatives Futures this month, and our review was published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory in October 2022.

Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

October 11, 2021

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

“’Is the world at its end?’

[…] ‘There is no end.’” (Le Guin 281)

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

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

Always Coming Home

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

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

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

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

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

“Under the mud in the dark of the sea there

books are, bones are […].

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

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

Valley vs. Condor: Kesh vs. Dayao

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

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

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

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

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

Elements of Critical Theory in Always Coming Home

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize (1985).

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

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

Audio-visual recordings of “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia” now available

May 1, 2021

Please find links to the recordings of “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond” here (on the blog) or here (YouTube playlist).

These recordings include four panels, a video address by the historian Jaroslav Leontiev (and an interview with him), a discussion with the filmmakers of Maggots and Men, and the closing session with co-sponsors.

A link to The Commoner’s review of the conference can be found here.

Thank you.

Invitation to “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia, 1921-2021,” March 20-21, 2021

February 16, 2021

On behalf of the organizing collective, I wish to invite you to an upcoming conference about history, politics, and current events: “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia, 1921-2021,” which will be held online on March 20-21, 2021.

This is an internationally organized conference that aims to commemorate the momentous March 1921 uprising of the Kronstadt sailors, which was described by the scholar Orlando Figes as an “island version of the Paris Commune” within the Russian Revolution that began in February 1917. By bringing together historians, artists, freethinkers, anarchists, and syndicalists to share their perspectives about the past, present, and “living past” in relation to the Kronstadt Commune, we hope to celebrate People’s History by recalling the sailors’ courage in espousing a fresh “Third Revolution” against ossified Bolshevik rule.

We seek to explore how the tragic legacy of the Kronstadt Commune’s suppression lives on in the support provided of late by some self-styled leftists to the rehabilitation of authoritarian discourses and bloody counter-revolutions—in Syria, above all. We further aim to examine how the Kronstadters’ model of autonomous, anti-authoritarian joint struggle among workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors continues to be globally relevant in our own day.

The conference, which consists of 4 panels, 2 film screenings, 2 public readings, and a closing social event, will be streamed over Twitch, where we will take questions and comments for discussion with panelists and speakers. The full schedule is available here.

If you are interested in attending the conference, please register here.

The Twitch stream can be accessed here, and our Discord can be found here.

Thank you.

Pëtr Kropotkin, Anarcho-Communist “Intelligent Hero”: An Historical Analysis

February 11, 2021

This is a video recording of my presentation at the “Life, Freedom, Ethics: Kropotkin Now!” conference on February 7, 2021. I take a biographical and historical approach to Pëtr Alexeevich Kropotkin’s revolutionary life and legacy. Thanks for watching!

On Internationalist Socialist Solidarity and Anti-Imperialism

August 27, 2018

Presentation at Left Coast Forum panel on imperialism and anti-imperialism, August 25, 2018

In light of the fate of the Syrian Revolution, which has now nearly been crushed entirely by the bloody counter-revolution carried out by Bashar al-Assad together with his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies, there has been renewed debate on the global left regarding the meanings of imperialism and anti-imperialism, and the political implications these carry. Many authoritarians claiming leftism cross-over with the white-supremacist right’s open support for the Assad Regime by denying its crimes and overlooking the (sub)imperialist roles played by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran in Syria, focusing exclusively on the U.S.’s supposed opposition to Assad’s rule.

This tendency is a worrisome development, suggestive as it is of a red-brown alliance (or axis) that is not consistently anti-imperialist or internationalist but rather, only opposed to U.S. imperialism. It also fails analytically to see how the U.S. has increasingly accommodated Assad’s ghastly ‘victory,’ as reflected in Donald Trump’s cutting off of the White Helmets in May and his non-intervention as Assad, Russia, and Iran defeated formerly U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) units of the Southern Front, reconquering Der’aa, birthplace of the Revolution, and the remainder of the southwest last month. In stark contrast to such approaches, today we will discuss militarism and imperialism from anti-authoritarian and class framework-analyses.

Toward this end, I want to suggest that Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation’s definition of imperialism is apt: from their Point of Unity on Internationalism and Imperialism, Imperialism is a system where the state and elite classes of some countries use their superior economic and military power to dominate and exploit the people and resources of other countries.”1 This brutal concept applies clearly to contemporary and historical global practices which since 1492 primarily Western European and U.S. ruling classes have imposed onto much of the world, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade—this month marks 500 years—to colonial famines, genocide, military occupation, and settler-colonial regimes. Yet, more controversially among many so-called leftists who adhere to a ‘campist analysis,’ whereby the world is split up into competing military blocs,2 this concept of imperialism and its related concept of sub-imperialism can also be applied to the contemporary practices of the ruling classes of such societies as Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, otherwise known as the BRICS. According to Rohini Hensman in her new book Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (2018), the “pseudo-anti-imperialists” of today can be divided into three categories: tyrants, imperialists, and war criminals; the neo-Stalinists who openly support them; and Orientalist ‘progressives’ who focus exclusively on Western imperialism, to the exclusion of all other considerations, such as the agency of Middle Eastern peoples, as well as the realities of non-Western imperialism & sub-imperialism (47-52). For those to whom the concept may be unfamiliar, sub-imperialism is defined in the Marxist theory of dependency (MTD) as a process whereby a dependent or subordinate country becomes a “regional sub-centre,” unifies “different bourgeois factions by displacing internal contradictions, develops a “specific national and sub-imperialist political-ideological project,” forms and advances monopolies, and simultaneously transfers value to the core-imperialist countries while also exploiting materially and geopolitically weaker countries for the benefit of its bourgeoisie.3

The central military roles played by Putin and the Islamic Republic in rescuing the Assad Regime from defeat in the Syrian Revolution—and, indeed, their joint responsibility for the overall murder of 200,000 civilians and the forcible disappearance of over 80,000 Syrians in this enterprise over the past seven years, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), and as confirmed recently by Assad’s mass-release of death notices for detainees—thus starkly demonstrate pressing cases of imperialism and sub-imperialism on today’s global stage, yet in contrast to the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians just across Syria’s southwest border, it is apparently eminently controversial among U.S./Western neo-Stalinist ‘leftists’ to acknowledge the reactionary, authoritarian, and yes, (sub)imperialist functions served by Vladimir Putin and the Islamic Republic in propping up Assad,4 a neo-fascist who does not just rule over a ‘dictatorial regime’ but rather heads an exterminationist State, as the Syrian communist Yassin al-Hajj Saleh observes, and as the death toll attests to. According to Saleh:

“I do not talk about Syria because I happen to come from this country afflicted with one of the most brutal ruling juntas in the world today, nor because Syria is under multiple occupations while Syrians themselves are scattered around the world. Rather, I speak of Syria because the Syrian genocide is met by a state of global denial, where the left, the right, and the mainstream all compete with one another to avert their eyes and formulate cultural discourses, genocidal themselves, to help them see and feel nothing.”

The Russian Defense Ministry just announced on Wednesday, August 22, that 63,000 soldiers have fought in Syria in the past three years, while in June, Putin announced that Russian troops were “testing and training” in Syria so as to prevent a similar situation arising in Russia proper. (Does this sound to anyone like Dick Cheney talking about Iraq?) Hence, in light of the effective occupation of Syria perpetrated by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other Shi’a militias (e.g. Liwa Fatemiyoun) to prop up the regime, taken together with their attendant contributions to what Saleh calls the Syrian genocide—a counter-insurgent reaction which others have termed ‘democidal’—it is my view, and I believe that of my co-panelists, that several of the struggles against Assad, Putin, and the Islamic Republic of Iran form critical parts of the global anti-imperialist movement which by definition resists militarism and regional and transnational domination and exploitation. If human rights are the “tribunal of history” and their end (or goal) the construction of an ethical and political utopia,5 these regimes, in parallel to Western imperialism, are on the wrong side of history. In accordance with the conclusion of Hensman’s book, democratic movements like the Iranian popular revolts of early 2018; the ongoing Ahwazi mobilizations for socio-ecological justice; those of feminists and political prisoners in all three countries; and Russian Antifa, among others, demand our support and solidarity as socialists. Of course, anti-imperialist forces should continue to oppose established Euro-American imperialism and settler-colonialism—“the main enemy is at home,” as Karl Liebknecht declared in 1915, denouncing what he termed the ‘genocide’ of World War I6—together with the neo-colonial crimes of allied autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen today. Liebknecht’s statement notwithstanding, we must recall that he in no way supported the Tsar or other imperialist rivals of the German State, but the Russian Revolution instead.

Therefore, a truly humanist form of anti-imperialism today cannot exclude the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian regimes from critique and, it is to be hoped, support for organization toward their ultimate demise.7 The atrocity-denialism engaged in by many self-styled ‘progressives’ and ‘leftists’ in the West when it comes to the Assad Regime, as identified by Leila al-Shami and others, is abhorrent. If we really believe as internationalists and egalitarians that each human life has equal dignity and value, we must play no part in it.8

For our own sake and for the sake of the global revolution, too, it would behoove us to examine the actual affinities between the Trump Regime and Putin, which span allegations of collusion or conspiracy during the 2016 election to Trump’s very obvious servility before the former FSB chief at the Helsinki Summit of July 2018, besides Trump’s aforementioned withdrawal of U.S. support for the Syrian rebels, a move that may well have been coordinated with Russia as an affirmation on Trump’s part of Assad’s ghoulish campaign to retake the entire country.


The red-brown axis certainly has its precedents: the historian Marko Attila Hoare has correctly diagnosed several self-described Euro-American ‘anti-imperialists’ as being ‘left-revisionists’ who reject the orthodox Western view that holds Serbian nationalism to be the primary aggressor in the Balkan wars of the 1990’s that led to the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians, as reflected in the so-called leftist intellectuals and publications (Noam Chomsky, Diana Johnstone, CounterPunch) who effectively supported the embattled ultra-nationalist Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević, for his ‘resistance’ to the US/NATO, thus betraying their campism where we should expect humanist solidarity with those victimized by Serbian expansionism.

Rohini Hensman argues as an alternative to established pseudo-anti-imperialism that we pursue and tell the truth; critique ideologies that delegitimize democracy and promote authoritarianism; reaffirm the morality of resisting oppression and proclaiming solidarity with the victims of violence; place internationalism center-stage; and consider reforms to State sovereignty in light of mass-slaughter and the absence of democracy.


1This definition differs somewhat from Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the monopoly stage of capitalism,” whereby the merging of big banks and industry exists inevitably alongside “a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world.” It does not contradict Lenin’s subsequent redefinition in the same text: “Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system, the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction and an extreme intensification of antagonisms in this field. Particularly intensified become the yoke of national oppression and the striving for annexations, i.e., the violation of national independence (for annexation is nothing but the violation of the right of nations to self-determination).”

2Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), World Workers’ Party (WWP), World Socialist Website (WSWS), Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Vanessa Beeley (actually fascist), Seymour Hersh, “Revolutionary Left Radio,” Glenn Greenwald, and others.

3Adrián Sotelo Valencia, Sub-Imperialism Revisited: Dependency Theory in the Thought of Ruy Mauro Marini, trans. Jacob Lagnado (Haymarket Books: Chicago, 2017), 67-8.

4By BRRN’s definition, above; also cf. Rudolf Hilferding, cited in Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”: “European capital can maintain its domination only by continually increasing its military forces.”

5Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights (Hart Publishing: Oxford, 2000), 380.

6“International proletarian class struggle against international imperialist genocide is the socialist commandment of the hour.”

7See Asr Anarshism’s open campaign to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.

8See the conclusions of a lab working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which confirm use of sarin gas from regime stockpiles in Ghouta (2013), Khan Sheikhoun (2017), and Khan al-Assal (2013). According to OPCW findings, it was chlorine, not sarin, that was used in the chemical attack on Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in April 2018.

“Lessons from exits foreclosed: An exilic interpretation of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, 1910-1924” – published in Capital and Class

April 7, 2018


I am pleased to announce the publication in Capital and Class of a collaborative work co-written by Andrew Smolski, Alexander Reid Ross, and myself, entitled “Lessons from exits foreclosed: An exilic interpretation of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, 1910–1924.” Please find the abstract here:

We apply a typology of exile to factions involved in the Mexican and Russian Revolutions of the early 20th century. Our typology is based on Grubačić and O’Hearn’s theory of exile, which seeks to explain how alternative social institutions based on mutual aid, substantive reproduction, and egalitarian, direct democracy come into being and sustain themselves. We argue for exile as a determinant of revolutionary outcomes and the state (de)formation process and that we must understand exile-in-rupture as a moment when structures are at maximal flux due to the existence of exilic factions. By doing so, we offer a novel approach to understanding revolutions and state (de)formation based upon the alliances between exilic and incorporative factions. Through descriptions of loyalty bargains made, maintained, and broken during the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, we demonstrate how factions representing autonomy and exit are excluded from the resulting political-economic order post-Revolution, while their energy and power are leveraged during revolution itself. Based on this, we argue that exile is a key component of radical strategy, but that it is often precariously based on loyalty bargains that underpin it. Due to exile’s precarity, revolutions are foreclosed by reincorporation into the capitalist world-system as states are (re)formed by incorporative factions. Therefore, exile is both a necessary and contingent component of revolution and state (de)formation.

Toward an Ecologically Based Post-Capitalism: Interview With Kim Stanley Robinson

March 17, 2018

NY 2140

Copyright Reproduced with permission

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author. A science- and climate-fiction novelist, Robinson has written more than 20 books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, and 2312. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

In this interview, Truthout talks with Robinson about his books Green Earth and New York 2140. Set in the present or near future, Green Earth portrays struggles over climate science in the US capital, whereas New York 2140 depicts life in a 22nd century metropolis that has been inundated by the melted polar regions.

Stan, thank you kindly for being open to participating in this interview. First, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away recently. Her influence on your own creative writing is marked. Do you have any reflections on Le Guin’s life and work that you wish to share?

I wrote a memorial statement after her death for Scientific American. What I can add to that now as I continue to feel the loss of her living presence, is that in listening to the science fiction community talk about her, I’m struck by how beloved she was, both her and her work, and I’m thinking now that this was a very unusual quality in her work and her person. Also, less crucially, her work always had a quick sureness about it; she didn’t waste words or pile on details. She cut a clean line, as surfers would say. That’s the mark of a good style: distinctive and clear. Her prose has a poetry to it.

One major theme in Green Earth and New York 2140 is democracy versus capitalism. New York 2140 begins with a statement of Proudhonian or Marxian value analysis: The coders Mutt and Jeff (as workers) create the surplus-value (profit) that drives the capitalist monster which persists even in the year 2140, after it has melted Greenland and parts of Antarctica, raising sea levels by 50 feet and devastating coastal and low-lying regions. You clarify that it is capitalism that is responsible for such ecological catastrophe, in parallel to the grossly unequal wealth and power distribution it engenders. Capital’s class divisions are symbolized in New York 2140 in the struggle between flooded lower Manhattan and the intertidal region versus uptown, where the superscrapers of the rich stand on higher ground. Ultimately, you envision mass popular resistance building up from a rent strike toward a global general strike to overturn this oppressive system. Is this how we should wield revolutionary democracy and organize?

A fiscal strike is one possible way to exert people power. Finance is systemically over-leveraged — and therefore in a precarious position — if something like the 2008 crash were to occur again. Such a crash will happen anytime there is a crisis of confidence in the markets and in the value of money, and the various money-surrogates. People could all together and at once refuse regularly scheduled payments, or less radically, they could together remove their money from banks and put them in credit unions. Done as a mass-action, this would crash the system. After that, there would have to be a plan to rescue the banks by nationalizing them, as we did to [General Motors] in 2009. This is just one tactic and just one step on the road to post-capitalism, but it does point out the power people have as the ultimate source of value, including financial value. Finance is parasitical on ordinary people, so some modes of detoxification are available. The parasites can’t live on their own.

Your exploration of the exercise of autonomy and egalitarian cooperation at the MetLife Tower, transformed into a cooperative living residence, and via the Lower Manhattan Mutual Aid Society in New York 2140 recalls the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s analysis in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Indeed, your Mr. Hexter advises his youthful counterparts that “[h]elping animals or helping people” would be just ways of being in the world. May I ask to what degree libertarian socialism inspires you?

I have never read a definition of the word “libertarian” that makes any sense to me, nor sounds attractive as a principle, so I avoid that word as much as I can. Maybe “democratic socialism” is the better term for me — the idea being that people in democracies would elect representatives that would then pass laws based on socialist principles. That is a story I’m often interested in telling, as something that could and should happen in our near future. It’s my form of utopian science fiction. The social democracies of north Europe and the name “social democrat” also resonate for me, although these political parties, when in power in Europe, have had to make alliances and compromises with capitalism that make them far from satisfactory. But from the viewpoint of the United States, they look like at least a step along the path to more justice. There would be more steps later. I usually favor stepwise reform, but I have to admit we need the steps to come really fast, one after the next, now that climate change is about to overwhelm us.

In both Green Earth and New York 2140, you raise many imaginative possibilities in terms of collective responses to climate catastrophe that we might want to consider: redirecting excess sea-level rise into East Antarctica and inland deserts; introducing Arctic polar bears to Antarctica to avoid extinction; designing floating cities; rebuilding beaches and shorelines; and infusing the Arctic Ocean with vast quantities of salt transported in container fleets in order to restart the thermohaline circulation, or Gulf Stream, threatened by global warming. The emphasis on cooperatives and the commons in New York 2140, in parallel to Green Earth‘s examination of simple living, “freeganism,” and the transition to wind, water and solar energy gives us a lot to think about.

Some of these ideas have been explored by research institutes since I wrote about them in my novels. I don’t think the researchers involved read my novels; I think they are ideas that emerge naturally given the problems we are facing. So, pumping seawater up onto the Antarctic ice cap could be done, but would require something like 7 percent of all the energy humanity creates. Even so, it might be considered a good idea compared to losing all sea level infrastructure and beaches and ecologies. Assisted migration is being planned and even tried experimentally, and this will continue, but polar bears to Antarctica was my idea of a joke. It has been taken up and studied, however. Salting the Gulf Stream would probably not work, and yet it might be tried if the Gulf Stream stalled, just to see.

Still, you have caught the drift of my fiction — I’m interested in describing actions like these. Some are geoengineering, some are political economy and involve return of the commons, socialism, clean energy, etc.

Over the course of Green Earth, we see “gradualist-progressive” elements within the State evermore placing science center-stage in the struggle to curb capitalism’s contributions to climate change. We encounter Charlie Quibler, the young aide to Sen. Phil Chase, drafting a bill to legislate the implementation of recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only to have the law inevitably watered down by legislators, including Chase himself. Then, Washington, DC, is struck by a massive storm, and it is on the flooded Mall that Quibler confronts Chase, imploring him to finally do something about climate change. Subsequently, Chase announces his Democratic presidential candidacy at the North Pole — or what’s left of it — and upon being elected as the “first scientific presidential candidate,” he launches an emergency climate mobilization in the “first 60 days” of his administration. In New York 2140, similarly, there is a revolutionary, popular upsurge which follows a massive hurricane that sweeps through the city; yet here, too, the revolt “lives on” through the State. In light of these social-democratic models you present for evidence-based policy-making and your view that scientific inquiry is linked to justice and fairness, what do you make of the status of science now one year into the Trump regime?

It’s been a year of continuous assault on science and justice by the Trump administration, and it’s been shocking to see how many people there are willing to implement such a … wicked vision…. But all of these poor people will immediately run to a scientist the moment they feel sick — that’s their doctors. They believe in science when they’re scared for their lives. What this reveals is their hypocrisy … and greed, but also, the strength of the system they’re attacking, which enfolds them completely. We live in a world that is a scientific achievement, and we can’t live without the scientific achievements, and even though some of the scientific achievements have definitely led us to our current crisis — public health and agriculture leading to quick population rise, and carbon-burning energy leading to climate change — still, it’s science in action that will be involved in all the solutions, along with politics aiming our scientific work.

I think the science is robust and will survive this attack from Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party in the US and capitalism worldwide. There will be damage, and the political battles will never end, but over the long arc of history. You know the rest.

In New York 2140, you cite John Dos Passos recalling a meeting with Emma Goldman at which “everybody [gathered] was for peace and the cooperative commonwealth and the Russian Revolution.” It is clear that your work features several anarchistic characters and themes, yet you also often invoke Lincoln’s vision of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as an ideal. So, 100-plus years since the Russian Revolution, do you consider the state necessary for the transition to an egalitarian, ecological post-capitalist world?

Yes, I do. This is not an easy thing to say, given how much that is bad has accrued around what we call “the state” in world history. But the term is probably too broad and philosophical. If you want to use it, and speak at that level of broad generality, I’ll join briefly and say, we need the state itself to become just and scientific, and the expression of everyone alive agreeing how to live together. That agreement formalized as laws becomes the state…. Best to focus on creating a good state based on just laws. For getting through the climate change emergency, I think it’s the only way that will work.

In closing, do you have any thoughts for the ongoing struggle of promoting “compassion for all sentient beings” (Green Earth) within the context of the sixth mass extinction?

Time is running short in terms of dodging a really bad sixth mass extinction that would result if we create a much, much warmer world by our burning of carbon into the atmosphere. If we can quickly reduce our carbon burn, which is really what powers our culture now, that would be a huge change and would allow all sorts of other good potentialities to come to pass. We have to keep emphasizing the need to decarbonize fast. Fortunately, the technologies to do this include women’s rights (this stabilizes population) and economic equality (this reduces impacts of poverty and over-consumption). Justice is a climate-change technology of great power, so there is no need to set up false dichotomies as to which good cause we support. The good causes reinforce each other and we need them all at once. This is why capitalism has to give way to an ecologically-based post-capitalism, which, in some features, will be aspects of socialism chosen democratically. We have to figure out a way to pay ourselves to do the work of survival.