Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

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.

Links

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).

Book Review Essay: Anti-Authoritarian Internationalism, Then and Now

May 3, 2023
“Fighters on the Aragón front, 1937” by Kati Horna (International Institute of Social History/Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte. Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica)

First published on New Politics, 26 April 2023

In The Politics of Unreason (2017), Lars Rensmann poses an important question about fascism and anti-Semitism: namely, are these oppressive phenomena “specific to German or European culture—or rather universal, the byproduct of universal authoritarian phenomena, susceptibilities, and tendencies in modern society […?].”1

This book review essay seeks to answer this question and explore fascism and the far right by examining five recently published anti-fascist (Antifa) and anti-authoritarian volumes: namely, Lars Rensmann’s own The Politics of Unreason; ¡No Pasarán! (2022), edited by Shane Burley; Ilham Tohti’s We Uyghurs Have No Say (2022); Luke Cooper’s Authoritarian Contagion: The Global Threat to Democracy (2021); and Charles Reitz’s The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse (2022). In general, we agree with the theorists of the Frankfurt School—like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—who held that “fascism could happen anywhere,” and that authoritarianism is a “more or less universal modern phenomenon.”2 Likewise, we concur with Paul Gilroy, who writes that “barbarity can appear anywhere, at any time.”3

Accordingly, as we explore these five books, we will confront not only the “brown” fascism indelibly associated with Benito Mussolini, National Socialism (or Nazism), Trumpism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, but also Black, “red” (Communist), Syrian, Indian, and Chinese fascism and authoritarianism. Then, before concluding, we will present some anti-fascist perspectives on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine—thus converging, hopefully, with Talia Lavin’s interpretation of Antifa as “a movement of protection.”4

¡No Pasarán! and Decolonizing Fascism

In his essay for ¡No Pasarán!, Matthew N. Lyons interprets the strengthening of far-right forces in the U.S. neither as any aberration to its settler-colonial society, as many liberals hold, nor as a mere tool of hyper-capitalist rule, as many radicals (especially Marxists) claim. Instead, by applying his framework of a “three way fight” among leftists, rightists, and the State, Lyons situates fascists and the far-right as “autonomous force[s] counterposed to both the left and the capitalist state.” Through his analysis of what he terms the U.S. right’s “three big upsurges of the past half century,” Lyons demonstrates the far-right’s often-antagonistic stance toward oppressed people, leftists, their intersections, and the established authorities. In this sense, given the right’s deeply anti-egalitarian commitments, its reluctance to call capitalism into question, and its opportunistic and ultraviolent tactics, Lyons’ chapter may be read as a warning that “the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.”5 Such a lesson carries important warnings for anarchists about not only the far-right but also the authoritarian left.

In “The Black Antifascist Tradition: A Primer” and “Five Hundred Years of Fascism,” Jeannelle K. Hope and Mike Bento, respectively, consider the connections between white supremacy and fascism for ¡No Pasarán! from decolonial points of view. Reflecting on Aimé Césaire’s comment in Discourse on Colonialism (1950) that fascism is imperialism brought back to Europe, and working from the Bulgarian Stalinist Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism (presented before the Communist International in 1935) as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” Hope and Bento assert that “[a]ll colonized people [have] lived under fascist rule,” such that their resistance has of necessity been anti-fascist. Along these lines, Hopes interprets the “We Charge Genocide” (1951) report and petition, co-written by Black intellectuals William Patterson, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois; the Black Panther Party; the Black Liberation Army; Black Lives Matter; and carceral abolition movements, among others, as anti-fascist.6

There is little doubt that colonial, imperial, and racist violence, as crystallized in the annihilation of Indigenous peoples, the slave trade of Africans, and slavery, has deeply animated fascist politics. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948), Hannah Arendt describes a set of “boomerang effects,” whereby European imperialism in Africa—specifically, Germany’s genocides of the Herero and Nama peoples in southwestern Africa (1904–8)—served as “the most fertile soil” for Nazism.7 Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis followed the examples of British colonialism in India and the settler-colonial USA, while also looking to the Hindu caste system for inspiration for racial hierarchies.8 Similarly, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists “drew deeply” from the British Empire, just as Spanish Nationalists and Franquists appeal to nostalgia for imperialist domination.9 In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz traces the harrowing ultraviolence carried out by Euro-American settlers against Indigenous communities to observe “Manifest Destiny” and expand U.S. borders.10

Furthermore, history shows that millions of enslaved Africans perished both during abduction to the Americas, and due to bonded labor and racist terror in the thirteen colonies and the independent U.S. As Bento, DuBois, and the Jewish anti-Zionist Norman G. Finkelstein have acknowledged, lynching in the American South was a widespread genocidal practice that predated the legal classification of the crime.11 The ongoing wanton violence visited by police on Black men in U.S. society is a part of this rotten historical continuum. Plus, Ken Burns’ new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust (2022), evinces how widespread anti-Semitic attitudes in the U.S. government, and among average citizens, contributed to a failure to intervene against Hitler’s genocide of European Jews. Prior to U.S. entry into World War II, masses of pro-Nazi Americans propagandized in favor of Hitler via the America First Committee, while agitating against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and advocating for a fascist State.12 In reality, as revealed by one of the Frankfurt School’s studies in exile, Antisemitism among American Labor (1944–5), only a small majority of surveyed workers unconditionally rejected Nazi crimes against Jews, while nearly a fifth supported them.13

For Lars Rensmann, the Shoah, or Holocaust, represents a historical “caesura” and the “world’s ‘central injustice’”: a “previously unimaginable extreme evil.” He is concerned that making comparisons to the Shoah may trivialize its meaning and the “still unmastered legacy of the Holocaust,” just as Benjamin Zachariah worries that the “moral comparison of colonialism and fascism” can “produc[e …] what we might call a ‘concept deflation,’” whereby the term fascism loses its specific meaning.14 Shane Burley, editor of ¡No Pasarán!, expresses similar doubts about the equation of racism and colonialism with fascism in a panel discussion about the book with Firestorm Coop. Despite herself being a Black Panther, Angela Davis likewise disagreed with the Party’s organizing a United Front Against Fascism in 1969, as she found it “incorrect and misleading to inform people that we were already living under fascism.”15 Indeed, the rhetorical equation of liberalism with fascism overlooks how many colonized peoples rejected the Axis powers by supporting the Allies and waging anti-colonial, anti-fascist armed struggle during World War II, thus contributing greatly to formal decolonization in the post-war context.16 Therefore, while liberalism, imperialism, and fascism are related—with the former two opening the possibility for the latter—the means and ends of liberalism cannot be equated with those of fascism.

Black Authoritarianism and Stalinism

By essentializing Black resistance as necessarily being Antifa, Hope ignores the conspiratorial anti-Semitism promoted by individuals and groups like Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam (NOI), Kanye West, and Black Hebrew Israelites. This is not to mention the fascist enthusiasm expressed by Black Hammer after Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Several African states have likewise supported Russia’s ruthless bid to recolonize Ukraine. In contrast to the Black Americans who served in the International Brigades to defend the Spanish Republic, North Africans fought in Francisco Franco’s insurgency against it.17 As well, in 1937, just as Italy occupied Ethiopia, the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Jr.—referring to his mass-organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association—claimed, “We were the first Fascists,” and that “Mussolini copied fascism from me.” The next year, C.L.R. James suggested that Garvey’s “storm troopers” in “parades” anticipated Hitler, too. Indeed, Garvey dreamed of mass-repatriation to an “African Empire” enshrining a “superstate,” and repudiated class struggle while preaching violence and anti-Semitism. Such views, in turn, inspired the founders of the NOI. Echoing his father’s enigmatic Black fascism, in 1974, Marcus Garvey III hailed “African National Socialism” and looked forward to an “African ‘Anschluss’ [… and] ‘Lebensraum.’”18

Besides this, Hope does not contest the highly uncritical attitudes that several of her sources take toward the Soviet Union, as an ostensible alternative to the racial capitalism of the settler-colonial, imperialist USA. In parallel, Bento questionably casts Dimitrov, a Stalinist bureaucrat, as a “revolutionary critic of European society.”19 Together, these authors present authoritarian Communism as progressive, authentic, and left-wing, but these are dangerous misrepresentations, in light of the following historical facts: the Bolsheviks’ suppression of the Kronstadt and Tambov uprisings, and of the Makhnovist movement in Ukraine; the horrors of Holodomor and forcible collectivization; the nefarious part played by Stalin and his agents in the Spanish Civil War (1936–9); the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, which facilitated World War II and the Holocaust, and even involved Stalin leasing Hitler a secret submarine base; the colonialism practiced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in Siberia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe; the mass-deportations of minorities; the widespread detention of political prisoners in the Gulag; escalations toward nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and the Soviet regime’s sexism and criminalization of homosexuality. For all these reasons and more, anti-fascism and internationalism cannot be consistent with support for the USSR. After all, the Soviet Union implemented a model of red fascism that must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Syrian Ba’athism and Hindutva

During his incarceration by the British authorities in the 1930’s, the Indian Marxist M. N. Roy distinguished theoretically among “Italian, German, and Indian fascisms.”20 In ¡No Pasarán!, Leila al-Shami and Shon Meckfessel contribute to this project of analyzing diverse fascist movements by considering Syrian Baa’thism—a form of fascism—and its affinities with the U.S. far-right. The authors note how the Ba’athist state’s centralism, corporatism, militarism, and brazen ultraviolence attract and animate the global fascist movement. Not for nothing did Syria’s Ba’athists grant sanctuary to the Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, who trained the brutal mukhabarat (secret police) in exchange. Authoritarians around the world admire the impunity that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his backer Putin have enjoyed for their genocidal counter-revolution against a widespread popular uprising that began in 2011. Fox News conspiracists and GrayZone bloggers alike harp on the regime’s innocence for atrocious chemical-weapons attacks, in cases where Assad’s forces are responsible beyond any reasonable doubt.21 In this light, GrayZone would appear to mimic Fox‘s business model, as highlighted by the defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems over the 2020 U.S. presidential election, through its airing of demonstrably false claims for profit.

Yet, it has sadly not only been the far-right that has contributed to Assad and Putin’s victories. In the wake of the catastrophic U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq (200311), many Western leftists, especially Marxists, have abandoned the Syrians openly fighting the regime for twelve years now. According to Sri Lankan trade unionist Rohini Hensman, this pseudo-anti-imperialist phenomenon responds to demands for conformity with campist geopolitical notions about unquestionable solidarity with “anti-imperialist” states and power blocs against the West.22 Presumably for similar reasons, many Euro-American anarchists have guarded silence on Assad for years, preferring to focus on the progressive accomplishments of the Rojava Revolution. Still, avoiding a critical confrontation with Ba’athism is to be expected of Marxists, in light of their track record on the USSR and Maoist China, but less so of anarchists, considering our supposedly radical anti-statism. In this sense, recalling the tragic fate of the Spanish Civil War over eighty years ago, the destruction of the Syrian Revolution—which has taken up to a million lives, and displaced millions of others—gravely illuminates the left’s vast shortcomings and contradictions. As al-Shami and Meckfessel observe, such an unfortunate turn of events leads us to muse over what an authentic anti-fascist internationalism might look like.23

Undoubtedly, if we return to Roy’s theoretical distinctions, this cause of global anti-fascism would require that Western antifascists “support their South Asian comrades against Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalism, as Maia Ramnath writes in “The Other Aryan Supremacy,” her essay for ¡No Pasarán! The toxic Hindutva movement, championed by India’s authoritarian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, represents an aggressive repudiation of the secular-democratic pluralism envisioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, the post-colonial country’s first prime minister, and the long-ruling Indian Congress Party, which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now defeated twice at the polls: namely, in 2014 and 2019. Along these lines, the expulsion of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from parliament in March 2023 bodes especially poorly for India’s political future. Modi’s conservative authoritarianism is underwritten by big business, writes Arundhati Roy. According to Ramnath, present-day Hindutva is a mix that “includes precolonial brahminism, internalized colonial-era Orientalist tropes, and pathologies of postcolonial nationalism, which distort anticolonial rhetoric” to shore up convention and social hierarchy.24

After all, it was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist from the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi 75 years ago. Godse was retaliating against the spiritual leader’s secular-republican politics and calls for peaceful co-existence with Muslims following the bloody Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Moreover, as a prominent sanghi (fundamentalist extremist) of the RSS, which created the BJP as a political front in 1980, Modi both incited Hindu mass-violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and ordered police to stand down against pogromists, as the state’s chief minister at the time. In fact, in January 2023, Modi’s government invoked emergency laws to censor a new BBC documentary on the prime minister’s role in this wave of communal violence, just as a feature film about Godse is on the horizon for the Indian market. Demonstrating the entrenchment of Hindu chauvinism, Ramnath reports that “[t]he frequency of lynchings and atrocities against Dalits and Muslims has leaped significantly since 2014,” whereas Modi’s rule has only intensified India’s occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir, in a manner reminiscent of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.25

Ramnath traces the bleak dialectic, whereby Nazi racial theory took after German Indologists’ examination of Brahminical society, while Hindutva enthusiasts in turn have mobilized Brahminism in the fashion of Italian Fascism and German ultranationalism. In India, RSS front groups have targeted Christians, Muslims, communists, and intellectuals, and agitated in favor of the demolition of mosques built during the Mughal Empire (1526–1858), a Muslim dynasty. Meanwhile, many Hindutva sympathizers from the South Asian diaspora in the U.S. have aligned themselves with Trump and white supremacy. In this sense, the uncritical views that Hindu nationalists take toward the caste system complement alt-right, neo-Nazi notions about “natural hierarchies” well.26

Akin to Assadists, Hindu nationalists tend to affirm pseudo-anti-imperialism. In other words, they use post-colonial, anti-Western discourse to strengthen the cause of Brahminical fascism. Sanghis focus on such strategies in rather bad faith, considering Ramnath’s point that “[c]olonialism and empire in South Asia are not just about European versus Asian, but [also about] various centralizing states versus various regions and borderlands, ancient and modern,” such that South Asians, especially Indians, cannot “shun[t] all blame for all ills to colonialism.” In contrast, a more authentic anti-imperialism would be anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, humanist, and caste-abolitionist.27

China’s Genocide of Uyghurs

In The Search for Neofascism (2006), A. James Gregor argues that Maoist (19491978) and post-Maoist China (1978present) have instituted “fascism with Chinese characteristics.” In reality, Gregor recounts how Ugo Spirito, one of Mussolini’s main ideologues, visited China in the early 1960’s, and came to admire Maoism’s anti-liberalism, anti-individualism, and totalitarian regimentation as reminiscent of Fascist Italy. Through its corporatism, hyper-nationalism, militarism, and aggressive expansionism—especially targeting Taiwan—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has arguably imposed a fascist regime.28

We Uyghurs Have No Say (2022) features translations of the writings of Ilham Tohti, a progressive economist from China’s mostly Muslim Uyghur minority whose father died tragically during the Maoist Cultural Revolution (19661976). Tohti himself has been serving a life sentence for “separatism” since 2014. Despite his criticisms of the CCP, he is a minority intellectual who sought to work within its constitutional framework to improve the condition of his fellow Uyghurs, and to increase autonomy through legal channels, while opposing calls for the independence of so-called ‘East Turkestan.’ Though he sought a “win-win situation” for Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese alike, based on his support for ethnic self-determination, national unity, and “Chinese patriot[ism],” Tohti merely ended up being punished by the State for his speech, thought, and action.29

Spanning the years 20052014, the dissident’s essays and interviews collected in this volume trace the increasingly suffocating atmosphere for Uyghurs in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. In parallel, Tohti increasingly senses that “the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me.” As Rian Thum clarifies in the preface, these commentaries predate the CCP’s openly genocidal policies, beginning in 2017, of sequestering millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps, forcibly separating Uyghur children from their families, and destroying thousands of mosques. Through his critical analysis of what he terms another “Great Cultural Revolution that is destroying the indigenous culture,” Tohti provides profound insights, according to Thum, into “a world of multipolar colonialism”—that is, one in which numerous States and power-blocs compete in a ‘Great Game’ of colonialism. As the Indian ex-Stalinist Kavita Krishnan describes, “Multipolarity has always meant multi-imperialism [and] multi-despotism.” Tohti’s text thus provocatively shows that the “West’s monopoly on imperialism has been broken, if in fact it ever existed.”30

Notably, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has sought to rationalize these ghastly policies against Uyghurs and other ethnoreligious minorities by explicitly emphasizing security and stability over human rights. In 2018, an editorial in the official Global Times newspaper declared that the crackdown was necessary to avert Xinjiang becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.” In 2019, The New York Times published the “Xinjiang Papers,” which reveal that Xi had “urged the party to emulate aspects of America’s ‘war on terror’ after the Sept. 11 attacks” in carrying out his orders. Through these actions, Xi has joined not only the U.S. but also Russia, Israel, Syria, and India in mobilizing the War on Terror to exploit and dominate Muslims. In this sense, “China sometimes appears as a distorted mirror image of Trump’s America.” Indeed, Xiism seeks not to change the world, but rather, to maximize China’s position in the world as it is.31

In We Uyghurs Have No Say, Tohti warns of the dangers of “ethnonationalist totalitarianism” in China, openly identifies the Han-Chinese chauvinism encouraged by the CCP as an obstacle to inter-ethnic harmony in Xinjiang, and calls on Han people to “reflect on their own nationalist and fascist attitudes.” Without ignoring ethnic nationalism, extremist movements, or terrorism among Uyghurs, Tohti insightfully identifies how the CCP’s dismissal of minorities’ right to autonomy will lead inevitably either to forcible assimilation or to the intensification of separatist sentiments. As an alternative to both, Tohti yearns for the transformation of China into a democracy that respects human rights and Uyghur self-rule.32

Anti-Semitism, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and The Politics of Unreason

In his chapter for ¡No Pasarán!, Benjamin Case analyzes Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and the far-right today. Case reminds us that, before turning to “Imperialism” and “Totalitarianism,” Arendt begins her study by examining “Antisemitism.” With reference to history and present, Case identifies how anti-Semitism underpins the fascist anti-modernist desire to return to the past (as in MAGA, or “Make America Great Again”); the “socialism of fools,” whereby right-wing forces substitute a crude anti-capitalism with hatred for Jews; and a “nationalist internationalism” that is ironically based on envy of Judaism. Plus, for all the justice of the Palestinian cause, the writer is right to point out that anti-Zionist organizing can sometimes promote and overlap with Judeophobia. This is not to deny worsening tendencies toward Israeli fascism, especially under the current far-right government, much less the Jewish State’s diplomatic normalization with anti-Semitic regimes like the United Arab Emirates. That being said, the left’s discomfort and lack of familiarity with Judaism have often served far-right interests: after all, Mikhail “Bakunin was a canonical anarchist thinker and an outright antisemite” who influenced the proto-Nazi composer Richard Wagner in the nineteenth century, while more recently, unchecked anti-Semitism in the UK’s Labour Party contributed to the Conservative Party’s decisive electoral victory in 2019.33

In The Politics of Unreason (2017), Lars Rensmann contemplates the Frankfurt School theorists’ critique of anti-Semitism as being “linked to a universalistic critique of political and social domination in all its forms […].” In fact, social research performed over the past century has revealed that having anti-Semitic attitudes makes one more likely to be racist, sexist, homophobic, and authoritarian. Plus, history shows the evidently close link between expressions of Judeophobia and the possibility of genocide against Jews. In this sense, Rensmann upholds the “critical cosmopolitanism” and “positive concept of enlightenment” espoused by the Critical Theorists, who “unconditionally oppos[e] the dehumanization of any group, minority, or Other in global society.”34

Though ostensibly Marxist, the Frankfurt School theorists go beyond Marx through their focus on the Holocaust, which leads them to conclude that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of domination.” From this dynamic, the Critical Theorists identify an overriding categorical imperative to avert all future genocides. In sociological terms, the Frankfurt School thinkers are unique, in that they believe anti-Semitism and authoritarianism to not only be encouraged from above, but also be very much driven from below. On this view, the average worker in modern capitalism is “profoundly damaged […] and stultified by universal domination,” such that authoritarianism affects all classes.35

By revisiting Freudian psychoanalysis, Rensmann explains how the Critical Theorists perceive close ties among the imposition of labor and the loss of freedom, mental-sexual frustration, political powerlessness, violence, and the acceptance of existing power structures, as symbolized by the father-figure or superego. Given that capitalism “structurally den[ies] the pleasure principle and enforc[es] the primacy of the repressive reality,” the life-drive known as Eros is attenuated, to the benefit of the death-drive, Thanatos. As Sigmund Freud and his Frankfurt School-affiliated critic Erich Fromm understood, capitalist society encourages the two poles of sadomasochism: that is, authoritarian aggression and submission. By weakening the ego and/or breaking the spirits of children, parents, teachers, and bosses train future generations to surrender themselves and accept the plans of those in power. Bourgeois coldness, anomie, and lovelessness lead to the redirection of erotic energy toward labor and authority, thus reproducing a vicious cycle, whereby social hierarchy perpetuates aggression, and vice versa.36

Following the Critical Theorist Adorno, Rensmann suggests that authoritarians turn their frustration against outgroups, non-conformists, and minorities like Jews, rather than the authorities, whom they follow and obey. Though they forsake individuality, authoritarians are compensated via “narcissistic uplift” by the small part they play in a larger machine. This goes even for the “rebellious conformists,” like Lyons’ conception of far-rightists, who may seek to overthrow the existing authorities, only to establish new ones. Uniting right and left-wing authoritarians, this category would also include conspiratorial anti-Semites, who demonize Jews rather than question capitalism and social domination, starting from the “socialism of fools” and hatred of self and other.37

Critical Theory warns us that fascism and murderous anti-Semitism can be unleashed when social groups are stressed, agitated, paranoid, dominated by instrumental reason, and lacking a theory of liberation. In this vein, the politics of unreason—crystallized in Trumpism, the global right-wing resurgence, and widespread ignorance of Nazi crimes—represents a specter of “anti-civilizational revolt” that threatens “democracy […] in our time.” Just as the concept of “secondary anti-Semitism,” whether expressed in Holocaust denialism or outright sympathy for fascism, constitutes a Freudian return of the repressed, so “Nationalism Socialism lives on,” and “Hitler survives.”38

Authoritarian Illness

Luke Cooper’s Authoritarian Contagion: The Global Threat to Democracy underscores ongoing socio-political struggles between “democratic internationalism” and “authoritarian protectionism”—the latter being another term for conservative or capitalist authoritarianism, having little to do with economic protectionism. Authoritarian protectionism is an outgrowth of the authoritarian individualism promoted during the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980’s. Its proponents reject pluralism and democracy, just as they reject the progressive social changes that have taken place in recent decades. Their aggressive racism, nationalism, and quest for autocratic rule not only inflame far-right and fascist movements—as through viral contagion and mass-psychosis—but also represent significant obstacles to global cooperation for confronting problems like global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic.39

In his book, Cooper rightly focuses on the role of path dependence in facilitating the greatest ills plaguing global society: namely, the insurgent far right, consolidating authoritarianism, global warming, and COVID-19. In other words, the author stresses that past choices have deeply influenced the onset of these socio-political ills, hence also limiting our options for effective resistance. The specter of climate breakdown probably illustrates this dynamic better than anything else. That being said, Cooper’s framing of authoritarian contagion refers dialectically both to threats (replication, spread, colonization) and solutions (infection control). As healthcare workers know, there are many different ways to break the chain of infection. Against authoritarians of all kinds, a radical politics of survival emphasizes internationalism, justice, democracy, cooperation, ecological transition, redistribution, inclusion, and pluralism.40

Critical Theory and Anti-Fascism

In The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse (2022), Charles Reitz focuses on the writings and activism of this Critical Theorist—who, being “very interested in council communism” and a principled opponent of the Vietnam War, was perhaps the most radical of them all—with an eye toward “negat[ing] neofascism definitively,” and aiding “in the establishment, through a global ecosocialist rising, of a culture of partnership power.” Reitz seeks the convergence of the environmental and labor movements to build a cooperative commonwealth that would implement the radical rather than minimum goals of socialism. He applies Marcusean theory to dissect U.S.-American traditionalism, counter-revolutionary authoritarianism, racism, and imperialism, plus Trump and his ilk.41

Reitz’s argument revolves centrally around Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” which the author identifies as “a product of [Marcuse’s] critique of German fascism and […] genocide.” In this polemical piece, the late Critical Theorist denounces the “pure tolerance” observed in bourgeois society, which considers fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism acceptable. Despite the fact that free-speech absolutism effectively “protects hate speech and facilitate[s] hate crimes,” especially in the USA, it must not be tolerated! In this sense, “Repressive Tolerance” represents an important part of the Marcusean “Great Refusal” of domination and the struggle for collective liberation. Reitz even praises my elucidation of this essay in Eros and Revolution (2016/2018) as a clarion call for revolutionary suppression of fascism from below, akin to the anarchist CNT-FAI’s fateful July 1936 uprising, which blocked Franco’s attempted coup d’etat—at least, temporarily.42

Nevertheless, when commenting on Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, Reitz acknowledges its “pronounced brutality against civilians” and total lack of legitimacy, but he insists that “Russia’s war has not emerged from nothing.” He cites an April 2022 international statement signed by groups in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, including the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, which wrongly identifies the “main culprit” of Putin’s assault as “U.S. imperialism.” Rather than critique Russian chauvinism or focus on Ukrainians—beyond citing attacks on Kyiv and the ruins of Mariupol in passing—the author expresses concern about a supposed “war [by the West] against Russia for Ukraine” involving a “new McCarthyism that will try to silence U.S. antiwar dissent.”43 In light of the daily torrent of Russian atrocities in Ukraine over the past year-plus, such framing may conflict with Marcusean principles of “active genocide prevention.”44

Russia’s War on Ukraine

The stricken Russian missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, prior to sinking on April 14, 2022 (Rex/Shutterstock)

Undoubtedly, one of the most important fronts in the global anti-fascist struggle over the past year has been Ukraine, following Russia’s full-scale invasion, as ordered by Putin in February 2022. Guardian editor Julian Borger observed in late January 2023 that “[t]he Bosnian war death toll of 100,000 has most probably already been surpassed” on both sides over the past year. Recalling the fate of Aleppo in 2016, Russia has killed over 25,000 civilians in the city of Mariupol during this time, according to Ukrainian officials. Psychoanalytically speaking, it is evident that Putin’s megalomania and paranoia underpins this genocidal aggression, which has involved the desolation of entire cities, the direct targeting of civilians, rampant sexual violence, and the forcible deportation of Ukrainian children into Russia.45

While the German government and public have changed their minds about the transfer of heavy weapons to Ukraine with time, presumably in light of Putin’s outrageous war crimes, a majority of Germans still believes the West should encourage the embattled Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to accept “peace negotiations”—despite that these would likely take place on Putin’s terms. However, the majority of Ukrainians themselves reject the idea of conceding territories occupied by Russia in exchange for a cease-fire. Rather, they seek to repel the invaders and liberate these territories. Actually, in support of such defiance, in January 2023, Germany, the U.S., and the UK took the unprecedented step of greenlighting the transfer to Ukraine of not only over a hundred armored infantry fighting vehicles, but also dozens of main battle tanks from the Leopard, Abrams, and Challenger classes. Now that Germany has authorized re-export of the Leopards, other countries from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—such as Poland, Spain, and Norway—plan to send more.

Even so, here in the U.S., Republican extremists in Congress and pseudo-anti-imperialist groups like the GrayZone, Code Pink, and the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America have come together to denounce the Biden administration’s policy of strong military, political, and financial support for Ukraine. They grumble about costs, focus on the risks of U.S. policy escalating toward nuclear war, and call for compromises with Russia. At the same time, these conservatives, authoritarian rebels, and neo-Stalinists—being conformists who are performing non-conformism—do not criticize Putin’s use of nuclear blackmail to seize Ukrainian territory and commit horrendous war crimes. In contrast, the Russian Socialist Movement recognizes that a victory for Putin in Ukraine would would merely set the stage for “new military and political catastrophes” across the globe. Likewise, the Japanese Communist Party has condemned the Russian dictator’s open threats to use nuclear weapons. In light of the risk that Putin’s assault on Ukraine could inspire Xi Jinping to attack Taiwan, leading to a Third World War between China-Russia-North Korea and the USA-NATO-Japan, the Japan Revolutionary Communist League calls on workers everywhere to resist the return of Stalinist terror in Ukraine, and “stir up a storm of antiwar struggle in every corner of the world to crush Putin’s war!”46

Conclusion

Returning to the question posed by al-Shami and Meckfessel in ¡No Pasarán!, we conclude that anti-fascist internationalism requires us to take a universally critical attitude toward authoritarianism, wherever it may appear. We must oppose the “kinship” that Gilroy sees “among all supremacist regimes […].”47 Thus, global anti-authoritarianism urgently demands the rejection of fascist oppression, Western or non-Western, “brown” or “red,” whether wielded at present, in the past, or in the future. So let us proclaim, “Down with Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin! Down with Assad, Putin, Xi, and Modi! Russia, Out of Ukraine! Trump, Never Again!”

In closing, when dealing with fascists, we should keep in mind the failures of the 1938 Munich Agreement on the one hand, and, on the other, the lessons of Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”; the struggles of Haitian revolutionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and of Spanish and Austrian workers in the late 1930’s; the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; and the Ukrainian resistance: namely, that appeasement fails, and that direct confrontation with the aggressor is typically necessary. This does not mean that appeals to the rule of law; the use of legal authority; or the spread of information in settings with or without freedom of speech, the press, and/or assembly have no place in the fight against racism, hate speech, anti-Semitism, and violent authoritarianism.48 As part of a diversity of tactics for collective liberation, they arguably do.

Ultimately, though, the consensus from the authors reviewed here is that the anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian causes require profound socio-economic and political changes at all levels of global society. Some specialists in psychoanalysis and Critical Theory, like Marcuse, Rensmann, and Reitz, stress the mental and emotional dimensions of capitalist and fascist aggression. Lyons correctly emphasizes how the protean far-right can both serve and oppose the State and elite. Arendt, Hope, Bento, Ramnath, Case, and Tohti illuminate the intimate and multifaceted ties between racism and fascism. Cooper defies authoritarian contagion with a radical politics of survival. Al-Shami, Meckfessel, Rensmann, and Tohti warn us wisely about the pseudo-anti-imperialists and rebellious conformists who act like the “running dogs” of such non-Western autocracies as Russia, China, Syria, and Iran.49

The question is, can we build a worldwide anti-fascist movement to reconstruct global society before it is too late? Our very future depends on it.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso.

Al-Shami, Leila and Shon Meckfessel 2022. “Why Does the US Far Right Love Bashar al-Assad?” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 192–209.

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

Bento, Mike 2022. “Five Hundred Years of Fascism.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 312–330.

Cooper, Luke 2021. Authoritarian Contagion: The Global Threat to Democracy. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Davis, Angela 1974. An Autobiography. New York: Random House.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Executive Committee for the 60th International Antiwar Assembly 2022. “Working people all over the world, unite to crush Putin’s war!” Japan Revolutionary Communist League. Available online: http://www.jrcl.org/english/e-AG2022.html [insecure link]. Accessed 28 January 2023.

Finkelstein, Norman G. and Ruth Bettina Birn 1998. A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Gilroy, Paul 2000. “Black Fascism.” Transition 81/82. 7091.

Gregor, A. James 2006. The Search for Neofascism: The Use and Abuse of Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Hope, Jeanelle K. 2022. “The Black Antifascist Tradition: A Primer.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 63–87.

James, Leslie 2021. “Debate: Decolonising Fascist Studies.” Fascism 010. 325–7.

Lavin, Talia 2022. “On the Uses and Manifestations of Antifascism.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 1–3.

Liburd, Liam 2021. “Debate: Decolonising Fascist Studies.” Fascism 010. 331–3.

Lyons, Matthew N. 2022. “Three Way Fight Politics and the US Far Right.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 20–41.

Ramnath, Maia 2022. “The Other Aryan Supremacy: Fighting Hindu Fascism in the South Asian Diaspora.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif.: AK Press. 210–57.

Reitz, Charles 2022. The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse. Wakefield, Québec: Daraja Press.

Rensmann, Lars 2017. The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Thum, Rian 2022. “Preface: Ilham Tohti and the Uyghurs.” We Uyghurs Have No Say. Trans. Yaxue Cao et al. London: Verso. Vii-xvii.

Tohti, Ilham 2022. We Uyghurs Have No Say. Trans. Yaxue Cao et al. London: Verso.

Zachariah, Benjamin 2021. “Debate: Decolonising Fascist Studies.” Fascism 010. 339–43.

Footnotes

1Rensmann 71.

2Ibid 71, 148.

3Gilroy 91.

4Lavin 2.

5Lyons 21–22, 41.

6Bento 314–5 (emphasis added); Hope 65–87.

7Arendt 206.

8Ramnath 253.

9Liburd 332.

10Dunbar-Ortiz.

11Bento; Finkelstein and Birn.

12Lyons 23; al-Shami and Meckfessel 204.

13Rensmann 156.

14Ibid 5, 20, 277, 385; Zachariah 340.

15Davis 1989.

16James 327.

17Zachariah 340.

18Gregor 11831; Gilroy 70, 75, 86.

19Bento 314.

20James 326.

21al-Shami and Meckfessel 192204.

22Hensman.

23al-Shami and Meckfessel 209.

24Ramnath 254, 257.

25Ibid 211, 2267.

26Ibid 212, 217, 242.

27Ibid 24950, 254.

28Gregor 228, 23440, 25055.

29Tohti 30, 130, 142, 153.

30Ibid 116, 126; Thum xvi.

31Cooper 61, 101.

32Tohti 10, 72, 86, 1046, 137, 152, 168.

33Case 36475.

34Rensmann 10, 173, 211, 415, 417.

35Ibid 25, 60, 233, 272.

36Ibid 3358, 659, 839, 95100, 225.

37Ibid 10110, 11424, 12732, 18996, 199, 257, 333.

38Ibid 235, 273, 337, 356, 35977; Adorno 109.

39Cooper 16, 71, 131.

40Ibid 1213, 1339.

41Reitz xv, 111, 14, 667, 81.

42Ibid 17, 27, 38, 40.

43Ibid 150, 153, 155, 173.

44Rensmann 41820.

45Ibid 530n15.

46Executive Committee for the 60th International Antiwar Assembly.

47Gilroy 89.

48Rensmann 353, 415.

49Tohti 165.

Seeking the Anarchism of Love: A Discussion of Queer Tolstoy

March 9, 2023

Please join the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division (BGSQD) online on Wednesday, March 22, for a discussion about the newly released Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography with author Javier Sethness Castro and Joe Scheip, coordinator of Anarchist Political Ecology. Queer Tolstoy is a multidimensional work combining psychoanalysis, political history, LGBTQ+ studies, sexology, ethics, and theology to explore the life and art of Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy. Our conversation will begin by contemplating queerness as a concept, based in the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ideas of universal bisexuality and polymorphous perversity.

We will review Tolstoy’s same-sex attachments, from childhood to old age, and consider how the artist’s underappreciated queerness influenced his anarchist and anti-militarist politics. We will not, however, shy away from Lev’s contradictions and hypocrisy, whether as a landlord, a sexist, or a difficult husband to Sofia Tolstaya. Finally, before turning to Q&A with the audience, we will contrast Tolstoy’s vision of free love and universal peace with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fascist crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community and genocidal wars on Syria and Ukraine.

We encourage attendees to donate to Solidarity Collectives in support of anti-authoritarian fighters in Ukraine.

The introduction of Queer Tolstoy (chapter 2) is now available open-access.

Please register on Eventbrite to participate in our conversation on Wednesday, March 22!

Against Orthodoxy and Despotic Rule: A Review of Islam and Anarchism

January 20, 2023
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (The Pink Mosque), Shiraz, Iran (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license), by Mohammadreza Amini.

Published on The Commoner, 20 January 2023

The project of advancing anarchist reinterpretations of history and religion is an intriguing and important one. Due to its emphasis on spontaneity, non-cooperation, simplicity, and harmony, Daoism is a religion with anarchist elements, while the Dharma taught by Buddhism is an egalitarian critique of caste, class, and hierarchy, according to the anarcho-communist Élisée Reclus. B. R. Ambedkar, architect of India’s constitution, similarly viewed Buddhism as seeking the annihilation of Brahminism, as crystallized in the Hindu caste system. Xinru Liu, author of Early Buddhist Society (2022), adds that a key part of Buddhism’s appeal has been its emphasis on care and well-being over statecraft and power.

Likewise, Guru Nanak, the visionary founder of Sikhism, proclaimed human equality through his advocacy of langar, a practice that simultaneously rejects caste while building community through shared meals. In parallel, many notable anarchists have been Jewish: for instance, Ida Mett, Aaron and Fanya Baron, Martin Buber, and Avraham Yehuda Heyn, and Murray Bookchin. The Judaic concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is activist to the core. Plus, in The Foundations of Christianity (1908), Karl Kautsky highlights the radicalism of Jesus’ message, the communism of early Christianity, and the ongoing struggles of prophets, apostles, and teachers against clerical hierarchies and bureaucracies. Lev Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil preached Christian anarchism.

What, then, of Islam?

One way of answering this question would be to consider Mohamed Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism (2022). This long-anticipated study is based on the intriguing premises that Islam is not necessarily authoritarian or capitalist, and that anarchism is not necessarily anti-religious or anti-spiritual. To his credit, Abdou does well in highlighting the transhistorical importance of the Prophet Muhammad’s anti-racist ‘Farewell Address’ (632), and in citing humanistic verses from the Quran. These include ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion,’ and the idea that Allah made us ‘into peoples and tribes so that [we] may get to know one another,’ not abuse and oppress each other [1]. The author constructs an ‘anarcha-Islām’ that integrates orthodox Sunni Muslim thought with Indigenous and decolonial critiques of globalisation. He laments and criticizes the supportive role often played by diasporic Muslims in settler-colonial societies like the USA and Canada, through their putative affirmation of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Although he is a strong proponent of political Islam, Abdou also recognizes that trans-Atlantic slavery had its origin in Muslim-occupied Iberia, known as al-Andalus [2].

That being said, for better or worse, the overall trajectory of Abdou’s argument reflects the author’s orthodox Sunni bias. Even if Sunnis do comprise the vast majority of the world’s Muslim population—and thus, perhaps, a considerable part of Abdou’s intended audience—there is nonetheless a stunning lack of discussion in this book of Shi’ism (the second-largest branch of Islam) or Sufism (an Islamic form of mysticism practiced by both Sunni and Shi’ites). In a new review in Organise Magazine, Jay Fraser likewise highlights the author’s ‘odd choice,’ whereby ‘the Sufi tradition […] receives no mention whatsoever.’ Besides being intellectually misleading for a volume with such an expansive title as Islam and Anarchism, such omissions are alarming, as they convey an exclusionary message to the supercharged atmosphere of the Muslim world.

Islam and Anti-Authoritarianism

At the outset of his book, Abdou proposes that a properly Muslim anarchism should be constructed on the basis of the Quran, the ahadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings),and the sunnah (Muhammad’s way of life) [3]. This is a paradoxically neo-orthodox Sunni approach that overlooks the contributions of both 1) Shi’ites, who place less stress on the sunnah, and 2) several anti-authoritarian and anarchistic Muslim thinkers, individual and collective, who emerged during and after Islam’s so-called ‘Golden Age’ (c. 700-1300). In this sense, although Abdou would follow the ‘venerable ancestors’ (al-salaf al-salih) from Islam’s earliest period, hedoes not discuss Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (?-652), one of the very first converts to Islam. Al-Ghifari was known for his socialist views, and revered by Shia as one of the ‘Four Companions’ of the fourth ‘Rightly Guided’ (Rashidun) caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib (559-661) [4].

Neither does the author examine the utopian radicalism of the sociologist Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who inspired the Iranian Revolution of 1979 against the U.S.-installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In writings and lectures, Shariati espoused a ‘red’ Shi’ism that celebrates insurgency and martyrdom, by contrasting this with the ‘black Shi’ism’ instituted by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1734), one of early modernity’s infamous ‘gunpowder empires,’ which forcibly converted most Iranians to Shi’ism while persecuting Sunnis and Sufis [5]. Despite their separation by sect, this is an unfortunate missed connection between Abdou and Shariati, in light of the similarity of their analysis of tawhid, or the allegiance to God as the sole authority (Malik al-mulk) mandated by Islam [6]. (Likewise, monotheistic loyalty is demanded by the Judeo-Christian First Commandment.)

Through his elucidation of ‘Anarcha-Islām,’ which ‘adopts and builds on traditional [Sunni] orthodox non-conformist Islamist thinkers,’ Abdou does consider the revolutionary potential of Shi’i eschatology—crystallized in the prophesized return of the twelfth imam (or Madhi), who is expected to herald world peace—as evidence of an ‘internalized messiah and savior complex’ [7]. It is in the first place paradoxical for an ostensible anarchist to so overlook messianism, and especially troubling when such a Shi’i tradition is ignored by a Sunni Muslim developing an anarcha-Islām. Still, while Abdou pays lip service to the criticism of Muslim clerics, he hardly mentions the theocracy imposed by the Shi’i ulema (religious scholars) who appropriated the mass-revolutionary movement against the Shah for themselves over four decades ago, having spearheaded the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) since 1981.

Even more, in a November 2022 podcast interview on ‘Coffee with Comrades,’ Abdou complains in passing about the ‘mobilization of gendered Islamophobia’ in Iran following the murder by the ‘Morality Police’ of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish woman, two months prior for rejecting imposed veiling. Presumably, this is in response to criticism of Islamic hijab by Westerners and Iranians alike, but he does not make clear his opinion of the ongoing youth- and women-led mass-protests that have rocked the country since then. By contrast, members of Asr Anarshism (‘The Age of Anarchism’), based in Iran and Afghanistan, stress in an upcoming interview on The Commoner that the ‘struggle with the clerical class […] constitutes a basic part of our class struggles’ [8].

Likewise, the late Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) openly viewed the IRI’s ulema as ‘clerical-fascist[s],’ while Shariati would have likely considered these opportunistic, obscurantist lynchers as part and parcel of the legacy of ‘black Shi’ism’ [9]. In parallel, the Sri Lankan trade unionist Rohini Hensman takes the IRI to task for its abuse of women, workers, the LGBT community, and religious and ethnic minorities, just as she denounces Iran and Russia’s ghastly interventions in Syria since 2011 to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime from being overthrown [10]. Abdou’s lack of commentary on Iran and Shi’ism in Islam and Anarchism is thus glaring.

Furthermore, in the conclusion to his book, Abdou questionably echoes the Kremlin’s propaganda by blaming the mass-displacement of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) into Europe a decade ago exclusively on President Barack Obama’s use of force, presumably against Libya and the Islamic State (IS, or Da’esh)—with no mention of the substantial ‘push factors’ represented by the atrocious crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian states [11].  Worse, in his interview on ‘Coffee with Comrades,’ the author finds himself in alignment with the neo-Nazi Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on Syria. Let us quote him at length:

‘It’s so easy for David Duke to come out and say, ‘Well, I’m against the war in Syria!’ Well, how about that: an anti-imperialist stance coming from a white supremacist? Right? Well, of course I don’t agree with him on much of anything else. […].

And again, this is where we have to be very intelligent and very smart. Of course, I feel for my Syrian kin. They are my own blood. But, if you ask me now with regards to Bashar al-Assad, I will say: keep him in power. Why? I’m able to distinguish between tactics and strategy. Unless you have an alternative to what would happen if Bashar was removed, let alone, what would you do with the State: please, please stay at home. Because what you will create is precisely a vacuum for Da’esh [the Islamic State]. You will create a vacuum for imperialism, for colonialism to seep in.’

Abdou here affirms a cold, dehumanizing, and statist illogic that is entirely in keeping with the phenomenon of the pseudo-anti-imperialist defense of ‘anti-Western’ autocracies like Syria, Russia, China, and Iran [12]. In reality, in the first place, both openly anti-Assad rebels and TEV-DEM in Rojava have presented alternatives to the Ba’athist jackboots, and the Free Syrian Army and YPG/SDF forces have fought Da’esh. The YPG/SDF continue to do so, despite facing a new threat of destruction at the hands of the Turkish State and the regime axis. Beyond this, does Abdou believe Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 somehow not to have been imperialist? Millions of displaced Syrians would likely disagree with the idea. We can recommend For Sama, about the fall of Aleppo in 2016, as documentary evidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war crimes.

According to Leila al-Shami and Shon Meckfessel, ‘[m]any fascists take Russia’s backing of Assad as reason enough to support him,’ and the global far right is even heartened and inspired by the regime-axis’s ultraviolence and unmitigated cruelty [13]. Indeed, in this vein, for over a decade, Russian State media and their fascist and ‘tankie’ (neo-Stalinist) enthusiasts have blamed the West for problems perpetrated by the Kremlin and its allies themselves—from mass-refugee flows from Syria to genocide in Ukraine. It is therefore disturbing to see Abdou betray anarchism and internationalism by not only reiterating deadly disinformation, but also by openly endorsing Assad’s tyranny.

Sufism and the Ulema-State Alliance

Cover illustration of The Confessions of Al-Ghazali (1909)

Although Sunni orthodoxy, jihadist revivalism, institutionalized Shi’ism, and secular autocracies are undoubtedly oppressive, Sufism has been misrepresented by many Orientalists as negating these stifling forces. In reality, while some Sufis have ‘preached antiauthoritarian ideas,’ Sufism is not necessarily progressive [14]. Although the Persian thinker Ghazali (1058-1111, above) resigned from teaching at an orthodox madrasa in 1095 to preach Sufism and condemn political authority—only to return to teaching at a similar madrasa late in life—he played a key role in legitimizing the toxic alliance between ulema (religious scholars) and State. Moreover, by affirming mysticism, asceticism, and irrationalism, Sufi sheikhs have often re-entrenched spiritual and sociopolitical hierarchies [15].

Actually, the Janissary shock-troops of the Ottoman Empire belonged to the Bektashi Sufi Order, and the autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is reported to be part of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order. Furthermore, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762), who inspired the founders of the Deobandi school of Islam—a variant of which the Taliban has imposed on Afghanistan twice through terror—was a Sufi master. On the other hand, so were Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325), who advocated a Sufism critical of class divisions and despotism; Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdallah (1844-1885), a Nubian warrior and self-proclaimed Mahdi who spearheaded a jihad against the Ottomans, Egyptians, and British in Sudan; and Imam Shamil (1797-1871), an Avar chieftain who led anti-colonial resistance to Russian conquest of the Caucasus for decades.

In his compelling study of comparative politics, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment (2019), Ahmet Kuru provides important insights into the historical trajectory of the Muslim world, vis-à-vis Western Europe. He shows how an alliance between the State and ulema was adopted by the Seljuk Empire in the eleventh century, and then inherited and upheld by the Mamluk, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, prior to European colonization. Its noxious legacy undoubtedly persists to this day, not only in theocratic autocracies like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but also in ostensibly secular military dictatorships, such as Syria and Egypt, and electoral autocracies like Turkey. This is despite past top-down efforts to secularize and modernize Islamic society by breaking up the power of the ulema, as Sultan Mahmud II, the Young Ottomans, the Young Turks, and Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) sought to do during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries [16]—notwithstanding the chauvinism and genocidal violence of these Turkish leaders, echoes of which resonate in Azerbaijani attacks on Armenia in September 2022.

In the remainder of the first part of this article, I will review Abdou’s account of anarcha-Islām. The second part will focus on Kuru’s arguments about Islam, history, and politics, tracing the anti-authoritarianism of early Islam, and contemplating the origins and ongoing despotism of the ulema-State alliance.

Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism

Cover of Mohamed Abdou's book, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances

In his book, Abdou mixes post-anarchism (an ideology combining post-modernism, post-structuralism, and nihilism) with Islamic revivalism to yield “anarcha-Islām,” a framework which rejects liberalism, secularism, human rights, and democracy almost as forms of taqut, or idolatry [17]. His study thus bears the distinct imprints of the thought of Egyptian jihadist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whom he regards as a ‘non-conformist militant conservativ[e]’ [18] (Notably, Qutb has inspired al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). In keeping with the Qutbist view that all existing societies are jahili, or equivalent to the ostensible ‘state of ignorance’ in Arabia before the rise of Islam, Abdou laments and denounces the Saudi ruling family’s commercialization of Mecca and Medina, and makes comments that are not unsympathetic toward the egoist Max Stirner, plus Muhammad Atta and other terrorists [19]. He describes the U.S. as a ‘Crusading society.’

Abdou endorses researcher Milad Dokhanchi’s view of decolonization as ‘detaqutization’ (the iconoclastic destruction of idolatry, or taqut) and condemns the ‘homonationalist and colonial/imperial enforcement of queer rights (marriage, pride) […]’ [20]. Even the mere concept that ‘queer rights are human rights’ is irretrievably imperialist for him [21]. Moreover, he focuses more on violence than social transformation through working-class self-organization—in keeping with an insurrectionist orientation [22]. In sum, the author himself confesses to being an ‘anti-militaristic militant jihādi[23].

Ibn Rushd (Averroes), depicted by Italian painter Andrea Bonaiuto (1343-1377)

Through his conventional reliance on the Quran and ahadith and his parallel avowal of anarchic ijtihad (‘independent reasoning’), Abdou mixes the rationalism of Abu Hanifa (699-767) and the Hanafi school of jurisprudence with the orthodox literalism of Shafii (767-820) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855), the ‘patron saint’ of traditionalists who, together with Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), pushed for the ulema-State alliance [24].(By comparison, the Taliban has implemented a combination of the Deobandi school, a branch of the Hanafi tradition founded in British-occupied India in the nineteenth century, and Hanbalism, due to heavy influence from Gulf petro-tyrants.)

Considering the apparent risks involved in legitimizing religious fundamentalism, it is unfortunate that Abdou omits discussion of Muslim philosophers like the proto-feminist Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) and only mentions the Mutazilites—the first Islamic theologians, who espoused liberal-humanist views—and the anarchistic Kharijites in passing [25]. The Kharijites, who arose in the First Islamic Civil War (656-661), rejected the authority of the early Umayyad dynasty (661-750 CE), and even assassinated Ali ibn Abi Talib, the last Rashidun caliph. Some Kharijites rejected the need for an imam altogether [26].  In turn, the Mutazilites advocated reason and moral objectivism, while questioning the theological reliance on ahadith and divine commands. This is despite the mihna, or inquisition, imposed by the caliph Mamun from 833-851 to propagate Mutazila doctrine.

In his book, Abdou goes so far as to claim that ‘anti-authoritarianism [is] inherent to Islām’ [27]. Yet, he omits several important considerations here. For instance, he dismisses that the religion’s name literally translates to ‘surrender’ or ‘submission,’ and ignores that the Quran mandates obedience to ‘those in authority’ [28]. Implicitly channeling the fatalism of the orthodox Sunni theologian Ashari (873-935) over the free will championed by the scholar Taftazani (1322-1390?), Abdou proclaims that ‘[n]othing belongs to our species, including our health, nor is what we “possess” a product of our will or our own “making”’ [29]. The ascetic, anti-humanist, and potentially authoritarian implications of this view are almost palpable: Abdou here asserts that neither our life nor our health is our own, and that we have little to no agency.

Against such mystifications, in God and the State (1882), Mikhail Bakunin describes how organised religion blesses hierarchical authority, while in The Essence of Christianity (1841), Ludwig Feuerbach contests the idea that religious directives are divine in origin, showing that they are instead human projections made for socio-political ends. According to the Persian iconoclast and atheist Ibn al-Rawandi (872-911), in this vein, prophets are akin to sorcerers, God is a human creation, and neither the Quran nor the idea of an afterlife in Paradise is anything special. Therefore, although Abdou claims to disavow authoritarian methods throughout his book, it is unclear how a fundamentalist belief in the divine authority of the Quran can be reasonably maintained without mandating a particularly orthodox approach to religion and politics.

Furthermore, Abdou presents his puzzling view that Islam is anti-capitalist, just as he affirms the faith’s emphasis on property, banking, charity, and market competition—most of which are fundamentally bourgeois institutions [30]. The French historian Fernand Braudel is more blunt: ‘anything in western capitalism of imported origin undoubtedly came from Islam’ [31]. Indeed, Kuru observes that ‘the Prophet Muhammad and many of his close companions themselves were merchants,’ and that the name of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, is itself ‘derived from trade (taqrish)’ [32]. Economic historian Jared Rubin adds that ‘[t]he Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries […] provided security and a unifying language and religion under which trade blossomed.’ Baghdad during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) was a riverine commercial hub, with each of its four gates ‘leading outward to the major trading routes’ [33]. In this sense, Islam may have influenced Protestantism, not only due to certain Muslims’ critiques of political authority resonating in the Protestant Reformation, but also due to the two faiths mandating similar work ethics and fixations on profit [34]. That being said, ‘unlike Jesus, Muhammad commanded armies and administered public money’ [35].

Abdou avoids all of this in his presentation of anarcha-Islam. While such lacunae may be convenient, to consider them is to complicate the idea of coherently mixing orthodox Islam with the revolutionary anti-capitalist philosophy of anarchism [36].

As further evidence of Abdou’s confused approach, the author engages early on in outright historical denialism regarding Muslim conquests during the seventh and eighth centuries, which involved widespread erasure of Indigenous peoples, but later block-quotes the poet Tamim al-Barghouti, who contradicts him by referring to these as ‘expansionary wars’ [37]. In one breath, Abdou praises the pedophile apologist Hakim Bey as an ‘influential anarchist theorist,’ and in the next, he asserts that truth regimes are different in ‘the East and Islām,’ compared to the West [38]. Such claims are consistent with the post-modern denial of reality. In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution (2005), Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson convincingly show the risks of this very approach, considering how Michel Foucault’s belief that Iranian Shi’ites had a different ‘regime of truth’ from Westerners led this philosopher not only to uncritically support Khomeinism, but also to legitimize its newfound ulema-State alliance in the eyes of the world [39]. Unfortunately, Abdou’s perspective on the Syrian regime is not dissimilar.

A painting of two Arabic men sitting astride one another on camels and embracing.
“Farewells of Abu-Zayd and Al-Harith” from the Maqamat of al-Hariri, c. 1240

Meanwhile, the author avows Muslim queerness with reference to bathhouse (hammam) cultures and the Maqamat of al-Hariri (see above). He could also have incorporated the hadith al-shabb, which conveys the Prophet’s encounter with God in the beauty of a young man; quoted some of the homoerotic ghazals written by Persian poets like Rumi (1207-1273), Sa’adi (c. 1213-1292), and Hafez (c. 1325-1390); or considered the complaints of Crusaders about the normalization of same-sex bonds in Muslim society [40]. Indeed, the bisexual German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe viewed the meditative recitation of the ‘99 Names’ of God (al-asma al-husna) as a ‘litany of praise and glory’ [41]. Even so, Abdou does not acknowledge or critique the existence of homophobic and lesbophobic ahadith, much less contemplate how the Quranic tale of the Prophet Lut associates gay desire with male rape, thus closing off the possibility of same-sex mawaddah (or love and compassion) [42]. Instead, he cites an article from 2013 on the role of Islam in the treatment of mental illness, which explicitly perpetuates the reactionary view of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, without comment or condemnation [43]!

In contrast, researcher Aisya Aymanee Zaharin deftly elaborates a progressive revisionist account of queerness in Islam that is critical of social conservatism and heteronationalism among Muslims, particularly in the wake of European colonialism and the Wahhabist reaction, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Zaharin builds her case from the vantage point of an essentialist belief in the naturalness of same-sex attraction, the importance of human dignity and affection within Islam, and supportive Quranic verses mentioning how Allah has ‘created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may find comfort in them. And He has placed between you compassion and mercy’ [44].

Overall, Abdou endorses the classic shortcomings of post-colonialism and post-left anarchism in his conclusion. Here, he simultaneously provides an overwhelmingly exogenous explanation for the rise in Islamic-fundamentalist movements, denounces the ‘destructive legacy of liberalism,’ condemns Democrats’ ‘obsession’ with Donald Trump, and provides discursive cover for Assad and Putin’s crimes [45].  His downplaying of the dangers posed by Trump is clearly outdated and ill-advised. Although Abdou is right to criticize certain factors external to MENA, such as Western militarism and imperialism, he does not convincingly explain how anarcha-Islam can overcome existing authoritarianism and prevent its future resurgence, whilst simultaneously committing itself to the authority of a particular theology. Indeed, Abdou at times prioritises fundamentalism over progressivism and libertarian socialism—thus proving anarchist scholar Maia Ramnath’s point that the ‘same matrix […] of neoliberal global capitalism […] provides the stimulus for both left and right reactions’ [46].

Conclusion

In closing, I would not recommend Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism very highly, principally because the author’s vision of ‘anarcha-Islām’ is exclusive rather than cosmopolitan, in keeping with post-modern, anti-humanist, and sectarian trends emanating from MENA and the West. In his own words, as we have seen, Abdou is a ‘militant jihādi[47]. Besides preaching revivalist, neo-orthodox Sunni Islam, he uses a primarily post-colonial perspective to critique settler-colonialism, white supremacy, and Western imperialism. There is no question that these are real ills that must be contested, but the post-colonial framing espoused by Abdou crucially overlooks internal authoritarian social dynamics while facilitating the avowal of the orthodoxies he affirms. This problem also extends to South Asia and its diaspora, as Hindu-nationalist sanghis have taken advantage of the naïveté of many Western progressives to normalize Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fascist rule [48]. Still, authoritarian rule does not appear to be Abdou’s goal, and his efforts to produce a non-authoritarian vision of Islam are at times noteworthy. A question this review poses is how, in mental and material terms, can adherence to an exclusive doctrine produce an anti-authoritarian world?

Whereas Abdou focuses on challenging and defeating Western hegemony, he avoids mention of the ills propagated by states other than the USA, the European Union, and their allies. Indeed, the disinformation he advances in the conclusion about Assad and Putin’s lack of responsibility for atrocious crimes against humanity in Syria is one with post-colonialists’ downplaying of Russian imperialism, especially in Ukraine. His outright ‘strategic’ support for Assad and lack of sympathy for the women’s protests in Iran, as revealed in the aforementioned podcast interview, typify pseudo-anti-imperialism. Beyond this, the author’s post-anarchist views inform his denial about the expansionism practiced by Islam’s early adherents, and his omissions about the close historical relationship between the new faith and commerce. It is apparent how far his anti-rationalist perspective is from that of the Mutazilites, al-Rawandi, and Ibn Rushd.

The Reality of a Diverse Islam and Diverse Anarchism – Jihad al-Haqq

While Abdou acknowledges the diversity of Islam, this is not reflected in the epistemology he attempts to write. Indeed, like the breadth and width of anarchist beliefs—from anarcha-feminism to egoist anarchism—any weaving together of Islamic belief and anarchism must respect that anarchist beliefs should be able to be built on the many different kinds of Islam that are practiced: Sunnism, Shi’ism, Isma’ilism, and so forth. This is something Abdou should have made clear. The mission of his work was to tie together Islam and anarchism in only one of its possible iterations, in the same way any anarchist proposing a future anarchist society in some theoretical work must concede that such a theoretical work only proposes how one anarchist society might look. This view is correct regardless of anarchist considerations: anthropologically, it is a basic truth that the religions practiced worldwide have many variations (much the same that languages have many variations over certain populations), that are themselves greatly affected by sociological factors, such as socio-economic status, existing power structures within a society, political beliefs, and so on.

Mohamed Abdou did mention this in the last chapter:

‘After all, as the Qur’ān emphasizes: “There is no Coercion in Religion,” and acknowledges: “And had thy Lord willed, all those who are on the earth would have believed all together. Wouldst thou compel people till they become believers?”20 There is no concept of favoritism in Islām. In the Creator’s sight the “best” are the tribes and nations that maintain social justice, egalitarian relations, and ethical and political conduct towards others and nonhuman life. The Qur’ān states: “Not all people are alike”…’

In other places, he reaffirmed the existing diversity of Islamic belief, but did not take it in the direction I hoped.

Ultimately, I fear that because of this precise consideration, Abdou’s project may have been doomed from the start. The synthesis of Islam and anarchism is up to the individual, and such syntheses might go on to become socially popular. Indeed, one of Abdou’s major pillars is that of “ijtihad,” that is, independent reasoning—even if one did not take ijtihad into account, Islam regardless would be diverse politically. The best a work like this can do is to point out anarchistic considerations in developing an interpretation of Islam that is anti-state, anti-capitalist, and so forth; but not establish an anarcha-Islam in its own right. The aim of this work ought to be like a commentary, not a second Qur’an. Nevertheless, it is, in the grand scheme of things, worthy of consideration for both praise and criticism.

Works Cited

Abdou, Mohamed 2022. Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances. London: Pluto.

Achcar, Gilbert 2009. The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson 2005. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Ahmad, Aijaz 1998. “Right-Wing Politics, and the Cultures of Cruelty.” Social Scientist, vol. 26, no. 9/10. 3-25.

al-Shami, Leila and Shon Meckfessel 2022. “Why Does the US Far Right Love Bashar al-Assad?” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, Calif: AK Press. 192–209.

Asr Anarshism 2022. Forthcoming interview. The Commoner (https://www.thecommoner.org.uk).

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 2010. West-East Divan. Trans. Martin Bidney. Albany: State University of New York.

Haarman, Ulrich 1978. “Abu Dharr: Muhammad’s Revolutionary Companion.” Muslim World, vol. 68, issue 4. 285–9.

Hammond, Joseph 2013. “Anarchism.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Eds. Gerhard Bowering et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 36–7.

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

Kuru, Ahmet T. Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lewinstein, Keith 2013. “Kharijis.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Eds. Gerhard Bowering et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 294–5.

Quran. Trans. Mustafa Khattab. Available online: https://quran.com. Accessed 13 August 2022.

Ramnath, Maia 2022. “The Other Aryan Supremacy.” ¡No Pasarán! Ed. Shane Burley. Chico, CA: AK Press. 210-69.

Rubin, Jared 2013. “Trade and commerce.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Eds. Gerhard Bowering et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 552–4.

Shariati, Ali 2003. Religion vs. Religion. Trans. Laleh Bakhtiar. ABC International Group.

Williams, Wesley 2002. “Aspects of the Creed of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal: A Study of Anthropomorphism in Early Islamic Discourse.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 34, no. 3. 441–463.

Zaharin, Aisya Aymanee M. 2022. “Reconsidering Homosexual Unification in Islam: A Revisionist Analysis of Post-Colonialism, Constructivism and Essentialism.” Religions 13:702. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13080702.

[1] Abdou 115; Quran 2:256, 49:13 (emphasis added).
[2] Abdou 138.
[3] Ibid vii, 14.
[4] Haarman.
[5] Shariati; Kuru 181.
[6] Abdou 10-11, 84; Shariati 26-7.
[7] Abdou 101, 127-46.
[8] Asr Anarshism, forthcoming interview in The Commoner.
[9] Ahmad.
[10] Hensman 119-50.
[11] Abdou 231-2; Hensman.
[12] Hensman.
[13] al-Shami and Meckfessel 198, 208.
[14] Hammond 36.
[15] Kuru 40-2, 48, 103-112, 143-5.
[16] Ibid 216-30.
[17] Abdou 5-8, 32-3, 75, 226.
[18] Ibid 23.
[19] Kuru 25-6; Abdou 168-9, 175, 181.
[20] Abdou 41, 74-5.
[21] Ibid 81.
[22] Ibid 188-220.
[23] Ibid 209 (emphasis in original).
[24] Kuru 17-18, 94-5, 202, 227; Williams 442.
[25] Abdou 17-18.
[26] Lewinstein.
[27] Abdou 207, 228.
[28] Quran 4:59.
[29] Kuru 129; Abdou 149.
[30] Abdou 147-64.
[31] Quoted at Kuru 159.
[32] Kuru 80-1.
[33] Rubin 553.
[34] Ibid 81n86, 200.
[35] Kuru 94.
[36] Abdou 13.
[37] Abdou 47, 123-4, 195.
[38] Ibid 30, 54-5.
[39] Afary and Anderson 50.
[40] Williams 443-8; Zaharin 3, 9.
[41] Goethe 201.
[42] Zaharin 4-8.
[43] Abdou 97, 271n84.
[44] Zaharin 12-17 (emphasis added); Quran 30:21-2.
[45] Abdou 230-2.
[46] Achcar 104–8; Ramnath 244.
[47] Abdou 209 (emphasis in original).
[48] Ramnath.

From “Trotsky in Tijuana” to “Chernobyl”: Caution & Reason

July 22, 2022
“Chernobyl,” photographed by Jorge Fraganillo (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

The promise of historical and speculative fiction is the reconstruction of the past in the present, or of the present in the past, and the contemplation of what might have been, or of what might still be. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote, creative writers furnish “world[s] of [their] own” by “rearrang[ing] the things of [their] world in a new way which pleases [them].”[1] Between Dan La Botz’s novel Trotsky in Tijuana (2020) and Craig Mazin and Johan Renck’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019), we find two fictionalized accounts bookending the tragic history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from the Bolshevik centralization of power following the anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1917 to what Rohini Hensman terms the “democratic anti-imperialist revolution” of 1991.

Trotsky in Tijuana is an intriguing and well-written book of alternate (or counter-) history, in which La Botz imagines Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879–1940) surviving his assassination in Mexico City by the Spanish Soviet agent Ramón Mercader. In La Botz’s vision, the famed Ukraine-born Jewish Marxist then continues to organize against social-democratic reformism and Stalin’s Communist International through his organization, the Fourth International. This book combines neo-Trotskyist critique of Stalinism with libertarian-socialist themes as an imaginative “second world” to our own, illuminating divisions on the left among anarchists, Trots, and “tankies” (who support “anti-imperialist” dictators). Yet, as we shall see, despite the novel’s beauty and insights, Trotskyism appears to overpower anarchism in La Botz’s historical retelling.

For its part, the Chernobyl miniseries dramatizes the explosion that took place on April 26, 1986, within the core of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, located near the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl lays bare the dangers of nuclear energy specifically and technological hubris more broadly, while implicitly critiquing Soviet State capitalism and, perhaps by extension, private forms of capitalism—like those we confront in the United States. Chernobyl shows how the combination of workplace hierarchy, high technology, hyper-masculinity, and the performance principle threatens our collective self-destruction.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine as part of a brutal campaign announced by President Vladimir Putin to supposedly “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. However, this “denazification” campaign in reality represents yet another instance of white Russians carrying out genocide. Having penetrated Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian army quickly overran the Chernobyl site, where, for over three weeks, the facility’s workers were forced by the occupiers to work nonstop. The radiation spike seen at Chernobyl at the start of the Russian invasion—a twenty-fold increase—can be explained by the churning of irradiated soils through the movement of military hardware.

On March 3 and 4, 2022, Russian shelling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine—Europe’s largest nuclear plant—set an administrative building on fire. Fortunately, the site’s six reactors (better protected than their now-deactivated counterparts at Chernobyl) remained undamaged, and as of early March, local levels of radioactivity were normal. Even so, we should bear in mind the warning of Professor Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), that “any […] nuclear even[t]” cannot be “isolated within sovereign borders,” owing to the physics involved. In this light, although Russian forces withdrew from the Chernobyl region in early April, Putin’s threats of nuclear blackmail following the invasion remain unsettling.

In this article, I will review Trotsky in Tijuana and Chernobyl from an anti-authoritarian perspective by exploring some of the overlap with, and divergences from, anarchism in these artistic works. I will also present an overall critique of nuclear energy, to contrast with the ideological support Chernobyl’s screenwriter, Mazin, provides to the industry—regardless of the scope of the disaster he portrays.

Front-5

Trotsky in Tijuana

In Trotsky in Tijuana, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife, fatefully questions the man she knew as Frank Jacson’s choice to wear a heavy raincoat during a visit to their fortress-home in Coyoacán on August 20, 1940. However, in La Botz’s counternarrative, Sedova’s doubts do not go unheard. Historically, Mercader wore this same coat to cover up the ice ax he would use to fatally injure the exiled communist revolutionary, as the latter reviewed an essay with which his counterpart sought to distract him. Yet, in La Botz’s imagination, Ralph Bucek, a fictional US-American guard of the “Old Man,” enters his charge’s office and hits the Spaniard in the head with a baseball at the last moment, saving the day.

Rather than replay Trotsky’s murder—as John P. Davidson’s novel The Obedient Assassin (2014), Antonio Chavarrias’s film El Elegido (The Chosen, 2016), and the Russian TV miniseries on Trotsky (2017) do—La Botz’s book envisions the founder of the Red Army escaping this brush with death through exile to Baja California, where he continues to theorize about current events, especially World War II, and even find time for erotic love.

Not long after Trotsky, Sedova, and their retinue resettle in the so-called Cantú house in Tijuana, Trotsky’s own anarchistic secretary, Jan van Heijenoort, abandons Mexico for Europe, plotting a long-term mission to assassinate Stalin. La Botz imagines that Van’s plan dovetails with the “doctors’ plot” of 1953, when Soviet Jewish physicians had supposedly conspired with Western imperial powers to murder Stalin, his propagandist Andrei Zhdanov, and other party bosses. In retaliation for the discovery of this “plot,” Stalin ordered the arrests of hundreds of Soviet Jews and/or physicians, and planned to expand the Gulag to imprison more Jews, in a final homage to his “frenemy,” Adolf Hitler. Yet, just as a possible second Holocaust and nuclear war between the USSR and the West are threatened, La Botz’s depiction of Van’s assassination plot succeeds. The same day, the Soviet agent “Étienne” (Mark Zborowski)—who had murdered Trotsky and Sedova’s son, Lev Sedov, in Paris, and then boldly posed (in La Botz’s imagination) as Trotsky’s new secretary in Tijuana—kills Lev Davidovich by poisoning.[2]

While La Botz is sympathetic to his martyred subject, he is not uncritical toward the Bolshevik leader’s legacy. He surely does not shy away from depicting Trotsky’s narcissistic, delusional, and dogmatic tendencies. Rather, he insinuates the need for twenty-first-century updates to the brightest ideas of this “polymath,” who was “lost in time.” These ideas include class struggle, the united front, and the permanent revolution. Historically speaking, Trotsky adapted the last of these from the French anarchist Élisée Reclus, who asserted in 1899 that “[a]s long as iniquity endures, we, international anarcho-communists, will remain in a state of permanent revolution.”[3]

This dynamic only reinforces the anarchist hypothesis that Marxists aim to appropriate revolution for themselves and their bureaucratic franchises, rather than the liberation of the working classes and humanity—as Marx’s own expulsion of Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1872, and Lenin and Trotsky’s crushing in 1921 of the Kronstadt Commune and of the peasant-anarchist Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, prove. While the mutiny by Red sailors at Kronstadt demanded that the Russian Revolution advance without the dead weight of the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army was cofounded by the Ukrainian peasant guerrilla Nestor Makhno, who also organized with the Nabat (Tocsin) anarchist confederation after the fall of Tsar Nicholas I in 1917. Despite the Makhnovists’ proclamation of free soviets and their actions that arguably saved the Revolution through their fierce resistance to the reactionary White armies during the Civil War (1918–21), just as the Kronstadt sailors had previously served the cause at key points, forces loyal to Red Army commander Trotsky crushed both groups.

Notably, La Botz does not acknowledge that Lev Davidovich Bronstein adopted the surname Trotsky in 1898, after his jailer in Odessa. Psychoanalytically, this choice suggests identification with the aggressor, which is consistent with sociopolitical authoritarianism.[4] Arguably in this sense, there is a direct line from Lev’s adoption of his prison warden’s name to his own atrocities in the Revolution. Indeed, Trotsky in Tijuana’s coverage of the Russian Revolution conveys its author’s neo-Trotskyism. For instance, throughout the novel, the totality of the revolution is reduced to the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 seizure of power, with little to no mention of the “people’s epic” from February 1917, which in fact began the earthquake. This elision amounts to a minimization of the role played, specifically, by the proletarian women who lit the spark in Petrograd that overthrew the Romanov Tsars. La Botz even suggests that “revolution” emanated from Lenin’s persona, as though this were his superpower. Likewise, in a 2015 column in New Politics, the author writes that in both “February and October 1917,” the “Bolshevik[s] led the Russian working class to overthrow the Czarist autocracy.” The only problem with this claim is that all of the Bolshevik leaders were in exile during February 1917.[5]

In reality, the book glosses over its subject’s wickedness, in a move that functions to boost Trotsky’s radical credentials. Although La Botz acknowledges that the Bolsheviks “incorporated […] Tsarist officers” into the Red Army early on, the mass murder of the insurgent Kronstadt sailors—overseen by Trotsky in March 1921—is not mentioned until the second half of the book. At that point, La Botz describes the war commissar as merely “support[ing] the decision” to suppress the mutineers, rather than supervising the ex-Tsarist officer Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s use of overwhelming force toward this end.[6] Neither Makhno nor the Makhnovshchina is mentioned at all.

In short, while La Botz’s historical counternarrative champions direct action and critiques bureaucratic authoritarianism, the author’s affection for the “Old Man” somewhat clouds the novel’s treatment of the period between 1917 and 1921. A more anarchist approach might have portrayed Lev Davidovich as haunted by the counterrevolutionary brutality he oversaw and carried out during that time. Although La Botz’s condemnation of Stalinism is most apt—especially in light of “tankie” support for Putin’s war crimes in Syria and Ukraine—and despite the author’s good-natured satire of the titular character, the story neither adequately questions the role of “revolutionary” authority nor proclaims that it is the workers and peasants, not the party, who drive revolutionary change.

ChNPP_Unit1control

“Control room of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” Carl A. Willis (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

Like Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, Trotsky was an enthusiast of bourgeois principles of management, political centralism, and the domination of nature. When crystallized in high-risk technologies such as nuclear energy, it is unsurprising that such Promethean social ideologies, imaginaries, and institutional structures would result in disasters like the one experienced at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, featured in Chernobyl.[7]

The basic idea of nuclear fission is this: uranium, after having been mined and enriched, is subjected to neutron bombardment in a nuclear plant’s reactor core. This leads to the fission, or splitting, of the nuclei of uranium, and the resulting production of intense heat, or radiation. This radiation is then combined with coolant to produce high-pressure steam, which in turn moves turbines, thus producing electricity.[8] The RBMK-type reactor used at Chernobyl, as in many other Soviet nuclear power plants, shared this basic function with the Western light-water reactors (LWRs) presently in use. One of the major differences between the two designs, however, is that RBMK reactors lacked the steel-reinforced containment shields surrounding the core found in LWRs.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test was scheduled to be performed within Chernobyl’s reactor number 4 during the day shift. However, to accommodate the needs of Soviet state capitalism, the test was delayed by ten hours, leaving it to the less-experienced night shift. As part of this experiment, the plant’s crew deactivated the automatic safety and warning systems, including the emergency cooling system. They also removed most of the control rods from the reactor core, lowering energy output far below normal. Accordingly, without adequate power to pump water into the reactor to either remove excess heat or produce electricity, the core became unstable.[9]

At this point, Chernobyl depicts several of the plant’s workers, all of whom present as cisgender men, as protesting the idea of proceeding with the safety test. Nevertheless, reflecting toxic masculinity and the phenomenon of abusive supervision, Anatoli Dyatlov, the plant’s chief engineer, orders the experiment to proceed. Linking megalomania and the performance principle (or the compulsion to keep the capitalist machine going) with the masculine derogation of femininity, Dyatlov bullies his subordinates, Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov, into obedience. He does so by threatening their jobs, and specifically by associating Toptunov with his mother, due to his youthful and androgynous appearance.[10] Then, when the test goes haywire, Akimov engages the emergency shutdown system known as AZ-5, thus introducing graphite-tipped rods into the reactor core. This unexpectedly increases reactivity, leading to a chain reaction that causes a critical buildup of steam, a partial meltdown, and a core explosion that would irradiate much of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the rest of Europe.

Chernobyl tells the dramatic tale of this experiment gone awry, together with some of the responses taken by the state, individuals, and collectives to this unprecedented catastrophe. Mazin and Renck portray desperate scenes of exploited labor, as firefighters and helicopter pilots struggle to douse the numerous fires set off by the explosion, miners are forced at gunpoint to build a tunnel beneath the reactor to accommodate a heat exchanger, and human “bio-robots” are used to clear radioactive debris from the facility’s roof. Notoriously, the firefighters who initially responded were neither warned of the risks of exposure, nor provided any sort of protective equipment. As a result, many of these working-class heroes died of acute radiation syndrome. Still, this grisly story foregrounds the state capitalist domination of (cis) men: with the exceptions of female nurses attending to irradiated patients and the fictional Soviet physicist Uma Khomyuk, who is an amalgam of the scientists investigating the incident, women are mostly absent from Chernobyl.

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

“Monument to Those Who Saved the World,” photographed by Martin Cígler (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

In terms of understanding the destruction of the Russian Revolution, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, we might benefit from contemplating the close relationship between Leninism and Stalinism. In Trotsky in Tijuana, La Botz includes Trotsky’s insightful prediction that the Bolshevik Party would come to be dominated by Lenin, simply due to the pyramidal structure he proposed for it. The author portrays Stalin, as Lenin’s successor, being haunted by Trotsky’s accusation from 1927 that he was the “gravedigger of the Revolution!” Still, he entertains the idea that it was only Grigory “Zinoviev’s military Bolshevism,” a “Bolshevism characterized by authoritarianism and intolerance,” that had “created Stalinism”[11]—thus letting Lenin and Trotsky off the hook.

Even so, almost approaching Paul Mattick’s left-communist critique, La Botz explicitly acknowledges how wrong Trotsky was to consider the USSR a “workers’ state” of any kind.[12] As outlined in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) and other writings, the exiled theorist’s self-serving position about Stalin’s USSR being a “degenerated workers’ state” is perhaps understandable, but it is nonetheless delusional. Indeed, Trotsky’s own responsibility for the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovist peasant-anarchist movement in Ukraine paved the way for his rival’s takeover. As the Bolshevik autocracy eliminated the most radical elements among workers, peasants, and fighters, it sealed the fate of the Revolution: namely, to give rise to a Communist hell.[13]

Along these lines, Chernobyl can be seen as a visual exploration of the horrors of bureaucracy, state capitalism, and high technology. To protect the reputation and power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the Politburo executives covered up and downplayed the news from Chernobyl from the start. Reflecting the lack of freedom of the press, free speech, or freedom of movement evident in the Soviet Union, authorities forced Western correspondents to remain in Moscow in the aftermath of the accident. Meanwhile, the KGB filtered information flows from the disaster site. In reality, the “two million residents of Kyiv,” located eighty miles from the plant, “were not informed despite the fallout danger, and the world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the CPSU’s last general secretary, did not publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation until May 14, well over two weeks after the explosion. In fact, despite Ukrainian appeals to the contrary, Gorbachev ordered the 1986 May Day march to proceed in Kyiv, so as to feign that the explosion posed no health risk to the public—this, despite the fact that the winds were then carrying fallout toward the city.[14]

The injustice of the situation is accentuated by Con O’Neill’s almost mafioso performance as Viktor Bryukhanov, Chernobyl’s manager. Shielded from the risks faced by workers, Bryukhanov keeps a lid on vital information as he sacrifices first responders. Echoing not only tsarist times, when St. Petersburg was constructed on wetlands using the mass conscription of serf labor, but also Stalin’s deportations, forcible collectivization, and the “Great Patriotic War” against the Germans, the CPSU mobilized over six hundred thousand so-called “liquidators” to deal with the fallout from Chernobyl. A 2005 report from the Irish Times finds that since 1986, twenty-five thousand liquidators had died, and that seventy-thousand had been permanently disabled.

While it set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev later admitted, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster caused 350,000 people to be permanently resettled, and its radioactive emissions have coincided with a regional increase in childhood thyroid cancer rates. While Mazin conveys a death toll of between four thousand and ninety-three thousand owing to the accident, Kate Brown estimates that “[b]etween 35,000 and 150,000 people died from cancers, heart problems, [and] autoimmune disorders” resulting from the disaster. Plus, as the recent movements of Russian units have reminded us, the soils surrounding Chernobyl remain highly irradiated. Ominously, less than a month into the all-out war, forest fires began to erupt, sending airborne radiation levels skyrocketing.

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

Perhaps surprisingly for an HBO series, Chernobyl features themes sympathetic to queerness, anarchism, and their intersections. For instance, as Akimov confronts the moral distress of carrying out Dyatlov’s unreasonable orders to proceed with the safety test, he gently whispers to Toptunov: “I’m with you.” We can draw a parallel here to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), which proposes homoerotic union among the crew of the Pequod against the deranged Captain Ahab, who is leading them toward a watery grave. Tragically, in both cases, the crew do ultimately perish, in an allegory of the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, the domination of nature, and toxic masculinity. In parallel, the miners from the Donbas region who are conscripted to build a tunnel under the stricken plant are shown as especially defiant to the authorities, in a way that may recall the Ukrainian peasant-anarchist movement led by Makhno. Though the miners agree to the CPSU’s terms, Mazin and Renck depict them as doing so proudly, in terms of laboring to save humanity. Furthermore, they are shown performing their communal work in the nude, and this verbal image suggests free love as a means to dissolving hierarchy, or what the late researcher Christopher Chitty refers to as “sexual anarchy.”[15]

On the one hand, Chernobyl celebrates the heroic labor and mutual aid performed during and after the disaster by workers, including engineers, first responders, nurses, miners, and scientists. On the other, it portrays party bosses, from Bryukhanov to Gorbachev, as parasites and autocrats. With this dichotomy in mind, in his review for the New York Times, Mike Hale complains about the miniseries’ “one-dimensional heroes and villains.” Perhaps Mazin and Renck exaggerate a bit, but then again, the bureaucratic authoritarianism exhibited by Dyatlov and his superiors follows from the Soviet context, established by “Red hangmen.”[16] After all, the Soviet political system was based on a combination of the Tsarist “administrative utopia” and the “revolutionary statism” preached by Marx and Lenin.[17] Though he ended up killing Trotsky, Stalin “copied and far surpassed” his rival’s plan for the militarization of labor.[18]

In this sense, despite Chernobyl’s production by HBO, the visual narrative may well be influenced by Mazin’s own apparent solidarity with the struggle against class society. In his review on Red Flag (Australia) of the miniseries as an “anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” Daniel Taylor observes that “the disaster we’re seeing is transpiring in, and largely a product of, a bureaucratic, managerial society divided into rulers and ruled, bosses and workers.”[19] Therefore, “strip away the Stalinist veneer and it is easy to recognise the system we have today: a managerial society run by bosses and bureaucrats who lie and kill to maintain their social dominance, and who threaten the whole world as long as they remain in power.” Taylor is right, but let us radicalize the implications beyond the nostalgia he expresses for Lenin and Trotsky. By focusing on the intersection of the exploitation of labor and ecological disaster, Mazin may be conveying implicit and/or unconscious sympathies with green syndicalism and social ecology, beyond democratic concerns about political dictatorship.

In parallel, we can draw lines from Trotsky and his Stalinist assassin Étienne, in La Botz’s presentation, to Dyatlov. Both Trotsky and Étienne are portrayed as automatons incapable of friendship, who typically view others only as tools, to be treated as either subordinates or superiors within a military hierarchy.[20] Such depictions, when juxtaposed with Mazin and Renck’s illustration of Dyatlov’s megalomania, communicate the continuities between Marxism-Leninism and bourgeois society—thus questioning what progress the Russian Revolution really brought. Indeed, in a chilling echo from the past, the blatant lie perpetrated by Trotsky and Lenin that the Kronstadt revolutionaries were led by tsarist officers—which subsequently inspired Stalin during his show trials—is now being reproduced by Putin’s regime, when it claims absurdly that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis.

Conclusion

Proponents of nuclear energy are often quick to dismiss the Chernobyl disaster as an aberration that reflects the flaws of both the reactor’s design and the Soviet autocracy, rather than any problems with nuclear fission as such. While the reactors in use today may be safer than the earlier Soviet designs, the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, provoked by a tsunami, still tells us that the lessons of Chernobyl have been neither learned nor applied. Moreover, besides the immediate safety issues owing to the risk of core meltdown, most nuclear fission plants in operation today share Chernobyl’s problems of radioactive waste disposal, dependence upon mining, and proliferation of materials usable in a nuclear weapon.[21] Much of this would also be true for the much-hyped hypothetical form of energy production known as nuclear fusion. Like the region surrounding Chernobyl, Diné (Navajo) lands and water-sources in the southwestern United States have been made into sacrifice zones for uranium mining concessions, resulting in radiation sickness and unusually high cancer rates among the Diné. Moreover, it is clear that nuclear energy has no role to play in averting catastrophic climate change.

Such critical thoughts, taken together with reflections on Mazin and Renck’s miniseries, may reveal the systemic nature of our predicament, linking Chernobyl with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Fukushima disaster, global warming, the current war by Russia on Ukraine, and ongoing nuclear brinkmanship. Both Chernobyl and Trotsky in Tijuana are cautionary tales and appeals to reason. While the former highlights “the dangers posed by Stalinism as a uniquely bureaucratic system of social organization,” the latter serves as a call for a united front among “all of us on the left who oppos[e] both Hitler and Stalin,” plus their contemporary followers.[22] While La Botz may not be as critical of Trotsky’s authoritarianism as I might like, his counter-history does recognize the importance of anarchism within revolutionary struggle. Looking to the future, the same mechanisms of social hierarchy, aggressive hyper-masculinity, and adherence to the performance principle that have driven catastrophes like Chernobyl and Russia’s war on Ukraine could be opposed and perhaps overcome by autonomous class struggle; internationalist, anti-militarist, and feminist resistance; and a global transition to wind, water, and solar energy.

Notes

[1] Sigmund Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Collected Papers, vol. 4, trans. Joan Riviere et al., ed. Ernest Jones (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 421.

[2] Dan La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana (St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Books / BookLocker, 2020), 82–85, 91–92, 185–91, 422–50.

[3] Ibid., 24, 62, 196–69, 242–44, 305, 324, 328–29, 347.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. Ulrike Kistner (London: Verso, 2016), 71–72.

[5] Ibid., 66, 308; Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 136–37.

[6] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 57, 297.

[7] Irvin Sam Schonfeld and Chu-Hsiang Chang, Occupational Health Psychology: Work, Stress, and Health (New York: Springer, 2017), 9; Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 50–52; John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3.

[8] G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions, 12th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2002), 345–46.

[9] Ibid., 350.

[10] Schonfeld and Chang, Occupational Health Psychology, 206–7; Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

[11] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 20, 289, 311.

[12] Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 259–72.

[13] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 171–72.

[14] Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 310–11.

[15] Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). See the discussion on group marriage in Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[16] Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 389.

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

[18] Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” 259–60; Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 242.

[19] Daniel Taylor, “Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” RedFlag, June, 9, 2019. Available at: https://redflag.org.au/node/6814.

[20] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 384.

[21] Miller, Living in the Environment, 349.

[22] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 317.

Reading Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” against Russia’s Wars on Syria and Ukraine

March 21, 2022

“War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle the voice of conscience within them.”1

“Art should cause violence to cease.”2

“Anti-Fascist Resistance” logo, targeting the “Z” symbol of the Russian military

Originally published on New Politics, 20 March 2022

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a globally renowned White-Russian prose poet, journalist, ethicist, and Christian-anarchist critic. Though he fought as a cadet in the Eastern Caucasus and became an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian army as a young man, he would resign as a first lieutenant in 1856, after two years.3 Rather than affirm Tsarist colonialism or jingoist pan-Slavist ideologies, as did the celebrated novelist Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Lev Nikolaevich from the start of his writing career expressed critical views of imperial violence and dispossession. This can be gleaned from “The Raid” (1853), the “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869). In its dual rejection of the exaltation of violence and the worship of power, the writer’s humanist war correspondence is motivated by the utopian hope that lending a voice to those who suffer the most in armed conflict might “drastically reduce its incidence” in the future.4

Written as eyewitness accounts of the siege of the Russian naval base by British, French, and Turkish forces during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the “Sevastopol Sketches” portray such scenes of devastation that “shake [one] to the roots of [one’s] being.”5 As such, Count Tolstoy’s purpose in these reports runs parallel to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s teaching from two and a half millennia ago: that awakening begins through acknowledgment of the traumatic reality.6 Establishing himself in these “Sketches” as a “seer of the flesh,” both living and dead, who interweaves poetry and truth, Tolstoy contests those liberal and radical thinkers who focus on the “achievements and ferocious power of the state” while ignoring the “horrific consequences of this power for millions.”7 He repudiates the “galactic” view of existence that would regard Earth from above, and see humanity as a tool to manipulate, manage, and destroy.8 The artist parts company with those who would portray combat as romantic by communicating the straightforward ideas that militarism is based on male sadism and vanity, and that war constitutes murder and ultraviolence.9

No surprise, then, that Tolstoy remains excommunicated within Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, just last month, the megalomaniacal Russian president ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Employing projection and pretext, Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. In reality, this former KGB spy and director of the post-Soviet FSB, embittered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is overseeing a genocidal assault on the Ukrainian people. Brutal violence has long been Putin’s favored approach: the security analyst Anna Borshchevskaya discusses the possibility that he ordered the FSB to bomb apartment buildings in three Russian cities in September 1999. Whether or not he was responsible, Putin blamed these acts of terror on Chechen rebels, while exploiting them both to launch a Second Chechen War (1999-2009) and to secure the presidency in 2000.10 Since then, the Russian despot has led “anti-humanitarian interventions” in Georgia, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Now, nearly a month into his ill-fated foray into Ukraine, the Russian leader mimics his ally Donald Trump by hosting a self-congratulatory fascist rally.

In this essay, we will examine Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches,” emphasizing its tragic realism, anti-militarism, and anti-authoritarianism. Afterward, in the spirit of the Russian artist, we will meditate on parallel war crimes that have been carried out in Syria over the past decade-plus by forces loyal to Putin and Bashar al-Assad. In this sense, we agree with free Syrians and Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, who alike see in Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria a clear precedent for the current offensive against Ukraine. Ominously, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense has likened the Ukrainian resistance to “international terrorists in Syria.” So far, it is clear that the Russian military is using the same atrocious tactics in Ukraine as in Syria, including the direct targeting of hospitals, journalists, bakeries, and residential areas.11 While millions of Ukrainians flee the country or shelter in basements, just as Syrians do and did, the Assad regime is recruiting thousands of mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, now that Russia’s initial blitzkrieg has failed.

Mural for Ukraine painted by Aziz Al-Asmar in Idlib, Syria, February 2022 (Middle East Eye/Bilal al-Hammoud)

The Sevastopol Sketches

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” are comprised of three short first-hand reports on the besiegement and fall of the main Russian-occupied port city of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, between October 1854 and September 1855. These “Sketches” constitute unsettlingly realistic dispatches from the front lines that might have their equivalent today in emergency news reports from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Ukraine which depict suffering with compassion, demanding immediate remedial action.12 Written as “anti-war” correspondence, the “Sketches” are the product of Tolstoy’s commission as an artillery officer in 1854, and of his experiences in the embattled port-city following his transfer there as a second lieutenant the following year.13 Regardless of his humanistic bent, though, Tolstoy erases the important role played by Muslim Crimean Tatars in the city’s defense, in keeping with his silence over their colonial dispossession, which began with Tsarina Catherine II’s annexation of Crimea in 1783.14 At present, Crimean Tatars are courageously taking up arms against Putin’s “special military operation.”

Published in the literary journal The Contemporary that had been co-founded by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s national poet, the same “Sketches” which ironically brought the young Tolstoy celebrity were the product of his autonomous mental labor, following the moribund Tsar Nicholas I’s denial of the lieutenant’s proposal to launch a weekly forces newspaper.15 Significantly, the writer employs narrative realism in the “Sevastopol Sketches” not to mystify or endorse inter-state violence, but rather to defamiliarize or ‘estrange’ the suffering and exploitation demanded by war and militarism before his audience, who accordingly become spectators once-removed from the scene of desolation. In the “Sketches” and subsequently in The Cossacks and War and Peace, the artist at once defamiliarizes, reviles, and deprovincializes warmongering and statist ideologies. He does so by repudiating the resigned acceptance of such destructiveness while providing “intimacy at a distance.” In this way, he seeks to restore the humanity of war’s victims, and to encourage cosmopolitan-internationalist sensibilities in his readers.16

In 1853, Nicholas I declared war on the Ottoman Empire, seeking to take control of its European territories in the Balkans and “liberate” its Orthodox Christian subjects. In response, the British and French allied with the Turks to invade the Crimean Peninsula and assault Sevastopol. Their aim was to capture the Russian naval base, the principal port for the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, toward the end of neutralizing regional Russian expansionism.17 Subjected, then, to a merciless assault by the French and their allies, the soldiers, sailors, and civilian populace of the port-city experience “a total absence of the human and of any prospect of salvation.” Tolstoy observes that, in Sevastopol, “everywhere [one] perceive[s] the unpleasant signs of a military encampment.” Like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno (1320), the writer takes his readers on a tour of a world comprised of the fortress and its eight bastions. The story begins in December 1854 in the Assembly of Nobles, which has been transformed into a makeshift field hospital.18

Showing compassion for the war-wounded in this effective slaughterhouse, the onlooking narrator demonstrates Tolstoy’s commitment to the politics of pity, defined by scholar Lilie Chouliaraki as the “symbolic mechanism[s…] by means of which various media […] construe the spectator-sufferer relationship via emotions of empathy and enunciation or aesthetic contemplation.” Centering the agora—or the realm of reflection and argument—and the theater—or the realm of fellow-feeling, identification, and agency—in these “Sketches,” Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy seeks to convince readers not only of the immorality of warfare, but also of the urgent need to overcome their status as voyeuristic spectators who may just be “sit[ting] back and enjoy[ing] the high-adrenaline spectacle.” Implicitly, he enjoins audiences to channel their emotional reactions into protesting against militarism and social hierarchy.19

Approaching a young wounded warrior, Tolstoy’s guide asks him about his injuries. In response, the youth betrays the self-surrender expected of a soldier (or worker): that “[t]he main thing […] is not to spend too much time thinking about it.” The narrator witnesses a sailor whose chest is “blown away” by a mortar contritely apologizing to his comrades as he perishes. Likewise, surgeons “with pale, gloomy physiognomies” are shown operating effective (dis)assembly lines to amputate the limbs of injured soldiers. One of these surgeons, performing triage, records over five-hundred thirty admissions to the field hospital in a single day in May 1855.20 Besides physicians, 163 Russian female nurses, supervised by the proto-feminist surgeon Nikolai Pirogov (1810-1881), served in front-line field hospitals in Crimea, where they courageously attended to the injured and dying while exposed to artillery barrages and typhus.21 From the other side of the line of control, British nurse Florence Nightingale’s (1820-1910) statistical findings on the causes of death in Allied hospitals showed that “far more men died of disease, infection, and exposure than in battle.”22

Overwhelmed by agony, the factitious Russian Prince Galtsin cannot stand more than a moment in Tolstoy’s bleak Assembly Hall. Seemingly everywhere, intermixed with the mire, can be found “shell splinters, unexploded bombs, cannonballs and camp remains,” and one is assaulted by a ceaseless hail of bullets and shells. For this reason, war is depicted not as “a beautiful, orderly and gleaming foundation,” as the authorities would prefer, but rather, according to the politics of pity, “in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering, and death.”23

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

Estimates suggest that the casualties incurred during the final attack on Sevastopol reached twenty-four thousand on both sides, or about one-tenth of the total from all causes over the course of the siege.24 In contemplating the mass-casualties experienced during this time, Tolstoy’s narrator wonders whether it would not have been more just for two representatives of the warring sides to have dueled, and the conflict’s outcome to have been based on that result. For war as it is practiced is “madness.”25 Through these “quixotic musings” about duels as an alternative to full-blown wars, Tolstoy “dispute[s] the rationality and morality of violence in general.” He does so by implicitly disavowing his landowning class and identifying with anti-militarist values expressed by Russian peasants. In reality, many muzhiki (male peasants) believed that World War I should have been resolved through a village brawl, rather than through mass-slaughter.26 These peasants had an important point: the suffering and death of even one soldier in war “symbolizes [the] ‘universal’ human state of existence” of objectification and brutalization. In other words, to humanize the victims of war, we must treat every casualty as a person.27

In Tolstoy’s Sevastopol, Prince Galtsin and the Polish Lieutenant Nieprzysiecki harass wounded soldiers for retreating, whereas the enthusiastic, newly arrived volunteer Lieutenant Kozeltsov, anticipating “the laurels of immoral glory,” confronts demoralization and horror upon learning the reality of the situation. Alongside soldiers, civilians suffer, too. A sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter remark on the sight of a French artillery barrage at night. The girl cries, “Look at the stars, the stars are falling!” while her mother laments the impending destruction of their home, cursing the “devil” for “blazing away” and bringing “horrible things.” The adjutant Kalugin adds that “sometimes [it’s] impossible to tell which are shells and which are stars!”28

Tolstoy further defamiliarizes the scene by focusing on the responses of a ten-year old boy to all this devastation, contrasting his instinctual horror, based on natural goodness (in accordance with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas), against the statist-militarist normalization of such destructiveness. The scholar Liza Knapp hypothesizes that

Tolstoyan pacifism has its seeds here, where Tolstoy makes the boy, and the reader, pay attention to the corpses, to the sight, smell, and feel of them, and where Tolstoy points to the basic contradiction between the brotherly love that the soldiers at Sevastopol profess […] and the killing that they practice.29

Echoing this point, officer Kalugin thinks to himself that he should amount to something more than the “cannon fodder” to which soldiers are reduced in combat. In this moment, he anticipates how Prince Andrei Bolkonsky similarly laments the reduction of young men to pawns in War and Peace.30 At the end of his account from May 1855, Tolstoy juxtaposes the dystopian sight of hundreds of corpses, or “the bodies of men who two hours earlier had been filled with all manner of hopes and desires,” and the thousands injured between the Allied and Russian positions with the beauty of the stars, the “thundering” sea, and the “mighty, resplendent” sun, as though to decry the betrayal and denial of “joy, love and happiness” owing to war. After all, such tense dynamics are not limited to the nineteenth century. As we know from history and the present, when talks among states fail, “cannons start firing, and people, with all their aspirations and potential, begin to die in droves.”31

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

Anti-War Meditations, from Crimea to Syria, Ukraine, and Palestine

Tolstoy’s disturbing albeit realistic presentation of the horrors of warfare in the “Sevastopol Sketches” certainly has its echoes today. Though the “Sketches” were published more than a century and a half ago, the problems of war, imperialism, dehumanization, and ultraviolence continue in our own day, considering that the State and capitalism persist as the dominant global forms of social organization—as in the nineteenth century. At the same time, whereas the “Sketches” illustrate an inter-imperialist conflict involving the British, French, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, Putin’s ongoing assault on Ukraine threatens an independent nation with reconquest by the former imperial power. Seen from an Enlightenment rationalist perspective, the Crimean War, the Syrian counter-revolution, and the Russo-Ukrainian War are senseless, ruthless, and reactionary. They speak to our predicament of being “stuck” within ossified relations of domination. It is indeed telling that so many Russian soldiers who have surrendered to the Ukrainian military since the offensive began should say they don’t know why they had been obeying orders in this fratricidal conflict. Likewise, one of Tolstoy’s alter egos, Prince Andrei, admits in War and Peace not to know why he is fighting, either.32

Furthermore, the gloomy surgeons amputating Russian soldiers en masse in Sevastopol eerily bring to mind the thousands of Palestinian protesters, mostly youth, whom the Israeli military injured and killed during the “Great Return March” demonstrations that began in March 2018. As of late 2019, at least six hundred of these protesters who were shot in the legs had developed osteomyelitis, a bone infection that can threaten the viability of limbs. Over three hundred such protesters have died in Gaza. It is also striking to consider how closely the comments of the sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter in the “Sketches” echo the desperate realities confronted by millions of courageous Syrians who have risen up against Bashar al-Assad’s fascist regime—only for this regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to have murdered hundreds of thousands, and possibly over a million, of people in response.

If Terry Eagleton is right that “[t]he traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body,” and if John P. Clark is right that meditation on a corpse is “one of the most ancient and most useful meditative practices,” then perhaps meditation on the vast war casualties from the Syrian counter-revolution can be similarly useful, according to a tragic-humanist framework, toward the end of alleviating future episodes of suffering and exclusion—as the Ukraine invasion has starkly shown.33

As the members of The Lancet-American University of Beirut Commission on Syria note, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2.”34 In reality, in a 2021 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry found evidence of “the most heinous of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated against the civilian population” in the country, including genocide. Plus, in an unprecedented March 2021 report on violations of international law perpetrated by the Russian military since its September 2015 intervention in Syria, Russian human-rights groups lament how State-controlled media have blocked out the vast human costs of the war—just as Putin has now prohibited that the war on Ukraine be described as anything other than a “special military operation.” To contest State brutality, these groups seek to “present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die.”

Along similar lines, journalist Rania Abouzeid reports on how the aunts of the eleven-year old girl Ruha, living in Saraqeb, Idlib province, suffered mass-bombardment in 2013 by the Assad regime’s air force, which resembled seemingly ceaseless “raining fire.” In like manner, scholar Yasser Munif describes the grim panoply of technologies employed by the regime to suppress the Syrian Revolution: “starvation, torture, siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical attacks, massacres, assassinations, etc…”35 Anthropologist Charlotte al-Khalili highlights the “vast inequality” in the balance of forces:

peaceful and later lightly-armed revolutionaries, on the one hand, versus a heavily-armed regime on the other, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, using a wide range of weapons up to and including barrel bombs and chemical weapons to exterminate the people living in revolutionary bastions and liberated areas.

The anxiety expressed by the young girl in Sevastopol about the shells resembling stars can be considered to echo the fears of millions of displaced Syrian civilians residing in Idlib, who have been subjected to an indiscriminate campaign of mass-aerial and artillery bombardment by the Assad regime and its allies for years. Equally, they bring to mind the millions of city-dwelling Ukrainians, including children, currently seeking refuge in metro stations, basements, and other bomb shelters targeted by the Russian military. In Idlib, siege tactics have included the use of white phosphorus to set alight crops, destroy agricultural production, worsen malnutrition and starvation, and ultimately force the civilian population into submission. In parallel, Putin’s forces are employing the same cluster munitions and ballistic missiles in Ukraine that they have used in Syria.

Remarkably, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s 2019 documentary film For Sama chronicles the Syrian Revolution and the retaliatory siege of East Aleppo by the Assad-regime axis. Al-Kateab’s documentation of the interplay of joy over the life of her daughter with the plague of war can be seen from the feature’s very first scene, filmed in the Al-Quds Hospital, which was founded in November 2012 by her husband, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab. For Sama begins with a lovely dialogue between the titular infant and her mother which conveys interrelationality—only to be interrupted by an artillery barrage that provokes the flight of al-Kateab with her child through the basement of the hospital. The infernal aspects of this scene, allegorical and real at once, are but the opening salvo in Waad’s illuminating account that bears witness to the devastation perpetrated by Assad and Putin against Syrian revolutionaries. Interviewed on Democracy Now in March 2022 about echoes of Syria in Ukraine, al-Kateab conveyed shock over Putin’s belligerence: “What [is] the world waiting for? What more [do] you need to see? How many hospitals should be more bombed?”

Syrian director Waad al-Kateab interviewed on Democracy Now, March 17, 2022

Assad and Putin’s Counter-Revolutionary Aggression

Over the past decade-plus, the combined forces of the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian States and affiliated paramilitaries have committed heinous crimes in pursuit of their counter-revolutionary goal of suppressing the popular Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011.

Due to their viciousness, both in Syria and Ukraine, Assad and Putin recall the historical figures Generals Sergei Bulgakov (?-1824) and Alexei Yermolov (1777-1861), butchers of the Caucasus, as well as the French General de Ségur (1780-1873). In his function as Napoleon Bonaparte’s underling during the Grand Armée’s invasion of Russia (1812), Comte de Ségur sought to rationalize the extermination of the Muscovites as a necessity for “civilization.”36 Moreover, Putin and Assad’s crimes recall the aggression of the “new high-velocity m[e]n,” Red Army Commander Lev Trotsky (1879-1940) and Soviet Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), who crushed the Kronstadt and Tambov Communes in 1921, using overwhelming and relentless force of rapid maneuver.37 After all, the Assad regime’s prison system—described by the former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifeh as a central aspect of Syria’s topology of violence—builds on the French colonialists’ imposition of their carceral system on the country a century ago, as well as on the Soviet Gulag, which was itself inspired by Tsarist military colonies. In fact, the one-party dictatorship which Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad imposed in 1970 was modeled after the Stalinist regime, and today, ideological and political partisans of Ba’athism openly seek a “USSR 2.0.”

Moreover, Putin and Assad’s employment of mass-aerial bombardment of civilians follows from the Swiss-French imperialist Le Corbusier’s (1887-1965) macabre avowal of air power to “redesign” the Casbah, or citadel, of Algiers, together with the surrounding Old City.38 As well, these autocrats’ use of “vertical power” follows the grim model of the Luftwaffe’s destruction of the Basque town of Guernika in April 1937, within the context of the Spanish Civil War—not to mention US atrocities in World War II, or the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars. If the Russian incendiaries and arsonists who sought to thwart the Grand Armée’s capture of Moscow in 1812 anticipated the pétroleuses of the 1871 Paris Commune, who aimed at burning down buildings symbolizing France’s despotic past and “block[ing] the Versailles invaders with a barrier of flames,” the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz (1949-2013) was surely right to emphasize that his revolutionary compatriots’ struggle against the Assad regime is “no less than [that of] the workers of the Paris Commune.”39

Conclusion: Justice for Syria and Ukraine

July 2014 banner from Syrian revolutionaries in Kafranbel in solidarity with Ukrainians under attack by Russia

As Munif and al-Kateab morosely chronicle, by all means, the Assad regime-axis has directed special retaliatory violence against autonomous and resistant communities, journalists, and medics in Syria.40 Healthcare workers who render aid to communities outside regime control risk being branded “enemies of the state,” and consequently being detained, tortured, and killed, in accordance with the regime’s strategy of “medical genocide.”41 The annihilatory tactics used by this regime and its allies—mimicking those employed by Western European imperialists, Nazis, and Stalinists alike—reproduce the “unconscious past” of the Soviet Gulag system, which inspired Ba’athist brutalism.42 In the same way, Assad and Putin’s brazen counter-revolution has arguably paved the way for not only the genocidal abuses being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party against millions of Uyghur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims in Xinjiang, but also the Burmese junta’s coup of February 2021 and subsequent scorched-earth approach to dissent, as well as the ghastly ongoing attack on Ukraine.

Over six years into Russia’s military intervention to stabilize Bashar’s regime as Putin’s only client State in the “far abroad,” Russia has secured bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and destroyed regional Islamist groups by “turn[ing] the liberated areas into death zones.” Still, the pathos of children murdered by Assad and Putin’s bombs and shells in Syria and Ukraine is no less than that of Palestinian children murdered by the Israeli military.43 Echoing Israel’s tactics in Gaza, the Syrian and Russian air forces have targeted markets and up to fifty hospitals, as New York Times reporters have shown. In February 2021, seeking to market the lethality of its weaponry, the Russian military proudly released video of one of its Iskander ballistic missiles hitting Azaz National Hospital, north of Aleppo. On the Ukrainian front, as we have seen, the main enemy is the same.

In the continuities between the Tolstoyan scenes and sequences from the “Sevastopol Sketches” and War and Peace which center wounded and dying soldiers, the mass-displacement of civilians, and the urbicidal devastation of entire cities like Smolensk and Moscow during the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars on the one hand with the destruction of Syrian and Ukrainian cities like East Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Khan Sheikhoun, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv on the other, we perceive constancy in the fundamentally brutal exercise of State power. We must face these tragedies with Tolstoyan realism and compassion by doing our best to stop Putin, Assad, and their enablers; avoiding an escalation from fratricidal to nuclear war; and supporting revolutionaries, protesters, refugees, and victims of militarism across borders.

“Stop Putin, Stop the War”: street protest in London, March 19, 2022 (Courtesy Paula Erizanu)

Footnotes

1 Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s Diaries, ed. and translated by R. F. Christian (London: Flamingo, 1985), 54.

2 Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy: Later Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 378.

3 Donna Tussing Orwin, “Chronology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4-6.

4 Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 246-9; Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom (San Rafael: Semantron Press, 2009), 66; Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 101.

5 Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks and Other Stories, trans. David McDuff and Paul Foote (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 192 (emphasis added).

6 John P. Clark, Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 194.

7 Алексей и Владимир Туниманов Зверев, Лев Толстой. Вступ. статья. В. Я. Курбатова (Moscow: Youth Guard, 2006), 12; Dmitry Shlapentokh, “Marx, the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production,’ and ‘Oriental Despotism’ as ‘True’ Socialism,” Comparative Sociology 18 (2019), 508; Richard Sokoloski, “Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych: First and Final Chapter,” Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. 9 (1997), 51; Peter Kropotkin, Russian Literature: Ideals and Realities (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991), 118.

8 Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 478-80; James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War (New York: Penguin, 2004), 51.

9 Andrei Zorin, Critical Lives: Leo Tolstoy (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 31; Liza Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 172; Berdyaev 157; Gunisha Kaur, From torture to ultraviolence: medical and legal implications,” The Lancet, 6 April 2021.

10 Anna Borshchevskaya, Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence (London: I. B. Tauris, 2022), 42.

11 Yasser Munif, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death (London: Pluto, 2020), 37-40.

12 Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage, 2006), 18, 76, 118.

13 Christopher Bellamy, “Tolstoy, Count Leo,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 914; Orwin 4.

14 Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 348; Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 399.

15 Zorin 26-7; Bartlett 109-11.

16 Knapp 171; Chouliaraki 21-43, 71 (emphasis in original); Charles Reitz, Ecology and Revolution: Herbert Marcuse and the Challenge of a New World System Today (Routledge: New York, 2019), 84-5.

17 Zorin 29; Evtuhov et al. 367-70; Christopher Bellamy, “Sevastopol, sieges of,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 821.

18 Tolstoy 2006: 304, 187, 192.

19 Chouliaraki 38-9, 44-52, 85-93, 119-121, 124-48.

20 Tolstoy 2006: 190, 192, 200, 228-9 (emphasis in original).

21 Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 30-1.

22 Natasha McEnroe, “Celebrating Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary,” The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10235, 2020), 1477.

23 Tolstoy 2006: 192, 196, 227-8).

24 Evtuhov et al. 370.

25 Tolstoy 2006: 204.

26 Rick McPeak, “Tolstoy and Clausewitz: The Duel as a Microcosm of War,” eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 116; Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 148).

27 Chouliaraki 124; Hillman 49.

28 Tolstoy 2006: 221, 223-4, 227, 268-9.

29 Lisa Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 170.

30 Tolstoy 2006: 236-7; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 756.

31 Tolstoy 2006: 247-8, 25; McPeak 115.

32 Tolstoy 2010: 27, 677.

33 Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 27, 168; Clark 187.

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

35 Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), 182-3; Munif 9.

36 Alexander M. Martin. “Moscow in 1812: Myths and Realities.” Tolstoy On War, eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 42-58.

37 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 161; Christopher Bellamy, “Tukhachevskiy, Marshal Mikhail Nikolaeyich,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 924-5; Neil Croll, “The role of M.N. Tukhachevskii in the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion,” Revolutionary Russia, (17) 2 (2004), 10-14.

38 Munif 43-6, 90.

39 Robert Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 6-7; David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune: French Politics, Culture, and Society at the Crossroads of the Revolutionary Tradition and Revolutionary Socialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 95, 159.

40 Munif 33-6.

41 Jabbour et al.

42 Nancy Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

43 Borshchevskaya 169.

An Anarchist Response to Russian Aggression

February 28, 2022
“We Demand Freedom for Russian Anarchists!” Image credit to Popular Front

The following statement is signed by Samuel Clarke, Søren Hough, and Javier Sethness. It does not represent the opinions of all the editors of The Commoner.


The Commoner, like most historical and modern-day anarchists, reject all imperialist wars. We also reject the status quo of globalised capitalism and imperialism which leads to war.

Even so, the causes of the Ukrainian and Russian militaries in the context of this invasion are not the same. Ukraine was dominated by the Tsarist Empire and Soviet Union for nearly four centuries, before achieving independence in 1991. Now, Vladimir Putin’s forces are carrying out egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity, using the pretext of seeking to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ Ukraine. For the sake of the Ukrainian people’s safety, we hope they fail, leaving vast fields of sunflowers in their wake.

Though greatly outgunned, Ukraine’s armed forces are fighting to defend the Ukrainian people and state. Although we do not support any state, we do support Ukrainians’ right to self-defence against Russian aggression. Putin’s track record in Chechnya and Syria shows the brutality of which the Russian president, whom Anti Rautiainen calls the ‘gendarme of the whole world,’ is capable of. His prerecorded video addresses this week betray madness. Indeed, Russian forces have occupied the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and some reports claim that they are holding workers at the plant hostage. This increases the risk of yet another meltdown.

We denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an affront to humanity waged in the name of territory and resources, as all the major wars of the modern world have been. We reject Putin’s justification of his murderous invasion on flimsy ethnic or historical precedent. Nothing about the relationship between Ukraine’s government and the West excuses Russia’s murder of innocent people and attempted seizure of power.

We also denounce the projects of the US, Europe, and the NATO alliance, which have done nothing but increase militarisation and imperialist aggression around the world. Many are rightfully suspicious of Russian state propaganda, but we also encourage people not to fall for the West’s rhetoric or support their draconian, oppressive sanctions which do more to hurt everyday people than their supposed intended targets.

The answer to violence does not lie with the West, just as it does not lie with the Russian Federation, as their shared history of intervention in places such as Crimea and Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, or Iraq and Georgia tells us. We encourage everyone to shun the voices of state officials and instead to listen to the people whose lives are affected by militaristic and economic oppression.

Taking this position, we might be accused of “both-sidesing” this war or not taking a firm position. But we reject the idea that there are only two options. There is a third which we support wholeheartedly: a borderless internationalism which struggles tirelessly against Russian aggression while also firmly opposing Western hegemony.

Our solidarity and sympathies lie with the people of Ukraine who are being made subject to the whims of politicians and nationalist bourgeoisie, and to Russian dissidents who refuse to support this incursion through direct action and public protest or desertion from the military. Meanwhile, we urge everyone to do what they can to support Ukrainians fleeing war by donating to funds and pressuring their governments to accept refugees.

To read more anarchist statements and articles on the situation in Ukraine, check out statements from Avtonom in Russia, Anarchistisches Netzwerk Dresden, Anarchist Black Cross Dresden (ABCD), Russian anarchists, Pramen (Belarus), KRAS-MAT in Russia, Scissortail Anarchists, and a survey of local Ukrainian anarchist thought assembled by Crimethinc.

You can support Ukrainian anarchist efforts by following this link to Operation Solidarity, or do the same by visiting Rev Dia‘s website. Also check out the recently formed anti-authoritarian resistance committee.

If you are aware of further material ways we can support Ukrainians at this time, please get in touch via social media or contact@thecommoner.org.uk.

Fight back tooth and nail against imperialist aggression. Work together to create a borderless world where petty bureaucrats and feckless ‘leaders’ cannot decide the fates of millions, where the people direct their own lives to their full potential, and where society is built on mutual aid and cooperation rather than capitalism and strife. And please, stay safe.

The Commoner

Assembly, a Ukrainian Anarchist Magazine, on Politics and a Possible Russo-Ukrainian War

January 29, 2022
https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2022/01/18/training_npr_kiehart_0006_slide-1999f9cfbaf0f143df8119059e4932714d63a1ed-s1300-c85.webp
Ukrainian volunteers with the Territorial Defense Forces train in the context of looming war threats from Russia. (Courtesy Pete Kiehart, NPR)

First published on The Commoner, 27 January 2022

This exclusive interview with Assembly, a magazine based in Ukraine, provides a fresh, on-the-ground perspective on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Writers from Assembly have published articles with The Commoner before, which you can find here. You may otherwise find their website here.

Assembly, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We very much enjoyed your recent article in The Commoner, ‘The Time Has Come?’, about ongoing socio-economic resistance in Ukraine.

Today, the world looks on in horror as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military is amassing over a hundred-thousand troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. These forces are reportedly composed of sixty battalion tactical groups (BTG’s), including Spetznatz special forces, hundreds of tanks, and dozens of ballistic-missile units—not to mention either the Black Sea Fleet or aerial forces. Although Ukraine gained formal independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has repeatedly expressed nostalgia for Tsarist and Soviet imperialism, while Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has long belittled the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Currently, the UK is selling light anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, while the US has supplied billions of dollars in military aid to the country since 2014, when the Russian military occupied and annexed Crimea. Some media sources suggest that Putin has not yet decided whether to order the invasion, which could spark the most destructive conflict in Europe since World War II, even if Ukraine is not a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Now, following a breakdown in negotiations, President Joe Biden is reportedly considering sending thousands of NATO troops to the Baltic countries.

Can you tell us how you are feeling, and what the situation is like on the ground in Kharkov right now, located near the Russo-Ukrainian border?

In our experience with our community, the poor and peripheral in particular, many people almost don’t take that news seriously. For the most part, people are worried about exorbitant energy bills that are leading to more and more houses having their heating switched off, and enterprises to working or going into the shadow sector precarizing their workers. Ukrainian gas is mostly exported to Europe, while energy carriers for power plants are bought from Russia and the occupied part of Donbass. So you can imagine why we would be skeptical about these horror forecasts from the Western press. It’s true that we are on the verge of social collapse, but it won’t be caused by a military conflict.

We certainly are surprised, as we have seen protests taking place in Kyiv against the latest war threats. The historian Olena Chebeliuk, from Lviv, has expressed her worry that Russia will “invade and capture Ukraine.” The U.S. and Russia have begun evacuating their embassies, and thousands of Ukrainian civilians apparently have volunteered to fight.

You paint such a different picture from our media, that we must ask: can this be so?

Yesterday’s assault on the Ukrainian parliament by small entrepreneurs protesting the abolition of reduced taxation by mandatory cash registers quite convincingly shows what really worries the masses here: the economic, social and tax policy (about 300 of these activists are from Kharkov). However, you will find almost no mention of these clashes in the English-language media: only in the local ones. The evacuation of embassies is carried out only by some Western countries: the same financiers are now divesting from Ukrainian government bonds. And journalists affiliated with the special services of these countries at the end of 2021 accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of corruption in the Pandora Papers. Thus, they systematically put pressure on the Ukrainian top officials, trying to force them to take some steps in their interests (which ones – we cannot know for sure). That’s why spreading rumours about a big war is more just one of their technological tricks than a reflection of a real threat. On the other hand, we did not hear anything about that action in Kyiv linked by you. It looks like it was organised specially for The Guardian’s report! This is just more proof that the mainstream Western press consciously constructs a parallel reality.

In the context of this menacing standoff, the Ukrainian organisation Social Movement has released an international appeal for solidarity against Russian imperialism. We know that the Russian military has been occupying Crimea and waging war on Ukraine since 2014 as retaliation for the popular overthrow of the obscenely corrupt, Moscow-orientated President Viktor Yanukovich during the “Euromaidan” upsurge.

Where would you say you agree with, and differ from, Social Movement’s statement and/or political approach?

Please take into account that Social Movement is a civil organisation intending to become a left-wing parliamentary party like Syriza or Podemos. We largely agree with their statement, and our friends in other cities hold joint actions with them, but their structure is neither libertarian nor revolutionary. We hardly need to analyse the statement of Social Movement in detail. Populists will use any rhetoric if they think it will increase their popularity to convert it into electoral mandates. It’s very boring.

Yanukovich was the pro-Russian candidate during the 2005 presidential elections, but in 2010 he was elected significantly thanks to promises to integrate more with the EU. His Family (sic!) also kept stolen funds Western banks. Yes, he tried to bargain with Russia, but he was never such an ally to Putin as the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko or the former Kazakhstani President Sultan Nazarbayev.

Please share with us your analysis of the legacy of Euromaidan and the so-called Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014).

Only either state propaganda or very cheated people can call this oligarchic-parliamentary coup a revolution. The term ‘revolution of dignity’ was coined by them to demonstrate their total hostility to the October [1917] Revolution: they say, we are not fighting for bread or for the means of production, but simply for a rearrangement within the ruling class. What could the enemies of any hierarchy have to do with such a movement? The anarchists were strangers in this conflict, but there was no one willing to create the third force: most of us preferred to abandon our own principles in essence, dissolving among liberals and nationalists only because of the mass-scale of their movement, then gradually discarding even anarchist self-identification. For several years anarchism almost disappeared from the political map of Ukraine and now we are only trying to restore what we had in the early 2010s. Although one of our journalists also took part in local Euromaidan, he was then an ordinary right-wing militant, not an anarchist.

At the same time, we will not deny that despite the obscurantism of its agenda, the Euromaidan victory objectively played some progressive role. The new regime didn’t start anti-social reforms, but continued them and deepened class inequality in society so much that the words ‘capitalism,’ ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘nationalism’ have now become vituperative for many in Ukraine. For instance, after the opening of the agricultural land market on the 1st of July 2021, our region is the absolute leader in Ukraine by the area of land sold, with an average price of only $698 per hectare. We also came out on top in debts for heating and hot water, as well as having about half of the region’s population also have debts for home gas. All this presents the possibility of a revolutionary situation, but the realisation of the situation by society is still lagging behind for the reasons described below. Therefore, it makes no sense to be sad about ‘peaceful 2013’ or to discuss whether it could have happened otherwise — we need to study today’s reality around us and to act for its change.

From his war on Chechnya (1999-2009) to his invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-present), plus his interventions in Syria (2015-present) and Kazakhstan (2022) to prop up fellow autocrats threatened by uprisings, Putin has gained quite a notorious reputation for himself, based on his doctrine of ‘anti-humanitarian intervention.’ To boot, his government recently banned the renowned human-rights group, Memorial International, which had investigated the Soviet State’s atrocities for over three decades.

Such an authoritarian legacy, paired with the thrust of Putin’s propagandistic July 2021 essay, ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ arguably does not bode well for the current crisis on the Russo-Ukrainian border.

So rather than the brightness of a ‘new 1917 on our doorstep,’ which you hailed in your recent piece, might the near future not suggest a return to the bleaker days of 1914, 1936, or 1939?

There is no doubt that Putin’s regime is now playing the same role of a continental gendarme as did Russian Tsarism under Nicholas I. You are also absolutely right that before 1917 there was 1914, when all of Europe thought that a small victorious war would last a couple of weeks, only to result in a world-revolutionary wave ending in 1923. With this in mind, we can see why the imperialist politicians and corporations are wary all the more that a military clash in the very centre of Europe will again lead to a comparable social explosion in their countries (at least in the USA — taking into account the rise of revolutionary struggle there during the last years). So the world leaders intend to divide spheres of influence peacefully and rattle their weapons just to facilitate their negotiations. The pandemic has shown that the modern capitalist order is a Colossus with feet of clay — and the very fact that the world has entered a new era of global repartition confirms this with all clarity.

For example, Ukraine also conducts military exercises on the Polish border and Ukrainian officials glorify those who carried out the genocide of the Poles during the Second World War. So what — do you really think that Ukraine is preparing to attack Poland? Neither do we…

But the spectre of October 1917 is visible even without the scenario of a wider Russian intervention. Please don’t forget that positional trench warfare has already been going on in our neighbouring region since 2014, and the presidential elections of 2019 can be compared with February 1917 (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even acts frequently like Kerensky). Only one piece of the puzzle is missing — the structure of our social fabric. People here usually live with some people, work with other people, and spend their leisure time with others entirely — so, Ukrainian society is much more amorphous and inert than are Western countries. This greatly inhibits mass activity and especially complicates the perception of anarchist ideas: even those who, in principle, admit that we are right, cannot in any way apply it to their daily life, let alone decide to take practical steps in this direction. In turn, this means a lack of resources for us: we are now in a situation like with the South Russian Workers Union in 1880, which was one of the first proletarian organisations in the Russian Empire. Its gatherings attracted hundreds of workers, who eagerly listened to every conversation, but donations were so symbolic that the movement in fact operated on funds that its co-founder Yelizaveta Kovalskaya received from her mother to rent a flat in Kiev (her mother, a landlord, owned an estate in Kharkov).

Some observers suggest that Putin is beating the drums of war to distract from internal problems in Russia, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, and that his aggressive posture is not serious, but rather designed to force concessions from Ukraine, the US, and European Union, especially over NATO. In reality, such interpretations may be overly optimistic. What are some of your thoughts on these questions?

What do you think would happen if Putin actually green-lighted a full invasion of Ukraine?

The Russian Federation Council unanimously approved his request to send the army here almost 8 years ago. Nothing new for us.

How can we and our readers support you, your comrades, and your compatriots now, and in the future?

First of all, we need help spreading news of anarchist activity in Ukraine abroad, but you are already doing this and it is really wonderful! We would also like to translate into English our investigations about the forgotten history of the local libertarian movement, but as it stands we don’t have a large enough budget to even start this. The whole world celebrates May Day but who knows that almost the same as Chicago 1886 took place here 14 years earlier than that? Or, as already mentioned, Kovalska, who was born near our city and started revolutionary work in Kharkov had an epic life path not so different from Lucy Parsons. Why don’t they deserve international loving memory equally? There are so many such examples…

Finally, we want to thank you for your attention to our humble opinions and to tell our comrades from Kazakhstan if they are reading this: keep fighting! Your struggle inspires our hearts, and despite all the clan intrigues taking place in the background, compared to Ukraine-2014 and Belarus-2020, this is a real popular uprising!

This piece has been updated to clarify that Assembly is speaking about their personal experience in Kharkov.

The Commoner does not endorse all the views published by the groups that it interviews.

Video Recording: “The Responsibility to Protect in the Twenty-First Century”

November 18, 2021

This is the recording of a panel on “The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the Twenty-First Century,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

Speakers in order of appearance:

  • Myself, “Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism”
  • Bill Weinberg, “For Solidarity; Against Dictators and Campism”
  • Many thanks to the conference organizers for releasing the recordings.

    A Critical Theory of Authority

    October 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

    Georges Sorel’s National Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Althusser’s Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Works Cited

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

    Alterman, Eric 2021. “Altercation: Authoritarians Amok.” The American Prospect. Available online: https://prospect.org/politics/altercation-authoritarians-amok. Accessed 25 September 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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