Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

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.

Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “The Responsibility to Protect in the Twenty-First Century.” My co-panelist was Bill Weinberg.

Welcome to our round-table. We will focus on ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ethiopia and Syria, and present anti-authoritarian views on the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P). Just as the genocides perpetrated in the 1990’s in Bosnia and Rwanda did, so ongoing radical violations of international humanitarian law raise the controversial questions of R2P and humanitarian intervention today.

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, since November 2020, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has overseen a genocidal counter-insurgent campaign against not only the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom his administration has designated a “terrorist organization,” but also against the civilian population of the region, provoking mass-famine and -displacement. In parallel, Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have drowned the Syrian Revolution in blood: over the past decade, up to a million Syrians have been killed (Salahi). Undoubtedly, such crimes follow from the authoritarian illogic of State sovereignty and the “non-intervention principle” in international society, both of which form part of what the critical sociologist Max Weber described as the “Iron Cage” of capitalist modernity (Wheeler and Bellamy 563).

In this presentation, I will begin by analyzing the political and intellectual support provided by many of the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists to the Allied war effort against Nazism, and consider the “neither Washington-nor Moscow” approach taken by most of these thinkers during the subsequent Cold War. I will then compare these concepts to anarchist ideals of internationalism. In place of the conspiracism, denialism, and anti-humanism that animates so much of what passes for “left” commentary on global issues of war, exploitation, and domination in our time, I will propose egalitarianism, (literary) realism, and anti-authoritarianism as important value principles for left internationalism. Lastly, I will consider the implications of such a position for the responsibility to protect (R2P) in the face of gross human-rights violations today.

The Frankfurt School, World War II, and the Cold War

As we know, most (but not all) of the Frankfurt-School theorists were German Jews who had to flee their homes in the early 1930’s, as the Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler seized power. Most resettled in New York, where director Max Horkheimer had arranged for the Institute for Social Research to be relocated to Columbia University. Theodor W. Adorno and Franz Neumann initially moved to England, where the Fabian socialists Sidney Webb, R. H. Tawney, and Harold Laski had arranged for a London office to be opened for the Institute. Uniquely among the critical theorists, Walter Benjamin did not survive his bid to cross the Pyrenees Mountains in September 1940 and pass through Francoist Spain to reach Lisbon, where he was to take a steamer to New York and reunite with his comrades.

Once the relationship between Horkheimer and Marcuse soured in the early 1940’s, when Max suddenly announced he would partner with Adorno on Dialectic of Enlightenment, after having indicated to Herbert that he would be his co-writer—and encouraging him to move with his family across country to join Horkheimer in Los Angeles—Marcuse began working on philosophical studies of social change with Neumann, as well as his own investigations into Nazism. These included “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” (1941), “State and Individual under National Socialism” (1941), and “The New German Mentality” (1942). When Neumann joined the U.S. wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in 1942, Marcuse was not far behind. Together with fellow exile Otto Kirchheimer, the trio proposed a radical de-Nazification program for the post-war U.S. administration to implement, but it was duly ignored. After the OSS demobilized at the end of the war, Marcuse went on to work at the State Department until 1951, at which time he entered academia. Two decades later, when the equivalent of today’s ‘anti-imperialist’ critics used Marcuse’s tenure at the OSS to question his radical credentials, the critical theorist proudly defended his work there, noting that “the war then was a war against fascism and […] consequently, I haven’t the slightest reason for being ashamed of having assisted in it” (Marcuse and Popper 59). After all, we must not forget that World War II, besides being an inter-imperialist war with global dimensions, was also a people’s war against foreign occupation, totalitarian dictatorship, and genocidal oppression, both in Europe and Asia (Price).

After the Allied victory, at the birth of the Cold War, Horkheimer and Adorno returned to what by then had become West Germany, while Marcuse remained in the U.S. to research and teach at different universities. After serving the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal as researcher for the chief prosecutor, Neumann died tragically in a car accident in Switzerland in 1954. Generally speaking, over time and space, the critical theorists maintained their anti-authoritarian critique of both Western capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism, in keeping with the third-campist, Trotskyist slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer slipped up, as we will see.

Marcuse wrote Soviet Marxism (1958) as one of the first critical treatments of the USSR from within the Marxist tradition, and in One-Dimensional Man (1964), he condemns the mobilization of stifling conformity on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He was a fierce critic of U.S. government policy toward Castro’s Cuba, and of the Vietnam War, as well as a supporter of the May 1968 uprising in France, “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia (1968), and the Vietnamese and Chinese Revolutions (Sethness Castro). The same could not be said of Horkheimer, who took a turn for the worse toward life’s end by resisting calls for the Institute to condemn the Vietnam War, celebrating “German-American Friendship Week” in 1967, and going so far as to support the U.S. war on Vietnam as an ostensible means of checking the propagation of Maoist political movements (Jay 13-16, 352-353n30).

Internationalist Principles: Egalitarianism, (Literary) Realism, and Anti-Authoritarianism

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

Along these lines, Rancière’s political theory emphasizes the equal capacity everyone has to intervene in politics, while the literary realist style featured by Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy in such art-works as “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869) condemns the militarism practiced by States in a highly tragic and humanist light. Especially in the protest novel War and Peace, Tolstoy conveys his critique of inter-imperialist war, toxic masculinity, heterosexism, autocratic domination, and class exploitation. Such realism is effectively humanism. Rather than function to rationalize State abuses (in keeping with the “realist” school of international-relations theory), it remains true to Adorno’s concern for the “unbearable physical agony to which individuals are exposed” through atrocities (Adorno 365).

Historically, anarchist internationalism has involved coordination of and support for self-organized, autonomous movements of peasants and workers. This strategy has been used by anarchists of collectivist, syndicalist, and communist persuasions in the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), otherwise known as the First International; the Anarchist St. Imier International; the Anti-Authoritarian International; and the International Workers’ Association (IWA-AIT), which continues organizing to this day (Graham). Anarchist internationalists have also supported armed struggle against oppression across borders in many different contexts, such as the nineteenth-century Polish uprisings against Tsarist domination; the Paris Commune of 1871; the popular Cuban struggle against Spanish and U.S. imperialism; the Mexican, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions; the French Resistance to Nazi occupation; both the Algerian independence movement, as well as those French soldiers who deserted their posts during the Algerian War (1954-1962); the neo-Zapatista struggle for indigenous autonomy (1994-present); and the Syrian and Rojava Revolutions of the past decade (Cappelletti; Porter).

On the one hand, in stark contrast to Marxist-Leninists, anti-authoritarian internationalists have typically striven to remain distant from “anti-imperialist,” national-socialist, and/or state-capitalist regimes, such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the People’s Republic of China. That being said, Noam Chomsky effectively supported the Khmer Rouge, who in the late 1970’s killed millions in just three and a half years, before hailing its ouster by the Vietnamese after the fact as a striking example of humanitarian intervention.1 However much Chomsky’s contrarian approach has harmed the left’s relationship to real-life atrocities, inspiring the denialism of today, it should be taken as anomalous among anti-authoritarians (Anthony; Chomsky). On the other hand, anarchists have also generally maintained our independence from liberal Western governments, although the track records of the German theorist Rudolf Rocker—who abandoned anarcho-syndicalism for what he called “libertarian revisionism” at life’s end—and of the French unionist Georges Sorel—who proposed a marriage of revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism as a strategy to destroy bourgeois society, but instead ended up inspiring Fascism—provide important lessons in this sense, for both reformists and revolutionaries (Bernardini 7; Sternhell).

Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Today

Solidarist international society theory proposes that, regardless of questions of legality, there is a moral duty to forcibly intervene in “situations of extreme humanitarian emergency,” whether owing to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity (Wheeler and Bellamy 559). Humanitarian intervention, in this sense, can be viewed as a delayed reaction on the part of global society to its guilt over the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII. At the 2005 UN World Summit, 170 States formally adopted the legal doctrine of R2P, which stipulates “collective action […] through the Security Council, […] should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” As such, R2P doctrine is a combination of solidarism and geopolitical (but not literary) realism: while a “incomplete and poorly defined concept,” it at least establishes a minimum standard against atrocious human-rights violations (Nahlawi). Non-compliance in this sense could then trigger a multi-lateral intervention designed to use proportional force to compel a halt to such crimes.

At the same time, the State actors that would be intervening are required to have humanitarian rather than strategic motivations for their effective violation of the otherwise overriding sovereignty principle—thus excluding the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from being instances of “R2P.” In reality, R2P is understood as an exception to the fundamental principles of the UN charter, which ban the use of force between States. As a result, humanitarian intervention is reserved for “extraordinary oppression, not the day-to-day variety” (R. J. Vincent, cited in Wheeler and Bellamy 561). Even so, this begs the question of why poverty, patriarchy, and exploitation should be normalized as acceptable in this framing that claims to oppose ultra-violence. The confused answer would likely have to do with diplomacy and respect for value pluralism; after all, even in the rare instances on which it would be considered and operationalized, R2P is suppose to be based on “incrementalism and gradualism in the application of force,” rather than “defeat of a state.” Moreover, to limit the application of R2P to the whims of UN Security Council members hampers its potential, as these States are by definition often involved in the very atrocities that require redress. They rightly fear that any legal precedent for humanitarian intervention could be used against them (Wheeler and Bellamy 563, 570). For this reason, Yasmine Nahlawi champions the “Uniting for Peace” doctrine as an alternative, whereby the UN General Assembly can take up questions of R2P when the Security Council refuses or otherwise fails to do so (Nahlawi).

Humanitarian intervention can be forcible or consensual, violent or non-violent. Nicholas Wheeler and Alex Bellamy view “non-forcible humanitarian intervention,” like the work of Médecins Sans Frontières, as a “progressive manifestation of the globalization of world politics” (576). No doubt there. Yet, in the face of mass-atrocities being committed today in Syria and Tigray, pacific forms of intervention may serve more as band-aids than help to address the State oppression perpetuating human agony. For instance, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2” (Jabbour et al.). This is arguably due to global conformity with the principle of non-intervention, even and especially on the so-called “left,” particularly in the traumatic wake of the Iraq invasion. Paradoxically, then, the oppressive concept of sovereignty is being used by Assad, Putin, and their backers to shield accountability for the mass-atrocities they have carried out (Sibai). “Thus Hitler demands the right to practice mass murder in the name of the principle of sovereignty under international law, which tolerates any act of violence in another country,” write Horkheimer and Adorno (Adorno and Horkheimer 2003: 414). But perhaps, short of a global anarchist revolution, this dynamic should work the other way around: in other words, sovereignty could be canceled, in light of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (Wheeler and Bellamy 561).

Applying principles of egalitarianism, literary realism, and anti-authoritarianism to left internationalism in the twenty-first century has a great creative potential. While we cannot entirely predict how this proposal might play out, support for R2P and humanitarian intervention could justifiably form part of the program. Of course, the idea that anarchists should compromise with the State, even on a question so pressing as international fascist atrocities, has a dire history: see the fate of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War.2 This risk of compromise and self-contradiction must, however, be balanced against the risk of violating one’s internationalism and even humanity, by ignoring and/or guarding silence about ultra-violence and other extreme forms of oppression happening elsewhere in the world.

Naturally, these do not have to be the only two options. For instance, in Rojava, volunteers have joined the International Freedom Battalion, echoing the fighters in the International Brigades who participated in the Spanish Civil War. I personally agree with the Afghan-American professor Zaher Wahab that UN peacekeepers should have intervened as US-NATO forces left Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from taking over, as it has. Moreover, though flawed, the UN humanitarian intervention in Bosnia in the 1990’s prevented the extermination of the Bosniak Muslims at the hands of Serbian ultra-nationalists, and a similar analysis could be made of the 2014 intervention by the U.S. and the PKK in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to rescue Yezidis from Islamic State forces.

Undoubtedly, these are all controversial questions. My perspective is that anti-authoritarian principles of egalitarianism, (literary) realism, and humanism represent much-needed “infusions” for left internationalism; that the responsibility to protect is direly needed to address political violence across the globe, whether in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Ethiopia, Burma/Myanmar, China, or elsewhere; and that political radicals should reconsider their commitment, in many cases, to bourgeois principles of non-intervention. Let’s discuss.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. London: Routledge.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Anthony, Andrew 2010. “Lost in Cambodia.” Guardian, 9 January.

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.

Cappelletti, Ángel 2017. Anarchism in Latin America. Trans. Gabriel Palmer-Fernández. Chico, Calif.: AK Press.

Chomsky, Noam 1993-4. “Humanitarian Intervention.” Boston Review. Available online: https://chomsky.info/199401__02. Accessed 6 October 2021.

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

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

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

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

Marcuse, Herbert and Karl Popper 1976. Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation. Ed. A.T. Ferguson. Chicago: New University Press.

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

Nahlawi, Yasmine 2020. The Responsibility to Protect in Libya and Syria. London: Routledge.

Porter, David 2011. Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria. Oakland: AK Press.

Price, Wayne 2015. “The Meaning of World War II—An Anarchist View.” The Anarchist Library. Available online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wayne-price-the-meaning-of-world-war-ii-an-anarchist-view. Accessed 6 October 2021.

Salahi, Amr 2020. “Will we ever really know how many people have died in Syria since 2011?” The New Arab, 28 January. Available online: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2020/1/28/how-many-people-have-died-in-syria-since-2011. Accessed 28 January 2020.

Sethness Castro, Javier 2016. Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse. Leiden: Brill.

Sibai, Leila 2018. “How international law helps Assad and Putin.” Al-Jumhuriya, 22 May. Available online: https://www.aljumhuriya.net/en/content/-how-international-law-helps-assad-and-putin. Accessed 6 October 2021.

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

Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Alex J. Bellamy 2005. “Humanitarian intervention in world politics.” The Globalization of World Politics, 3rd Edition. Eds. John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 555-78.

Yalom, Irvin D. 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Notes

1As a side-note, China and the West condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as serving the aims of Soviet imperialism (Wheeler and Bellamy 563).

2Of course, we cannot blame the outcome of the Civil War on the CNT-FAI.

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

March 2, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“’Like us,’ Leamas observed drily.”

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

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

The Karla Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Drummer Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Russia House

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

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

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

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

Modern Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Let’s Start the Avalanche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

Extracts from “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” by Loren Goldner

June 26, 2016

mao

The following are excerpts from Loren Goldner’s “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism.”  Goldner begins this essay quite rightly by stating that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism.”  This charge becomes clear by examining Maoist China’s response to Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin in the 1956 speech at the Twentieth Soviet Congress; it is further supported by the bizarrely reactionary foreign-policy stances the Maoists took to oppose Soviet foreign policy after the falling-out regarding the questions of Stalinism and “revisionism.”

‘Khruschev’s 1956 speech is often referred to by later Maoists as the triumph of “revisionism” in the Soviet Union. The word “revisionism” is itself ideology run amok, since the main thing that was being “revised” was Stalinist terror, which the Maoists and Marxist-Leninists by implication consider to be the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” There were between 10 and 20 million people in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union in 1956, and presumably their release (for those who survived years of slave labor, often at the Arctic Circle) was part of “revisionism.” For the Maoists, the Khruschev speech is often also identified with the “restoration of capitalism,” showing how superficial their “Marxism” is, with the existence of capitalism being based not on any analysis of real social relationships but on the ideology of this or that leader […].

There was active but local combat between Chinese and Soviet forces along their mutual border in 1969 and, as a result, Mao banned all transit of Soviet material support to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, a ban which remained in effect until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Mao received US President Nixon in Beijing in early 1972, while the United States was raining bombs on North Vietnam […].

Already in 1965, the Chinese regime, based on its prestige as the center of “Marxist-Leninist” opposition to Soviet “revisionism” after the Sino-Soviet split, had encouraged the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) into a close alliance with Indonesia’s populist-nationalist leader, Sukarno. It was an exact repeat of the CCP’s alliance with Chiang kai-shek in 1927, and it ended the same way, in a bloodbath in which 600,000 PKI members and sympathizers were killed in fall 1965 in a military coup, planned with the help of US advisers and academics. Beijing said nothing about the massacre until 1967 (when it complained that the Chinese embassy in Jakarta had been stoned during the events). In 1971, China also openly applauded the bloody suppression of the Trotskyist student movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In the same year, it supported (together with the United States and against Soviet ally India), Pakistani dictator Yaya Khan, who oversaw massive repression in Bangladesh when that country (previously part of Pakistan) declared independence […].

This was merely the beginning of the bizarre turn of Maoist world strategy and Chinese foreign policy. The “main enemy” and “greater danger” was no longer the world imperialism centered in the United States, but Soviet “social imperialism.” Thus, when US-backed Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, China immediately recognized Pinochet and hailed the coup. When South African troops invaded Angola in 1975 after Angolan independence under the pro-Soviet MPLA, China backed South Africa. During the Portuguese Revolution of 1974–75, the Maoist forces there reached out to the far right. Maoist currents throughout western Europe called for the strengthening of NATO against the Soviet threat. China supported Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos in his attempt to crush the Maoist guerrilla movements in that country […].

This bizarre ideological period finally ended in 1978–79, when China, now firmly an ally of the United States, attacked Vietnam and was rudely pushed back by the Vietnamese army under General Giap (of Dien Bien Phu fame). Vietnam, still allied with the Soviet Union, had occupied Cambodia to oust the pro-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who had taken over the country in 1975 and who went on to kill upward of one million people […].

The Shining Path group in Peru, which was similarly crushed by Fujimori, has made a steady comeback there, openly referring to such groups as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as a model.’

Marcuse, Resistance to the Counterrevolution

January 26, 2014

huey rev suicide

From “The Left Under the Counterrevolution,” which appears in Counterrevolution and Revolt by Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon, 1972), 52-3.

This society strives to impose the principle of nonviolence on the opposition while daily perfecting its own ‘legitimate’ violence, thereby protecting the status quo. Thus the radical opposition faces the problem of the ‘economy of violence’: its own counterviolence is bound to cost dearly, in lives and liberties. What is the political value of sacrifices under these circumstances?

Martyrs have rarely helped a political cause, and ‘revolutionary suicide’ remains suicide. And yet, it would be self-righteous indifference to say that the revolutionary ought to live rather than die for the revolution—an insult to the Communards of all times. Where the Establishment proclaims its professional killers as heroes, and its rebelling victims as criminals, it is hard to save the idea of heroism for the other side. The desperate act, doomed to failure, may for a brief moment tear the veil of justice and expose the faces of brutal suppression; it may arouse the conscience of the neutrals; it may reveal hidden cruelties and lies. Only [ze] who commits the desperate act can judge whether the price [ze] is bound to pay is too high—too high in terms of [zir] own cause as a common cause. Any generalization would be ambivalent, nay, profoundly unjust: it would condemn the victims of the system to the prolonged agony of waiting, to prolonged suffering. But then, the desperate act may have the same result—perhaps a worse result […].”

Distinction must be made between violence and revolutionary force.  In the counterrevolutionary situation of today, violence is the weapon of the Establishment; it operates everywhere, in the institutions and organizations, in work and fun, on the streets and highways, and in the air.  In contrast, the revolutionary force which is destined to terminate this violence does not exist today.  Revolutionary force would be the action of masses or classes capable of subverting the established system in order to build a socialist society.  Examples would be the unlimited general strike, the occupation and taking over of factories, government buildings, centers of communication and transportation, in coordinated action.”

communards