Mark Steven: The Global Class War in Five Novels

Contemporary literature on class struggle is territorially grounded but internationally expansive.

Mark Steven is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth- and Twenty-first Century Literature at the University of Exeter, UK. He is author of ‘Class War: A Literary History’, published by Verso Books this year.

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Since class war first appeared in radical thought during the final decades of the eighteenth century, it has continuously evolved through an exchange of ideas between political activity and literary narrative, reframing revolutionary action through military language. My new book, Class War: A Literary History, explores this fusion of politics and literature from the Haitian Revolution through the Black Panthers. But what can be said of class war and its purchase on the literature of revolution right now, in the historical present?

Ours is an era into which the story of class war is conveyed by literature, emerging from the revolutionary past into a moment defined by the death of liberal progress and the proliferation of new crises and new antagonisms. This sense of revolutionary inheritance belongs to any number of contemporary works, but it is exemplified with powerful if cartoonish acuity in Thomas Pynchon’s immense, transhistorical epic, Against the Day, which uses time travellers from the future (our present, circa the book’s publication in 2006) to rhyme today’s struggles with those at the beginning of the American century, culminating in the Colorado Coalfield War, when dynamite-wielding frontier workers faced off against the Robber Barons and their Pinkerton thugs.

But there is something distinctive about the contemporary literature of class war, and how it revisits old conflicts in all their national, regional, and cultural singularity. More so than in in previous moments when heightened militancy met with literary efflorescence – from England in the early nineteenth century through France during the Paris Commune to Russia in the 1920s or China in the 1930s – today’s narratives of class war read their specific conflicts as part of a struggle that is territorially grounded but also internationally expansive.

The airborne heroes of Pynchon’s novel are alive to this opening up of expanding conflict, struggle, and organization not only beyond one strata of society but also beyond the nation-state and through the interstate system. And so they leave one site of urban struggle via dirigible, knowing their fight is not theirs alone: “these balloonists chose to fly on,” we read, “free now of the political delusions that reigned more than ever on the ground, pledged solemnly only to one another, proceeding as if under a world-wide, never-ending state of siege.” Holding to a similarly expanded perspective, the following novels all affirm world-spanning solidarities that cut across all geopolitical divides, and which also understand class as a powerful undercurrent adjoined to the differently prominent variables of age, gender, geography, race, and religion. All the while, these novels remain, at their core, beholden to a vision of liberatory combat against the exploiters and the expropriators.

China Miéville, Iron Council

This is the final book in China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, three sprawling dark fantasy novels all set in what the author describes as “an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind!” By the time I arrived at book three, I was already infatuated with the unholy city at the heart of the trilogy, with its arcane geography and its nightmare monstrosities, because Miéville’s language does so much to golem the whole thing into feverish existence, with a vocabulary that feels as overgrown and mutant as the city it describes. But this finale is also uniquely captivating in its dramatization of militancy as enacted and experienced by individual characters and the collectives they become. Across a fantastical geography, here a diverse array of magically augmented anti-heroes stands together against industrial expansion, imperial bloodletting, and an increasingly fascist sense of nationhood. I cannot think of a better, more glorious, more imaginative narrative about the meanings of obligations of class solidarity in times of conflict. You will find yourself cheering along during the great railroad mutiny, which reimagines the Railway Strike of 1877, and will perhaps know genuine heartbreak when a world of revolt suddenly is frozen out of time.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner recontextualises the belligerence of Italian workers during the infamous Years of Lead. With an intergenerational narrative that moves at the speed of a turbo-charged motorcycle burning across salt flats, The Flamethrowers ranges from the early years of European fascism, through peripheral resource extraction in the jungles of Brazil, into the artworld of 1970s New York, and finally the streets Rome at a time of revolt. Its protagonist – a young woman from Nevada – becomes a prism through which refracts the modern world-system in a moment of transformative upheaval, as well as gendered perspective from which to reemphasise the oppression of working women both in the factory and the home. And in that electrifying moment when protest erupts into riot, when the movement becomes an insurrection, Kushner’s novel highlights the actions of oppressed women, now the agents of revolution: “It was women throwing the firebombs now. Dress shops. A department store. A lingerie boutique. Up the Corso they moved.”

C. A. Davids, How to Be a Revolutionary

How to Be a Revolutionary by C. A. Davids takes its guidebook title from a list of useful skills its protagonist, Beth, might learn from her radical friend, Kay, a charismatic organiser who might teach her “how to kiss a boy” as readily as “how to apply lessons learned from Communist China to South Africa.” Focalised to these interpersonal dynamics, this is an elegiac novel about the challenges of
sustaining political commitment against the tides of disillusionment: “After she was gone, nothing could be thought of as normal, if there’d ever been such a thing. The sadness never let up: waited beneath my eyelids, watched when I went to school, when I spoke, breathed on my behalf.” Spending time in Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward, Apartheid-era Cape Town, and the Harlem of Langston Hughes, this novel explores international and intergenerational connections among ageing revolutionaries on three continents, all of whom long for a better world than this one but who are all haunted by defeat. Steeped in left melancholia, this is a narrative that finds its way forward via unflinching commitment to an internationalism that demands acts of practical solidarity with comrades both known and unknown, to those who have gone before and those who will come after.

R. F. Kuang, Babel

I teach literature at a university in the southwest of England. The ongoing culture shock of doing this as a working-class immigrant has fuelled in me a critical fascination with the student subculture known as “dark academia,” which seems to be all about the performance of reading old books, wearing cardigans, and leaning into autumnal dreariness (and is, in Amelia Horgan’s characteristically sharp assessment, “a response to marketization, in particular to the temporal stresses of the neoliberal university”). R. F. Kuang’s tremendous alternate history, Babel, is marketed as a work of dark academia, or at least that’s the impression its cover design and publicity signal, but it is so much more than that. It is a forceful, decolonial critique of the institutions of higher education and literary attainment and of all their complicities in reproducing class hierarchy and imperial power. At the same time, it combines that critique with the historical actions of those who fought against such as system, from the Luddites and the Chartists to the dispossessed and enslaved persons on the peripheries of empire, in China and the Caribbean. As the novel thunders toward its almighty, insurrectionary conclusion, the book’s subtitle becomes crucial to knowing what it’s all really about: “Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

If environmental crises are a profound violence perpetrated against the global poor, a neoliberal holocaust of the dispossessed, then literary fiction is correct to read climate change as class war. In The Ministry for the Future, sci-fi legend Kim Stanley Robinson uses an almost Melvillian sense of capaciousness to explore our collective potential to end capitalist accumulation to save the biosphere. The narrative refers to its diversity in tactics, from legislative reform through sabotage and assassination, as “The War for the Earth,” and that war is framed as emphatically and necessarily international, organically weaving hundreds of local actions into a global tapestry upon which capitalism would cease to remain viable. It is also a war waged by and on behalf of the global underclass. The opening chapter, which is both devastating and catalytic, is a gruesome depiction of a massive heat wave hitting India and killing millions. What follows is a proliferation of both independent and interlocking actions, each with local objectives but also wide-ranging and often symbolic appeal, each geared toward the demolition of capitalist social relations so as to ensure a liveable future for all. When asked if this novel is a work of “combat literature,” which is Frantz Fanon’s term for writing composed under the force of decolonial insurgency, Robinson suggested why such a literature might be necessary, but also why it alone is not enough. “It’s going to be chaotic and confusing,” he says, “and it’s going to last for as long as anyone alive is still alive. We have to get used to it, and fight effectively. Combat literature might help give us ideas or warn us of ramifications, but it’s the actions in the world that will matter – laws, norms, behaviours.”

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