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16 June 2022

China Miéville: “If you don’t feel despair, you’re not opening your eyes”

The fantasy novelist and left activist on why Marx’s Communist Manifesto speaks to the crisis-ridden politics of the present.

By Gavin Jacobson

What spectre haunts the ruling class today? If in 1848, when Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto, it was the threat of political radicalism, of a revolutionary class unchained, what menace crouches incubus-like upon the tormented minds of our current masters? For those on the nationalist right, the spectre remains the same: Marxism-communism is the demonic source code of everything from universal healthcare, trade unionism and critical race theory to free fibre-optic broadband.

But if Marx’s spectre was of the future – the incoming storm of revolution – today’s ghost in the reactionary mind is that of a vanquished force. Far from political power, the radical left is holed up in its places of greater safety – magazines, journals, think tanks and podcast studios. The right summons the Red Menace so that, as the writer Richard Seymour has put it, “everything that is perceived as threatening can be compressed into a single treasonous, diabolical enemy: just different tentacles of the same communist kraken”.

The novelist-activist China Miéville might smirk at the comparison of communism with an aggressive cephalopod that devours ships and drags sailors to their doom. The author of Kraken (2010), a darkly comedic novel about squid-worshipping cults and the destruction of London, Miéville is known for his love of the tentacular, especially octopuses. He has one tattooed on his right arm, or rather, a tentacled skull known as a “skulltopus”. Since the publication of King Rat (1998), Miéville has earned international acclaim from his many novels, which are exuberant compounds of urban fantasy, science fiction, crime, surrealism and Lovecraftian horror. He has called this borderless style “post-Seattle fiction”, a reference to the anti-capitalist protests at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in 1999 that rejected notions of categorisation and division. The reference also hints at his political commitments.

There is a strong affinity between left-wing politics and science fiction. Writers such as Iain M Banks, Steve Brust, Ken MacLeod, Ursula K Le Guin and Michael Moorcock exemplify a radical-fantastic tradition that stretches back to William Morris and before. Miéville’s novels are rarely overt vectors for his politics (he ran for parliament in 2001 as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance). Rather, it is in his non-fiction – essays for the revolutionary journal Salvage, his book October (2017), a novelistic retelling of the Russian Revolution, and, most recently, A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto – where the substance of his world-view is best observed.

Speaking with him at the British Library, where a copy of the first edition of the Manifesto is held, Miéville, 49, said that as a young leftist in the 1980s his initial encounter with the text wasn’t especially Damascene. “There was no ‘thunder clap’,” he explained, “my big moments were really with Capital” – Marx’s giant triptych on political economy. But amid mass misery, disempowerment and a civilisation accelerating to ruin, the Manifesto – barely 12,000 words long – is, Miéville writes, “a restless, urgent, vital document”, one that looms “now more than ever” in a time of “capitalist unease”. War, populist insurgency, great power rivalry and pandemic have subverted 40-year-old orthodoxies that once seemed eternal. The knell may not have sounded for neoliberalism, but our economies – and their political consorts – are mutating. What follows could invite even greater barbarisms. “This is going to be an ugly time,” Miéville warned.

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[see also: Britain’s passé neoliberalism could leave it at a permanent disadvantage]

Against a backdrop of perma-crisis the Manifesto’s significance is clear, less as a call to arms than as a means to understand the paradox in which we all live: simultaneously awed by the dynamism of modern life and menaced by its power to annihilate us in a maelstrom of perpetual upheaval. It also remains the most astute revelation on the connection between constant change and revolution and the great fear of those fomenting it.

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Published in German only two weeks before the European revolutions of 1848, the Manifesto was soon forgotten. It was only after Marx’s impassioned defence of the Paris Commune in 1871, which made him a notorious figure in the international press, that the Manifesto emerged as an ur-text of the left. In the decades that followed, it “conquered the world”, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, carried by the proliferation of socialist movements in the 1880s, the revolutionary events in Russia between 1905 and 1917, and then the anti-colonial insurrections across the Global South in the first half of the 20th century. Interest in Marx spiked most recently after the financial crash of 2008.

The Manifesto remains fundamental for the left and a gateway text for most would-be activists. The journalist Ash Sarkar – who in 2018 declared to Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain that she was “literally a communist!” – told me that reading the Manifesto as a teenager clarified the discrepancy between capitalist adoration and immense human suffering. “I asked myself, ‘why is there this perpetual sense of crisis even though capitalism is supposed to be the best of all possible economic systems? Why is it that I can see poverty and starvation and war if this is the best that it can be?’ Reading the Manifesto gave me a framework for answering some of those questions.”

For the historian Donald Sassoon, a former student of Hobsbawm’s and the author of One Hundred Years of Socialism (1997), it was the Manifesto’s “formidable polemical impulse” that was so electrifying. “When I was a curious teenager willing to be ‘radicalised’,” he told me, “I read the Manifesto and discovered Marxism. It was eminently readable and mercifully short. It was angry yet ‘cultural’. I loved the sarcasm. I still do. It followed the then unwritten rules of political propaganda: talk up your side; announce that victory is inevitable though one must fight for it; slag off your opponents, including rival socialists. The famous ending about the workers having nothing to lose but their chains had no inkling of a future consumer society. Today, workers have plenty to lose: their iPads, their smartphones, their trips to shopping malls. Nevertheless, the ending is the best sound-bite of the 19th century and remains unsurpassed.”

For others, the Manifesto illuminates the very experience of modernity itself. The writer Pankaj Mishra told me that together with Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886), the Manifesto is “a foundational text of modern literature, an incandescent summary of the bewildering tumult, contradictions and ironies with which all of those who become modern, whether bourgeois or working class, are condemned to live”. For Mishra, the words radiate “such tremendous energy, the images are brilliant, the pace furious, and then there is the tone, which alternates rapidly between ecstatic praise, fearful prophecy and fierce self-doubt”.

If, as one of Marx’s biographers puts it, Capital can be read as a “vast gothic novel”, or as a 19th-century retelling of Dante’s Inferno and our descent into modern “social Hell”, the Manifesto also has its gothic inflections, chthonian visuals and phantasmagorical grandeur. Miéville reminds us that the work is “full of ghosts, and sorcerers and clothes made of cobwebs, and rent cloth, and gravediggers”. In the first English translation of the text in 1850, Helen Macfarlane introduced communism not as a spectre haunting Europe, but as a “frightful hobgoblin”.

What, I asked Miéville, might a counter-factual history of Marxism-communism look like if instead of “spectre” the opening had always included “hobgoblin”? “The serious answer,” he replied, “is that nothing would have changed. But the hobgoblin is a stranger figure than the ghost. What has always inspired me is the ‘red sublime’ – the unsayable, the beyond-speech, the apophatic; literally unthinkable change. I want a radical movement that understands that there is no ‘right’ way to do things. Maybe the hobgoblin is closer to the sublime than the spectre.” There are few outside academia who are better qualified to write on the Manifesto than Miéville. As a novelist, he is receptive to the “thunderously uncynical” style and expression of its authors – the declamatory tenor through which Marx and Engels literally willed the future. There is also the remarkable shift in voice into the second person, when the Manifesto goes from discussing the bourgeoisie to excoriating it directly, “You reproach us [communists] with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”

This form of address, as Miéville described it to me, is “a kind of politically furious swagger”. Miéville is also smartly attuned to what the Manifesto represents – a rebuke to the idea that social and political change is impossible. Capitalism now appears as an impervious totality, a system encompassing all politics, economics, culture and ideology. The upshot is what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”, a foreclosed political imaginary unable to comprehend, and even hostile to, change. But one of Marx’s aims was to show that history is a sequence of disorders in which seemingly unsinkable regimes ultimately capsize. The poetics and melodrama of the Manifesto are themselves attempts to shock and estrange the reader enough for them to contemplate, however briefly, both political collapse and future possibility.

[see also: The ghosts of Mark Fisher]

Miéville’s own commitment to alterity over utopianism, and horizons over blueprints, owes a great deal to his love of the 20th-century surrealists. “Surrealism,” he explained, “has always been the movement that has meant the most to me. It was always more of an epiphanic moment than my meeting with the Manifesto.” That intense preoccupation is most obvious in his novella The Last Days of New Paris (2016), which takes place in an alternative 1950s when the city is still occupied by the Nazis. An “S-Bomb” has exploded, unleashing manifestations of surrealist artworks (“manifs”) that come to life and fight alongside the Resistance while the Nazis try and summon demons from hell.

Like Marx, the surrealists were radicals whose art aimed to spark great imaginative ruptures, a politics of provocation rather than perfect renderings of some society-to-be. “I’m not opposed to utopian dreaming,” Miéville said. “What I am opposed to is that you can pre-empt what it will be, and that we can pre-inhabit how we would experience these things even if we got it completely right. It’s the correct kind of historical humility to say we can’t know.” As he has written elsewhere: “If we take seriously the scale of social and psychic upheaval represented by a revolution, a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable: for someone not born in a post-revolutionary situation, it takes the process of going through a revolution to fully imagine it. To depict it is to diminish it.”

Born in Norwich in 1972, and raised in north London, where he lives today, Miéville’s educational trajectory seemed destined to lead him into the hermitages of academia. An undergraduate degree in anthropology at Cambridge was followed by a year at Harvard and then a master’s and PhD in international relations at the London School of Economics. Around the age of 13 his politics began to coalesce, as he became involved in campaigns against nuclear weapons and demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa. At Cambridge Miéville became a committed Marxist.

Humility is a core tenet of Miéville’s politics. It is also central to the intellectual project of Salvage, the small journal of arts and ideas that he co-founded in 2015, and which stands as the most original and intellectually audacious publication on the Anglo-American left. Unlike the cartoonish aesthetic of Jacobin, or the austere scholarism of New Left Review, Salvage presents in darker registers designed to épater les bourgeois. This is not just because the hammer and sickle substitutes for the G on the Salvage masthead but also because the journal resists the kind of Orwellian minimalism that characterises most contemporary writing. It subscribes, rather, to the advice of John Maynard Keynes that “words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking”. “Many of us have been told for years that it’s borderline reactionary to write the way we write because the working class can’t understand it,” Miéville said. “I have so much loathing for this kind of ‘gor blimey-ism’ of the left. This style isn’t for everyone, and I’m not saying this is the ‘correct’ way to write socialist prose – what I’m saying is that we are no more doing it wrong than others. There are those of us for whom the rococo socialist, the stylings of Oscar Wilde, were profoundly radicalising.”

If the commitment to sesquipedalianism doesn’t seem especially self-effacing, and if Marx himself, a notorious mud-slinger and wager of petty feuds, isn’t exactly a model of humbleness, Miéville is explicit about the political importance of humility for the left, or what he calls an “apophatic Marxism”: “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. The more of which we can speak, the more of which we cannot. From such metaphysics an effective leftism can and must be built. There is a beyond-words, a politics of the unsayable. This is not an admission, as of failure, but a declaration. A proud humility… A habitable left must build not only on collective knowledge, but collective ignorance.”

When certitude about the world is the mode in which people – especially the “Very Online” – operate, this commitment to doubt, scepticism and aporia is quietly, even uniquely, exhilarating. But even its chief advocate remains certain about the dire state of the contemporary Labour Party. “I don’t know what the point of the Labour Party is any more,” Miéville explained, “and I don’t even think the intellectual leadership of the party knows what it is for either.” The party, he went on, “could not be more ill-equipped to fight a culture war, with its queasy mix of technocratic reassurance and nervous quasi-workerist culture war stuff”. Indeed, for all that the current Conservatives “are epigones compared to the haute Toryism of the past, they’re far better at being true to themselves than Labour is. The nostalgia for Blairism under Keir Starmer is so mysterious because New Labour’s technocratic neoliberal agenda was a function of a very particular political and economic moment, which is no longer the case.”

“Salvage Marxism” recognises that we already live in the rubble of capitalist crisis. But this world – of climate emergency, economic volatility, fortified borders and political fragmentation, of incipient fascism, surveillance capitalism, culture wars, militarised police forces, eroded welfare states, expendable gig workers, and messianism – is Utopia, “it just isn’t ours”. For Miéville, reading the Manifesto today is a poignant experience because any kind of revolutionary rupture won’t be into a land of freedom and plenty, but into a waste dump of ecological carnage and psychological agony.  

Indeed, Marx’s key insight was that far from being haunted by the spectre of communism (or any other movement on the left), the ruling class is more troubled by the horrifying prospect of all being well with the world. As the American political theorist Marshall Berman pointed out in the 1980s, Marx saw that, far from being the party of order, the ruling classes thrive on chaos. Berman writes that “catastrophes are transformed into lucrative opportunities for redevelopment and renewal; disintegration works as a mobilising and hence integrating force”. All life is disenchanted and de-sanctified before the avalanche of creation, innovation, development, conquest, shock and destruction – elements of the master principle governing all human affairs. As one of the most infamous lines in the Manifesto reads: “All that is solid melts into air.”

Miéville takes issue with Marx’s encomia to the bourgeoisie and the world it has made. Not even the most devout apologists of capitalism, from Adam Ferguson to Milton Friedman, equal his gushing tributes to the business class, who “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and gothic cathedrals”. But for Miéville, this class and their system of exploitation deserve only our hate, especially the incumbents: “In world historic terms there have been much more impressive and more dangerous ruling classes, more historically significant ruling classes; Thatcher was an operatic class warrior! But I don’t know if I’ve ever hated a British ruling class as much as I do. There’s something so degrading about having these people, the Johnsons and Rees-Moggs, make the decisions that keep us down.”

To our great misfortune, Rees-Mogg & Co are the grotesque mediocrities who lead us in a darkening, more dangerous world. “I think it is wholly appropriate in this moment of history to be really fucking scared,” Miéville told me. “The Russian word sumerki means ‘twilight’ but it could be dawn or could be dusk – the gloaming – the start or the end. We are in a moment of very gloomy sumerki – it might be dawn, but the reason for the urgency is because it feels an awful lot like dusk. So I cling to John Berger’s notion, and hope for undefeated despair, because if you don’t feel despair you’re not opening your eyes, but that doesn’t mean giving up.”

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