It’s hard to know in this day and age what novel’s are supposed to be doing. I’m not even always sure what I’m looking for, even given my own politics. It’s easy to assume that someone involved in a revolutionary Marxist international would simply want depictions of revolution or the working class, although I also suspect Marx or even Trotsky would’ve scoffed at such a suggestion out of an awareness of the infinite complexity of pre-revolutionary societies and the need for a sophisticated cultural conversation to be in play. However some works of art do take up revolutionary themes, although even here the best ones are not necessarily the most straightforward in their revolutionary zeal, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer even being a critique of the linear revolution. So to offer up a twist on our starting point, what should revolutionary novels be doing in this day and age?
I read more fiction this year than any in the previous decade, which sadly isn’t a high bar, but it’s had me thinking more seriously about what fiction’s purpose is, both in general and for the purposes of revolutionary politics, or simply revolutionaries. Three novels stood out as dealing with revolutionary themes explicitly, but each one went about it in a completely different way, and seemed to point towards very different politics.
To start, there was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which scours the globe for the ways humanity deals with an environment it has irreparably changed. It kicks off with a rather horrific sequence, a heat-wave in India that ends up killing millions. This sequence sets a rather grim stage, and is followed by numerous other disaster sequences all over the globe. We meet refugees, scientists, activists, scientific particles, capital flows and ordinary people just trying to get by, although the central plot follows Mary Murphy, a high-level diplomat with the Ministry for the Future, an international organization meant to do advocacy on behalf of future generations, an interesting way of framing what climate change is and will do. In many ways, Robinson’s novel helps demonstrates, in a highly readable format, what is at times so hard to grasp about climate change. By shifting perspectives all over the world, and even occasionally humanizing scientific principles, Robinson shows how interconnected everything is, how the science can’t be understood without the economics driving it and vice-versa. Robinson also seems to be trying to challenge our expectations about what climate change will be; the first sequence of the heatwave fits in with our assumption that climate change will be an Event, but the heatwave eventually passes, and other events happen as time goes on, the connecting tissue not always immediately obvious, thus requiring a narrative that helps us understand how it all fits together. In this way, the montage of encyclopedic information and narrative being intertwined is one of the novels greatest strengths.
It’s unfortunate then that Robinson’s literary imagination wasn’t paired with a greater political one. Mary’s triumphs and failures dominate his vision just a tad too much, and the truly important events largely happen offscreen. Early on, for example, a series of drone attacks are used to crash several airplanes, grounding the industry almost overnight, cutting off those fossil-fuel emissions and forcing travel to switch to more eco-friendly variants. The planning and execution of this could’ve been an exciting series of episodes, and likely given us some rather interesting characters. Instead, the only true radical we get is Frank, a young man who survived the heatwave in India, only to suffer severe trauma and act rather impulsively without much of a plan. While I’d like to commend Robinson for his tying climate change and PTSD together, the result here is that radical eco-activists (or terrorists), as well as climate refugees, might be sympathetic and deserving of empathy, but are perhaps not to be treated too seriously. Their place in all this is to be the sympathetic faces of the issue, not its drivers, in spite of eco-terrorists being the ones who ultimately ground the airline industry.
A similar move is in play later in the novel when Mary wants to see the adoption of a new form of currency, a carbon coin, that will be designed to redirect capital away from extractive economics and towards eco-economics. Initially unsuccessful, she is given a shot at victory by a major event; a debt strike by students who’ve been pushed to the brink by obscene college costs and exploitative loans. The strike pushes the banks to the edge, forcing them to come to Mary and accept her plan. Again, we have a form of direct action by working class people, likely preceded by countless hours of organizing and preparation, getting the goods, although this all happens off-screen, given only a brief description before Mary is able to swoop in and take the credit.
The fact that the book was endorsed as one of Obama’s favorites of 2020 really should’ve been a canary in the coalmine for me. The authors choice to frame things in this way (radical direct action getting the goods offscreen while a high-ranking political figure takes advantage of those goods as the narrative’s high point) is suspicious at best, but likely just indicative of the author being captured by the way many people look at politics today; it’s something professionals do in board-rooms, and if we’re lucky some of those professionals advocate for us on our behalf. It’s a ridiculous perspective on how politics works, and perhaps I’m asking too much expecting a renowned science fiction author to be able to imagine looking at things from a different perspective, but it’s a dead-end in any case. Even the moments that seem like a radical critique, the disturbing descriptions of life on a climate-changed world, or the descriptions of capital flows, ideological constructions and people who are well-meaning but don’t realize the damage they are doing, are in retrospect more an indulgent pornography of human suffering meant to alleviate us of our guilt. In reading through these horrific descriptions, we are able to pass through the issue without being forced to confront it. What’s worse, the framing celebrates well-meaning leaders while the true engine of history, the working class, has to deal with a handful of paragraphs. Instead attention is given to political figures and technological gimmicks, which will satisfy the Obama’s and Musk’s of the world, and give everyone else a vague satisfaction that the problem is being handled without them having to actually participate.
More recently, I read Karl Marlantes’ Deep River, a novel following several Finnish immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries who find their way together to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The main character, a young woman named Aino, arrives an already-committed Communist, and immediately throws herself into labor organizing among the loggers. Marlantes comes from a family of immigrants, so in a way he is giving us a fictionalized version of his own family history, even including a grandmother involved in the labor movement. Aino struggles to convince the men to take the risks to strike, and even when they do keeping them disciplined and in line remains a challenge. Marlantes’ attentiveness to the diverse array of ideas and forms of consciousness amid the working classes makes for fascinating historical drama, as men struggle to make their history in situations they didn’t choose. Even the small-business owners are shown to be trapped in places, trying to compete with larger companies while also taking care of their own. Lengthy strikes for mild wage-increases or even hay instead of straw for bedding, mild gains from our perspective but the world to those who manage to win them, take up large chunks of the novel, with political lulls in between. Another place where Marlantes succeeds is having the plot develop along with broader historical events while never losing sight of his characters. Aino and her brothers, Matti and Ilmari, all maintain distinct personalities and perspectives against the historical backdrop, along with a broad ensemble cast of characters. Class struggle is on display in a variety of forms, hegemony dynamic and responsive while still carrying with it a certain counterforce. Men’s consciousness as workers is always also tied to their manhood, their capacity to raise and take care of a family, and Aino always needs to be conscientious of that. Their immigrant status complicates their sense of who they are, the desire to be American emerging in various ways and in dialogue with traditions brought from Scandinavia. The economic tides of the early 20th century, World War I, the roaring 20’s and the Great Depression provide a backdrop for families trying to make ends meet, entrepreneurs looking for opportunities, and activists trying to change history. All in all, Marlantes’ novel is fascinating and gripping because of the details provided by the day-to-day life and the vividness he brings to the table, and he clearly has a gift for storytelling.
As far as his vision of politics and history goes, he far exceeds Robinson. The working class is not only front and center, but at times is even able to play a role in it’s own history, even if only in bursts and fragments. I also commend him on refusing a simplistic take on revolutionary politics, instead showing that class struggle is not simply present on the picket lines, but often in the private inner lives of workers. Most workers understand that they are exploited; overworked, underpaid and given such intense quotas that injury and death are parts of life in logging communities. The question is often not whether Aino’s pitch for class struggle appeals, but whether it sounds feasible or worth the risk. Men often will double down on strikes going poorly to keep their pride intact, and Aino has to at times exploit this. Class struggle is never just about class, and Marlantes shows how intertwined it is with other spheres of life. And yet, I found the novel disappointing. Of course it wasn’t going to end with a Communist revolution in the United States, and was on some level going to have to show the solidification of capitalism over the decades if it wanted to maintain it’s commitment to historical accuracy. However, it becomes clear as the story goes on that Marlantes himself is not in search of a revolution either, in spite of his clear sympathy with the plight of the workers and his belief in their historical capacities. The most we get is several workers forming a co-op, although in the end it is sold for the secure retirement of its founders, Aino included. The story ends with Aino observing cars going through the suburbs of 1969, a stark contrast to the largely uninhabited woods interlaced with dirt roads when we first arrive at the turn of the century, while preparing to go do a large gathering celebrating her 81st, lonely but content at having lived a full life. This ending, with it’s tone of quiet comfort in old age, retroactively reframes how we ought to think of Aino’s politics, and the politics of the novel. Radical revolutionary politics here are ultimately seen as something for young people in a young nation, but ultimately no longer relevant. Aino’s elderly calm and ‘maturity’ is a result of having given up on revolution, settling for being on the board of a co-op (that is eventually sold off for a hefty profit). While revolution had no place in the narrative, making peace with that was a choice the author made, and in the end it’s a fork in the road where we clearly diverged.
Finally, one of the last novels in 2021 I read was Emile Zola’s Germinal. My attention was brought to his work because for some reason I started pulling out my old art history textbooks in the fall, and in my 19th century European text Zola was frequently brought up, both for his journalism depicting many of the political events of France in the later decades, but also his massive Les Rougon-Macquart series. Not knowing where to start, I decided on Germinal (fresh off the heels of finishing Deep River, funnily enough). I was greeted with familiar descriptions of working class life, although here it was French miners in the 1860’s. Zola’s descriptions are impressively detailed and showcase his commitment to accurate descriptions and research (apparently he even went into some mines as part of his research for the novel). Naturally the miners are shown to be heavily impoverished, working long and dangerous hours for barely enough to scrape by. The gendered divisions of labor in Deep River are also gone, with many women working in the mines, as well as small children. As with Marlantes’ work, Zola’s depictions of the working class are heavily sympathetic, although not uncomplicated. Domestic abuse, blatant sexual promiscuity and alcoholism are rampant in the mining communities, and even as many understand their exploited position, willingness to challenge the status-quo takes time and energy to build. Several people try and take control as political vanguards, anarchism, republicanism (19th century French style, not contemporary American) and socialism are all in play in many of the conversations among workers, and even some leaders have mixed and confused ideas. Etienne Lantier, the novels main character, has a revolutionary zeal few can match, but often struggles with the theory, and his control of the situation as it turns into a strike and then into an open revolt is always tenuous. In this way, Zola adds to the revolutionary question the importance of a more educated vanguard to help workers stay on track when trying to win gains.
But the novel’s status as a revolutionary text has often been questioned, and it’s occasionally been described as being politically reactionary. While Zola’s own politics were relatively progressive (from what little I’ve read he was a republican from early in life, but turned towards socialism later on), that doesn’t save the text itself from the accusation.
Etienne’s character, for example, in spite of the revolutionary zeal, is not without flaws that go well beyond his lack of theoretical sophistication. He often finds himself excited by the power he has over the crowd, the thrill of being in a position of leadership sometimes getting the better of him. He also has visions of himself eventually going into politics, having ‘done his time’ organizing miners and now being able to give speeches in committees in Paris. While I don’t think the lesson here is that all revolutionary leaders are driven by purely selfish motives, it does complicate the simplistic some might have of revolutionaries, although I think this is to the novel’s credit rather than it’s (reactionary) detriment, and it’s a lesson I hope aspiring organizers find ways to wrestle with productively. Etienne is on the whole good, and his revolutionary commitments are fairly certain, but they are intertwined in complex ways with other emotions.
Further complicating the novel’s politics is the depiction of the working class, as I’ve already stated. They are not pure souls, but instead sick and distorted in various ways, although Zola clearly sees and tries to depict them as products of a sick and distorted system that grinds people into dust, squeezing out as much labor as it possibly can from all of them. There is the question of how fatalistic Zola’s view of personality might be, (and I imagine I’ll need to read more entries in the series to get a firmer grasp), but I don’t see this as inherently reactionary, and can instead be seen as a depiction of the cyclical nature of poverty and wealth that is passed down from one generation to the next.
Whether or not that can be overturned is another question that comes up in the form of a strike, one that lasts long enough that some workers even starve to death. Eventually it boils over into a riot, the anger and frustration of decades of abuse and exploitation emerging in the form of destroyed equipment and a man dead, a shop owner notorious for using his position to sexually exploit the vulnerable workers who barely make enough to feed themselves. Trying to escape, he falls to his death, only to have several woman yank his limp penis off his body and display it in a grotesque ceremony. Here Zola tested my own patience with the workers, even if I couldn’t arouse any sympathy for the mutilated man (even his wife is said to have cracked a small smile at seeing him dead, realizing she would no longer have to put up with him).
Finally, the strike ends not with victory but traumatic defeat. Soldiers are brought in and open up on the striking workers, killing several and traumatizing the community. In spite of the public’s sympathy with them, they are out of time, energy and food. Starving to death, they return to the mine’s. All that has been accomplished in their attempts are several deaths, property destruction and nothing to show for it (the strike was kicked off in response to a paycut which they don’t manage to resist, so even their wages are actually worse off than in the beginning). Etienne leaves at the end, invited to Paris to join the budding International, having gotten his wish to do his time with the miners before going to serve on committees in a big city.
While I understand the temptation to add all this up to a reactionary orientation, I’m not so certain that’s the right response. The novel ends with two orientations; defeated resignation and revolutionary optimism that persists in spite of it. Etienne hasn’t lost faith in the workers, and it’s not clear Zola wants us to either. The question I’m left with is whether I still believe in the revolution against it’s blatant failure. In the end, the question brings up the question of faith, albeit a political sort, although a Kierkegaardian leap also seems somewhat relevant. The truth is the novels ambivalence allows it to interrogate me, forces me to reflect in ways that the first two novels can’t because of their certainty about how things will all play out. For Robinson, change will be gradual, and guided by political professionals; there’s ultimately nothing for us to worry about, or even do. For Marlantes, revolutionary politics had their place in both the personal development of immigrants and the development of the United States, but they’re archaic relics of the past. For Zola, the answer isn’t so clear, and that state of suspension, that ambivalence, is a more haunting spectre than anything I can imagine conjuring.