The Antarctic Connection

This short New Year memoir meshes theorizations of two very different subject areas: geopolitics and interaction rituals. The genre, however, also calls for a dose of merry nonsense, which very much includes all sociological jargon. Yet, as-we-all-know-who-theorized-it, rituals must be performed and emotions generated – even at the scale of world-systems theory.

The emotion in this case is an entirely happy one. It was prompted by the ritual New Year postcard arriving from the South Pole itself, more precisely, the NSF Amundsen-Scott camp in Antarctica.

We met in 1992 in the long line at the ex-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. The occasion was purely bureaucratic and at the same time fabulously historical. Confirming one of the boldest predictions of Randall Collins, the USSR had collapsed; and we now needed to claim our new citizenship from among no less than a dozen successor nations. This geopolitical fact was finally forced upon me earlier that morning by the fashionably dressed official at the visa section of the French Embassy:

– Your passport is still valid, but the issuing state has expired…

Desperately pressed for time, I flagged down a taxi in the middle of Georgetown and asked the driver (who looked distinctly Ethiopian to my Africanist eye) if he knew the location of the ex-Soviet embassy. The cabdriver turned to me with a broad, cordial grin and replied in perfect Russian: Konechno, znayu, dorogoi tovarisch! – Of course, I know, dear comrade! What a country it was! Do you remember the Ukrainian girls? Borsch and sour cream at the student canteen? He was in fact Ethiopian, with an engineering diploma from Kharkov Polytechnic in Ukraine.

The consular division of the ex-Soviet Embassy occupied a distinguished-looking mansion near Dupont Circle. A few dozen petitioners formed two lines. Following my instantly revived Soviet instincts, I quietly joined the much shorter one. An official-looking woman emerged from the ‘Strictly Service’ door of the consulate to collect our petitions and passports. She approached me with frosty directness:

– Young man, are you Jewish or scientist?

Astonished by this dichotomous categorization, I could only meekly extend to her my – still valid – Soviet passport. Barely glancing at it, the woman immediately ordered me into the much longer line:

– Here stand only the Jews who had long emigrated to Israel and gave up their Soviet citizenship. But now with all our democratization (she could not help a snort) they can get the new Russian citizenship and travel back (oh, she knew all those tricks) without a visa. But your government service (stress) ‘blue’ passport was issued by the Foreign Relations Directorate of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Clearly, you are a scientist.

As a document-carrying scientist, I had to accept the logic of her arguments.

The scientists’ line behaved in recognizable Soviet ways. The people were frustrated by the waste of time and the whole bizarre procedure of having to choose a new citizenship. Yet since the frustrations were directed at the consular officers behind the bullet-proof windows with the dusty blinds unceremoniously drawn down before our faces, the common emotion generated among us was a form of solidarity and even fraternization. This exponentially increased as we learned about the structural homologies of our trajectories and positions. Everyone originally came from one or another of the intersecting Soviet academic institutions; and presently we all found ourselves in roughly the same precarious situation at American universities as post-docs, visiting fellows or lecturers. And, of course, we were cursing, as usual, the ‘Power’ (Vlast) that ‘broke up the country but kept its old habits’.

Vladimir Papitashvili introduced himself first as if begging my pardon for standing ahead in the line. He turned out to be a geophysicist, and his work (about which he was as passionate as any good scientist) consisted of tracing the signs of climate change, which is why he had travelled around the world doing his research. Once in 1984, on his way to Antarctica, as Papitashvili fondly reminisced, he had stayed at a different, much more hospitable Soviet Embassy. The polar expedition had a long trip to make from Leningrad. Their heavy Il-18 transport planes had to refuel often, first in Simferopol in the Crimea; next in Cairo, Egypt; then in Aden, Southern Yemen; and again in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; and ultimately (at this point I gasped, because I knew this route) …. in Maputo, Mozambique.

The Ilyushin-18 turboprop airplanes, painted bright red for the polar conditions, were a common sight in Maputo during their seasonal expeditionary migrations. The airfield at the 26th parallel in the southern hemisphere was situated in the capital of a newly liberated African country pursuing a ‘socialist orientation’. Mozambique offered the southernmost friendly airport that Soviet planes could use before making the final leap to the coasts of Antarctica. Polar expeditions usually had to wait a few days there for good weather along the route, because the heavy planes could not return to Africa from somewhere halfway. The explorers, facing a year amidst the polar cold and night, did not seem to mind spending a few days on the beaches of the Indian Ocean.

To my new friend, Maputo seemed a strange place, beautiful and warm but also (he carefully searched for the word) … adventurous. Once their plane was parked for the night at the airport, it was surrounded by a bunch of wild-looking young Soviets, some of them bearded. They were dressed in civilian pants, short-sleeves and sandals, yet were armed to the teeth. These volunteer guards were provided as a diplomatic courtesy to fellow countrymen pursuing an important scientific mission.

Of course, it all sounded damn familiar to me. Oh, how we hated the ‘volunteer’ night shifts assigned by the Embassy’s Komsomol committee. Who would want to feed mosquitoes all night long, sitting under the wings of the bright-red IL-18 while keeping guard against possible attack by Renamo rebels and South African saboteurs? We carried a hodgepodge of surplus weaponry procured from our friends at the Soviet military mission, because we were actually listed as civilian personnel. (I got the vintage Degtyarev machine gun stamped with the production date of 1942, the year of Stalingrad.) On these improvised patrols we really felt more like bait.

That was all in a previous and rather surreal life. Here, in a new and also quite surreal American life, I realized that I was standing next to the very same man whose expeditionary equipment I had once been prepared to defend to death. We hugged and yelled, to the amusement of our fellow scientists. Papitashvili and I turned out to be old acquaintances. Which, by the way, would not be the end of the coincidences. Twice again Papitashvili and I would be neighbours at various American campuses, drawn together by our nomadic trajectories in search of fellowships and grants.

At last, the stern-looking official came out to deal with our petitions. Having barely glanced at our Soviet passports, she immediately got to the business of state-imposed categorization and essentialization based on the tell-tale endings of our ethnic surnames: All right, Papitashvili, you must be a Georgian; and you, Derlugyan, are Armenian, aren’t you?

Papitashvili burst into hasty chatter, trying to explain that it was his father who had been Georgian but he himself was born in Kirovabad, Azerbaijan. (Oh? The official raised her eyebrows.) There, in Azerbaijan, his Russian mother worked at the railway station, while his father was serving his military draft, but they had divorced when young Volodya was just one year old. I learned later that the Papitashvilis were a princely Georgian lineage, who in the Soviet period had turned their cultural capital into the high status of old intelligentsia. The relatives from Tbilisi had disapproved of the junior’s affair with a Russian working-class girl from the railroad depot. But the child was eventually half-accepted into the family. During his student years in Leningrad, Vladimir could procure coveted free passes to the Bolshoi Drama Theatre – the famed ‘BDT’, a cult destination for the Soviet intelligentsia – where his uncle was none other than Georgi Tovstonogov, the revered Chief Artistic Director. Yes, Papitashvili was a typical Soviet: born in Azerbaijan to a Georgian father and Russian mother, he attended university in Leningrad, then worked for sixteen years in the heart of Siberia, in Yakutia, at the Institute for the Study of Permafrost. Of course, he knew hardly a word of Georgian.

Next came my turn to explain that I really did not know Armenian, although I knew some Ukrainian because that is what my maternal grandmother spoke to me at home in Krasnodar. The official interrogated me with a tone of bureaucratic suspicion in her voice: Krasnodar? Is that where the Cossacks are?

I felt as if the silver-capped bandoliers were already growing across my chest and replied proudly: Yes, we are the Kuban Cossacks!

The official shrugged: Haven’t you seceded along with the Ukraine? You should really ask the Ukrainians for a new passport.

I stood speechless. Had we really seceded from Russia? Who could know in those crazy days. Did I miss the news? The USSR emigrated from me in my sleep. Barely regaining the ability to speak, I asked meekly if the lady would, please, make sure that the Krasnodar territory was no longer part of Russian Federation. After all, it had been for the last seventy years… She looked at the map on the wall and said apologetically: All right, I am sorry, Krasnodar is still in Russia. It was the Crimea that had separated along with Ukraine. (Ah, the neighbouring province, and another Black Sea resort which for a Muscovite like herself must have all appeared the same.) Then she turned her head to Papitashvili and added: And Yakutia is also still in Russia although they now call it by some different name…

– Sakha! The Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, suggested Papitashvili, and hurriedly added: But my propiska registration is in the city of Moscow.

– Very well then, said the official: A hundred dollars from each of you. Cash or money order only.

– For what?! we cried in unison.

– For the stamp in your passports confirming your Russian citizenship.

– But does one pay to become a Russian in Russia?

At this point she finally burst:

– Look, dear scholars, you are all so smart, but this is not Russia, we are in Washington! And we have to pay for everything. Do you realize how expensive it is to renovate the consulate building? Look, look over there: the ceiling is cracking already over our heads. So, a hundred dollars each, and two standard 4×6 passport photographs. Or go to San Francisco, there the consulate charges 85 dollars.

Papitashvili sighed and reached for his wallet, but I simply did not have a hundred dollars, not even in the bank. The times were indeed desperate. I just scoffed:

– Big deal, Russian citizenship! I will apply for Armenian, because I am a Derlugyan, or Ukrainian because my mom is a Kuban Cossack and I can speak Ukrainian. Or, even better, the newly-appointed Kyrgyzstan ambassador is Rosa Otunbaeva, right? She is also a scholar and wrote her dissertation on the Frankfurt School. Otunbaeva has a stamp, and so far no embassy to renovate. I don’t mind becoming a Kyrgyz sociologist, especially if this comes for free. I just don’t have hundred dollars…

The official stared at me tenderly: Young man, do not attempt anything you might later regret. Russian citizenship is a valuable thing. Allow me a minute.

She went through the doors again, and returned a moment later to announce magnanimously:

– Given your difficult material circumstances, the Consul has consented to granting you the confirmation of Russian citizenship at the older rate of 50 dollars. Cash or money order.

And that is how Papitashvili and I, the children of multi-ethnic Soviet parents, became the new Russian intellectual diaspora working in America. He is still following his satellites and drills holes in the middle of Antarctica, only now he is doing so as the head of the American NSF expedition (a good third of its personnel are former Soviet scientists anyway). And every winter/summer, Papitashvili sends his season’s greetings from almost exactly atop the South Pole.


Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘Recasting Russia’, NLR 12.


Law Man

There was admittedly something strange about the man. As a young US Marine scanning the rubble of the Reich Chancellery in 1946, he spotted a bronze bust of Hitler which he took back with him to Dallas, idly telling himself he would one day return it to a German museum for safe-keeping, but which rested in a box in his Manhattan apartment for the better part of a century. Psychological speculation in the case of Ramsey Clark, who died this year at 93, is very nearly pointless. How did the Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson – in which capacity he prosecuted the likes of Dr. Spock for protesting the Vietnam War draft ­– become a welcome guest in Hanoi and Tehran, the legal defender of last resort to enemies of the US state, a reliable champion of Palestinians, Kurds, and other stateless peoples; a man who would come to denounce American imperialism with incantatory consistency – who once publicly mourned not being able to procure a copy of Pablo Neruda in Santiago after Pinochet’s coup?

A certain puritanical streak ran in the family. Clark’s Mississippi great-great grandfather was an ersatz southern ‘general’ who owned 67 slaves but did not allow alcohol in the house, except for cooking purposes. Clark’s grandfather was a judge in Dallas who was responsible for uprooting prostitution from the city. His own father, Tom Clark, was a militantly anti-union Attorney General under Truman, who later appointed Clark senior to the Supreme Court. Ramsey Clark’s first taste of a major legal event was as an observer at the Nuremberg tribunals. He had little doubt that they constituted a liberal show trial, but still believed they could become the foundation of a more just world order. In Clark’s view of himself, he was never a fringe character in American politics but rather the bearer of the true cross of American liberalism, the one that had been destined to prevail in the long run, and which his own liberal contemporaries – Robert Kennedy, above all – would have duly taken up if they had only stayed alive.

But Clark was less significant for the road-not-taken he thought he represented than for the function he served in the projection of US power. Not since Roosevelt’s second Vice President, Henry Wallace, who immolated his career in 1946 with a speech denouncing the Cold War in its infancy and who co-founded the still-born Progressive Party, was there such a high-level dissenter from the ranks of the postwar American political establishment. Clark was a driving force for civil rights inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. But after his time in office, and failing at two bids for a seat in the US Senate, he joined with many of the radical liberals whom he had formerly had in his prosecutorial sights. By the 1980s and 1990s he was a jack-in-the-box figure on television, who, once the smoke from the bombing had cleared, predictably popped up to defend figures from Slobodan Milošević to Charles Taylor when he was not protesting the illegality of the US invasions of Grenada, Panama, and elsewhere.

Liberal capitalist states have a different way of digesting dissidents than their rival regime-types. When they are low-level soldiers or technicians, prison or execution is the blanket solution as it has been for most communist, socialist, theocratic and monarchic states. But for high-level state defectors, the solution has been to incorporate them as court jesters. In the postwar Communist world, the highest-level defector from a regime was Milovan Djilas, who was second-in-command of Yugoslavia in January 1954, minding the state while Tito was on holiday, when he denounced his own regime in a thinly fictionalized parable. When Tito returned home, a show trial began, with Djilas, his old comrade, in the dock. Belgradians were stunned by the live broadcast of his circular self-defence (‘I did criticize every aspect of the system, but I’m not against the system as a whole!’). After seven years in prison for this ‘hostile propaganda’, Belgrade let him leave for England. Like Clark, Djilas criticized his regime for not living up to its own ideals – post-war Yugoslavia, in his view, instead of building a classless society, had merely manufactured a ‘new class’ of communist elites. Likewise, Clark portrayed America as a country that professed to uphold ‘the rule of law’ at home and ‘rules-based order’ abroad, but was in fact the most lawless actor. For all of the clarity of this insight, however, when it came to his actual understanding of law, Clark was a naturalist in the mould of Martin Luther King. Jr, who believed that there was a higher law that America needed to adhere to, and with which the formal law of the country simply needed to be brought into alignment.   

Clark’s finest and loneliest hour came during George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War. Along with Neil Young (cf. ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’) and the American political left at its historical low watermark, Clark had little trouble detecting the capacity for mass-murder behind the patrician mumble and mountains of thank-you notes. In The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (1992), Clark documented in full detail the carnage of Desert Storm on Iraqi civilians, and called for the president to be impeached on the grounds of having violated the US constitution by going to war without congressional consent, something which Bush had openly boasted about (‘I didn’t have to ask Senator Kennedy, or some liberal Democrat whether we were going to do it. We just did it.’) America could be ‘liberated’ once this justice was meted out. It was almost touching how much Clark expected to be listened to about constitutional niceties amidst the Bush administration’s endless trumpeting about how the US was operating under a heavenly edict from the UN Security Council.

Whatever the extra material incentives behind the Persian Gulf War, the most important motivation was ideological. As Peter Gowan argued in NLR at the time, the rhetoric behind the war neatly captured the migration of US domestic legal language to the international sphere, with the ‘criminal’ Saddam Hussein’s invasion triggering ‘the standard procedures of a police response’. The projection of a depoliticized international arena, with the US simply acting as a custodian of liberal norms, was meant to be the main attraction of Bush’s ‘New World Order’. (Never mind that the opposition to Saddam Hussein inside Iraq was fiercely opposed to any kind of intervention). Clark himself fell prey to some rather under-nourished theories about the war. He believed George H.W. Bush’s administration had intentionally encouraged Saddam to start the conflict in order to claim his oil fields, a highly untenable conclusion considering how little encouragement Saddam required. He widely publicized his desire to revise the Ottoman-Anglo Convention of 1913, which had granted Kuwaiti autonomy in the first place, and his determination to expose the ‘Zionist plot’ of the Kuwaiti Emir, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was no secret. (As Wikileaks revealed in 2011, the US Ambassador April Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam in 1990 may have been ambiguous, but she did in fact attempt to get him to nudge away his troops from the Kuwaiti border.) The value of Clark’s account was not what he exaggerated or distorted, but what he didn’t: the mass abuses committed by the Kuwaiti regime which expelled its minority populations during the conflict, the US backing of Saddam and his periodic genocidal adventures until it no longer required his services, the newspeak of ‘smart’ bombing, and the UN-US imposed sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children.

For his pains, Clark became a favourite horse to beat in the liberal press. Christopher Hitchens declared him a Saddam apologist, and went on to make the perplexing argument that, while Saddam in principle deserved the best possible legal representation, Hitchens himself was personally pleased that such a slapstick figure as Clark had turned up for the job since it would mean the opposite. Norman Podhoretz meanwhile tarred Clark as a nihilist, driven by ‘hatred of the United States and automatic support for anyone opposed to the United States, for any reason whatsoever in any context whatsoever’. Neither of them paused to consider the service he was rendering their war project. Clark did his best to raise the standards of the liberal show trial – and even more grizzly execution of Hussein – to standards that could pass muster of ‘justice having been done’ in wider world opinion. He was hardly the thorn in the side of the Iraq War he was often portrayed to be, but rather an unwitting partner in the projection of US hegemony, who bore the message: ‘See, in America, we have fair trials, and even let our own dissidents defend our state enemies’. Clark did the regime the further favour of treating the project of US hegemony as a kind of episodic phenomenon, to be treated on a case-by-case basis, in a fanatical legalistic fashion that often made it seem as if the demand of formal justice – the sanctity of due process – was somehow independent of other political values.

I saw Clark once in midtown Manhattan, when I was covering a meeting of semi-active Tamil Tigers in the ballroom of the New York Bar Association. The two dozen men and women who showed up visibly sagged with a sense of duty. A photo of Prabhakaran rested between engravings of Lincoln and Chester Arthur. After a few words from Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, the Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Clark strut into the room and delivered a short speech while standing under the LTTE flag emblazoned with crisscrossed AK-47s. He misattributed some banalities about world peace to Wallace Stevens and seemed to have gotten the landscape of Jaffna mixed up with that of Kurdistan. It felt like he was performing a ritual blessing, like one of Tolstoy’s hermit monks, an image only undercut by his this-worldly beardlessness. The moral fervour was undiminished. His death was barely noticed on the major networks. The New York Times obituary was long and dull. They could at least have honoured him for the legal propriety he tried to inject into American savagery abroad.

Read on: Peter Gowan, ‘The Gulf War, Iraq and Western Liberalism’, NLR I/187.


Fragments of Revolution

In the tattered remains of a Punjabi literary magazine, I chance upon a faded black-and-white photograph. A Sikh man stands between a newly married Sikh couple, holding a book in each hand. His bearded face is scratched beyond recognition. The bride stares solemnly into the camera, while the groom – clean-shaven face creased in half – angles away, perhaps for another camera. ‘Comrade Buggar Singh,’ the caption announces, ‘is handing out a new form of dowry to the couple’. It is two novels in Punjabi translation, Mother by Maxim Gorky and The Hurricane by Chou Li-Po. The photograph dates to the political tumult of the 1970s, when Mao-inspired Naxalite insurrections burned through large swathes of agrarian India. ‘Looks like the Sino-Soviet split never transpired for the villagers in Punjab’, I say as I turn the photograph towards Bant Singh, a peasant who had held on to this fragment despite the threat of police violence. At the time, the discovery of small magazines in a raid was tantamount to the discovery of illegal arms. But fifty years later, the elderly comrade can recall neither this dowry ritual nor the name of the magazine. Still, he grins widely. The irony is not lost on him.

The Sino-Soviet split, compounded by the Indo-China war in 1962, played a key role in splintering the Communist Party of India. In 1964, the breakaway CPI (Marxist) was formed, swiftly followed by the defection of a Maoist contingent that organized the Naxalbari insurrection of 1967 and formed the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969. The latter judged that India was a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state, and that guerrilla warfare was the only revolutionary response. The Naxalite theses and tactics seemed especially incongruous in Punjab. Newly integrated into the Green Revolution, the Punjabi villages teemed with tractors, tubewells, fertilizers, seed farms and credit cooperatives. Attempts to import Maoist tactics into this capital-intensive landscape triggered even more splinters in the communist ranks, while the targeted killings of landlords and policemen offered little effective opposition to the structural violence of the new regime, orchestrated by US state agencies and subsidized by the Congress government. When he finally spoke, Bant’s voice was a distant murmur. ‘Every public meeting would start with cries of Workers of the world unite! But why didn’t the parties ever start by uniting themselves?’

Maoism however still managed to seep into Punjab’s cultural life in several exhilarating, often erratic, ways. Numerous small and underground magazines sprang up in this period, disseminating homespun cultural revolution across the countryside. Many were outlawed and destroyed by police. Today only fragments of them survive, scattered across obscure rural locations, often still shrouded in secrecy. After weeks of inquiries, I had finally arrived in Dhilwan, a village of roughly 500 houses located in Punjab’s Malwa belt, today afflicted by the Indian agrarian crisis. Here the springtime of the Green Revolution – premised on high rates of mechanization and productivity – has long transitioned into an autumn of endemic landlessness and peasant suicides. Bant had waited for me all day under the slow churn of the ceiling fan on his veranda, a flimsy plastic bag by his side containing archival remains of an armed revolt that had failed to transition into the promised revolution.

Along with communist biographies and party programs, the bag also contained two stapled copies of Rohley Baan (Raging Arrows) from the mid-1970s, their yellowed paper so brittle that I could scarcely pry them open. The magazine was published by the Punjab-Himachal state committee of the CPI (M-L), a splinter group that attempted to turn the neighbouring Himalayan foothills into a guerrilla base. The title is a homage to the arrows fired during the Naxalbari insurrection, but the cover features neither those Bengali insurrectionaries nor Mao himself. Instead, a red icon of the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), adorns the front. Famous for waging war against the oppressive Mughal administration, Guru Gobind is depicted in full regalia, wearing a heron plume in his turban and a quiver on his shoulder, holding a quill in one hand while a hawk perches on the other.

In the crumbling heap of stapled paper, I also discovered a stray photograph of Krupskaya – likely torn and saved from Lenin’s biography. Bant’s jagged annotation in Gurumukhi read, ‘Lenin di patni’ (Lenin’s wife). Stuck to the back of Krupskaya’s photograph, there were two crinkled passport-sized photographs. When I enquired about the identity of this other woman, Bant strained at the tiny face, then glowered at me. Half-jokingly, he replied that I should have the civility not to broach this in front of his son. A few minutes later, he gently deposited the two photographs in the left pocket of his shirt. I returned the famed Bolshevik into the company of her unlikely comrades. Spread out on the plastic table, Bant’s archive resembled a jigsaw puzzle, but the edges of these pieces had long frayed beyond repair. One no longer understood how they fitted together.


After hours of torrential rain, a steady stream of peasants, activists and writers begin trickling into the small farm in Talwandi Salem, an obscure village in the Doaba belt. It is the birthday of Avtar Singh ‘Pash,’ the prolific revolutionary poet who came to prominence in the early 1970s. Pash was the editor of Siarh (Furrow), an iconic Maoist literary magazine. In its pages, one finds anti-imperialist boliyan (a folk musical form) next to assessments of Maoist land reforms; an interview with a local Dalit labourer alongside a marsiya (an elegiac poem that commemorates the martyrs of the Karbala) dedicated to Salvador Allende. In the mid-1980s, when militants leading the charge for Khalistan – a separate Sikh state – threatened to kill Pash, he fled to California, where, working illegally at a petrol pump, he started another magazine, Anti-47 – handwritten and distributed to diaspora as far flung as Norway and England.

In recent years, Pash’s farm and its tubewell have become totems for the Punjabi left. In the 1970s the Naxalites held numerous secret meetings here, while in a basement dug nearby, Pash assembled a makeshift library, festooned with photographs of Mao, Bhagat Singh and Ho Chi Minh. It was also here that Pash was killed in 1988, aged 38 – like many of his comrades, by Khalistanis. ‘It was a cold March morning. He was sharing a cigarette with a friend near this tubewell’, Sant Sandhu, poet and Pash’s neighbour, whispers into my ear. In 1970, Sandhu had smuggled out Pash’s first poems from prison to be published as his first book, Loh Katha (Iron Tale). ‘Two Khalistani militants ambushed them, shooting several rounds into their backs. Pash died crawling under this mango tree’. Someone passes me hot jalebis and a cup of tea, as members of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (a union of landless labourers, predominantly Dalits) unfurl the gleaming sickles on their red flags. ‘Now, we stand here in his place’.

Surinder Kumari Kochhar, a 78-year-old veteran, holds tea in one hand and a PKMU flag in the other. In the late 1960s, she published the first periodical of Punjabi Maoism, Lok Yudh (People’s War), edited by her father, Gandharva Sen, a communist stalwart who had previously been on the frontlines of the anticolonial struggle. It was an underground magazine – its press hidden in a manhole dug at the centre of an orchard. Surinder worked the press all night, and in the early hours young Naxalites would come to pick up fresh copies and then transport them across the region. Many of them would be later tortured and killed by the police. She grows wistful, but suddenly remembers the buzzer installed in the manhole to warn in case of a raid. ‘At night, if you put your ear close to the ground, you could hear me moving the rollers’. As the light began to fade, I could hear only the rickety buzz of a tubewell – enduring emblem of US neo-colonial aid – that now serves as a makeshift memorial to a revolutionary poet.


In 1972, the short story writer Gurvel Pannu founded Sedh, a Punjabi journal of Marxist theory and culture. The first issues included engagements with the writings of Sikh gurus, Roland Barthes (an entire issue was dedicated him), medieval Sufi thinkers, Eric Fromm, contemporary Naxalite poets, Charles Bettelheim amongst many others. In a series of landmark essays, the literary critic Kishan Singh warned against the wholesale embrace of Leninism, and instead suggested that Marxism in Punjab must discover its own ‘local roots’. His celebration of Gurbani (compositions in the Sikh religious scripture Guru Granth Sahib) as a counterpoint to Marxist-Leninism provoked heated debate. Gurcharan Sehensra, historian of the old guard, responded to Singh’s call for provincializing Europe with characteristic irreverence: ‘When the Punjabi bourgeoisie can find inspiration in the Western regime of the Green Revolution, why can’t the Punjabi workers find strength in the tradition inaugurated by the Paris Commune?’

In these literary magazines, discussions around universal history and difference played out with great intensity. In Hem Jyoti – a monthly so popular that booksellers used to hoard and sell its copies at marked-up prices – translations of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Jackson, were published alongside work by emerging Punjabi writers; assessments of the Moscow Writers’ Conference and the Afro-Asian Conference in between local accounts of literary seminars taking place in Punjab. The integration of Punjabi villages into the global regime of the Green Revolution was accompanied by a growing desire to imagine a literary world-system anchored in the peripheral experiences of Punjabi peasants and guerrillas. In the postcolonial mainstream, such experiments were widely censured. The 1972 issue of Indian Literature, the journal of the state-sponsored National Academy of Letters, famously criticized the ‘invasion’ of Naxalite poets, lamenting, in particular, the ‘sudden’ capitulation of Hem Jyoti to Maoism. ‘No amount of Maoist ideology (can) act as an alibi for a creative vision’ concluded the official indictment.

The sentiment prevails to this day. The intimacy between literary experiment, critique of political economy, and political agitation still confounds contemporary critics, who tend to dismiss it with accusations of crudity and propaganda, showing little interest in either recovering this history or taking stock of its afterlife. To borrow a phrase from Michael Löwy, the cultural memory of Punjabi Maoism continues to flow like an ‘invisible underground river’, silently irrigating Punjab’s social world. On occasion, its currents can still rise to the surface and flood the land. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of farmers and farmworkers in Punjab and elsewhere blocked railways and roads, overran barricades and borders, and erected blockades around the national capital. Long into the night, troupes of Punjabi women across these blockades were seen singing poems by their Maoist forebears, including Pash. Last month, the BJP-led government finally conceded defeat, and agreed to repeal the controversial farm laws. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), a left-leaning Punjabi organization, marked the anniversary of the blockades by paying tribute to those who have died in the struggle. During the two-minute silence, a song by the Dalit Naxailite Sant Ram Udasi reverberated from the stage.


Pulling up a piece of cloth tied behind his turban, Dilbagh Singh bellowed: ‘It is true that people are dying. It’s a disease, after all.’ After a short pause, he added, ‘But you know, sorrow does not stem only from Covid-19. We are now sad all the time.’ ‘And why is that?’ I shifted in the backseat of the Uber, curious to find out. ‘It’s because we have completely lost touch with the world of literature.’ I slipped the tangled headphones back into my shirt’s pocket. ‘So what kind of books do you like to read?’ Navigating a hairpin bend, Dilbagh answered, ‘Lal Singh Dil is my favourite, so is Pash’. I was struck by the uncanny pairing. Marginal and monumental in equal measure, the two poets are rarely discussed together. Dil, a landless Dalit poet, was betrayed by his upper-caste Jat comrades during a guerrilla action. After months of brutal police torture, he fled Punjab, converted to Islam and spent the next decades working as a watchman, a domestic servant, an imam, and a herdsman in several other states. Six years after Pash was killed, Dil was discovered running a ramshackle tea shop near his native village.

‘And what about Amarjit Chandan?’ I prodded Dilbagh to complete the trinity of Punjabi Naxalites. ‘I have heard his name but have never got around to reading him’. Born in Nairobi in 1946, Chandan inaugurated the Maoist tradition of underground literature in Punjab. But when the movement faltered, he fled to Frankfurt and then to London. His dispatches for Economic and Political Weekly ended abruptly – the final article reported on the infamous 1981 racist arson attack at New Cross Road, Deptford – and he later broke with Maoism. In 1994, Chandan re-surfaced with typical panache, when a letter containing his new poems arrived at John Berger’s alpine home in Quincy in the midst of a nationwide French postal strike. The resulting friendship with Berger catalysed Chandan’s emergence as a poet, essayist and translator. His severe criticism of the Naxalites – at the Karachi Literary Festival 2018, he again described them as ‘individual terrorists’ – perhaps explains his relative obscurity in a literary world that bears his imprint.

‘What are you reading these days?’ Dilbagh changed gears and wrested control of the conversation. ‘A novel by Jaswant Kanwal.’ ‘Which one?’ Dilbagh seemed visibly excited. ‘Raat Baaki Hai.’ Reflexively turning around in his seat, Dilbagh let out a rapturous cry, ‘Waah! Kya baat hai!’, the kind of reaction reserved for poets when they recite a particularly moving couplet. I scrambled to echo his adulation, ‘Bilkul, bilkul!’ (Sure, sure!). At one point, Kanwal’s 1957 novel The Night Remains – a literary chronicle of the Muzara Lehar, the sharecroppers’ movement for land redistribution – was so popular that excerpts would be read out on loudspeakers in the villages. The book precedes his more famous saga of Punjabi Maoism, Lahu Di Lo (The Dawn of Blood), published in Singapore and smuggled into India in 1975. By the time Dilbagh turned back to face the road, the car, already out of control, pushed headlong towards a concrete divider in the highway. As Dilbagh swerved, we ended up missing a crucial right turn onto the flyover, the first of four we missed that day.

Read on: Kheya Bag, ‘Red Flags in the Forest’, NLR 118.


Tianxia versus Plato

Tianxia is the newest fashionable word. If you don’t know it, you’re out of the loop. If you do, you’re evidently up to date with the latest trends in international political science, even more so if you use the original Chinese ideogram 天下, which literally means ‘all under heaven’. Yet as Ban Wang, editor of an important volume on the subject, admits: ‘despite its popular revival, tianxia has rarely been defined with rigour’. First deployed under the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), ‘all under heaven’ initially denoted the entire world, which in theory was subject to the sovereign, or ‘son of heaven’ (天, tian, being the ideogram for heaven). In practice, it was used to indicate the part of the world over which the Chinese sovereign – and subsequently Emperor – exercised supremacy.

One of tianxia’s most authoritative modern advocates, Zhao Tingyang, defines it as follows:

1. It is a monarchical system, including certain aristocratic elements. 2. It is an open network, consisting of a general world government and sub-states. The number of sub-states depends on the diversity of cultures, nations or geographical conditions. The sub-states pertain to a general political system, in the same way that subsets pertain to a greater set. Designed for the whole world, the all-under-heaven system is open to all nations. Any nation can participate, or be associated, if it is at peace with the nations included in the system. 3. The world government is in charge of universal institutions, laws and world order; it is responsible for the common wellbeing of the world, upholding world justice and peace; it arbitrates international conflicts among sub-states […] 4. The sub-states are independent in their domestic economy, culture, social norms and values; that is, independent in almost all forms of life except their political legitimacy and obligations. The sub-states are legitimated when politically recognized by the world government, and obliged to make certain contributions…

In recent decades, Chinese political commentators have used the concept to explain how China avoided the fragmentation into various national states that occurred in Europe after antiquity and escaped the fratricidal wars that marked the first age of intra-European competition (which subsequently embroiled the entire Western world). After all, at the time of the Han and Antonine dynasties (c. 150 AD), the Roman and Chinese Empires were of comparable size in terms of territory and population, and both were unitary entities. The explanation hinges on the distinction between tianxia and the Latin imperium (root of the modern term ‘empire’).

As Salvatore Babones explains, ‘Whereas the Roman imperium connoted an expressly delegated political authority to command obedience, the Chinese tianxia encompassed a moral authority that entitled the state to the obedience of its subjects and suzerains alike. Those suzerains included three classes of external sovereigns’. The first class was formed by states that had adopted Confucianism and the Chinese script (or its variants): Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Ryukyu Islands. These incorporated polities that were an active element of tianxia. The second comprised those parts of Southeast Asia that recognized – at least formally – Chinese authority and appealed to the Emperor to resolve conflicts: Sulu (modern-day Philippines), the Khmer Empire, Siam (Thailand), Java, and, during the Ming era, the maritime Islamic Sultanates. The third and final class involved the nomadic populations to the north and west: Jurchen, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan groups that China sought to neutralize by educating in the customs of Chinese civilization.

The concept of tianxia is therefore invoked to affirm the moral superiority of a Confucian view of geopolitics over the so-called ‘Westphalian’ tradition, which upholds the sovereignty of national states, considered equal juridical entities. According to this perspective, the Chinese were forced to temporarily renounce tianxia to manage incursion by the West and its nation states, but with the failure of the Westphalian dis-order the time has come to revive it. Tingyang repeatedly refers to the West in terms of ‘failed states’ in his Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance (2019).

What’s curious about this Chinese account is that, at least in the texts available to Western audiences, it completely elides the other great pillar of Chinese imperial politics: the principle of ru biao fa li: varyingly translated as ‘decoratively Confucian, substantively Legalist’ or ‘Confucian outside, Legalist inside’, or more freely still: ‘iron fist in velvet glove’. ‘In fact’, as Po-Keung Ip notes, ‘Confucianism as state ideology has been officially endorsed and followed, while Legalism covertly dominated much of the actual practice, thus forming the two-tiered politics characteristic of dynastic China’. Legalists had appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, with Guan Zhong (720-645 BC) and Hanfeizi (281-233 BC), the latter systematizing the formulations which ‘directly opposed the Confucian ideals, and suggested using the law to impose order, subdue populations to strict discipline, and if necessary, use manipulation to stay in power’. In other words, there appears to be a Machiavellian streak in classical Chinese political theory overlooked by the partisans of tianxia.

And that’s not all: the paradox is that, by claiming the superiority of China over the rest of the world, the recovery of tianxia promotes a nationalist program through critiquing the Western idea of the nation state. Yet these two incongruences – the omission of ru biao fa li and the use of an antinationalist nationalism – have not prevented tianxia from gaining currency in the West, so much so that thinkers such as Bam Wang have begun to introduce the concept of an ‘American tianxia’. Beyond their respective exceptionalisms, a common feature of China and the United States is that territorial conquest does not necessarily form part of their exercise of supremacy.

The concept of American tianxia has been further elaborated by Babones, who believes we live in a post-Westphalian world, where

degrees of sovereignty can be gauged by proximity to American power. Only the United States can be said to exercise full state sovereignty, since only the United States is, practically speaking, immune to all external ‘controlling’ or ‘overriding’ voices originating in other states. Outside this American centre, three broad, hierarchical circles of more or less limited sovereignty exist in the post-Westphalian state system. These might reasonably be called shared sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and compromised sovereignty.

The first circle is constituted by the remaining members of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which not only share surveillance, but more generally a common language and culture (it’s no coincidence that these are the only white states of the old Commonwealth). ‘The citizens, companies, non-governmental organizations, and governments of America’s four Anglo-Saxon allies’, Babones continues,

participate directly in American global governance through their participation in a common cultural space of opinion formation, their close integration into the American economy (especially Canada and the UK), and their deep cooperation with the American security services. While these four countries are clearly ‘outside’ the United States itself they are to some extent ‘inside’ the institutions of American global governance.

The second circle includes the states of continental Europe, from NATO members to the developed countries of East Asia. These ‘allies’ of the United States

enjoy varying degrees of partial sovereignty in domestic affairs (subject to currency, investment, and trade openness) while ceding nearly all decision-making over foreign affairs […] They have voluntarily ceded to the United States the authority to make many of the decisions usually associated with sovereign authority – and could in principle seize it back. The fact that the states that govern every single developed country in the world today have chosen to align themselves, formally or (in a few cases) informally, with the American military alliance structure and the broader mechanisms of American global governance suggests that there may not be much sovereign freedom of choice in this decision after all.

‘The remaining states of the world’, on the other hand,

are subjected to compromised sovereignty: they (often loudly) proclaim the right of full legal sovereignty but are often unable to make this right effective. Those states that accept compromised sovereignty suffer peripheralization and economic colonialism. Those that do not accept compromised sovereignty face strong external push-back and internal pressure for regime change.

As we can see, Babones traces a homology between the three concentric circles of classical tianxia and American global hegemony, in a curious ode to the American empire which he even forecasts to last a millennium. Whilst he is at it, Babones might also do well to study the American variation of ru bia fa li, which it seems to pursue with far greater precision.

In all these discussions, however, lies an anomaly that is seldom grasped: Lindsay Cunningham-Cross and William Callaghan observe that, when writing one of the other key volumes to revive the concept of tianxiaAncient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (2011) – the aim of author Yan Xuetong

was to learn from the experience of ancient China and its political philosophers in order to enrich and improve current understandings of international politics. Yan believes that texts originating from the period prior to China’s unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BC) are particularly useful to scholars today, because interstate relations during that era share many similarities with contemporary international politics. In addition, this period is often viewed as the apex of Chinese philosophy; pre-Qin texts are thus significant because of the sustained influence they have had on politics in the Chinese empire over the past two millennia.

No Westerner would ever think to exhume a concept from the epoch of Homer, or even Heraclitus, and apply it to the governance of the globalized world. When we call the Athens of Pericles a democracy, we do so firmly in the knowledge that this word didn’t carry the same meaning as it does today, twenty-five centuries later. For Chinese political philosophers, however, the contemporary rehabilitation of tianxia (and the quiet omission of ru biao fa li) seems quite straightforward.

This discrepancy leads us to a reflection on the different relationships of China and the West to their respective pasts. The West is currently subjecting its antiquity to a radical critique, a sort of damnatio memoriae due to the slavery, racism and misogyny of our ancestors: classical texts are metaphorically burned, and departments of classical studies are quite literally closing in many American universities (Europe usually follows suit after a couple of decades). The paradox is that this dismantling of our cultural past is made possible precisely thanks to the conceptual tools bequeathed by antiquity to the Renaissance and early modernity, tools which led to the Enlightenment (French and Scottish), and to modern political thought, out of which anti-slavery, antiracism and feminism emerge.

For the Chinese, this voluntary self-destruction of one’s cultural heritage is totally incomprehensible: in fact, it only reinforces the idea of something amiss in Western cultural development. A civilization which lacks respect for its ancestors must be somewhat off course. A curious phenomenon thus arises: the classics of Western thought are today studied more extensively in China than in the West, for it is in these very texts – Plato, Aristotle – that China looks for ways of interpreting Western politics. That is to say, they apply the tianxia recipe to the West (and by ‘the West’, China primarily means the United States).

In this hall of mirrors – what the French call an abîme, an abyss in which we lose ourselves – the great classicist Shadi Bartsch, after studying Mandarin for nearly a decade, has examined how the Chinese view the classics of Western antiquity. In 2019 she published an essay, ‘Plato’s Republic in the People’s Republic of China’, and will release a book next spring entitled Plato Goes to China.

This study of the Western classics is related to the revival of tianxia, for both converge in their demonstration of the inferiority of the Western political tradition. Chinese scholars, Bartch argues in a recent interview,

focus on Thucydides’s writings about classical Athens because Thucydides said what happened to Athens was, at first it was a great democracy. Then demagogues started getting into power, and the demagogues told the people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. After Pericles’s death, they just catered to the Athenian democracy, with the result that bad decisions were made because they were selfish decisions, and eventually, the Athenian democracy collapsed.

The same will occur to the US, considered (wrongful) heirs to Athenian democracy:

The United States’ democracy is, in fact, very, very young. In fact, it really only dates back to the Voting Act of 1964 if you want to be inclusive. The full democracy is 50 years old, and the Chinese Dynasty has been around for 2,000 years.

It won’t take much for American democracy to go over a cliff. Chinese theorists though aren’t free from contradictions; just as they pass negative judgements on Athens,

they think of themselves as Athens, and they see the US as Sparta. Sparta is getting anxious because Athens is getting stronger. What does Sparta want to do? Sparta wants to squash Athens. They think that the West is very much invested in making sure that China does not become a global power on a par with the West, which I think is inevitable.

But perhaps this reciprocal suspicion, or incomprehension, is never as clear – as in the final example given by Bartsch:

There is a Chinese scholar whose name is He Xin, who argues that there was no Greco-Roman antiquity, that in the Renaissance, the Westerners were so embarrassed about the fact that China had this glorious dynastic past. It was the Middle Kingdom. It had all sorts of innovations in technology and civilization that the West didn’t have at that time, so the West decided to invent classical antiquity so they’d have something to boast about to China. All those texts by Plato and Virgil and Ovid that we’ve been talking about: somebody wrote them in the Middle Ages and then stuck a date on them – 12BC, 400AD – which is a very interesting way of dealing with the Western tradition.

The idea of antiquity never existing – that it is merely a late medieval invention – seems to be the most ingenious solution the problems that continue to torment our past and present.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘America vs China’, NLR 115.


Honduran Dreams

First, let’s celebrate. Xiomara Castro’s resounding success in the November 28 elections was an astonishing victory for the Honduran people. Before the balloting, most assumed that the ruling National Party would once again intimidate voters, cook the books and steal the presidency, despite polling data which made clear that Castro, the centre-left candidate of a united opposition, was on track to win. When the first, partial results were released that Sunday night, though, she led the ruling party candidate, Nasry Asfura, by 19 points with a 62% voter turnout. It appeared she was unstoppable, unless the military rose up – and it hasn’t, yet.

By Wednesday, with over 50% of the vote counted, Asfura had conceded, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had congratulated Castro, and the current dictator, Juan Orlando Hernández, had acknowledged her victory on national TV. Could the long Honduran night have ended, and so quickly?  

Castro will be the first female president in Honduran history, with the highest vote total ever. Her landslide success was the product of twelve years of hard organizing against the regime installed by a 2009 coup. But in the face of victory, the Honduran people remain devastated after twelve years of repression and suffering, and the challenges Castro now faces are beyond daunting. Looming behind them is the empire of the United States – facing the potential loss of what has been one of its most captive nations.

Castro’s husband, Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, was elected in 2006 from the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional ruling parties. He was by no means a leftist; but once elected he raised the minimum wage, blocked the Honduran elite’s privatization plans, and allied himself with the rising centre-left and left democracies elected across Latin America in the ‘Pink Tide’ of the 1990s and 2000s. In response, the military, Supreme Court, and majority in Congress combined to oust him in June 2009. The US initially protested the coup, then did everything it could behind the scenes to stabilize it, as a lesson to the region’s other progressive governments. It bided its time until a November election – boycotted by almost all international observers – and swiftly recognized Porfirio Lobo, the declared winner from the National Party, as president. Thereafter, the post-coup regime immediately plunged the country into a maelstrom of violence, poverty and the destruction of basic state functions and the rule of law. Gangs and drug traffickers, working hand in hand with the military and police, consolidated their control over all levels of government.

But an enormous grassroots opposition rose up to protest the coup, coordinated through the National Front of Popular Resistance, which united the women’s, labour, campesino, LGBT, Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous movements along with a broad swath of other Hondurans. They built a powerful culture of resistance, demonstrating in the streets by the tens of thousands for over two years and building strategic international pressure on the regime. Castro’s party, LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación), emerged out of that Resistance in 2011.

Castro first ran for president in 2013, and probably won. But the National Party, which controlled the election machinery, handed the presidency to a rising thug, Juan Orlando Hernández, whose victory was quickly rubber-stamped by the United States. Hernández, from a military background, had supported the coup as a congressmember and, as president of congress, led the ‘technical coup’ of 2012 that overthrew four out of five members of the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night and replaced them with his loyalists. As president, he militarized the police, oversaw near-complete repression of protests and quickly asserted dictatorial control over the military, police, congress, judiciary and most of the media. With the support of the US-controlled multilateral development banks, he used neoliberal privatization as a front to eviscerate state employment and services, while he and his cronies siphoned off billions. In 2013 Hernández and his party stole as much $300 million from the national health service to pay for their electoral campaigns, bankrupting it. As the economy collapsed and terror metastasized, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans began to flee.

In 2017, aided by the Supreme Court, Hernández ran again, in violation of the constitution. His opponent was Salvador Nasralla, a centre-right anticorruption sportscaster, who ran as part of a coalition with Castro. On election night, the theft was naked: Nasralla led by five points in the early results, but after a few hours the government shut down the counting and a week later declared Hernández president. Once again, the US recognized the ‘victory’, despite an outcry from the Organization of American States. When Hondurans poured into the streets to protest, the military and police fired live bullets, killing at least 22 peaceful protesters and bystanders. In the years after that, security forces broke up almost all demonstrations with tear gas; protesters increasingly stayed home in fear. Banners from a 2020 campaign against state thievery of Covid funding, asking ‘Where’s the Money?’ were torn down by security forces.

Castro identifies publicly as a democratic socialist. Her domestic program promises to address poverty, transform the police by establishing community-based policing, and end violence against women and the LGBT community. Much of her agenda is mainstream, though. She wants to roll back the excesses of neoliberalism and promises to deliver a functioning state that provides basic services such as health care, electricity and education. With Honduras facing astronomical levels of debt after successive governments used international lending institutions as private ATMs, she has already signalled her desire to renegotiate the repayment terms. She will apparently welcome foreign investment, and has already hosted meetings with the Chamber of Commerce. To her left, though, she will be held accountable by the grassroots movements that enabled her victory, who have a more profound transformation of Honduran society as their goal. So far, she has joined their longstanding demand for a constituyente – or constitutional convention – which could be used to refound the nation from below. On the foreign policy front, she’s made clear she will establish a wide range of global alliances of her own choosing, including recognition of Venezuela, Cuba and China.

Whatever her goals, Castro will have to try to govern without a majority in Congress. Even in coalition with Vice-President-elect Salvador Nasralla and his allies, Castro will have a hard time repealing multiple laws that have passed since the coup, which guarantee state secrecy, expand surveillance, repress dissent and grant impunity to drug traffickers and government officials. Other key reforms will be even harder to achieve. Castro intends to abolish the ‘ZEDES’ – special economic zones in which the Constitution doesn’t apply – yet this may have to wait until at least 2023 when the next Supreme Court is elected, by the same Congress. Any anticorruption agenda will depend on the cooperation of the attorney general, whose term also expires in 2023 and is also elected by the Congress.

She will also have to contend with whatever further machinations President Hernández might employ to protect himself. In October 2019, his brother Tony was convicted in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and sentenced to life for money laundering, arms sales, drug trafficking and other crimes. Tony’s trial and subsequent cases are replete with evidence against the president, who allegedly took a $1 million bribe from El Chapo Guzman, the famous Mexican cartel leader; appointed a known death squad leader as National Director of Police and instructed him to commit murders; and vowed, memorably, to ‘shove the drugs up the gringos’ noses’. It is widely assumed that the New York prosecutors will charge Juan Orlando once he has left office. But the current attorney general – Oscar Chinchilla, who has been named in New York courts as working with drug traffickers, and is close to both Hernández and top US officials – could refuse to extradite him.

The military and police present Castro’s most serious, and potentially deadly domestic challenge. They remain loyal to Hernández, who has spent eight years promoting his cronies into top positions. The current Minister of Security, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, has four times been named in the SDNY for his involvement in drug trafficking, while the two most senior police officials have protected narcos. Evidence in the New York trials revealed that drug traffickers allied with the president have utilized government military bases, planes and helicopters, and deployed dozens of soldiers to oversee border shipments. These security forces have a long history of repressing peaceful protests in the streets and killing activists. They have used Covid restrictions as a pretext to further occupy the entire country. They are accustomed to tremendous power and could take over or cause disruption through provocateurs at any moment.

But the biggest threat to the president’s ability to govern as she chooses is the United States. The US not only supported the overthrow of Castro’s husband; for twelve long years it has provided the Honduran security forces with training, equipment and funding and looked the other way at drug trafficking up top. For twelve long years it has propped up a government that criminalized and slaughtered Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and campesino activists. Leopards don’t change their spots; they find new strategies for capturing their prey.

On November 30, Blinken was quick to recognize Castro – praising Honduran voters for their ‘commitment to the democratic process’. It’s important to mark that historic moment, when the US reversed its decade-long project of supporting the post-coup regime. A week before the election, Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, travelled to Honduras to meet with top officials in the Hernández government and military. It appears he read them the riot act about manipulating the election results, and instructed them to allow Castro to win. But it’s uncertain how much further the State Department wants the elites and security forces to cede control, and what concessions from Castro it may have extractedin exchange for allowing her to be elected.

How do we explain the State Department’s tentative acceptance of Castro? First, her wide lead in the polls would have made it difficult for the US to try to legitimate another election stolen by the National Party – especially when members of the US Congress, led by Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Hank Johnson and Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, have been ratcheting up pressure for the US government to rescind its support for Honduran security forces. Second, the Democrats are rightly worried that Republicans will once again use the immigration question to triumph in the 2022 and 2024 elections, and aware that another National Party presidency would not solve the root causes driving migration. Past practice suggests that the US will now pressure Castro to concede to allies to her right on a number of crucial points, while it subtly questions her ability to govern on her own. Nasralla, a wild card who has been close to the US for many years, has already undermined the president-elect’s authority by declaring that she will not in fact recognize China, Venezuela or Cuba, or convene a constituyente.

In trying to manage Castro, the Biden administration’s goal at the deepest level will continue to be defending and expanding the operations of US-based transnational corporations in the region, whether in garment factories, export agriculture or extractivism. Beyond the interests of any particular company, it wants ensure a wider regional context in which all forms of corporate capitalism can flourish. Its close alliance with transnational capital was made clear in a May 2021 programme launched in a supposed attempt to stop migration, a ‘Call to Action to the Private Sector to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle’, in which the administration announced it was working with PepsiCo, MasterCard, Nespresso and other corporate behemoths to expand their investments in the region. 

The administration’s economic goals are enforced, in turn, by the United States Southern Command (Southcom), which sustains close relationships with US-funded, trained, and equipped Honduran armed forces, shares intelligence and issues public statements praising its top officers. Even if the US State Department sees no alternative to working with Castro for the time being, Southcom is an engine that runs by itself, backed by billions from military contractors. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it will raise the alarm about ‘enemies’ in order to extract more power and money from Congress, and has enthusiastically embraced a new Cold War with China. We don’t yet know how its leadership is reacting to Castro’s victory, or what signals it is sending to the Honduran military.

In its new posture of ostensibly supporting Castro, the State Department has publicly welcomed her commitment to fighting corruption. But its definition of ‘corruption’ is highly selective. When hundreds of thousands of Hondurans rose up in 2015 to protest Hernández’s theft from the national health service, the US blocked their demand for a UN-based commission. Instead, it orchestrated a far weaker body under the auspices of the Organization of American States, in order to maintain control and whitewash the regime, while attempting to discipline it. The State Department’s recent lists of corrupt individuals, mandated by Congress, have assiduously ignored Hernández, his top advisor, the president of congress, the attorney general, and the minister of security. We can assume that under Castro the US will continue to use ‘anti-corruption’ initiatives to choose which figures to rein in and which to protect, attempting to shape the leadership and thereby mould the Honduran government in its interests.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will continue to flood the country with uncharted billions in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ aid. We lack analyses of the full objectives and impact of these ‘soft power’ programmes, in which well-meaning functionaries circle in and out of USAID, think tanks, universities, the State Department, Congressional offices, NGOS and private contractors – learning the same toolkit from MA programmes and their mentors. What exactly do their ‘governance’ programmes consist of? In Honduras, ‘democracy promotion’ has in part meant grooming leaders that will serve US interests; ‘institution-building’ has included shoring up corrupt judges, prosecutors, and police by training them in technical skills; ‘gang prevention’ has meant working with a repressive police force that answers to a criminal chain of command, while marginalizing dedicated activists already working in their communities. Soft power – a seemingly benevolent imperialism – has a well-documented racist history, based on the idea, dating back to the expansion of the US empire into the Philippines and Caribbean, that ‘little brown people can’t govern themselves’ and are in need of tutelage from their white superiors.

Since Biden was elected, the US has been increasingly committed to ‘supporting Honduran civil society’, by which it means pouring tens of millions of dollars into puppet organizations like the evangelical-based Association for a More Just Society, an ostensible anti-corruption organization that follows US policy in lockstep and is understood to be close to Hernández. Private funds are also at play, such as the Seattle International Foundation, whose directors have worked closely with the State Department. It lobbies the US Congress and has moved into funding and showcasing Honduran and US journalists and other civil society actors, attempting to draw so-called independent journalists as well as solidarity activists into the administration’s agenda. Top officials from both the Association for a More Just Society and the Seattle International Foundation are routinely quoted in the mainstream US media as experts on Honduras.

All these challenges are formidable indeed. In the wake of Castro’s astonishing victory, we must once again take up the hard work of solidarity, supporting the grassroots social movements who will challenge their new presidenta to realize their dreams for Honduras’s future, and reject the profit fantasies of the United States.

George Black, ‘Central America: Crisis in the Backyard’, NLR 1/135.


Chilean Stalemate?

In the upcoming presidential ballot on 19 December, Chileans will be asked to choose between a far-right Pinochet apologist and a social democrat – not, as outlets like the Economist and Financial Times have claimed, between ‘two extremists’ offering different variants of populism.   

In the first round of the elections on 21 November, which drew only 47% of the electorate to the polls, José Antonio Kast – a member of the Chamber of Deputies who founded the nationalist Republican Party – won a majority with 1.96 million votes (28% of votes cast). In close second, with 1.8 million votes, was Gabriel Boric: also a member of the Chamber of Deputies, a former student leader turned candidate of the Apruebo Dignidad, which includes the ‘new left’ coalition Frente Amplio and the electoral pact Chile Digno, composed of the Communist Party, ecologists, regionalists and the Christian left. Commentators were once again dumbfounded. How, after a popular uprising against neoliberalism and Pinochet’s constitution, could an unashamed neofascist win the largest share of the vote?

In 2017 Kast had run as an independent to the right of current President Sebastián Piñera, coming in fourth place with half a million votes (almost 8%). This time round, he more than tripled his support, capitalizing on the 1.6 million-strong electoral base that voted rechazo (‘reject’) in the October 2020 plebiscite on writing a new constitution. He managed to raise his profile by appearing constantly on talk shows – where he proposed digging ditches on the border to keep immigrants out – and forming an alliance with evangelicals against ‘gender ideology’. Boric, on the other hand, stood on a measured social democratic platform that included a national health system, a new pension scheme, and a national care system with subsidies for domestic labour. He received the same number of votes as when he ran in the Apruebo Dignidad primaries, where he beat the Communist candidate Daniel Jadue by a significant margin.

As the results came in, the center-left began to panic. Candidates from the ‘renovated’ right and the ex-Concertación – which has ruled Chile for most of the past thirty years – secured 24%. In addition, an independent representing the aspirational popular and middle classes, Franco Parisi, who founded the Partido de la Gente (Party of the People), a populist formation that pledged to alleviate the pressures on consumers and entrepreneurs, got 12.8%. Given this electoral landscape, Boric is faced with a choice: either court centrist voters, peeling them off from the far-right, or pitch himself to the 53% of people who opted out of the electoral system altogether (most of whom come from the popular classes and have been marginalized or neglected by parties from across the political spectrum).

Voter turnout figures have progressively decreased since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990. The initial euphoria of free elections after the dictatorship was quickly replaced by apathy, thanks to the unresponsiveness of successive center-left governments. Frente Amplio, a coalition rooted in the 2011 student movements with which Boric was associated, initially seemed to offer an alternative – yet it too has shed its disruptive character for a more ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’ politics. Leftist critics have long described Boric as amarillo (‘yellow’) because of his tendency to avoid confrontation and adopt servile, middle-of-the-road positions. It was therefore unsurprising that, once the campaign got underway, he decided to cater primarily to establishment voters worried about the destruction of property that ensued from the uprising of October 2019. 

Kast’s politics run in the family. His father, Michael Kast, was a Nazi soldier who managed to escape to Chile after the war with fake documents from the Red Cross, while his eldest brother, Miguel, was a Chicago Boy who worked for Pinochet, serving as the head of Odeplan during the late seventies (overseeing the neoliberal adjustment plan), then as the Minister for Labour in 1980, and finally as President of the Central Bank in 1982. José Antonio studied law and has been in politics since 1996, first as a city council member in rural Buin, then as a representative to the Chamber of Deputies for four consecutive terms. He was a long-time member of UDI, the party founded in 1983 by the jurist and Pinochet adviser Jaime Guzmán, until he resigned in 2016 to organize among elites who wanted to revive the former dictator’s legacy. In collaboration with the global Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization founded by Alan Sears that has brought together Catholic and evangelical representatives to protect the traditional family, Kast assembled an international summit of ultra-conservative politicians to discuss Chile’s future. In 2019 he launched the Republican Party, which now works with the evangelical right in Congress.

Kast’s 2021 presidential programme – promising to ‘restore order’ and reclaim Chile from an alleged communist insurgency – included proposals to lower corporate taxes and eliminate inheritance tax; grant legal immunity to the armed forces and fund the legal defense of police officers accused of using excessive force; give the President sweeping powers to crack down on dissent; establish an International Anti-Radical Left Coalition to ‘identify, arrest and prosecute radicalized troublemakers’; shut down the Human Rights Institute; exit the United Nations; repeal the ILO Convention No. 169 on indigenous peoples; and eliminate the Ministry of Women, offering financial incentives for heterosexual marriage while erasing ‘gender ideology’ from the education curriculum.

Meanwhile, Boric pursued the failed strategy of trying to defeat the far-right on its own terrain. He secured the backing of the Christian Democratic Party after meeting with its leaders and sought to win over the business moguls at the Confederation of Production and Commerce (CPC), opening talks to quell their ‘legitimate anxieties and fears’. Rejecting the popular demand to liberate all those jailed during the uprising, Boric has called for a tough line against protesters accused of ‘burning and looting’, even though such allegations have in many cases been confected by police (indeed, five separate reports have documented human rights violations perpetrated by carabineros and cases of intra marcha agents involved in acts of vandalism, including the destruction of Santiago’s Hotel Principado). As a representative in the lower house, Boric approved the ‘anti-barricade law’ that criminalized protest by imposing prison sentences between two months and five years on those who occupy public spaces or build blockades. He later apologized for backing the reform, conceding that it gave more arbitrary power to police and judges, yet he refuses to support pardons for those who have been jailed because of it.

Boric has been both praised and criticized for his conciliatory attitude towards the right. A month after the uprising in 2019, he was one of the opposition leaders invited by the government to negotiate the terms of the constituent process. A conversation he started in a men’s bathroom with the far-right Senator Juan Antonio Coloma ended fifteen hours later with a ‘social peace agreement’ signed at 2am. This deal stipulated that a two-thirds supermajority in the Constitutional Convention was required to approve new constitutional articles – giving effective veto power to elite interests – and created an obligation to respect existing commercial treaties. (Since then, President Piñera has been pressuring Congress to fast-track the ratification of TPP11, which would force the state to pay crushing fines to private companies for nationalizing natural resources).

Following his swerve to the center-right, Boric has ingratiated himself with the ex-Concertación and even with the government coalition, whom he implores to unite against the threat of fascism. His new campaign manager for the 19 December election, Izkia Siches, has announced that Boric’s government would retain the current Undersecretary for Health, Paula Daza (who asked for unpaid leave to campaign for Kast). Siches also said they would consider bringing on board the other right-wing presidential candidate and former Piñera cabinet minister, Sebastian Sichel. As a result, this electoral alliance can only come at the cost of abandoning the struggle against the neoliberal model and the parties that have administered it for three decades. Although Boric’s coalition is nominally antifascist, his campaign’s decision to incorporate figures like Daza, and its intention to grant more legal power to police and judges, undermines any ostensible commitment to democracy. If this neoliberal ‘Antifa’ can achieve anything, it will most likely be a reconfiguration of establishment forces, aiming to implement what Boric calls a ‘responsible transformation’ that eclipses the radical energies unleashed in 2019.

While Kast’s vote share is expected to reach 40% in the next round, given that all right-wing parties have endorsed him, Boric has the support of all the parties of the ex-Concertación, even if some Christian Democratic leaders remain sceptical. Parisi has refused to endorse Kast but is so far silent on Boric. Nevertheless, the ‘Antifa’ strategy appears to be yielding results, with polls putting Boric three to 13 points ahead of his rival. At this rate, the social democrat is set to win by a comfortable margin; although a legislative stalemate is inevitable since right-wing parties have captured half the seats in both houses of Congress.

Because the new constitution is scheduled to be ratified in September 2022, Boric will either have to start implementing it by decree or delay its enactment until the congressional arithmetic changes. If he chooses the second option, he will provoke widespread anger and frustration among the working class. This may open the door for Kast, who stands to gain from a further erosion of trust in liberal democracy. With a deadlocked Congress, and a social democratic President who may be unwilling to govern by decree to avoid being called a tyrant, prospects for the transition to a new sociopolitical order look grim. A pressure cooker has once again been placed on the stove.

If hope is to overcome fear and paralysis, new political mechanisms will be required to loosen the grip of reactionary forces and radically redraft the Constitution. In recent months the Convention has heard testimony from popular organizations demanding local decision-making power and direct democratic procedures to decentralize power, protect the environment and fight corruption. Giving citizens the right to initiate legislation, repeal corrupt laws, cancel extractivist projects and recall representatives would not only enable urgent structural transformations (such as repealing the ‘save-for-yourself’ pension system), but also set a proper pace for them. The move from a neoliberal model to a social democratic one requires intensive legal and policy work, not by halting negotiations and political immobility. For the truth is that Boric’s hoped-for ‘stability’ is elusive. Delaying the passage of essential socioeconomic reforms will not prevent future eruptions of popular discontent; it will only imperil the fragile status quo to which the establishment is so attached.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Is Pinochet Dead?’, NLR 47.


Fossil Labour

Sometime in August 1769, miners at Mearn’s Pit in High Littleton, Somerset discovered that a rectangular drainage pipe they had constructed from elm wood was blocked. As in many mines, removal of water was a problem; so was ventilation. Around the end of 1766 they had sunk a new shaft to improve the airflow, but this brought more water coursing down the walls. They tackled this problem by installing lightly inclined wooden gulleys on the mine’s four sides to direct the flow to the 7.5 x 4 inch pipe. In turn, the pipe would carry the water off to a passage out of the mine about 42 feet below, probably pumped out by a Newcomen Engine – the early steam engine typically used at the time for this purpose. Less than three years later, their drainage system had begun to fail, prompting them to excavate and examine the pipe. This is a drawing of a cross-section of the pipe as they found it:

Cross-section of the blocked pipe, from Edward King, ‘Observations on a singular sparry incrustation found in Somersetshire’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 63, 1773.

It had become so scaled up with minerals that the water could not drain fast enough. The deposit had a certain peculiarity: it was striped with alternating dark and light bands quite evenly throughout, but for a point where a nail had penetrated the pipe’s side.

A sample of the deposit from Mearn’s Pit came into the hands of the Reverend Alexander Catcott of nearby Bristol, a theologian with an interest in fossils and geological strata who had just published the expanded second edition of his Treatise on the Deluge (1768). Fossil traces of apparently aquatic forms far from any ocean had of course, since antiquity, fuelled the idea in many cultures of a great primeval flood. Now, as ever-deeper mining operations driven by capitalist industry brought heightened awareness of the Earth’s strata and the fossils with which they were associated, the gentleman scientists of the era were increasingly puzzling over implications for the Genesis narrative in the pages of such publications as the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.

Indeed, already in 1719 local landowner John Strachey, who had developed an interest in extracting the coal under his estates, had written to the Society with his observations about the regularity of strata in the area around High Littleton. Strachey diagrammed the regular, sloping bands.

Cross-section of the strata, with various ‘veynes’ of coal, from John Strachey, ‘A curious description of the strata observ’d in the coal-mines of Mendip in Somersetshire…’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 30, issue 360, 1719.

Of particular interest to those prospecting for coal, was that the regularity of these layers, always sloping towards the South East, made the location of veins predictable. While most mining since antiquity had occurred near the surface of the Earth, with knowledge like this deeper mines could be sunk with greater certainty of a return. A few years later, in 1724, Strachey followed up with another Philosophical Transactions article, further diagramming the Somerset strata and proposing a bold theory of their formation: the planet had been constituted with layers radiating from its centre at Creation, but its spin had caused them all to twist, furled one upon the other, ‘like the winding up of a Jack, or rolling up the Leaves of a Paper-Book’. There were 24 layers – one for each hour of the day – which had ticked by in a daily cycle ever since.

Speculative diagram of the Earth’s strata, from John Strachey, ‘An account of the strata in coal-mines, &c’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 33, issue 391, 1724.

Strachey had granted a mining concession in 1719 to a neighbouring landowner, William Jones, who married his sister Elizabeth. Their daughter, Mary Jones, inherited the estate and coal property at High Littleton, and was one of eight local landowners involved with Mearn’s Pit a half century later when the pipe blocked and the strange, striped rock fell into Catcott’s hands.

From Catcott, the stone was passed to Edward King, an antiquarian and also a Fellow of the Royal Society, who wrote up his finding and diagrammed it in the image with which we started this article. Like Catcott and Strachey, King was much concerned with the implications of geological phenomena like regular strata and fossils for the Genesis narrative, and had offered his own speculations to the Society a few years earlier in ‘An attempt to account for the universal deluge’ (1767). In the terms of the proto-geological debates of the day, King was a Plutonist or volcanist: without quite contradicting the idea of a primeval flood, he proposed volcanic activity as the transporter of aquatic fossils from ancient sea beds to mountaintops. The opposing theory was that of the Neptunists, who held the continents to have precipitated out of ancient waters – but, King asked, where did all that water go? Similar debates can be traced all the way back to figures of the Islamic Golden Age such as Avicenna, and to some extent to Strabo, a Greek thinker writing at the time of the shift from Roman Republic to Empire. King was also a catastrophist, in that he took this volcanic movement of seabeds to have occurred in a single gigantic event which might also account for the deluge – with such an upheaval, there would, after all, have been a lot of water sloshing around. Within decades the Plutonists would win out as the modern scientific discipline of geology cohered, but catastrophism would give way to the gradualism of King’s more famous contemporary James Hutton and his heirs, such as Charles Lyell.

In 1791, Mary Jones died. According to her will, the estate and colliery were to go to a cousin, and in the execution of this a land surveyor was required, for which they hired a young man named William Smith; by the next year he was surveying Mearn’s Pit. Smith seems to have gained access to Strachey’s papers on the geological strata of the area – likely through the close family connection of his employer – and to have drawn on them in his own enquiries. It was in this work at Mearn’s Pit that he first developed the geological understanding which would eventually enable him to create his famous stratigraphic maps of Britain; the 1815 version was the first of any whole country.

Smith’s 1815 stratigraphic map of Britain. Image courtesy of the British Geological Survey © UKRI 2021; permit no. CP21/064.

Key to this was the orderly, predictable sequence of layers and associated fossils, a layering which, in his work and that of his scientific heir and collaborator John Phillips, would provide the basis for geological periodisations – Paleozoic, Mesozoic – still in use to the present. Thus Mearn’s Pit may be seen as a central location in the formation of a new notion of time, caked in the composition of the planetary crust; a time that is deep, structured in superposed layers, descending from the present surface down into the ancient past; a geological time that would come to be recognised as far greater than the biblical scales people were accustomed to, and which would provide an important basis for Darwin’s work a few decades later.

As to the peculiar rock that was clogging the pipework, King, for his part, does not seem to have put much thought into explaining its stripes. He attributed them to ‘the water bringing, at different times, more or less oker along with the sparry matter’. But his specimen seems to have been an example of what miners themselves called ‘Sunday stone’; indeed his is the earliest record of that stone I have been able to find. This stone often formed in the drainage pipes of mines as pale coloured lime was deposited by the water flowing through them. This lime would be tainted regularly by the coal dust that filled the air when miners were working. The resulting rock – a pure by-product of the labour process – could thus be a fairly good record of working hours in a particular mine, with dark stripes for working hours, separated by thin pale bands. Since miners typically worked six-day weeks, there was a pattern of six fairly even pairs of stripes, followed by a thicker pale band for Sundays – hence the name. Holidays too were marked in this mineral timesheet. Here was another temporality inscribed in the layered rocks of Mearn’s Pit, on a scale far different to the geological one that would emerge from the work of stratigraphers like Smith. This was the time of the capitalist labour process, caked in rock.

Sunday stone specimen from the Natural History Museum. Image © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

A younger contemporary of Smith’s, Robert Bakewell, would publish his Introduction to Geology in 1815, the same year as Smith’s map. Bakewell was familiar with Sunday stone and noted a certain analogy in a discussion of ‘the formation of the superficial part of the globe’. If the Earth’s strata could have been formed through ‘successive igneous and aqueous eruptions forced through craters and fissures of the surface’, which would each have deposited a new layer of rock, this layering could be seen in microcosm in a certain artefact:

To compare great things with small, there is an analogous formation taking place every day in the channels which receive the boiling waters from some of the steam-engines in the county of Durham. This water contains a large quantity of earthy matter which is deposited every day, except Sunday, in regular layers that may be distinctly counted, with a marked line for the interval of repose on Sunday, between each week’s formation: hence the stone got out of these channels has received from the country people the name of Sunday stone.

Thus Sunday stone appeared as an example of geological time in microcosm, the strata deposited during regular cycles of work and rest analogous to those deposited during phases of volcanic activity and inactivity. If the regular, measured time of the working week gave Sunday stone its peculiar form, materially encoding its periods in stripes legible to miners, the same may be possible with geological strata, reading from their sequence the time of the Earth itself. The mine was at that point the primary means for the development of geological knowledge – and, it turned out, even its labour process could supply a model of deep, structured time.

By the 1870s, according to Francis Buckland’s Curiosities of Natural History, King’s specimen had made its way to the British Museum’s North Gallery No. III. Marx was still working in the reading rooms, so it seems reasonable to wonder if he encountered the stone, and what he might have made of it. Marx read the work of the geologists that emerged in part from Mearn’s Pit: he engaged fairly substantially with Phillips – and Smith gets the odd mention – in the notebooks of March–September 1878; he was well aware of the stratigraphic science of the moment. But King was a minor, eccentric figure from a previous age. Bakewell was more significant, but by the time Marx looked seriously at geology his introduction was out of date; he studied the 1872 edition of Joseph Beete Jukes’s Student’s Manual of Geology instead.

Sunday stone was known somewhat in British culture by the mid nineteenth Century, apparently more from miners themselves than the more famous geologists, to whom it would perhaps have remained a mere curiosity. It was mentioned with characteristic moralism in Christian children’s literature, as God’s record of labour time in admonitions to observe the Sabbath – as if a religious injunction was required for miners to desire a day out of the pits. But this stone seems, on the contrary, an exemplary materialist object, for here we find capitalist social forms already – in the belly of the Industrial Revolution – meshing with geology, leaving traces in the crust, the most literal announcement of the Capitalocene; labour time fossilised like the rings of an ancient tree, at a key site in the discovery of geological temporality; a time written in the black of fossil fuel; a time that congealed until the production process itself broke down.

Read on: Adam Hanieh, ‘Petrochemical Empire’, NLR 130.


In Buffalo

Eugene V. Debs Hall, Buffalo. Photograph author’s own.

Socialism is a story on the streets of the twenty-first century city. A lot depends on the teller. There was a mayor’s race here on November 2. One of the candidates called herself ‘a proud socialist’, a ‘democratic socialist’. Her opponents called her a ‘radical leftist’ and ‘dangerous’. An editorial cartoon in the daily newspaper in June, shortly after she upset the four-term incumbent mayor of this Democratic city in the Democratic Party primary, depicted her benevolently extending City Hall to a throng of outstretched arms. By October, the incumbent having decided to run a write-in campaign premised on the unique peril posed by this upstart, the newspaper decided that it too found her a ‘threat’. She is four feet eleven inches tall. In her pitch to voters, socialism amounted to advocating an economy and society that worked for everyone; she seldom used the term. Leftish commentators nationally rhapsodized about socialism taking the reins of power in Buffalo, and got almost everything wrong. The Erie County Democratic Party chair said talk of radicalism was ridiculous: ‘she sounds like FDR’. ‘Write-In’ came out ahead on November 2, an indistinguishable heap that didn’t officially return the incumbent mayor to City Hall until late November, once his votes were separated out from those for Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback and a few candidates who also ran as write-ins, though mostly invisibly. Election night returns were robust enough, though, to relieve some contributors to the newspaper’s letters section that Buffalo had been spared from becoming North Korea on Lake Erie.

Words are pesky when they have no agreed-upon meaning.

Young woman waiting for the bus: ‘Socialism? I heard that word back in school, in history class, but …  I can’t remember.’

Young man waiting for the bus: ‘I know exactly what it means. To be sociable, you know, just socializing, talking with people, over the internet, just everywhere, everywhere.’

Old man getting on the bus: ‘I wish you’d asked me first. [gruffly] I’ll tell you: Joe Biden.’


Socialism is a history in fragments in a fragmented city. Walking distance from my natal home there is an empty lot. There are many, actually, but 1644 Genesee Street, next to Ike and BG’s BBQ and across from Island Food Mart, a bodega defenced by door and window grates, once denoted the East Side Labor Lyceum. The building is said to have survived until 1991, though I don’t remember it. A stone’s throw away, a small but handsome brick structure where I checked out books as a girl has not been a library for decades, but the central library downtown yielded a few details. A Sanborn map from 1939 is allusive: a deep, narrow building; a ‘Hall’ on the second floor. A squib from the Buffalo Courier in 1915 announces that the lyceum’s cornerstone would be laid on April 11 of that year, a Sunday. ‘Preceding the ceremony there will be a parade of children and men and women interested in the project.’ A ‘Socialist organizer of Buffalo’ got top billing among the speakers, who also included a Presbyterian clergyman and Mrs. Frank J. Shuler, representative of the Woman Suffrage party. A reminiscence in the Courier Express from 1950 mentions ‘the old time Socialist soapboxes … They used to hold forth regularly, orating from improvised stands at Main and Mohawk, Main and Genesee and other points throughout the city’. The card catalogue in the local history reference room discloses little more, but the librarian found regular announcements of meetings, socialist lectures and card parties at the East Side Labor Lyceum while scrolling through a news database. A dissertation on the role of interior spaces in the formation of working-class consciousness reports that Buffalo had a kind of floating lyceum, a regular lecture series or salon under various roofs, as early as 1904. A sentence in a Daily Worker story from 1924 mentions a Labor Lyceum in another part of the city’s East Side, this one at 376 William Street, near Jefferson, the commercial drag of black Buffalo by the time of my youth. That address today is also an empty lot.

Nothing marks the radical past. Labor Lyceums, typically the undertakings of socialist German immigrants, replaced saloons as primary spaces for union meetings, educational events and working-class entertainments in many industrial cities around the US in the early twentieth century, but I hadn’t thought about their existence in Buffalo until I stepped into a saloon, sort of – the Eugene V. Debs Hall, a former Polish bar, beautifully restored last year and, once the state approves its liquor license, one of two taverns that remain in an East Side neighbourhood that used to be thick with them. People, some my relatives, once crowded the streets of this area; wildlife is common now. A deer loped across the street toward my car the night I visited the Debs Hall to talk with its founder and principal manager, Chris Hawley. The flock of wild turkeys that also frequent the neighbourhood must have been sleeping or shy.

Hawley is a senior planner for the City of Buffalo. He lives in the back of the tavern with a cat named Sputnik, whom he rescued from certain death on the street, and bikes to City Hall, fifteen minutes away. As an avocation he researches the histories that have been erased in what, in so many other ways, is a landscape of memory. Ten years ago, thousands of preservationists from across the country gathered for a conference in Buffalo, marvelling at the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, at the daylight factories and grain elevators that had inspired Le Corbusier but, even in those cases, abstracting the architecture from the lives that had built and animated it. Hawley wasn’t in his present job at the time. He was born here forty years ago, into a family that, on one side, traces its early twentieth century heritage to skilled work and upward mobility from the beginnings of the once-gargantuan Bethlehem Steel works; and that, on the other side, preserved the silences of a working class left to fend for itself – the railroad worker killed on the job, his widow with eleven children, the rough boarders to whom she’d rent out the children’s beds, the violence of everyday life. Hawley’s parents were part of the migration out of Western New York to the Sun Belt. He began unearthing labour histories when he moved to Buffalo after university, piecing together the shards of experience that help decipher a project like the Eugene V. Debs Hall today.

Workers associations were numerous when the building was erected in the Broadway/Fillmore district not far from the city’s vast railyard and stockyards in 1899. It was always a bar, and because, according to a 1901 report by Temperance advocates, all but six of Buffalo’s sixty-nine labour organizations met in saloons or halls connected to saloons, it’s possible that the proprietors of this place augmented their income by renting space to unions. In any event – even allowing for the contradictions of the saloon as a male space, a white ethnic (here specifically Polish) space, a drinking and so potentially disabling space – the bar would have been a communal hearth, locus for workers to forge bonds against the fragmenting processes of industrial capitalism. Especially once it was spruced up in 1914, it likely played the social role of so many taverns, as a site for small wedding parties or funeral repasts, christening fetes and other celebrations. By then, Hawley says, ‘Buffalo was a hotbed of the Socialist Party. Debs had come here in 1898 to form the first local. There were twelve locals in the city, several in the outlying towns; mainly they met in taverns or other halls.’ The East Side Labor Lyceum was a step up, built by the Socialist Party specifically for socialists. He has a picture of its drum corps, a cartoon from 1917 of ‘The Regular Meeting of the Branch’, a reproduction of its mission statement: ‘Dedicated to intellectual advancement of working people and to prepare them for the abolishment of the system of exploitation and profit.’

Graduate student, political philosophy, 30-ish [coolly]: ‘Socialism is the first stage of state control of all means of production and distribution. It’s command central … Socialists are communists.’

Firefighter, middle-aged: ‘Socialism is the practice – the practice – of equality.’


Whatever else it was, the recent mayor’s race was a public confrontation with inequality. The dominant boosterist story of contemporary Buffalo is abbreviated as ‘Renaissance’. In the miserablist press the story is typically abbreviated ‘disaster’. Neither suits the whole.

Deer are not wandering everywhere in the city, and even where they tread, the grassy plots represent progress from the thousands of firetraps, shooting galleries and condemned hulks that a working class stripped of its livelihood – by the collapse of steel and then domino-like deindustrialization – had once called home. Buffalo’s population was 532,759 in 1960; it is now 278,349, a bit higher than in 1890. The latest census reflects an uptick, driven most dramatically by new migrants. On the East Side, which for decades has been predominantly black with a Polish remnant, the newcomers include at least 10,000 (possibly 20,000) Bangladeshis, many who fled the high costs of New York City and then encouraged relatives from the old country to join them, transforming some abandoned Catholic churches into mosques and community centers. Not far from the Debs Hall, a Spanish-speaking enclave has taken root, climate refugees from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Rita. The bones of the walkable city have not been obliterated. Housing is typically two-story, two-family wood-frame residences, ‘the Buffalo double’ in the vernacular, like my grandfather built a bit farther east in 1924; or the lower profile, extended ‘telescope cottage’. Until the pandemic-fueled real estate price boom, a house could be had here for $25,000 to $50,000, often less. Residential lots tend to be long and narrow, and as in every poor urban district I know, what people call ‘good blocks’ might be a cross-walk away from blight; ‘good houses’, alongside vacant or tumble-down properties; side streets intact with contiguous houses whose owners are trying, bracketed on each end by broad stretches of near-nothingness – the radial commercial streets that lead downtown and are mute testimony that for sixteen years the city’s first black mayor, incumbent Byron Brown, has not tried very hard for what is considered the black side of town.

Supporters of his challenger, India Walton, pointed out that the mayor’s enthusiasm for bulldozing vacant buildings was excessive (his five-year plan of ‘a thousand a year’ ultimately totaled 8,000); in any case, it had no second act beyond some incongruous suburban-style housing here and there. The city’s poverty rate – about 30 percent, persistent across his tenure – is most starkly visible on the East Side (though hardly unique to it). Among black city residents the rate is 35 percent, three points higher than their rate of home ownership. A stinging report by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies comparing the state of black Buffalo in 1990 and the present, called ‘The Harder We Run’, concludes: ‘Everything changed, but everything remained the same.’ For some of us crossing town on broken pavement or riding laggardly buses, low-boil rage is a familiar emotion.

And yet, and yet …

Man in a wheelchair, on disability, in front of his group home off Broadway: ‘I don’t know about socialism, but I think the mayor’s done a good job. You look at the Medical Campus, it’s beautiful. Look at the waterfront, it’s beautiful.’

Retired housing cop, East Side homeowner: ‘I’ve got nothing against India Walton or her campaign. I’m for the mayor for three reasons: affirmative action (I remember what the police department was like before, okay?); property values (I bought my house fifteen years ago for $30,000, someone offered me $170,000 the other day, that’s $140,000 of wealth); and the waterfront (I mean, it’s beautiful).’

Less than two miles from the Debs Hall, the university’s Medical Campus and the expansion of hospitals and other medical facilities have generated jobs, optimism and angry battles over displacement and disrespect in the nearest, largely black residential community. On Main Street and its downtown environs, long-abandoned hotels, department stores and office buildings have been repurposed or are in the process, with apartments priced and designed mainly to attract a niche public: empty-nesters sick of their suburban baggage, young professionals attracted to the city’s craft beer and arts scene, medical workers and students, a few pro football players, notable because they’ve long been associated with suburban residency. The transformation is by turns welcome and aggravating: welcome because no one yearns for the time when a plastic bag blowing across Main Street could symbolize downtown; aggravating because of the revivalists’ apparent contentment with the clichés of inequity. Years of official rhetoric notwithstanding, there remains the reality of the child growing up in a landscape of destitution, crossing over to one of increasing plenty. Farther west on the lakefront, the Canal district offers the city a glimpse of its long-obscured Erie Canal history along with myriad pass-times. The Outer Harbor is for now a relatively unspoiled stretch of nature trails, parkland, marina and beach where on any given summer weekend Buffalo shows up in rainbow streaks: women in plaid shirts and cutoffs towing boats from the water, latin families grilling skirt steak, mixed couples kissing, black elders watching the sun set from folding chairs, women swathed in black reclining under trees with their children.

All of this development has been accomplished with public money on what in large part was or is public land. ‘Socialism for the rich’, Walton’s supporters sometimes said breezily. The bon mot is inadequate when socialism for everyone is ill defined; it seemed especially counterproductive here, given its note of derision in a political context where ‘socialism’ was deployed most often only to deride.

What the phrase discounted, grievously, was not only the full experience of people and place but also the shape-shifting emotional aspect of urban life, the feeling for the city, which doesn’t resolve the contradiction represented by the man in the wheelchair exalting the nice new things while foot-padding along a street deprived of any of them, but does help explain it. ‘I’m Josh’, he said twice to be sure I remembered his name. His friend Marcus was more critical of the incumbent mayor but similarly admiring of the waterfront. What their expressed pride tacitly acknowledged was a sense of ownership: the lake as ‘the wealth of the people’, in Chris Hawley’s phrase, once befouled, effectively privatized by steelworks, now recovered as a zone of pleasure.

Disconcertingly, this store of collective wealth did not figure much in anyone’s electioneering – even though grass-roots action had been critical in determining the shape of the waterfront’s recovery as a public asset; and developers, who’ve already taken their bites, are perched to take more and ruin it.

Kelly, campaign volunteer for Brown, middle-aged: ‘A free for all, that’s what I think when I hear the word, just unrealistic … I think some of it is very fair, like universal health care. But it’s undefined; I think enough people when they use the word don’t know what they’re talking about, including me.’


A column inch in the Buffalo Morning Express for November 6, 1919, reports that in the steel company town of Lackawanna, just south of the city line, the Socialist ticket’s candidate scored a surprise victory as mayor amidst heavy repression against striking steel workers; his first order of business, ‘re-establish free speech’. Until India Walton’s surprise primary victory, no one remembered John H. Gibbons. Few know anything about Anna Reinstein, whose name graces another library I used as a child, in a town just east of the city line – Anna, a Polish Jew, politically radical, a doctor who came to Buffalo in 1891 and began practicing gynaecology. When she was honoured in 1941 by the Erie County Medical Society for fifty years of practice, a local paper noted: ‘Incidentally, she is the wife of Boris Reinstein, a former Buffalo druggist, now a commissar in Russia.’ Chris Hawley has a photograph of Boris seated at Lenin’s elbow. ‘Incidentally’ is a nice touch. Boris left Buffalo to serve the revolution in 1917, and never returned. Anna was a member of Buffalo’s Communist Party when she was arrested with forty-two other party members in an anti-Red roundup in 1920. When, at the same time, eighty-three mostly immigrant alleged anarchists were arrested on the East Side and in surrounding towns, a left-wing paper ridiculed them for ‘phrase-radicalism’. Confusion about aims and definitions, an undisciplined language, only encouraged a crackdown, it argued. Clarity would unlikely have deterred police raids. The first Red Scare … The second Red Scare … Decoupling words from meaning is a tactic and legacy of hysteria. Anna and Boris’s children climbed the social ladder, the son buying up land and getting into development; they secured her name on the library, but sealed the archive of her letters and papers, which became available only in the 1990s.

Socialism, in the deceptively mystic serenity of the Eugene V. Debs Hall’s setting, is a reclamation project. Of place, first, and, with it, confidence in the neighbourhood’s future; of social bonds, frayed by post-industrial fragmenting processes; of local labour history for workers largely unmoored from it. The professed goal is to make a social space, a political and cultural space. In conviviality – the exchange of knowledge, the appreciation of experience, the practice of economic cooperation and mutual aid – the class might see itself, and begin to act for itself if only, as a start, through that act of seeing. Much depends on who will be seeing whom, and how.

The hall itself has a spare elegance. A high tin ceiling, a leaded glass transom across big front windows hand-painted with the hall’s name and Debsian red banner, the original dark-panelled wainscoting, the original patinaed bar and tables, a refinished floor which Hawley and friends uncovered from beneath layers of asbestos tile whose evidence is burned into a diamond pattern on the wood, the ghost of ages of spilled beer and dirty mop water seeping through the seams. Above the barback mirror a photograph of Debs is flanked by small black busts of FDR and Marx. Atop the gleaming Art Moderne cash register, a purely decorative effect, sits an unassuming cast iron bust of Debs in his prison clothes.

Try not to get nostalgic, I thought. Balancing past and present is a delicate business, not unique in a city where memory has been a balm against so much loss. ‘Sentimentality is the only reason we exist as a city’, Hawley says. ‘There’s no reason it’s survived except that people love the place.’ That is simultaneously true and not. Love may be a bet on the future, but all bets are not equal.

This part of the East Side, where some people clawed to stay alive and others settled because property was a bargain, is now an area ‘in transition’ because others volunteered to save one remarkable architectural landmark – the Central Terminal, whose 1929 Art Deco tower looms above the grassy flats – and still others have drawn up a redevelopment plan around it. After decades in the dark, the tower now lights up the night sky in dramatic colours. The plan for creating a Civic Commons around it strikes all the right notes until you get to the word ‘destination’. If history is a guide, the commons will be contested. Ironically, but that feels like the wrong word, in his official capacity Chris Hawley authored a new rezoning plan for the city that does not have inclusionary mandates for affordable housing. That was supposed to be worked out by the mayor, he says. ‘Development without displacement’, the cry of poor and working-class residents everywhere, may well be raised within shouting distance of the Debs Hall. Stripped of its disguise as a mark of shame, vacant land is also the wealth of the people.

Alexandria, activist, 19, immigrant from southern Sudan: ‘You know the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”; socialism means this to me. Buffalo is the child, and the people are the village who must raise it.’


Formally, the Debs Hall is a social club. Unlike taverns, Hawley discovered, non-profit social halls tend to survive their founders; he and the 250 founding members – who each contributed $250 to buy the property and, for that, get $1 off beer for life – take the long view. Membership is $10, ‘open to anyone who has an interest in the labour history of Buffalo or the United States’. There is no political litmus test. Hawley is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, as is India Walton – the plainest explanation for how socialism entered the discourse this political season. An outside wall of the building bears her portrait. (As the only member of city administration who’d backed her publicly, Hawley figured his support ought to be big so that if he were fired that would be big too.) The local DSA chapter meets there, as have the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and neighbourhood koi pond enthusiasts. Any community-based organization can book the hall for free. Walton’s canvassers converged there during the campaign. Volunteer bartenders encourage their networks to come out. Hawley has made presentations around the city about labour history and the hall to groups as obscure as the Greater Western New York Bottle Collectors Association. It is, he says, an explicitly socialist hall (the Connolly Forum in Troy, NY, may be the country’s only other) ‘because the ideas are still relevant … how to empower everyday working people to better their lives collectively.’ But ‘if you look at the old socialist halls, they weren’t sitting around all the time talking about socialism; they were interested in whatever the working class was interested in’.

Segregation, and not just by colour, splinters the nominative singular. It always has. The Walton campaign lost the election (out of inflated fears of socialism, ‘defund the police’ and inexperience), but in spotlighting poverty, land use and uneven development it succeeded in organizing a coalition that crossed barriers of colour, ethnicity, age, income, geography, education, national origin. It did not juice turnout on the East Side or ‘win the working class’, as some have reported, unless one wants to write out most of the city’s unions and all of Brown’s working-class voters, including the firefighters, police and other city workers in historically Irish South Buffalo, which powered his victory. But it felt like something new, as if the ground might be shifting. The Debs Hall is in a majority-white slice of a district that, overall, is 48 percent Asian (mainly Bangladeshi), 24 percent black, 8 percent latin and 13 percent white. Walton lost the district by about 650 votes. Almost 17 percent of the people in that white slice are officially poor, and as in the rest of the district, and the East Side, and the city, or anywhere actually, what it means to be poor is as open for political redefinition as what it means to be a socialist or even working class.

Back when John Gibbons became the region’s first and only Socialist mayor, to be a steel worker meant all the things it means to be poor today: to live always on edge and to die young, your housing substandard, the rent too high for your income, your education inadequate, your psychic and physical environment unhealthy. At the time of the great strike of 1919, steel work meant compulsory twenty-four hour shifts every other day. Organized labourers changed what it meant to be a worker by challenging and ultimately changing factory conditions. Henry Louis Taylor of UB’s Center for Urban Studies argues that the point of attack now is the set of ‘conditions that make some neighbourhoods the factories that produce low-wage workers’: change the conditions and so too what it means to be poor.

People tend not to recognize that workers died to change their conditions, died to ‘bring you the weekend’, as an old union slogan once put it. Maybe because work still leaves them poor, running behind, or because it’s absurd to think ‘dying for the weekend’ might ever have been meant literally. Maybe because, as for so many in this region who are linked by ancestry to vanished industry, death was normalized but collective struggle was not. My father’s father, who built the house not so far from the Labor Lyceum, was a railroad machinist: his lungs gave out in early middle age; his daughter died at 4 of diphtheria; a son was stillborn. I grew up with pictures of the dead, knowing my father assumed responsibility for the family at 17; it didn’t seem weird. My grandmother seemed happy. I think she was: my father became a tool and die maker and didn’t die young, and nor did his wife or his children, and nor did my grandmother, who was never alone. No one talked about historical context.

A century after the heyday of Labor Lyceums, socialism is fetishized, like democracy. As words, like any other, even the most abstract – ‘God’ comes to mind – they are animated only in practice, experience. It would be interesting to observe an election that prompted discussion about democracy. In Buffalo the incumbent mayor, so intimate with cronyism, might have had a problem with that one.

Hawley often begins telling people about Debs the man by saying he was imprisoned in 1920 for giving an anti-war speech and ran for president from behind bars. He begins telling about the Debs project’s first labour history memorial with the story of Casimer Mazurek, a 26-year-old decorated World War I veteran shot to death when Lackawanna Steel guards opened fire on 5,000 men, women and children on a picket line in the opening days of the great steel strike. In both cases, he reports, listeners are amazed. The many whose family histories intersect in some way with steel often know almost nothing beyond that convergence. A plaque, sponsored by the Debs Hall and the Area Labor Federation, sits propped against a wall in the tavern, awaiting deployment. When it is finally erected to commemorate the violence, the failed strike, and the success, twenty-two years later, of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at Bethlehem Steel, it will be the first public historic marker to recognize the labour history of Western New York.

Lola, university student, political science/pre-law, 19, at a picket line of striking hospital workers: ‘Socialism? It means you’re for the people.’

Jackie, her mother, gift shop manager: ‘I think the word, … I think it’s evolving.’

Read on: JoAnn Wypijewski, ‘Politics of Insecurity’, NLR 103.


Secret Destination

Part of what made Jean-Paul Sartre such an ineluctable figure in the cultural life of his time may be responsible for the subsequent waning of interest in his writings: their extraordinary range and forbidding quantity. Not only did Sartre achieve worldwide renown as a philosopher, a novelist, a playwright, even an idiosyncratic sort of biographer (though a book such as Saint Genet might be better described a nonfiction novel), but in each genre in which he triumphed – except for the theatre – Sartre subsequently threw himself into enterprises whose very scale seems to have been calculated to put his readers, and perhaps himself above all, to the test. The unwieldy quality of his greatest efforts, as much as the notorious dismissal of him as a late-arriving man of the nineteenth century by Michel Foucault, may account for Sartre’s eclipse.

Thus, Being and Nothingness, for all its brilliance in parts, was a baggy monster whose structure could have used judicious pruning. Today, it seems most valuable for its novelistic set-pieces; the tension between Sartre’s totalizing ambitions and his evocation of concrete experience gave an urgency to his thinking that keeps the book alive. Sartre’s second large philosophical work, his Critique of Dialectical Reason, meanwhile, was never completed, and has never really enjoyed a coherent reception. We can agree with István Mészáros that ‘there were some very good reasons why this project could never be brought anywhere near its promised completion’ that had to do with the impossibility of synthesizing abstraction and particularity, necessity and freedom.

Likewise, while Sartre’s first novel Nausea retains its canonical status, his post-war trilogy The Roads to Freedom, equally well received at the time, has receded in importance, perhaps because its elaborate structure exposes more blatantly the problem typical of the novel of ideas, namely a constricting overdetermination that prevents form and content from keeping in sync. As Sianne Ngai recently put it, the genre ‘tends to short-circuit or dissipate the tension between story and discourse that makes narrative so inexhaustibly rich’. (That The Roads to Freedom is not among the dozen examples in her Theory of the Gimmick is yet more evidence that the series has mostly faded from view.) Here, too, we must note that this was also a grand project left unfinished; Sartre intended not a trilogy but a quartet. As with the second volume of the Critique, the remains of the fourth novel were published posthumously.

And then there’s biography. Having written a major book on Jean Genet as well as the autobiographical The Words, Sartre began and abandoned studies of Mallarmé and Tintoretto, though both resulted in published essays, and finally undertook more than a decade of work on The Family Idiot, a vast immersion in the life of Flaubert that, after five volumes, nonetheless remained incomplete. It was, as Fredric Jameson noted when the translation into English commenced, ‘at first glance so cumbersome and forbidding a project’ – and so it has remained after successive glances. In the published fragment of his projected book on Tintoretto, Sartre briefly compares the workaholic Venetian painter, for whom ‘no campo was too vast, no sotto portico too obscure for him not to wish to adorn them’, to ‘another glutton for work, Michelangelo’, who regularly ‘grew disgusted, beginning a work, which he would abandon, unfinished. Tintoretto always finished everything, with the terrifying application of a man determined to complete his sentence’. Sartre, one might say, was a Michelangelo of prose. But he was Tintorettesque at least in this: ‘It is hard to decide whether he was trying to find or flee himself through his work’.

Perhaps there’s another way to approach Sartre’s oeuvre, one that brackets, at least temporarily, the urge to an impossible totalization that ran his greatest projects aground – through his essays, which he collected in ten numbered volumes under the rubric Situations. It’s as if the partial, fragmentary perspectives the essay allows made that genre the secret destination of Sartre’s totalizing projects. The resourceful Seagull Books, which published three hardcover collections of his essays in translations by Chris Turner a decade ago, has recently repackaged them in a dozen slender paperbacks: On Bataille and Blanchot, On Camus, On Poetry, On Revolution, and so on. Sartre’s essays have often been translated before, but these editions represent the most comprehensive gathering available in English, far more copious than the nearest competition, the volume published in 2013 by New York Review Books under the title We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939-1975.

As an art critic, I was most attracted, among the new Seagull paperbacks, to volume seven, On Modern Art. All the more so because the essays it contains were mostly unfamiliar to me; I’d early on let myself be warned off Sartre’s writings on art by a denunciation that turns out to have been false. More about that later. On Modern Art contains half a dozen pieces on artists who were more or less Sartre’s contemporaries and who like him lived in Paris – which is to say that they are all clearly the fruit of personal acquaintance and not just familiarity with the artists’ work. Two of the essays are on Alberto Giacometti ­­– as sculptor and painter – and the others are on Alexander Calder, André Masson, the German painter and photographer Wols, and the now forgotten painter Robert Lapoujade. All but those on Wols and Lapoujade were previously translated in the 1960s. I should perhaps add that there are some stray occasional writings on artists that were not included in the French Situations – I know of texts on David Hare and Paul Rebeyrolle – and it’s a shame that none of these have been included. (The Tintoretto essay can be found in Seagull’s volume six, Venice and Rome.)

The Anglophone art world, should it happen to take notice of this collection, is bound to be surprised, and not only because, behind the times as usual, it may still be under the spell of Foucault’s repudiation. The last it heard of Sartre in any authoritative way was back in 1986, when – under the guise of a review in October of Hubert Damisch’s book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou, Les dessous de la peinture (1984) – Yve-Alain Bois published a manifesto of sorts for his own structuralist-inflected form of art history, whose significance was emphasized when Bois took its title for the influential book he would publish four years later, Painting as Model. What Bois, following Damisch, set his face against was ‘that typically French genre, inaugurated on the one hand by Baudelaire and on the other probably by Sartre, of the text about art by a literary writer or philosopher, each doing his little number, a seemingly obligatory exercise in France if one is to reach the pantheon of letters.’

Disdain for the supposedly superficial and dilettantish nature of ‘literary’ art criticism is an age-old theme, but Bois had a more specific charge to lodge against Sartre. This stemmed not from his writing about artists but from his philosophy, specifically, his early work The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. According to the Bois/Damisch reading of Sartre’s aesthetic, based on the latter’s analysis of the image, ‘a portrait, a landscape, a form only allows itself to be recognized in painting insofar as we cease to view the painting for what it is, materially speaking, and insofar as consciousness steps back in relation to reality to produce as an image the object represented’. As a consequence ‘Sartre’s aesthetic is an aesthetic of mimesis, in the most traditional sense of the word’. For this reason, Sartre becomes the bogey man thanks to whose influence generations of historians and critics have taken abstract paintings as oblique representations.

Even if this were indeed a consequence of Sartre’s thought, it is self-evidently not the necessary or most obvious one. It’s clear that every understanding of a representational painting depends on a consciousness of the dichotomy between the painted image and its material substrate: that’s why a painting is not a hallucination, and why admirers of representational art acclaim the skill of a painter who conjures a vivid and telling resemblance. Does Sartre ignore the materiality of the art object? – he who proclaims that ‘the serious changes in all the arts are material first and the form comes last: it is the quintessence of matter’? But for consciousness to recognize a work of art, it has to form a mental representation of the physical thing – and this is the case whether or not the work itself depicts something.

In any case, the artwork is subject to what Sartre calls ‘the great “irrealizing” function of consciousness’. It is only in my mind that a painting by Mondrian becomes a work of art, not on the wall. As Sartre writes of Lapoujade, though the statement counts for Sartre as a general truth, ‘the paths traced out by the painter for our eyes are paths that we must find and undertake to travel along; it is up to us to embrace these sudden expansions of colour, these condensings of matter; we must stir up echoes and rhythms’. Seeing the street grid or subway map of New York in Broadway Boogie Woogie is one way to do this, but so is seeing the painting as home to what Damisch calls ‘some more secret activity of consciousness, an activity by definition without assignable end’, such as Bois’s passion for finding the expression of a model or system – remember that he is from the generation that followed the path of which Foucault was one of the pioneers.

The collection in fact offers abundant proof that Sartre’s method had nothing to do with a reduction of the artwork to what it might offer an image of. Consider his essay on Calder’s mobiles. How does he characterize these? Mainly through metaphor: ‘a little local fiesta; an object defined by its movement and non-existent without it; a flower that withers as soon as it comes to a standstill; a pure stream of movement in the same way as there are pure streams of light’. Do I really need to point out that he does not say that a mobile is really a picture of a festival, or of a flower, or of a stream? With the fiesta the mobile shares its multiplicity, with the blossom its temporality, the sense of gradual opening up; with the running brook its identity in motion. The sculpture functions, not representationally, but affectively. And Sartre affirms this: ‘His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes.’

The nonreferential absolute was for Sartre the destiny of the artwork. Remember that he rejected the age-old ut pictura poesis: for him, writing was an affair of meaning, of ideas, while painting (representational or abstract), like music, was a matter of things. Thus, we read in ‘What Is Writing?’: ‘For the artist, the colour, the bouquet, the tinkling of the spoon on the saucer, are things, in the highest degree. He stops at the quality of the sound or the form…It is this colour-object that he is going to transfer to his canvas, and the only modification he will make it undergo is that he will transform it into an imaginary object.’ The wonder of Calder’s mobiles, in Sartre’s eyes, was that, with their movements caused by random breezes, they were neither lifelike nor mechanical, but unpredictable and therefore, in a sense, unknowable.

It’s curious that these mobiles are the only works that Sartre describes without trying to fathom why the artist made them as they are. For Sartre, art writing is more a subcategory of biographical writings than criticism. It’s a mistake to believe that he does not look at the paintings or the sculpture. But he believes that understanding them has nothing to do with pretending they are constellations of forms that simply appeared suddenly on a wall as if decreed by nature. Each one was made by someone, and for a reason. To understand the artist’s project is the way toward a deeper, less arbitrary engagement with the work. He therefore begins his essay on Giacometti’s sculpture, not by looking at a bronze in a gallery, or even a plaster in the artist’s studio, but rather by looking at ‘Giacometti’s antediluvian face…’ Sartre is going to assume this oeuvre amounts to a sort of portrait of the artist, but not in any representational sense. He does not presume to find an image of this face in each of Giacometti’s figures. Rather, he is attempting to follow the path of a man who looks, incessantly, at faces: ‘I know no one else so sensitive as he to the magic of faces and gestures’. Giacometti begins from what he sees, but what he tries to extract is not a depiction. ‘For him, to sculpt is to trim the fat from space’; ‘he would like the canvas to be like still water and us to see his figures in the picture the way Rimbaud saw a drawing room in a lake – showing through it’. Giacometti in search of his image is like Achilles trying to catch up with the tortoise; the only image turns out to be the successive traces of motion toward an unattainable proximity.

Of these different artists, it’s evident that Giacometti is the one who most fascinated Sartre. That’s because Giacometti was the most purely a wordless phenomenologist. He’s also undoubtedly the one of whom posterity has, so far, confirmed Sartre’s high regard. And yet to understand Sartre as an art writer, it might make more sense to attend to what he wrote about a painter who means nothing today, about whom one has no opinions, no preconceptions. The 1961 exhibition of Lapoujade’s work that attracted Sartre’s attention was titled, worryingly enough, Peintures sur le thème des Emeutes, Tryptique sur la torture, Hiroshima (Paintings on the Theme of Riots, Triptych on Torture, Hiroshima). One immediately imagines the flayed and tormented figures, but no, Sartre explains, ‘figurative art wasn’t appropriate for manifesting these presences’, and ‘Lapoujade, obeying the very demands of “abstraction”, achieved what the figurative has never managed to pull off’. Without representing the figure, the painting itself, as such and in its very beauty, conjures a presence, that of suffering flesh. How does Lapoujade achieve such a thing? Sartre does not try to describe the paintings, only to convey a sense of their material complexity – ‘Compact in places, rarefied in others, laid on thick at times and liquid at others, the matter of the painting doesn’t claim to make the invisible visible….By its texture and its itineraries, it merely suggests’ – and also of the effort of which they are the outcome, the project of an artist ‘who has reduced painting to the sumptuous austerity of its essence’. But the individual painting never makes an appearance; we cannot answer the question, ‘What does it look like?’

Perhaps, for Sartre, it hardly matters. He is far more concerned with what the painting is meant to do for the person who makes it than for the one who looks at it. ‘It’s the true rapport of the artist with the imaginary which is the work of art’, Sartre once told an interviewer. And the rapport of the viewer? That remains unexplained. Does Sartre cheat us, in some degree, out of the description of the artwork, the ekphrasis we may feel he owes us, when he would only undertake such a thing in an effort to articulate the necessity that drove the painter to resort to that form and not some other? Is there some evasion in his being less fascinated by paintings, finally, than he is by painting – less by what has been made than by the act of making it? Before rendering a judgement, one might seek to act as he said we should with Tintoretto: ‘Oh you lofty, troubled souls, who use the dead to edify the living, and above all, to edify yourselves, try, if you can, to find in his excesses, the shining proof of his passion.’

Read on: Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Marxism and Subjectivity’, NLR 88. 


Balkan Reversal

Until recently, in Washington and in Brussels, North Macedonia was considered a Euro-Atlantic success story. The country of two million people – the only republic of the former Yugoslavia that saw no violence during the 1990s – had managed to overthrow the conservative nationalist government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for National Unity) after a decade in power. In 2017, Gruevski’s place was taken by Zoran Zaev, the mayor of the agricultural city of Strumica and leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or the SDSM, the successor of the state-socialist League of Communists of Macedonia. Zaev’s new Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, was on exceptionally friendly terms with the US Embassy; he had served as National Coordinator for NATO Integration under Gruevski, and embassy cables revealed that he had worked for years as a CIA protected source.

Two successive protest movements – Protestiram in 2015 and the Colorful Revolution in 2016 – had elevated a number of telegenic youth activists from the streets to positions in the SDSM government, promising hope and change. An anti-corruption campaign was launched to deal with the cases generated by Gruevski’s graft-riddled reign. After the SDSM rechristened the country ‘North Macedonia’ in 2018 (ending a long-running feud with Greece, which claims the name ‘Macedonia’ as its own), Athens dropped its objection to the country’s NATO membership, and in March 2020 the Atlantic alliance welcomed its newest member. EU accession was next on the agenda.

But relatively quickly, the hopeful glow that had haloed Zaev and the SDSM began to fade. Last month’s local elections revealed the depth of public disenchantment. Zaev’s party went into the ballot holding 57 municipalities while the VMRO-DPMNE had just 5. After the vote, the SDSM hung onto 16; VMRO secured 42. The remaining 15 municipalities went to Albanian parties. The poll has been widely interpreted as a verdict on the SDSM’s tenure, and the latest surveys conducted by the Institute for Political Research Skopje (IPIS) reveal that the party is fast losing support at national level: 22.5% of respondents said they would vote for VMRO-DPMNE if parliamentary elections were held next week, while 17.5% said they would vote for the SDSM. 

The disastrous result marked the onset of a new crisis in North Macedonia. Zaev, who pledged to resign if his party lost the capital of Skopje in the second round, reneged on his promise. This triggered a bizarre cascade of events in which the opposition accused the government of kidnapping an MP from the Albanian party, Besa, in order to prevent him from participating in a planned no-confidence vote against Zaev. One week later, Zaev appeared to have changed his mind again, declaring that he would resign and appoint a new leader to head the SDSM. He has encouraged pro-EU MPs to stick with his party; yet since Bulgaria vetoed the country’s accession in 2020 – citing disputes over language, history and minority rights – there has been no viable plan to initiate negotiations with the bloc. 

It’s worth examining how the SDSM arrived at this low point. Few parties in the Balkans have received such effusive praise from Western diplomats, thinktanks and media outlets; and few have disappointed so thoroughly. It must first be stressed that the party inherited a country in disarray, reeling from a decade of dictatorship, illiquidity, a collective identity crisis and corruption on a vast, almost awe-inspiring scale. When Gruevski first came to power in 2006, the US and EU lauded his commitment to neoliberal adjustment and NATO membership. But the warm relationship soured at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, when Greece vetoed the country’s entry to the Atlantic compact: a moment of humiliation that reportedly prompted Gruevski to turn away from the West.

That same year, the global financial crisis provided a new path for the PM. Gruevski’s market-friendly reforms, along with a sophisticated government PR campaign, managed to seduce international investors. ‘While the architecture of global liquidity crumbled,’ writes Fabio Mattioli in Dark Finance (2020), ‘the Macedonian government found itself able to access investments from actors interested in diversifying their portfolios or committed to preventing a Balkan-wide contagion of the debt crisis that had begun to wreak havoc in Greece.’

Much of the new public debt was channelled into mass construction projects, most ostentatiously ‘Skopje 2014’, which cost at least 683 million euros and transformed the capital into a giant open-air museum of bronze nationalist statues and incongruous neo-baroque and neo-classical buildings. Skopje now looks like a kitsch hybrid of a Central Asian capital, a Balkan Las Vegas and Macedonian-nationalist Disneyland. The ​​pièce de résistance of Skopje 2014 is the 35-meter statue of Alexander the Great atop a horse in the city’s main square. Sometimes, during the Gruevski years, surrounding speakers blasted Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ as dancing fountains pulsed in time.

Gruevski’s remaking of the city allowed him to achieve a crucial political objective. The SDSM, having overseen the country’s privatization process during the 1990s, when socially-owned enterprises were sold to private investors at an average of 6.5% of their estimated value, had long been favoured by the country’s oligarchs. But in Skopje 2014, Gruevski found a means to purchase the support of such interests, offering lucrative contracts for domestic businesses which, by turning Skopje into a ‘world-class city’, began to attract finance from abroad. While Skopje 2014 was detested by the middle classes, it proved popular among lower-income workers. The speculative building spree expanded access to housing through a variety of credit schemes and kept employment levels high in the construction sector.

But Gruevski’s cross-class coalition was not to last. Details of the criminal machinations behind the urban renewal plan began to emerge after tape recordings of backroom deals were passed to Zaev (allegedly by disgruntled secret policemen, although Gruevski claims that foreign intelligence agencies were involved). Zaev, who subsequently began holding press conferences and sharing the recordings with the public, quickly became the face of the opposition and mass protests filled the streets, drawing crowds of up to 30,000 in Skopje during the late spring of 2016. 

Cue significant interest from Western governments, particularly the US, which saw an opening amid the public dissatisfaction with Gruevski. The PM and other hardline nationalists had long opposed any change to the country’s name to appease Greece – an intransigence that rendered NATO membership out of reach. As tensions with Russia flared over Ukraine, eastward expansion became an urgent priority for Washington – and Gruevski, an obstacle. There was also long-held optimism that resolution of the name dispute would have knock-on benefits for the entire region, where issues of contested history or territory still linger in Cyprus, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo. 

At the height of the demonstrations, the United States’ Office of Transition Initiatives – a branch of USAID – opened an outfit in North Macedonia. The OTI was established in 1994 to ‘support U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners advance peace and democracy in priority countries in crisis’ (for which read: facilitate regime change). VMRO supporters soon discovered that the OTI programme was supporting the same network of NGOs and media outlets as George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, and that there was a significant overlap between the employees of these US-funded NGOs and the activists leading anti-Gruevski protests on the streets of Skopje. A ‘Stop Soros’ campaign was launched, drawing support from some Republican Senators in the US. In March 2017, six of them wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:

Unfortunately, we have heard credible reports that, over the past two years, the U.S. Mission to Macedonia has actively intervened in the party politics of Macedonia, as well as in the shaping of its media environment and civil society, in an improperly partisan manner, one that, directly and indirectly, has influenced the outcome of elections in Macedonia. 

The US Embassy in Skopje denied such allegations but made little effort to conceal Washington’s priorities. In an email to me at the time, embassy spokesperson Laura Brown wrote that ‘Macedonia’s four major political parties requested the EU and the US government help Macedonia move past its political crisis’. ‘Our policy’, she continued, ‘is to support Macedonia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions as a resilient, prosperous, and inclusive democracy, developing economically.’

This was not the only instance of foreign political support flowing into the country. In 2016, with Gruevski still clinging onto power, the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SJO) opened with much fanfare. The SJO would, in the words of then Ambassador Wouter Plomp of the Netherlands, ‘establish accountability for past wrongdoings revealed by the wiretaps’. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the SJO to the tune of 649,990 euros. Its three chief prosecutors, Katica Janeva, Lence Ristoska, and Fatime Fetai, received the endorsement of top European officials, as well as fawning coverage from Western media, with the BBC calling them ‘the real crime-fighting Charlie’s Angels’.

Despite the ongoing corruption investigations, the VMRO managed to eke out a narrow victory in the December 2016 snap parliamentary elections. Gruevski’s party won 51 seats while the SDSM took 49. In the aftermath, however, the VMRO struggled to form a coalition, and the SDSM – with rumoured behind-the-scenes support from Western embassies – successfully courted the country’s largest Albanian party and long-time kingmaker, the DUI. VMRO supporters were determined to obstruct the frail new coalition. In an April 2017 parliamentary session to initiate the formation of the new government, a small nationalist mob stormed the Sobranie. Zaev and three other MPs received mild injuries during the ensuing confrontation. Images of a bloodied Zaev went viral, but the drama ended there. There was no coup or renewed Balkan conflict. The Gruevski regime, which once seemed ingrained in every fibre of the country – every phone call, every illegal transaction – finally crumbled like cheap plaster. 

It was a heady moment for the SDSM, yet the elation and relief were short lived. In 2018, the SJO launched a major investigation under the codename ‘Empire’. One of its suspects was Jordan Kamchev – recently named North Macedonia’s richest man – whose reported net worth of 228 million euros was allegedly earned through fraud and money laundering. It turned out that Kamchev had friends in high places. The businessman had reportedly turned to Boki 13, a flamboyantly dressed pop star with cheeks and lips cemented in filler, in an effort to secure lenient treatment from the SPO. Boki 13 had ties to the upper-echelons of the SDSM; in one leaked taped recording he claimed to have direct links to Zaev himself. Kamchev allegedly paid Boki 13 at least 1.5 million euros in cash in an effort to avoid a harsh prison sentence. Janeva, one of the ‘Charlies Angels’ prosecutors, was charged with taking a 50,000 euro bribe from Kamchev. The tabloid-ready scandal dealt a spectacular blow to the credibility of both the SJO and the new government.

Hopes for the SDSM atrophied further in September 2018, when the country organized a referendum on whether to change its name as required for Euro-Atlantic integration. Under the slogan ‘Never North’, the majority of voters boycotted the vote, whose participation rate stood at just 36%. Although this fell far short of the 50% required to legitimize the results, the SDSM nonetheless declared the referendum a victory and pushed through the name-change – prompting widespread disenchantment with the democratic process and crystallizing the image of the SDSM as a conduit for Western interests. 

During its 2017 election campaign, SDSM supporters claimed that Zaev would ameliorate poverty and increase living standards. Zaev played up his humble origins in the southeastern provinces and his early life as a manual labourer. A new Personal Income Tax Law, ratified in January 2019, was supposed to introduce a progressive tax code affecting only the richest 1% of citizens. Yet less than a year later the Ministry of Finance released a twenty-page policy paper explaining its decision to roll back this modest reform. The Ministry cited widespread tax evasion, yet the real reason for the volte-face was clear enough. As a report by the European Commission concluded, the decision was taken to ‘buffer the angry sentiments of the business community’. The Minister of Finance Dragan Tevdovski, widely seen as leading the pro-welfare wing of the SDSM, was removed from office despite enjoying one of the highest approval ratings of anyone in government. Zaev, whose attempt to assume the role himself was deemed unconstitutional, instead appointed Nina Angelovska, a young e-commerce entrepreneur and opponent of Tevdovski’s modest redistributionist policies. Angelovska was in turn replaced by Fatmir Besimi, who had served as Minister of Economy under Gruevski – undermining any pretence that the SDSM had broken with the previous administration.

A series of recent disasters have further damaged the government’s credentials. Last September, a fire at a new hospital built to treat Covid patients in Tetovo killed 14 people. In the aftermath, it emerged that the company contracted to build the hospital was owned by Koco Angjusev, a notoriously corrupt businessman and Zaev’s former Deputy Prime Minister. An investigation concluded that the fire had occurred due to a faulty defibrillator. Predictably, no one was held accountable. Health Minister Venko Filipče tendered his resignation and had it summarily rejected by Zaev.

Then, on 9 November, while the public was fixated on the post-election fallout, the government quietly declared a ‘30-day state of crisis’ in the energy sector. To meet its daily electricity needs, the country has been forced to draw on European energy supplies and racked up a sizable debt. Dramatic measures have since been introduced to curb consumption: Christmas lights have been cancelled in most towns across the country, and a new decree outlines criteria for reducing the lighting of streets, squares and other buildings to a ‘minimum safety level’. In recent months the REK Bitola coal plant, which generates 75% of the country’s electricity and dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide, has been the site of numerous fires. It is difficult to view the SDSM as a modernizing force when they have plunged the country into darkness.

With North Macedonia still mired in multiple crises, three potential outcomes have been forecast for the months ahead. In the first, the current SDSM-led majority stays but with a new leader entirely subordinate to Zaev. In the second, favoured by the VMRO, snap elections are called, with the requisite 120 days allotted to organize elections in the middle of unprecedented health and energy crises. In the third, the current majority simply collapses and opposition parties attempt to form a new coalition. The precise parameters of North Macedonia’s future are uncertain. What is clear is that the country’s once-bright Euro-Atlantic future now looks distant and dim. 

Read on: Peter Gowan ‘The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy’, NLR I/234.