Extremist?

I: Introduction

A week or two before I began writing out the first draft of this blog post, I received a snarky comment from an obvious right-winger who described me as an “extremist” Marxist. The comment, since deleted (apart from its snark, it doesn’t deserve to be dignified by being allowed to continue existing, for reasons I’ll go into soon enough), was on my analysis of The Last of Sheila, in which my criticisms of capitalism are far from extremist; though to many right-wingers (the extremists of their camp in particular), any criticisms, even the mildest, are deemed “extremist.”

Granted, he may have also read other blog posts of mine, such as my analysis of Conan the Barbarian, in which I go further in my capitalist critique, and take the obviously controversial position of defending such communist leaders as Stalin and Mao. Now, if my right-wing friend–‘right-wing,’ because only someone of that political persuasion would think that calling me a “commie” is an insult–had made his comment on the Conan post rather than the Sheila one, his labelling of me as an “extremist” might, from a politically mainstream point of view, have at least some validity. Instead, he chose to make his comment on a post with only moderately anti-capitalist remarks.

I must ask: why call me on “extremist” on the Sheila post–if that’s all he’d read of me–and not the Conan one, or any of the many others where I present my admittedly hard-left stance? Since my political position is controversial, I am compelled to back up my arguments with a flood of links. A clue to his choice to be snarky on the Sheila post could be found in a careless error I made in the opening paragraphs (since corrected, naturally, and so for that, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him): I misspelled Raquel Welch’s surname as “Welsh”…twice! (Oops! I actually made a similar mistake, in my analysis of Tommy, in misspelling Ann-Margret [again, corrected]; I’m going to have to be more careful with future posts!)

Could it be that the only way he could confidently point out a “Gotcha!” was to hit me with a petty spelling mistake? After all, the realm of politics is a nebulous one, in which pointing out the errors of one’s ideological foes isn’t so clear-cut. An appeal to popular opinion, one based on decades of anti-communist propaganda (which, if you’ve read enough of my writing, Dear Reader, you’ll know doesn’t impress me at all), combined with a spelling “Gotcha!”, is apparently the best my butt-hurt commenter could do.

Nonetheless, it seems that it’s time for me once again to defend my political stance, since people like him never stop coming out of the woodwork. So in the following paragraphs, I will attempt not only to justify my defence of Stalin, Mao, and the other socialist leaders, but also to prove that, on the contrary, it is the right-wingers who are the extremists. In fact, given the aggravation of the neoliberal agenda over the past few decades, even defenders of the mainstream liberal status quo can be legitimately called extremist, as I will also try to prove.

II: A General Defence of Socialism

Let’s start by asking and answering a simple question: what does a socialist want? We can then look at the following list of answers and determine whether or not it’s “extremist.”

–the means of production are controlled by the workers
private property is abolished
–commodities are produced to provide for everyone
elimination of class differences, leading to
–…no more centralized state monopoly on power, and…
–…no more money (i.e., replaced with a gift economy)
–an end to imperialism and all the wars it causes
–an end to the huge gap between the rich and the poor
–an end to global hunger in the Third World
–free universal health care
–free education for all, up to university, ending illiteracy
–housing for all
–equal rights for women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people
–employment for all, with decent remuneration and hours
–a social safety net in case of job loss

The capitalist is the only one who will find this list of goals objectionable, since implementing it will cut into, if not totally obliterate, his profits. He’ll also rationalize his objection to it by claiming its implementation to be impractical and unrealistic.

Actually, a study of the achievements of the USSR, China under Mao, Cuba, and the other socialist states of the 20th century will show that many, if not most or even all, of these goals were either fully achieved, or at least great progress was made towards achieving them, though you wouldn’t know that to read the lies of the right-wing propagandists who endlessly quack about how “socialism doesn’t work.”

Many workers’ co-ops have been achieved in otherwise capitalist societies, and they have not only survived, but they have often thrived. Private property (factories, farms, office buildings, stores, apartment buildings, real estate, etc.) already isn’t owned by the vast majority of the population; we just want to bump that small percentage down to 0%, so everyone can share all of it. (And no, your toothbrush, cellphone, TV, car, and underwear are not private property–they’re personal possessions. You don’t profit off of them, and you don’t exploit workers with them, so we “commies” don’t want to force you to share them. Please don’t hand me that idiotic argument!)

Capitalism arranges the production of commodities to make profits; communists want them to be made to provide everyone with what he or she needshow is this a bad thing? Right-wingers claim that we can’t afford to make this change, yet billion-dollar spending in the US military, causing a sky-high deficit, is somehow workable. Our billionaire and centi-billionaire class could use their combined money to feed the world, build schools and hospitals–all well-equipped and with well-trained staff–provide affordable, if not outright free, housing, clean up the Earth, and provide well-paying jobs…but they don’t. They’d rather fly rockets out into space. Small wonder so many of us on the left dream of sticking the heads of the superrich in the guillotine (Egad!…how extremist of me!).

Right-wing libertarians fetishize the elimination of the ever-intrusive state, yet they fail to understand that the whole purpose of government is, as Lenin observed in The State and Revolution, to protect the interests of one class at the expense of the other. Usually, it’s the bourgeoisie whose interests are protected by the state, while the proletariat is held down; only in the socialist states established in the 20th century, the workers’ states, were the classes’ positions reversed. Because such a protection of class interests is the raison d’être of the state, its elimination will be possible only with the elimination of those class differences, which must remain as long as capitalism exists to preserve them. The socialist state exists only as a transitional phase, causing the class differences to fade away, before the state can totally wither away…the libertarian dream, in all irony!

The socialist states of the 20th century were working hard to bring about that withering away of the state; Stalin as a committed Marxist-Leninist wanted to move ahead with that after the end of WWII, except that the reactionary traitors hiding in his government were at work thwarting his plans. These fifth columns within had their equivalents from without: the imperialists, who were doing all in their power to reverse the gains of the socialists and bring back capitalism to the entire world. It wasn’t that Stalin didn’t want the state to wither away, it’s just that internal and external factors made that withering away unattainable in his lifetime.

The evils of modern empire are a particular bane to socialists; for this reason, it isn’t enough just to be a Marxist–one must be a Marxist-Leninist and oppose imperialism, in its US/NATO incarnation ever since 1949 and metastasizing especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. How is opposing the depredations of empire “extremist”? Was the rebel alliance of Star Wars “extremist”?

III: Aggravation of Class Struggle

We Marxist-Leninists hear this tiresome series of accusations over and over again: the socialist states of the 20th century were tyrannical, totalitarian nightmares to live in; their leaders were psychopathic, genocidal maniacs who lusted after power; and they tried to ram an unattainable, utopian fantasy world down the throats of an unwilling public. Yawn.

When we try to defend our ideology, we are dismissed for spewing “tankie” propaganda against the ‘moderate’ and ‘objective’ historical analysis of mainstream liberals and conservatives. We, apparently, are the biased ones, who can’t accept that ours was ‘the god that failed,’ not them. We, apparently, have an ideological axe to grind, not them. Yawn.

First of all, let’s be fair here: there’s no such thing as objectivity in politics. Those mainstream political analysts very much have an ideological axe of their own to grind, namely, the defence of the class system that privileges them at the expense of the working class and the global poor (the only substantive difference between the liberal and conservative camps of this mainstream is that the former will tolerate more taxes on the rich, while the latter won’t, because the former are more willing to spend on social programs, while the latter are less so).

Second, the neoconservatism/neoliberalism they have been defending (to varying degrees) for the past forty years is also a god that has failed; it is, in fact, a much more failed god than communism could ever have been. Capitalism, particularly in its present form, has been nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. It’s so bad that its defenders insist that it isn’t ‘true capitalism,’ but ‘corporatism,’ for the only true capitalism is the ‘free market.’

Third, anti-communist critics are way too overconfident in the sources they rely on. These sources were the propagandistic product of the Cold War. It’s often said that in any war, hot or cold, the first casualty is the truth. This is especially true of anti-communist Cold War propaganda. History is written by the winners; in fact, in the early 1990s, history was even ‘ended’ by the winners.

Though it isn’t well-known by the general public, most of the sources of anti-communist propaganda are laughably inadequate in terms of facts. I refer to such dubious sources as Robert Conquest, The Black Book of Communism, Mao: The Untold Story, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Leon Trotsky, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Djilas, and Nazi propaganda. You can click on the links for criticisms of these various writers, but to put it briefly, they essentially wrote fiction, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically.

My fourth and final, but by far most important, point is that none of the above writers’ critiques adequately, if at all, take into consideration the enormous pressures put on the socialist states to restore capitalism, making revolution to have been all in vain. Capitalists disingenuously claim that their economic system involves no coercion: if you don’t like your job, you can quit and find another (no thought is given to the fact that for most workers, almost every other job they’re qualified for, if it’s even available, is hardly any better, and often worse…some choice!). Socialism, apparently, has a monopoly on state coercion.

Such an obtuse generalization ignores the history of 20th century socialism right from its inception in the Russian Revolution, almost immediately after which came the Russian Civil War, during which armies from all over invaded Russia in an abortive attempt to force capitalism back on the Russian workers and peasants.

Now, Russia won that war, but at great cost. Not only did many on their side die from the war, but also of starvation resulting from the war’s privation and from another of pre-industrial Russia’s many bad harvests. These are the kinds of difficulties that force many communist parties to become authoritarian: with the threat of future invasions or other forms of counterrevolutionary subterfuge, leaders like the Bolsheviks found it necessary to end all sectarian bickering to ensure the steady sailing of the Soviet ship through treacherous waters.

An article on Stalin I found in the bourgeois media, which is of course heavily biased against him (and against Putin, by the way), nonetheless has the surprising decency to acknowledge how misunderstood he’s always been. It admits that, contrary to popular belief, Stalin wasn’t motivated by a mad lust for power (he incidentally tried to resign as General Secretary four times), but was genuinely committed to implementing Marxism-Leninism. (It also acknowledges that the death count of the Great Purge of the mid-to-late 1930s was far lower than the right-wing propagandists would have us believe.)

The article acknowledges the genuine fear that Stalin and the Soviets had of more attempts by the international bourgeoisie to restore capitalism, either by force or by cunning, but what the article gets wrong (or…what it fabricates?) is that these fears were largely unfounded. Just because the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union wouldn’t happen until 1941 doesn’t mean the Russian communists had little, if anything, to fear during the intervening years. The failure of European socialist revolutions in the late 1910s and early 1920s was the tip of the iceberg.

Socialism in One Country, an idea that started not with Stalin but had precedence in Lenin, meant focusing, for the time being, on a defence of the USSR against the very real possibility of future invasions. For fascism, a true form of violent political extremism and an outgrowth of capitalism, was emerging not only in Italy and Germany but also in a number of other European countries in the 1920s and 1930s.

Fascism, properly understood, is the ugly face of capitalism, once the liberal veil of politeness has been removed. Capitalists only pretend to care about freedom and democracy; as long as their class interests are secure, they wear the liberal smile. Threaten the security of their class privileges, though, as the Soviet Union had done in the early 1920s, and the capitalists get tough–hence, fascism.

Such contradictions as that between communism and fascism necessitate the aggravation of class struggle. This inevitably leads to communist leaders having to make harsh decisions. These harsh decisions, in turn, have a distorting effect on socialism.

If we had our way, unimpeded, we communists would just have focused on realizing that list of goals I outlined above at the beginning of Part II. The global bourgeoisie, however, has to this day been so relentless in forcing the imperialist agenda on everyone, thwarting almost all attempts at socialist gains, that we’re forced to react to their extreme. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: capitalist harshness results in communist harshness. In my heart, I don’t like violence; but it isn’t a question of liking it–we simply have no choice in the matter.

It is naïvely assumed that the unjust executions of the Great Purge were the responsibility of Stalin, whose ‘stubborn’ devotion to ‘utopia’ wouldn’t tolerate mere ‘political dissent.’ Speaking of traitors and conspiracies conjures up images of a paranoid Soviet government. It’s paranoia, however, only if the suspicions are ill-founded.

First of all, the bulk of the unjust imprisonments and executions of the Great Purge were not Stalin’s fault, but were rather the fault of the likes of Nikolai Yezhov, the quisling head of the NKVD whose treasonous persecution of innocent Soviets and pardoning of genuine traitors wasn’t even realized by Stalin (who as leader of the gigantic USSR couldn’t be expected to have omniscience over the goings-on of every department to which he’d delegated authority) until much later.

Capitalists narcissistically assume most people agree with them, and so the ‘victims of communism’ are supposedly just regular people. Of those punished legitimately for counterrevolution, these capitalist sympathizers–kulaks, Trotskyists, crypto-Nazis, etc.–were actually a small percentage of the Soviet population, and they were genuine traitors and enemies not just of the Soviet leadership, but also of the working class and peasants of the entire USSR.

Kulaks, resisting the necessary collectivization of agriculture, were hoarding grain and killing livestock during the famine of the early 30s. In other words, they were assholes who deserved punishment. Trotsky was such a power-hungry, narcissistic piece of shit that he actually wanted to enlist the aid of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan just to oust Stalin. As a Jew, Trotsky should have been purple-faced with shame; don’t expect me to feel sorry for him for getting that blow to the head with Mercader‘s ice-axe.

Could you even begin to imagine what would have happened if the fifth column sneaking around in the USSR, pretending to be good communists, had succeeded in their conspiracy? Something far worse than the injustices of the Yezhovshchina would have happened: a successful Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would have dwarfed the 27 million Soviet deaths that actually occurred in WWII.

Nazis would have carried out an ongoing enslavement, brutalizing, and genocide of Slavs, an ethnic group Nazis hated on a level comparable with their hatred of Jews. Stalin’s unflinching leadership, indefatigably pushing for industrialization to build and prepare the Red Army for the upcoming Nazi menace, not only prevented such a horrifying alternative, but also saved Europe from fascism.

Normally, people get called heroes for doing things like that.

The justification for the aggravation of class struggle doesn’t end with the Soviet Union, though. North Korea got bombed to the Stone Age in the early 1950s, giving the Kims more than legitimate reason to begin a nuclear weapons program to prevent the US from ever mass murdering them again. Cuba has suffered an economic embargo ever since the 1960s. China has endured a similar embargo and military threats from the West, justifying their nuclear arms program begun by the beginning of the 1960s. Just after having repelled the French colonialists, Vietnam had to endure such horrors of American imperialism as napalm. The CIA helped the right-wing dictator Suharto murder up to a million Indonesians, regardless of whether they were actual communists or just suspected ones. These are just a few examples of imperialist atrocities that get far too little mention in the bourgeois media.

IV: Voting Doesn’t Work

Many will wonder, given the violent, forcible nature of revolution, why people like me won’t simply opt for voting for a leftist political party. After all, isn’t revolution by its very nature extremist, and voting the moderate, reasonable solution to today’s political ills?

Please refer back to the title of this section for an answer.

Bourgeois democracy is nothing more than an illusion that voters have a choice in who will lead the country. Even if the most radical of candidates is voted in, he or she will never challenge the essential class structure of society. This illusion of democracy is one of a myriad of techniques that the ruling class will use to keep the masses at bay. The face of capitalism has a liberal smile, a libertarian sneer, and a fascist scowl. When the people finally see past the illusion and fight in the streets for change, that smile turns upside-down and we see the ruling class in all their repressive ugliness.

The death-grip that the American ruling class has on their country is so tight that a mere social democrat like Bernie Sanders hasn’t a prayer of winning the Democratic candidacy, let alone getting elected so he can have a chance at enacting his only modestly progressive reforms. He is, however, useful to the ruling class as a kind of liberal lasso to throw around the necks of the more gullible of the progressive camp; when he loses to the likes of Hillary or Biden, enough of these gullible types will be expected to vote for such hucksters, leading often enough to a victory for the DNC.

On the right side of the aisle, someone like Trump can pretend to campaign for change, not being part of the Republican political establishment. Still, he’s a member of the billionaire class, and anyone with a modicum of understanding of class analysis will know that, even though Trump opened his big mouth a lot and blurted out comments to embarrass the American political establishment (the real reason they hate him), he could still be counted on to keep the political status quo essentially the same (e.g., bipartisan, billion-dollar military spending, corporate tax cuts, pro-Zionism, anti-immigrant policies, etc.).

In Canada, Justin Trudeau speaks with all the usual politically correct liberal verbiage, but commits the usual imperialist and neoliberal crimes, too (e.g., giving haven to Ukrainian fascists, putting a gas pipeline through aboriginal land, selling weapons to Israel to kill Palestinians, and to Saudi Arabia so they can kill more Yemenis, etc.). I call my country’s prime minister “Turdeau” for a reason.

No, voting won’t make the necessary political changes; recall how the Russian people’s attempt to vote back in the communist party was thwarted by the American ruling class in 1996. Mao meant it when he said “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “revolution is not a dinner party.” We cannot expect the capitalist class to allow us to legislate them out of their wealth.

Class war is not a mere excuse for communists to engage in “extremist” acts; class war is a reality. The capitalist class has been winning this war over the past forty years, and they’re continuing to win this war as we speak. In fact, they started the whole class war by taking over from where our feudal lords had left off: it is now up to us “extremist” communists to end this war.

V: Utopians?

Right-wing propagandists often say that we socialists are dreaming of an impossible-to-attain utopia, rather than the truth, which is that we’re trying to make life better for everyone, as good as is humanly possible. In this way of presenting a straw-man argument, right wingers are, however unwittingly, exposing their own black-and-white thinking: either we accept the total shit, TINA world of capitalism, or we fantasize of a perfect world…what utter nonsense.

Marx had already made it clear in The Communist Manifesto that there is a difference between utopian and scientific socialism, of which we communists espouse the latter. Marx says, ‘The significance of Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism bears an inverse relation to historical development. In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, this fantastic standing apart from the contest, these fantastic attacks on it lose all practical value and all theoretical justification. Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavour and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias, of founding isolated “phalanstères,” of establishing “Home Colonies,” of setting up a “Little Icaria“—duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem, and to realize all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees they sink into the category of the reactionary conservative Socialists depicted above, differing from these only by more systematic pedantry, and by their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.

‘They, therefore, violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel.’ (Marx, III: Socialist and Communist Literature, 3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism)

We don’t merely dream of a perfect world, violently take over countries, then ‘force’ our unattainable ideals on a largely unwilling public. Like scientists, we thoroughly scrutinize the inner workings of capitalism (as Marx did in his three volumes of Capital), we examine the dialectical shifts in history (as Marx did, and as Stalin did), and we analyze how the drive to seek out new markets in foreign countries leads to imperialist competition and war (as Lenin did in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism).

After communist revolution, state-planned economies are set up to replace the profit motive with a system that benefits everyone. Some changes in the way of doing things succeed, while others fail; when failure occurs, we adjust our methods to see if things go better; if not, we adjust them again and again until we succeed. This is the scientific method applied to socialism, hence “scientific socialism.” We’re not dreaming, we’re doing. The black-and-white capitalist mentality imagines that “socialism doesn’t work”; the nuanced, dialectically-minded socialist admits, “Socialism has had problems, but it has also had many successes.”

Let’s look at some of those successes, starting with the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks started with a huge area of land that was, by modern standards, backward: mostly agrarian, with peasants living off the land, without electricity or modern farming technology. Thanks to such efforts as Stalin‘s three Five-Year Plans, the Soviets industrialized and transformed that backward part of the world into a modern, nuclear-armed superpower by the time of his death…a time period of about two and a half decades!

Such an achievement is nothing short of impressive, yet when you come to think about it, it makes perfect sense: people can do amazing things when they all help each other, which is a lot more than when they slavishly work for one egomaniac at the top who overworks and underpays them, then takes almost all of the credit for the success of that work.

Elsewhere, we can find the achievements of Cuba, which took an island controlled by a right-wing dictator, infested with prostitution, illiteracy, and poverty, and transformed it into one with the best health care in the Third World (even sending doctors to people in need in countries around the world), with housing and education for everyone. This has all been achieved in spite of the strangling economic embargo imposed on Cuba since the 1960s.

China’s transformation from the ‘sick man of Asia’ to the second-largest economy in the world has been a rocky one, but ultimately just as sure a one as the two others just mentioned. Though things started out badly with the Great Leap Forward (the wildly exaggerated death toll of which was mainly the fault of a bad harvest; and if the right-wing propagandists want to emphasize bad policy decisions of the CPC as having exacerbated the problem, we can respond by saying the American economic blockade against China, hoping to help bring about the Sino-Soviet split, was also a factor), eventually the industrialization and modernization of China has worked out beautifully.

The CPC has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, and regardless of how leftists choose to think of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ one cannot deny that the country’s transformation over the past forty years is yet another impressive example of the superiority of state planning over the anarchy and chaos of the “free market.”

Finally, though the Nordic Model of the Scandinavian countries, and the social democracy of Venezuela and Bolivia, are not socialism as it’s properly understood in the Marxist-Leninist sense, the success of their free healthcare, free education, and other social programs is proof that the achievement of these progressive ideas is far from being a pipe dream. The capitalists are just too greedy and selfish to be willing to let them succeed, hence all the imperialist attempts to sabotage the efforts of the left-wing governments in places like Latin America.

VI: Fascism

In the previous sections, I went over the contrast between the good intentions, the goals, of socialism, and the pressures placed on socialist governments that had a distorting effect on them, forcing them to take on authoritarian measures they’d never have wanted to take on had the imperialists left them alone. Let us now contrast left-wing intentions with right-wing ones.

What do fascists want? Let’s list their goals:
–strengthening one’s nation against foreign influence
–imperial conquest of foreign nations to achieve the above end
class collaboration
–use of violence to achieve the above ends
–national chauvinism, bigotry, and xenophobia
–a strong, authoritarian state to achieve these ends
–achievement of all the above ends to safeguard capitalism from socialist revolution

Put another way, fascism is capitalism, nationalism, and authoritarianism gone mad. Fascism is extremist…and it never really went away at the end of WWII.

Though some Nazis were punished during the Nuremberg trials (really, little more than just a show to placate the many victims of Nazi murder), many more Nazis were not only left unpunished, but were actually given prominent jobs in the American and West German governments to help the capitalists fight the Cold War.

Matters got so tense between East and West Germany during the 1950s and early 60s that, to avoid war, the Berlin Wall was erected. The East German name of the wall gives a hint as to its real intention: The Antifascist Protection Wall. It wasn’t so much about ‘trapping’ anticommunists and preventing them from defecting, as the right-wing propagandists would have you believe (although a legitimate wish to prevent brain-drain was part of the reason); it was about keeping fascist spies out of the GDR.

Fascism has continued to pop up in various forms over the years. I mentioned above the Canadian accommodation of Ukrainian fascists, who have revived such ahistorical forms of Nazi propaganda as the Holodomor hoax, a canard spread through Hearst‘s fake news, and later spread by that liar, Robert Conquest.

My analysis of Conan the Barbarian (link above) highlighted the fascist/right-wing libertarian agenda of the film-makers, who even did Nazi salutes on the set; and incidentally, my aim in writing up that analysis was not ‘to prove’ a right-wing agenda so obvious to any film analyst, and subtle only to those moviegoers who pay no attention to themes and symbolism, watching it for mere entertainment; my intention was to demonstrate the film’s social effects, the dangerous allure of subliminal fascist symbolism.

Indeed, many of the slanders directed against socialism have Nazi origins. Consider the ridiculous conspiracy theories of Wall Street and Jacob Schiff supposedly supporting the Bolsheviks, of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” and the like. Why would a capitalist bastion like Wall Street support anticapitalist revolutionaries, just because of some bigoted nonsense about “the Jews”? Schiff was an anti-tsarist and Zionist, not a communist.

Another slander thrown on communists was the Katyn massacre, which when disregarding the ‘official’ narrative, and being researched thoroughly, leads to who I’d say were the real perpetrators: though Soviets did execute some Polish soldiers (no women or children!), presumably for having committed certain crimes, the killers at Katyn were in all probability the very Nazis who slandered the Soviets. (People have, at least, shown the decency to admit that the similar massacre in Volodymyr-Volynskyi was indeed perpetrated by the Nazis, and not by the NKVD).

To be fair, it’s hard to take a firm line on what happened when the evidence is so foggy and often contradictory. Still, we need at the very least to consider the political agenda of the ‘official’ version every bit as much as that of the Soviet self-defence. It’s interesting how those who found the bodies were Nazi murderers who (reliable of sources!) blamed it on the Soviets, then the Soviets said it was the Nazis who did it, and now, in our neoliberal, increasingly fascist-sympathizing era…apparently, it was the Soviets after all! (When Gorbachev, of all people, is corroborating a Nazi accusation, we shouldn’t be too trusting of the sources.)

Yet another attempt at moral equivalency between fascism and communism is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact over Poland in 1939. I’ll let the links give you the details, but to make a long story short, many non-aggression pacts were made between the capitalist West and the fascists (i.e., Munich), Stalin never got chummy with Hitler (the epic fighting between their two armies that ensued soon after should be enough to prove the point), and their pact bought Stalin some needed time to get ready for the inevitable Nazi invasion of the USSR.

VII: Who Are the Real Extremists?

You might have noticed, Dear Reader, a recurring theme in this blog post: the creeping emergence of fascism, a true form of extremism. As I said above, it never went away; the loss of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was a mere setback.

Such things as Operation Paperclip, anticommunist propaganda disseminated throughout the Cold War era, Operation Gladio, Canadian accommodation of Ukrainian fascists, White Nationalism, and “MAGA” are all manifestations of one form or another, be they more subtle or more blatant, of a resurgence of fascism, the kind of thing I saw an allegory of in my analysis of The Boys from Brazil.

Fascism, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Other reactionary elements in the politics of the past forty years, generally deemed more ‘moderate,’ are also helping to push our world in an extremist direction.

In my Conan analysis, I discussed how right-wing libertarianism, though not identical with fascism, is on a continuum that inevitably leads to it. Indeed, it is common for libertarians to slide over to fascism, or to at least a sympathy for it. Now, who are the extremists?

The past forty years has been a shift rightwards from libertarian origins (i.e., Reagan and Thatcher) to at least fascist tendencies (e.g., Trump, Bolsonaro, Narine le Pen‘s near-win, etc.). The DNC, having always been bourgeois in spite of the right’s idiotic characterization of it as “socialist,” moved particularly to the right during the Clinton years, a move continued by Obama and Biden.

Indeed, liberalsnever a group to be trusted by us on the left–have moved dangerously to the right in recent years. They’ve supported Democratic politicians who have been banging the war drums against nuclear-armed Russia and China, against the former because they were sore losers over Hillary’s loss to Trump in 2016, spreading a spurious accusation of Russian meddling in the election.

It should be common sense that we don’t want to start WWIII, which could easily turn nuclear and wipe out all life on the planet. We communists, in direct contrast to the liberals and conservatives, want peace with Russia and China. We’ve always wanted peace: the first thing the Bolsheviks did on seizing power in the November revolution was to get out of WWI. We’ve generally fought wars only because we had to, as the Soviet Union did when the US was helping the fundamentalist mujahideen thwart attempts to make Afghanistan socialist. Look at the mess that country is in now.

I ask again: who are the extremists now?

People need to be reminded that reality isn’t fixed in a state of rigid stasis: reality is fluid, ever-changing from one state of being to another; this is why we Marxists are dialecticians. What seems moderate now can become extreme later, and vice versa. Thirty to forty years ago, communism was almost universally regarded (by me, too, back then!) as extreme; now, more and more people are reconsidering socialism. Libertarianism was seen as moderate back then; now that we’re in the death-grip of neoliberal privatization, austerity, and extreme wealth inequality, the so-called “free market” is clearly understood to be not all that free. History is repeating itself.

Unlike the paranoid Nazi notion of “the Jews” being the root of all evil, the communist notion of imperialism is a very real evil, one especially evident over the past thirty years, since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, something most Russians never wanted.

Without the USSR to demonstrate a real alternative to capitalism, not only could neoliberalism thrive unchecked, but the US/NATO imperialists could do anything they wanted with impunity. Despite promises made to Gorbachev that a reunified Germany would not result in a NATO move eastward, such a move very much resulted, starting quite soon.

In the nineties, they took Yugoslavia. The demonizing of Milošević was used to justify regime change there, which would become a major foreign policy tactic of the US and/or NATO. 9/11 gave a perfect rationalization to start carving up the Middle East and thereabouts, hence, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and all the US military activity in Africa. Killing, killing, killing.

Who are the extremists? I ask again.

Added to the extremism of imperialist war is the lukewarm effort to deal with climate change. The US military is the worst polluter of them all, the “free market” allows deregulation so corporations can pollute the earth, the sky, and the water with impunity, while we the common people are expected to reverse the problem with such puny measures as using paper straws. On top of this, our anti-covid masks are littering the earth everywhere.

The best that bourgeois liberals can do to warn us of the dangers of climate change is to film a tepid and occasionally-funny satire, Don’t Look Up, in which the metaphor for the ecological disaster is a comet hitting the Earth. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio may have ditched his private jet to fly to COP26, but why does the pro-environmentalist have a private jet in the first place?

So, we have endless imperialist wars escalating to a very possible nuclear WWIII, and foot-dragging responses to climate change…hmm. Note also how the green capitalism of Musk’s Tesla had the motive for the Bolivian couplithium. What are the roots of these extremist problems?…capitalism. The endless search for profit causing not only so much suffering, but also threatening our planet’s very survival.

But apparently, Marxists are the extremists…I see.

VIII: Conclusion

In previous posts, I made the analogy of a runaway train racing to a cliff where the bridge is out; I used this analogy to describe our current political dangers. For the sake of argument, I’ll say that we see the train shooting from left to right. After all, this train represents capitalism.

Of all the passengers on the train, the right-wingers are walking or running to the front. The liberals are staying in their seats. Moderate progressives are walking to the back. Anarchists are walking faster to the back. We Marxist-Leninists, however, are running as fast as we can to the back, then jumping off the last car.

We aren’t extremists. We’re reacting to today’s extremism in the only appropriate way.

Analysis of ‘The 39 Steps’

I: Introduction

The 39 Steps is a 1935 thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though the plot differs considerably from that of John Buchan‘s 1915 novel, it is considered by many critics to be the best adaptation of his novel, the other versions having been made in 1959, 1978, and 2008.

Hitchcock’s adaptation stars Robert Donat as Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, with Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, and Wylie Watson. It’s widely been acknowledged as a classic; Orson Welles called it a “masterpiece”; it came in 4th in a 1999 BFI poll of British films; and in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Since there are many plot points in Buchan’s novel that are as relevant to my interpretation as are those of the film, I’ll be doing a comparison and contrast of both plots. It would also be helpful to go through a bit of Hannay’s character history, as well as a bit of the history of the British Empire, to be able to put the novel and film in their proper political context.

II: Context

From a bourgeois perspective, Hannay is a dashing hero with a stiff upper lip, who is trying both to clear his name of a false accusation of murder and to stop foreign spies from taking crucial military information out of Britain and giving it to her enemies. I, however, will be viewing the film and novel from an internationalist, Marxist perspective; so if such a reading is not your cup of tea, Dear Reader, I suggest you stop here and read a different analysis of this film.

Though the Hannay of Hitchcock’s film is Canadian (with no attempt made by British Donat to imitate a rhotic North American accent, I’ll add), the Hannay of Buchan’s novels is Scottish, as was the author, hence his extensive descriptions of the Scottish countryside in The Thirty-Nine Steps, no doubt.

Hannay went with his father to South Africa in the late 1880s. As a mining engineer many years later, he made a small fortune in Bulawayo. After that, he fought in the two Matabele Wars; he also fought, as a member of the Johannesburg Light Horse Regiment, in the Second Boer War. One would be well-advised to know how the British Empire waged these wars to get a sense of the character of our dashing hero, who so willingly participated in the waging of those wars.

The novel takes place just before the outbreak of WWI. The film takes place in the mid-1930s, and though the historical events of the time aren’t mentioned, if we know our history reasonably well, we’ll know that a fear of enemy countries gaining military intelligence of Britain could have resulted in circumstances far direr than those that would happen to Britain a mere half-decade after the end of the events of the film.

III: Beginnings

So Hannay is a bourgeois with imperialistic military experience as of the beginning of our story, either bored out of his mind, as we read in chapter one of Buchan’s novel, or relieving that boredom in a London music hall theatre at the film’s beginning. The Hannay of the film establishes his nationality as Canadian by asking the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal of “Mr. Memory” (Watson), a man whose eidetic powers of recall are such that he remembers the many details he reads every day and thus boasts that he can answer any question. (In this connection, it’s interesting to point out that Buchan was Governor General of Canada from 1935, the year the film was made, until his death in 1940.)

In the novel, Hannay briefly attends a London music hall, but gets bored of it and leaves. He gives half a crown to a yawning beggar, sympathizing only with his apparent boredom, an attitude that shouldn’t be surprising in a bourgeois (page 5 of the PDF–link above). When Hannay returns to his flat, he meets Franklin Scudder, a nervous freelance spy who tells him about the plot to take military information out of the country.

In the film, the spy is a female not willing to reveal her nationality and calling herself Annabella Smith (Mannheim), though judging by her accent, one might think her surname is Schmidt. In the novel, the German agents call themselves “The Black Stone,” whereas Smith alludes to “The 39 Steps,” which is revealed by the end of the film to be the name of the foreign spy organization. (In the novel, there are an actual set of thirty-nine steps leading to the location of the escape point for the conspirators.)

IV: Conspiracies

In the film, the information to be taken out of England is for the design of a silent aircraft engine. In the novel, the stolen information is British plans related to the outbreak of what will be WWI. Scudder tells Hannay of an apparently anarchist plot to destabilize Europe with this war, including a conspiracy to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during his visit to London. This assassination seems to be a fictionalizing of that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the straw (of accumulated European grievances) that broke the camel’s back and led to the July Crisis and the beginning of WWI.

Scudder’s description of this plot includes, among all these “very dangerous people,” (page 8) “financiers who were playing for money” (page 9) Apparently, “the aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.” (page 9)

Scudder goes a little bit into capitalist involvement in the conspiracy, but he gets antisemitic when he claims that “the capitalists would rake in the shekels,” and “the Jew was behind it.” He raves on: “The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.” (page 9)

Buchan’s writing has been criticized for its colonialism, racism, and antisemitism. One suspects that the passages quoted in the previous paragraph reflect his sympathy for Scudder’s prejudices, and his use of a colonialist for a hero in his novels suggests not only his imperialist sympathies, but also–given the British Empire’s treatment of black Africans back then–his racism. Certainly, Buchan’s wearing of a Native headdress as Governor General in 1937 would be considered racist by today’s standards.

V: Smith > Scudder

Smith’s description of the conspiracy is far briefer, leaving its mystery to be revealed by the end of the film. Leaving out Scudder’s offensive conspiracy theories makes her much more likeable, too.

Making the freelance spy of the film a female is intriguing in how she asks Hannay to let her go home with him that night, after the music hall show. Though he acknowledges her as beautiful, he makes not even the slightest sexual advance on her. Granted, our hero is a gentleman, and the prevailing morals of the time would not have tolerated the depiction of a one-night stand in the movie; but not even the subtlest of sexual innuendo between Hannay and Smith anticipates the rather subdued sexual chemistry to be seen later between him and Pamela (Carroll), which in turn suggests Lacan‘s notion that there’s no sexual relationship between men and women (more on that later).

Our instinctive sense of gallantry causes us to be more shocked by the knife in her back than in the knife in Scudder’s heart (page 22). Unlike in the novel, Smith dies with a map in her hand, allowing Hannay to search for and find the house of the spies, rather than him stumbling upon it by chance, as he does in the novel, a most implausible thing to be able to do in such a vast area of land as in the Scottish countryside. Hannay looks at the map and determines where the head of the spy organization is, in a house named Alt-na-Shellach, in Killin, in the Scottish Highlands. The head of the spies, Professor Jordan (Tearle), is a master of disguise, but as Smith has told Hannay, Jordan is missing the top joint of his left hand’s little finger, a symbolic castration. This lack will give the villain away.

VI: Disguise

Disguise is a recurring motif in this story, especially in the novel. Scudder, having figured out the whole conspiracy, fakes his death and disguises himself several times as he moves from Paris to Hamburg, then to Bergen, Norway, then to Leith, then to London (pages 13-14). When Hannay has to escape his flat and evade Smith’s/Scudder’s killers, who are waiting for him outside his apartment building, he borrows a milkman’s uniform (chapter two; also in the film). Later, in the Scottish countryside, he swaps places with a road mender, this disguise also fooling his pursuers there (chapter five).

Towards the end of the novel, when Hannay is back in London and has cleared his name of Scudder’s murder with Scotland Yard, he is at a meeting in Sir Walter’s home, where he learns the “First Sea Lord” is really one of his pursuers in disguise (pages 144-145). Finally, Hannay finds his three pursuers in such brilliant disguises, and so convincingly acted, that he doubts his own senses when confronting them (pages 165-174).

What does all of this disguising mean, especially in the case of Hannay pretending to be a worker? I’d say Buchan’s novel includes a number of what I, in other posts, have called Freudian slips, some of which are preserved in the film, which unconsciously go against the bourgeois bias of his narrative. Capitalists and imperialists often like to project their guilt onto others and portray themselves as victims, as when Nazis, for example, blame the Jews for the exploitive depredations of capitalism, something we’ve already seen Scudder do. Elsewhere, capitalists blame intrusive government of sullying the ‘purity’ of their idolized economic system; they also claim that anything even slightly socially liberal is ‘communist’ or ‘socialist,’ and is therefore ubiquitous in the political world, schools, and media, ‘oppressing’ the conservatives.

Hannay disguising himself as a milkman, then as a road mender, symbolizes the bourgeois dreaming of himself as a humble, common worker, fighting against the odds and prevailing against difficulties (the ‘self-made man’), rather than admitting to himself that his social class has already given him a leg-up against everyone else.

VII: Imperialism

As for the disguises of the spies, foreigners pretending to be Englishmen just show, in symbolic fashion, how the imperialist is as internationalist as is the communist. I’ll give a few examples. Consider those, of not only British nationality, who would work together to establish the settler colonial state of Israel through the Balfour Declaration (decades later, even the USSR would help in that establishment, though the Soviets would repent of their involvement soon enough). Consider the many American companies that would do business with the Nazis. Consider the European countries that would allow the Nazis not only to take the Sudetenland, but eventually work their way over to invade the Soviet Union.

My point in bringing up the above is that, contrary to Scudder’s notion that “anarchists” (i.e., leftists) are conspiring to destabilize Europe, the descent into WWI was due to various players among the European ruling classes. The war was an inter-imperialist competition over who would control the largest piece of the pie, as Lenin observed in his analysis of the situation.

Talk of ‘this nation vs. that nation’ is how the ruling classes of the world divide the people and make them kill each other, while the rich of all these countries get richer through the racket of war and through imperialist plunder of other countries’ resources. It doesn’t actually matter, therefore, if the conspirators are from ‘this country’ or ‘that country.’ The spies aren’t “anarchists,” or necessarily Jews: they’re working for just plain capitalists, so if they’re, say, Germans brilliantly disguised as Englishmen, it’s all the same to me.

VIII: On the Train, On the Run

Back to the story. Hannay gets on the express train, the Flying Scotsman, to get to Scotland, and evades his pursuers for the time being. In the film, he sits in a cabin with two businessmen discussing their product: ladies’ undergarments. (When this British film was to be shown in American theatres in the mid-thirties, did the Production Code approve of this scene? I have my doubts.) One of the businessmen is disappointed to read in the newspaper of the ladies’ undergarments of a rival company doing better business than his own.

There is a paradox in showing the underclothes without a woman in them, these exchange-value commodities, as there is later in Hannay’s unwelcome kissing of Pamela to evade the police he knows (from the same newspaper) have fingered him for Smith’s murder. Here we see again, in symbolic form, Lacan’s notion that there’s no relation between the sexes, an alienation brought on by the capitalist system.

Hannay’s having to get off the train to get away from the police, and to go on foot through the Scottish countryside, symbolically suggests that bourgeois fantasy of imagining oneself to be a victim hounded by the authorities, as if Hannay were one of the poor residents of this rural area, a simple place cut off from the industrialized, modern world, symbolic of the Third World. (It’s useful to mention in this connection how the movement for Scottish independence had already existed for quite some time by the writing of Scottish Buchan’s novel.) Remember that Hannay’s underdog running from the law should be seen in context of his having fought wars for the British Empire in southern Africa, him having pointed a gun at and having shot blacks.

In the novel, Hannay is chased even more extensively through the Scottish countryside than he is in the film. In the novel, he’s given accommodations several times, but in the film, there’s only one significant accommodation before he finds Professor Jordan’s house. In this one accommodation, he meets a middle-aged crofter (Laurie) and his pretty young wife (Ashcroft). The crofter is easily jealous and suspicious of the dealings of handsome young Hannay with his wife, of which nothing sexual results beyond a quick kiss. There’s no relation between the sexes even in the rural part of our alienated, capitalist world.

IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away

We can find a thematic unity in these varying manifestations of what we could call, ‘so close, yet so far away.’ Hannay is so physically close to Annabella, then Pamela, then the crofter’s wife (then Pamela again), and yet so far away in how so little, if anything, in the form of a romantic bond develops between him and each of these women (except, maybe, the potential of hand-holding Hannay and Pamela at the end of the film). This thematic unity is shared in both the film and the novel.

The spy organization (“The 39 Steps,” or “The Black Stone,” whichever name you prefer) is in the UK, yet inimical to her interests. Hannay would help the UK, that is, he’s close to her heart, yet he’s perceived as a violent threat, and so he’s pursued by the police. The presumption of his guilt in Smith’s/Scudder’s murder might suggest a sympathy with, a closeness to, the spy organization, yet his wish to expose them shows his distance from them, therefore he’s pursued by the spy organization as well as by the UK police.

This thematic unity is thus a dialectical one. As Slavoj Zižek points out in Looking Awry (pages 100-101), Hannay is both the persecuted (by the UK police and foreign agents) and the persecutor (a threat to the spies, in wishing to expose them). Note that Buchan, prior to being the Canadian Governor General, worked for the British Empire in South Africa and based Hannay on a friend and colleague there, Edmond Ironside, a spy during the Second Boer War.

Ironside unsuccessfully disguised himself as an Afrikaans-speaking Boer after the war. It’s easy to see a link between not only Ironside’s impersonation and those of Hannay, but also those of the spy organization as depicted in both the novel and the film. As I’ve said above, Ironside’s and Buchan’s imperialist work and that of Hannay (a fictional idealization of both Buchan and Ironside) provide the necessary context for understanding Hannay as both the persecuted and the persecutor.

X: Colonizer as Victim?

The imperialist feels no sensitivity whatsoever for the suffering he causes the colonized. In fact, as I mentioned above, he fancies himself to be the victim, of competitive foreign imperialism or of those he victimizes. Recall how in Kipling‘s poem, the “half-devil and half-child” peoples that the ‘burdened’ white man colonizes are resentful of his efforts ‘to civilize’ them. (Note also how Hannay in the film refers to his awkward, hand-cuffed relationship with Pamela as “the white man’s burden.”)

Hitler and the Nazis rationalized their lebensraum imperialism on a belief that the Jews and communists, millions of whom they murdered, were economically oppressing Germany. Capitalists bemoan the wildly exaggerated number of ‘victims’ of communism, who were mostly other capitalists who, had they been given their way, would have resumed their immiseration of the erstwhile liberated working class. (Don’t believe me? Check out what happened to Russia in the 1990s.) Hannay may not have killed Smith/Scudder, but as a participant in the Matabele and Second Boer Wars, he would have been at least partly responsible for many deaths then.

Such is the historical context for sublating the dialectical contradiction of Hannay as persecutor and persecuted. Like any capitalist or imperialist, he would project imperialist guilt on foreign imperialist spies while conveniently forgetting the British imperialist espionage of men like Ironside, Hannay’s very inspiration. ‘So close, yet so far away’: foreign imperialist crimes are so identical in terms of the bourgeoisie’s class motives that they’d might as well have been committed by the imperialists in one’s own country.

XI: The Manhunt Continues

The crofter’s wife has given Hannay her husband’s coat, which has the crofter’s hymn book in it. Her ever-jealous husband is so angered, having already been suspicious of her having adulterous designs with Hannay, that he hits her offscreen (I can’t imagine the Hays Office not insisting that this scene be cut out for the American release of the film). She’s helped Hannay sneak out of their house before the police can get him, so he continues through the countryside in the direction of Alt-na-Shellach.

The manhunt continues, with not only police chasing Hannay on foot, but also using an autogyro. This parallels passages in the novel with not only the police but also the spies chasing him, the latter using an aeroplane. This aeroplane chasing him reminds me of that famous scene in North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film of an innocent man on the run, pursued by spies. I wonder if the scene could have been inspired by the passages in Buchan’s novel, if Hitchcock hadn’t been able, due to budget constraints, to include them in The 39 Steps, then (unconsciously?) decided to do a similar scene with Cary Grant.

At one point in the countryside chase, Hannay meets with a man, Sir Harry, who has to give a political speech he feels himself ill-prepared for, and being impressed with Hannay’s experience in South Africa, he would have Hannay give such a speech at an election meeting that afternoon. (This passage, in chapter four, has its equivalent in the film much later in the story.)

XII: Speeches

In the novel, Hannay’s speech includes talk of “the kind of glorious business [he thinks can] be made out of the Empire if [they] really put [their] backs into it.” Such talk surely reflected Buchan’s imperialist ideology. In contrast, Hannay describes the “appalling rot” of Sir Harry’s poorly-prepared speech: talk about “the ‘German menace,’…[meant] to cheat the poor of their rights and keep back the great flood of social reform, but that ‘organized labour’ realized this…” (pages 67-68). One wouldn’t expect bourgeois imperialists like Hannay or Buchan to sympathize with ideas like the rights of the poor, social reform, and organized labour.

Another contrast with these speeches can be seen in Hannay’s speech in the film, which transforms him from a flaming right-winger into a liberal. Though Buchan and the script-writers (Charles Bennett and Ian Hay) were unlikely to have had political opinions that were even approximate to each other, it’s worthy to note what such political agendas have in common, in spite of their obvious differences, as seen in the novel and the film. Hannay’s speech in the film could be seen as a sublation of his and Sir Harry’s speeches in the novel.

Hannay’s speech in the film, a response to questions about the “idle rich”–given as he sees his pursuers at a political meeting, them waiting to arrest him–is all about the hope of changing society and political life into one in which every man and woman has an equal chance in life, in which people are no longer hunted, hounded, persecuted, and without a friend in the world to help them. If one didn’t know any better, one would think he was speaking of the true wretched of the Earth: the poor, those discriminated against, victims of bigotry and prejudice, etc.

He, of course, is really thinking about himself, a bourgeois who sees himself as the victim, but who’s really, in one form or another, a part of the British Empire/Commonwealth. He’s such a member regardless of whether he’s the Scottish Hannay of Buchan’s novels, or the Canadian of Hitchcock’s film. As a colonialist or as a member of a white settler colonial state, Hannay is a man of an imperialist world order whose claims of victimhood would sound strange in the ears of those truly victimized by colonialism. Since liberals talk the progressive talk, but would also preserve their imperialist and class privileges, Hannay’s speech in the film thus sublates this speech with those of the novel perfectly.

XIII: The House of the Spies

Eventually, Hannay in his travels in the countryside finally reaches the house of the spies. In the novel, this occurs in chapter six, when he meets a “bald archaeologist” who welcomes him in his home, pretends to be a friend warding off the police, yet who also knows he is Hannay. Hannay’s only escape from the storage room he’s been locked into is to use the explosives stored inside to blow his way out, risking injury or death.

After blowing his way out, and luckily experiencing only minimal injury, he gets outside and has to hide on the roof of a neighbouring building until nightfall. It’s like being a homeless man: Buchan is thus once again presenting the bourgeois fantasy of a colonialist as a victim.

In the film, Hannay meets Professor Jordan, who similarly lets him in his house with all cordiality, gets rid of the police, then in a private conversation with Hannay, reveals himself to be the man missing the joint on his left hand’s little finger.

As I mentioned above, this lack of that joint is a symbolic castration, a lack that gives rise to desire, the sinful desire of a villain. Accordingly, Jordan pulls out a phallic pistol from his pocket, the weapon compensating for his lost joint. He shoots Hannay, knowing he can’t let the fugitive jeopardize his mission as a spy; but that hymn book in the crofter’s coat has absorbed the bullet and saved Hannay’s life.

XIV: Friends of Spies

Hannay escapes Jordan’s home and goes to the police station of Sheriff Watson (played by Frank Cellier), who was at Jordan’s get-together when Hannay fled from the police to his home. Watson, just like Jordan, pretends to be friendly and sympathetic with Hannay, but has policemen arrive to arrest him. Hannay jumps out of a window and escapes.

Since Watson is friends with Jordan, the leader of the foreign spy ring, we can see this friendship as symbolic of how different imperialist countries often collaborate with each other for mutual advantage. So far away, yet so close: national differences mean little when it comes to imperialism, making Hannay’s pro-British heroics dubious at best.

XV: A Fine Romance

The relationship between him and Pamela resumes when she finds him doing his impromptu speech about the rights of man (little that he cares about them, of course). Recall the forced kiss he gave her on the train, followed by her giving him over to the police. Here at the political meeting, she betrays him to the police again. After their ride in the police car, interrupted by a flock of sheep on the road, a cop handcuffs the man and woman together, since they need her to corroborate that he’s Hannay. They’re stuck together again, in spite of their mutual dislike. So close, yet so far away: there is no sexual relation, symbolized in the pair’s predicament.

Actually, these arresting officers are only posing as cops: they’re part of the espionage conspiracy, something Hannay’s realized from noting that the car is going in the wrong direction. So close, yet so far away: all the foreign spies’ pretending to be the British authorities is symbolic of the blurry distinction between the powers-that-be among locals and foreigners.

Hannay and Pamela are stuck together because of the handcuffs, meant to keep them together in the car while the agents clear the sheep off the road; but Hannay demonstrates his iron will by escaping and making Pamela go with him. This disparity, between him getting his way and her not getting hers, is symbolically another manifestation of the impossibility of the sexual relationship.

XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?

Lacan’s meaning is that there’s an asymmetry between the male and female sexual position (I’m not talking about those of the bedroom!), through the phallus as signifier, giving one entry into the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and social custom, while not providing a corresponding signifier for women. Rather than interpreting this asymmetry as sexist, since it’s about disparities in language qua social organization (Zižek, page 136…as opposed to Freud‘s preoccupation with the psychological consequences of the literal genital difference between the sexes), we should rather see the asymmetry as a comment, a social critique, of sexism.

Hannay takes charge and forces Pamela to go along because society has given him, not her, a voice. His imperious attitude to her fittingly dovetails with his experience (in the novels, anyway) as a colonialist in South Africa. Only through equality of the sexes can there be a sexual relationship; similarly, alienation will end only with the end of capitalism.

XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships

Another scene that symbolically expresses the impossibility of the relation between the sexes is when Hannay and Pamela have to share a room at a Scottish inn for the night, pretending to be a married couple. Such a scene would have run afoul of the censors as surely as, among the other scenes mentioned above, Hannay’s saying the word damn several times.

It didn’t matter that the couple is never indecent (Pamela removes only her wet stockings–surely this won’t enflame our passions too much!), nor do they ever engage in any heavy petting, or any touching, while lying side by side, fully clothed, on the bed. The only reason they’re together is the handcuffs, from which she later frees her hand while he’s sleeping. Still, the prudish Production Code wanted the scene deleted.

An alternate final scene was filmed, to placate the censors (but never used in the film’s final cut), of the couple in a taxi–in which Hannay says that, under Scottish law, their having registered as man and wife at the inn was a public declaration of marriage and therefore their night on that bed together was not immoral.

All of these evasions of sex, whether due to the pressures from the censors, or because Hannay and Pamela still don’t like each other, reinforce in a symbolic fashion how there is no rapport between the sexes. So close (together on a bed), yet so far away (fully clothed).

XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A

Indeed, the objet petit a, or unattainable object-cause of desire, is not a sexual object at all in The 39 Steps. Rather, the objet petit a is the MacGuffin of the film: the information the spies want to sneak out of the country.

This leads us to the final scene of the film, which is the same setting as the opening scene, the London music hall, giving the film a nice ABA structure with another demonstration of the talents of Mr. Memory. The addition of this character to the story, we learn, is crucial to the plot, for the plan is to use his memory skills to help the spies export the detailed knowledge he’s obtained of a silent aircraft engine’s design.

So the objet petit a isn’t for carnal knowledge, but just plain knowledge–there’s no sexual relationship. Now, when Hannay, still trying to clear his name, importunes Mr. Memory to disclose the meaning of “The 39 Steps,” our formidable brain is briefly in conflict over his id‘s desire to display his knowledge and be admired by the crowd, his ego‘s need to be safe against being shot by Professor Jordan (present at the music hall, on a balcony seat with his pistol), and his superego‘s obligation to honour his publicly-stated commitment to answer any question correctly. He honours this commitment and gets his admiration, but it costs him his life.

XIX: Conclusion

Jordan’s objet petit a, that very MacGuffin, is the coveted spy information, which isn’t expressed as a sexual desire except in a symbolic sense: the symbolic castration of his finger joint, a lack giving rise to his desire and compensated for with the phallic pistol, which ejaculates a bullet into his desired male Mnemosyne, but not a bullet of Eros…one of Thanatos.

In a world of capitalist, inter-imperialist competition, the resulting alienation is the non-existent sexual relationship (note that Hannay will join up to fight in WWI soon after the novel’s end). All Hannay, still with the handcuff around his wrist, and Pamela can muster in the way of affection is a holding of hands…and how many steps will go by before those hands come apart?

Analysis of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

I: Introduction

Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 epic sword and sorcery film directed by John Milius and written by him and Oliver Stone. Based on Robert E. Howard‘s Conan, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and James Earl Jones, with Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow, Mako, Sven-Ole Thorsen, and Ben Davidson.

The film gave Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition, and in the years since its release, it became a cult film, making a lot more money on home video. It spawned a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984, and a reboot was made in 2011.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

[My main concern in this analysis is the political agenda of this film. I very much like the movie, but that doesn’t mean I, as a leftist, agree with its politics, which I will criticize here. If you happen to love Conan the Barbarian, and you agree with the right-wing ideology that the film espouses–however subtly and allegorically–then this analysis is definitely not for you; therefore I recommend you read no further and find a more politically sympathetic write-up.]

II: Conservative Conan

I am analyzing Conan the Barbarian because it is very much a film of its time. Made in the early 1980s, it reflects, in symbolic and allegorical form, the politics of Reagan and his ilk. The film metaphorically not only glorifies the individualism that was and is part of the ideal of Reagan and other right-wing libertarians (who, incidentally, include Milius and Schwarzenegger), but also the reactionary hypermasculinity that went against feminist gains in the 1970s. There’s even a subtle nod to fascism in its light-brown-haired ‘Aryan’ muscleman hero fighting a black villain (Doom himself may not be black–he’s rather a member of an extinct pre-Atlantic race–but we see a black actor [Jones] playing him, and it’s the film’s social effect on our world that matters, not the fictional world it is literally presenting.), the decapitation of whom disturbed Roger Ebert. In fact, there was a white supremacist streak even in Robert E. Howard himself.

These three elements–right-wing libertarian individualism, hypermasculinity, and Aryan supremacist fascism–are interrelated, since the former two lie on a continuum with the extreme third (as even the social democracy of mainstream liberalism does, something Stalin noted). These three are especially interrelated in Conan the Barbarian, a highly entertaining film acting out the fantasies of mostly alienated pre-adolescent boys back in the early 80s (in spite of the film’s R-rating for violence, sex, and nudity); and it’s the mingling of these three ultraconservative elements that’s what makes the otherwise well-made film so dangerously seductive to such an impressionable young audience.

III: Steel

Let’s start with the notion of the “Riddle of Steel,” and what it can be seen to represent. While the fetish of weaponry (i.e., the steel of a sword) has long existed in literature–the Iliad, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.–since this film came out during the early Reagan era and reflects the ideology of the time, we must consider what the steel of a sword can be seen to symbolize in the context of the film.

Steel is an alloy of iron with a tiny percentage of carbon to improve its strength. Iron, in turn, is an element forming much of the Earth’s outer and inner core (hence Crom, Conan’s god, is a god of the Earth). The point is that steel is derived from the Earth, fashioned for men’s purposes, as we see during the film’s opening credits. As a metal, like gold, silver, or copper, steel thus can be associated with money, the fetish of capitalists.

Since our concern is with the steel of a sword, we now move from the money-loving, Earth-plundering capitalist to phallic symbolism, thus linking the steel of a sword with hypermasculinity. After all, we don’t just see Conan displaying his muscles and brandishing a sword, but we also see him bed several women.

This hypermasculine association with phallic steel swords is reinforced in his constant killing of his enemies with his sword. This constant going out to far-off lands to kill others links the metal alloy of steel (symbolically associated with gold and coins) with the hypermasculine phallic sword and ultimately with imperialist plunder. Since this is a movie of the early Reagan era, we shouldn’t be surprised to see how these three elements of the “Riddle of Steel” are centred in capitalism.

IV: Flesh is Stronger

Of course, it must be emphasized that what Conan learns over the course of the film is that steel, the literal metal, is not the great source of strength that he, as a boy, came to understand from his father’s teachings. It is rather the steel heart of determination that gives one strength. In fact, Thulsa Doom (Jones), though originally coveting steel and killing Conan’s father and mother to acquire one of those swords, eventually learns that flesh is more powerful than steel, hence Doom’s snake cult.

Now, since Conan represents the heroic ideal of Milius’ libertarian/hypermasculine/cryptofascist myth, the villain of the film must be the ideological opposite. Conan, Valeria (Bergman), and Subotai (Lopez) are on Reagan’s side, so Doom must be symbolic of communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Doom’s death cult is thus, thanks to the spurious anticommunist propaganda that flooded the Western media during the Cold War, representative of the wildly exaggerated death toll associated with communism.

Having a black man play Doom reinforces these associations for the film’s intended right-wing, white male audience. As I said above, it doesn’t matter that Doom, with his blue eyes and straight, long hair, is not actually a black man in the story: we as an audience see Jones, a black actor wearing blue contact lenses and a wig, on the screen. We make the necessary association, in spite of the actual race of the fictional character. If anything, the blue eyes and no Afro make one think of the experiments of Josef Mengele, who injected blue dye into people’s eyes to make them ‘more acceptable Aryans.’ The film’s fascist ideology is subtle, not obvious. The reason for this subtlety should also be obvious in the liberal world of Hollywood.

Now, if Thulsa Doom’s snake cult in this allegory represents the ideology of communism, and if he is right to have recognized that flesh is more powerful than steel, then his correctness goes against the tendentious political bias that this film is promoting. His affirmation of the superiority of flesh to steel, of the human will’s mastery of the sword, is a kind of Freudian slip that exposes the error of the right-wing ideology championed in Conan the Barbarian. After all, it was the steely determination of the Red Army that defeated the Nazis in WWII, in spite of the metal of the tanks of the Wehrmacht.

V: Freudian Slips

I’ve argued elsewhere that ‘Freudian slips,’ if you will, exist in many films, parapraxes that go against the bias presented in each of the films. The one I mentioned above in Conan the Barbarian isn’t the only one in that film. Others include the fact that our heroes, representing the “free market” capitalist agenda advocated by Milius and Schwarzenegger in the film’s allegory, are thieves by their own admission.

We on the left have always complained that capitalists–who exploit labour by taking, as surplus value, much of the value that workers put into the commodities they produce–are thieves who deny workers the full fruit of their labour, all for the sake of maximizing profit. When right-wing libertarians gripe that “Taxation is theft!”, being especially irked when tax revenue is put into social programs for the poor, they fail to understand how this ‘stolen’ money is really being returned to the poor from whom it was originally stolen by the capitalists.

Another Freudian slip is in how this film is supposed to reflect the right-wing libertarian opposition to ‘big government,’ as symbolized by Doom’s cult (for recall, libertarians tend to regard all socialism as ‘something a government does’); yet our hero, Conan, is understood to become a king at the end of the film. Though the film is set in a world of kings and queens, suggesting either feudal times or the ancient master/slave contradiction, these past class relations are still analogous to the modern contradiction of the bourgeoisie (and the state that protects its interests) and the proletariat; so seeing King Conan on his throne at the end of the film is a metaphor for the ‘government-hating’ libertarian who becomes the head of the government…as Reagan was.

VI: Libertarianism and Fascism

The notion of ‘big vs small government’ was and is a big lie. It isn’t the size of the state that makes it oppressive vs liberating; it’s whom the state serves–the rich, or the people–that makes it the one way or the other. So Conan, the thief who decapitates and disembowels with his sword, then becomes king, is hardly any better than Doom and his snake cult.

Remember that right-wing libertarianism isn’t the same thing as fascism, but the one exists on a continuum with the other. The only difference between the two is in how the material conditions of the world give rise to the one or to the other. Libertarian thinking is usually popular during economic good times (as is mainstream liberalism), when socialism is propagandized against as it was during the Reagan era. But when times are financially hard, as during the Germany of the 1920s, or over the past ten years, fascist and authoritarian systems of government tend to arise and even become relatively popular. As for our current situation, in which fear of disease is prompting measures that are disturbingly approaching totalitarianism, anyone who thinks Republican-friendly Biden is a communist is an idiotseriously.

The fascist ideology cunningly woven into the film’s narrative includes elements either rightly or wrongly associated with Nazism. These include the opening quote from Nietzsche‘s Twilight of the Idols (‘Maxims and Arrows,’ 8): “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” though at the film’s beginning, it’s rendered, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Now, Nietzsche was about as far removed from being a proto-Nazi as anyone could be: just read his books, and note the many times he bashed his own country as a reaction against the disturbing growing trend of German nationalism that he saw all around him. Still, his pro-Nazi sister, Elisabeth Förster-Niezsche, edited his writing to make it seem sympathetic to Nazi ideology, and this association is sufficient for the film’s ideological purposes. After all, the opening quote, reflecting the film’s theme of determination, as well as such notions as The Will to Power, fit well with the themes of The Triumph of the Will. Add to these facts the film’s influence of Wagnerian opera, and we can further see the link, however subtle, with Nazism.

VII: The Barbarian’s Beginnings

Anyway, the story begins with Conan’s father telling him, a boy, to trust neither men, nor women, nor beasts…a perfect recipe for alienation. The boy is to trust steel and steel alone, which as I interpreted above means to trust the resources plundered from the Earth for the benefit of the rich, to trust the metal of coins fetishized by the rich, to trust a phallic symbol that encourages toxic masculinity, and to trust a weapon wielded for the sake of empire.

Later, Conan learns that he, indeed, can trust men (Subotai), women (Valeria), and beasts (the horses and camels he rides). His father was wrong. One of the most important things we learn as we grow up is, to our utter disillusion, how often our parents are wrong about things.

Since Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, in this allegory, represents the Soviet Union as demonized by right-wing propaganda, Doom’s raid on the Cimmerian village can be seen to represent how the Russian Revolution affected the country’s bourgeoisie in the late 1910s and in the 1920s (fittingly, the raid happens on a snowy day, suggesting a Russian winter). Conan’s steel-fetishizing parents can thus be seen to represent the Russian petite bourgeoisie, the confiscation of whose private property is symbolized by Doom’s taking of Conan’s father’s sword. The killing of Conan’s parents is, symbolically, just more anti-Soviet propaganda.

As a result, Conan’s simmering lust for revenge can be compared to the resentment of such Russian bourgeoisie as Ayn Rand, whose parents’ business was confiscated by the Soviets, and who emigrated to the US and got her revenge on the USSR by writing pro-capitalist novels and promoting her egoistic Objectivist philosophy.

VIII: Conan’s Coming-of-Age

Chained to the Wheel of Pain, young Conan grows up a slave. This is how self-pitying capitalists see themselves, not only under the dictatorship of the proletariat (where, thanks to Lenin’s NEP during the 1920s, the kulaks were allowed to make profits, and only when Stalin ended the NEP and collectivized agriculture, which benefitted the poor and ultimately ended famines, did the kulaks lose their profits, then, out of spite, hoarded food and killed livestock, thus exacerbating the bad harvests of the early 30s that were misrepresented as the “Holodomorhoax by Nazi propagandists), but also under social democratic forms of government, with their high taxes.

As a young man, Conan is given the opportunity to display his talents as a fighter. First we see this Aryan-looking Cimmerian (the casting of Schwarzenegger is more than ideal) fight and defeat a black man with razor-sharp teeth, the bestial savagery of whom reinforces that disturbing feeling we have at the end of the film, when Conan kills Doom. Recall Howard’s words contrasting whites and blacks: “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

This discovery and glorification of Conan’s abilities as a fighter represents a promotion of the capitalist ideal of competition. It is acceptable if the bourgeois, feudal lord, or ancient slave-master kills, but it’s never defensible if the proletarian vanguard, as represented in Thulsa Doom, kills.

IX: Women

Women in Conan the Barbarian are typically sexualized and treated as objects of men’s pleasure, hence the scene with the terrified, bare-breasted woman put in Conan’s cage so he can enjoy her while other men lecherously watch. It doesn’t matter that we see Conan put a blanket around her, playing the role of the ‘gentleman’: her fear and reluctance clearly demonstrate her non-consent. This is rape.

As for the beautiful witch (played by Cassandra Gava), who has presaged Conan’s coming, and who knows of Doom’s standard, with the snakes facing each other, again, it seems obligatory that she let him have her; note how she erotically crawls before him. And though Valeria is his equal fighting companion, he beds her, too. It is easy to see how all these women exist largely, if not almost exclusively, for male fantasy: this ties in with the hypermasculinity promoted in this right-wing film.

Connected to this is Conan’s ‘correct’ answer to the question, “What is best in life?” His answer, a paraphrasing of a Genghis Khan quote, glorifies conquest, implying a lust for imperialism, and the pleasure of hearing “the lamentation of [the enemy’s] women,” sounds like misogynistic sadism, a fascistic/imperialistic sadism. Small wonder right-wingers love this movie and Conan’s quote, delivered in Schwarzenegger’s German accent.

Why isn’t peace “what is best in life?” Why isn’t a society in which production is to provide for all “what is best in life,” rather than production to benefit a wealthy, privileged few? We wouldn’t expect these Mongol-like warmongers to embrace such pacifist, empathic values, of course, but the point is that the audience is expected to sympathize with the answer of the film’s light-brown-haired, Aryan-like hero.

X: Freedom and Friendships

Conan as a young man is freed, and in his travels is chased by dogs; he stumbles into an underground Atlantean colonist warrior’s tomb, where he finds an ancient sword. This going underground, then coming back up to the surface, is a symbolic death and resurrection, a theme to be repeated several times later in the film. His retrieval of the sword will make him feel as though he’s closer to discovering the Riddle of Steel, and his new, phallic weapon will make him feel like a rejuvenated man. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

He soon meets Subotai (based on a Mongol), a Hyrkanian, meaning someone from the Eurasian Steppe. This means he is someone who ethnically could be anyone from Eastern Europe to Xinjiang, Mongolia, and/or Manchuria. He’s made to look Asian, though the actor, Lopez, is a Hawaiian of Mexican descent. Just as Jones was made to look ‘less black,’ so is Subotai ‘not so Asian.’ His voice, incidentally, was overdubbed by the Japanese-American actor, Sab Shimono.

Conan and Subotai discuss their gods while eating. Subotai prays to the Four Winds, whom he considers superior to Conan’s Crom; naturally, our hero considers his Earth-god better than Subotai’s wind-god. Once again, we see a promotion of the spirit of competition, the urge to be superior, or at least associated with superiority, in our heroes’ banter.

XI: Thieves

They meet Valeria in the city of Zamora, and all three raid the Tower of the Serpent, stealing jewels and killing a giant snake there. Among the snake art we see there, usually two snakes facing each other, we also see an ouroboros, my symbol of the dialectic, which is fitting for how Doom’s snake cult is meant to represent the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.

King Osric (von Sydow), impressed with these three thieves’ daring, and detesting Doom’s cult, pays them with all the jewels they can carry to rescue his daughter, who has been seduced by Doom’s ideas. The king’s love for his daughter is so great that he can easily give up so many jewels…but the eyes of the trio of thieves light up at the sight of so much wealth.

Conan, still with revenge on his mind, goes out alone to face Doom, since Valeria feels content just to take Osric’s jewels. Conan meets the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako), who also narrates the story. It’s curious how he, the film’s narrator, refers to Conan as his “lord” and “master.” Since this wizard is Asian, his subservient attitude to Aryan Conan reinforces the white supremacist undercurrent in this right-wing film. (Recall how, at the beginning, the narrator refers to the “sons of Aryus.”)

XII: Doom’s Cult of Personality

Conan reaches Doom’s Temple of Set, or Mountain of Power. Set, in the Marvel Universe of demons used in the Conan comics, is the “God of the Dead.” Thulsa Doom is based on two of Howard’s characters: the villain in Kull of Atlantis, yet based even more so on Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” (One might also associate Set with the ancient Egyptian deity of violence, disorder, and foreigners, among other things, who was at times vilified for having killed Osiris, but who was also seen by some as a heroic deity.) Many see Doom as being like Jim Jones, the “apostolic socialist” cult leader whose control over his people was so complete as to make hundreds of them willing to kill themselves, as we see Doom have one of his female followers drop to her death.

Since Doom, in terms of the film’s Reaganite allegory, represents the ideological foe of the political right, this seductive death-cult leader is meant to represent the “cult of personality” seen in communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and the Kims…at least as they’re portrayed in right-wing propaganda. What is little known, however, is that left-wing leaders like Stalin and Mao rejected the kind of idolatrous status that men like Hitler and Mussolini were all too happy to receive. Far from being the dictator he was believed to be, Stalin actually tried unsuccessfully to resign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union no less than four times; he had only one vote in determining Soviet policy, and often lost in these votes; and the notion of a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin was actually a Khrushchev lie.

XIII: Doom’s Followers

When we see Conan among Doom’s many followers by the temple, it’s curious to note how, in their dress and their hair, they resemble hippies. This, I believe, is significant because far right-wing types tend, idiotically, to equate hippies with communists, when the former are so obviously liberal.

Conan approaches one of the priests, and it’s implied that this priest is homosexual and interested in our muscleman hero, who beats him unconscious and steals his priestly robes to disguise himself in. One shouldn’t be surprised to see our beloved hero act in this way: recall the German gay men forced to wear pink triangles on their Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

The dark robes of some members of Doom’s snake cult, including those worn by, for example, Rexor (Davidson), have a design in its contrasts of white and dark that, to my eye, vaguely suggest the clothing of rabbis, particularly those of ancient times. One normally expects snake designs to be round and swirling; but these snake designs are angular, square-like, and being dark against a white background, they vaguely remind me of Hebrew letters. I’m not saying any of this was consciously intended; I bring this up to suggest another fascist association often made with communism: the notion of Jewish Bolshevism. This Nazi association is made even though very few high-ranking members of the Bolshevik Party were Jews.

XIV: Christian Symbolism

Conan is apprehended by Rexor and Thorgrim (Thorsen), a spike on the latter’s boot is stabbed into Conan’s hand, and Doom gives the command, “Crucify him,” reminding us of what “the Jews” told Pilate to do with Christ (John 19:14-16).

And so, Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. While the religious world of this film is thoroughly pagan, of course, any rejection of Christian symbolism in this scene is absurd. After all, much of the make-up of Christianity is pagan mystery tradition, as Hyam Maccoby pointed out in his book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. Many Christians try to deny the pagan influence on their religion, but even CS Lewis expressed the belief, in his book Mere Christianity, that his Christian God put the foretelling of Jesus on the Cross into the dreams of the people of all the heathen religions (page 37 of this pdf). These pagans, in Lewis’s opinion, misunderstood the message, and distorted it with myths of dying and resurrecting gods, or like Odin when nailed to Yggdrasil, whom Conan resembles on the Tree of Woe.

The accommodation of Christian symbolism into Conan the Barbarian also dovetails with the film’s right-wing message, since fascism and other forms of conservative politics have always found Christianity to be a useful tool for reactionary purposes. Make the toiling masses believe they will be rewarded in heaven, and they’ll work harder without complaint. Even libertarian-centrist Frank Zappa was worried about the direction that right-wing libertarian/Christian Reagan was moving America in; he warned of a future “fascist theocracy.” One can debate whether or not Zappa’s fears have been realized in the US, but the links between right-wing libertarianism, fascism, and Christian traditionalism are undeniable; all three of these can be seen, in a veiled symbolic/allegorical form, in Conan the Barbarian.

Francoist Spain was a combination of Falange fascism, monarchism, and Catholicism; in 1959, their government adopted “free market” economic policies. Pinochet’s right-wing authoritarian government in Chile also had “free market” policies courtesy of the Chicago Boys. While Nazi Germany made use of much of Teutonic pagan myth, Hitler et al also accommodated Christian ideas; Catholic Hitler and Nazi ideology tried to promote an ‘Aryan Christ,’ one not too far removed from light-brown-haired Aryan Schwarzenegger on the Tree of Woe.

My associating of Doom’s cult symbolically with “Jewish Bolsheviks” dovetails with this Christian interpretation of Conan’s crucifixion, since Nazi antisemitism has its roots in a two-millennia-old Christian antisemitism. Recall how Hitler used to enjoy reading Luther‘s antisemitic rants. Recall also how 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion.

The relating of Conan the Barbarian with Christian ideas doesn’t end with our hero’s crucifixion. Valeria, Subotai, and the wizard rescue him, take him down from the tree, and treat his wounds in a manner reminiscent of the speculations of Hugh J Schonfield‘s Passover Plot. Unconscious Conan is beset by demons in the night, while Valeria fights them off (she’ll pay with her own life later); this scene symbolically suggests Jesus’ harrowing of Hell.

The next day, we see a rejuvenated Conan (“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”), suggesting the symbolism of a resurrected Christ. Now, Conan and his companions plan how they’ll infiltrate the Temple of Set and rescue Osric’s daughter.

XV: Orgiastic Music

Wearing stripes of black and white camouflage, our three thieves enter the mountain from the back. We hear choral music subtly reminding one of Orff‘s Carmina Burana (i.e., ‘O Fortuna’), but also suggesting Wagnerian opera, as Milius had always fancied his film to be. Images of large pots with the body parts of victims of cannibalism symbolically reinforce the anti-Soviet propaganda.

Added to this propaganda is the following scene, with our three heroes entering a large room with Doom and Osric’s daughter, and a bevy of beautiful women lying about orgiastically in the centre. Subotai remarks on the sight, calling it “paradise.” Right-wing ideologues assume that Stalin, Mao, the Kims, et al lived in the lap of luxury, when high-ranking members of communist parties lived only marginally better than their respective common populations. To see the obscene luxury of the capitalist über-wealthy, look no further than Bezos, Musk, Gates et al…and some of their ilk have been involved in their own orgiastic scenes.

Since I’ve been so critical of this film, I’ll take a brief moment to praise the waltz-like music in this scene. Film-score composer Basil Poledouris“Orgy” is a delight to listen to, with memorable melodies undulating throughout. It always stands out in my mind as one of the film’s highlights.

XVI: The Serpent

In this scene, we see Doom transform into a giant serpent. That his is a snake cult ties in well with the film’s Christian symbolism, for if Conan is our Christ-like hero, getting stronger after not dying from his crucifixion, then Doom as our villain is, fittingly, the Satanic serpent of the Garden of Eden, tempting such Eve-like women as Osric’s daughter and the half-naked women in the orgy.

The serpent, like the sword, is a phallic symbol in its own right, but one made of the stronger material of the flesh, not of steel. Phallic, serpentine Doom is leading women like Osric’s daughter astray, exploiting them, as the film would have us believe of leftist leaders; yet, was Conan any better with the bare-breasted woman in the cage?

Pre-Castro Cuba was teeming with prostitution when that right-wing butcher Batista was a puppet for American politicians and mafia. One of the first things communists do after a revolution is to work aggressively to rid their countries of prostitution, striving to provide women with the education, equal opportunities, and material conditions needed so they can avoid having to sell themselves to survive. Presenting Doom in an orgy symbolically portrays socialists as whoremongers; this pro-capitalist film is projecting right-wing guilt onto the left.

The thieves take the princess out and ride away. Doom, changed back into human form, makes a small snake into an arrow and fires it at Valeria, killing her. The superiority of phallic flesh over phallic steel is demonstrated again, for his command, “Seek,” is enough to ensure a hit. Valeria had paid the gods for interfering with the demons’ attack on unconscious Conan.

XVII: Valeria and the Princess

Conan burns her body with Subotai’s torch at her funeral. Subotai weeps for him, for as he observes, Cimmerians never weep. As the film’s masculine ideal, Conan reinforces the hypermasculine notion that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Subotai’s weeping for him suggests Asian servility to white supremacy, like the wizard’s servility.

We’re meant to believe that the princess’s continued allegiance to Doom is some kind of brainwashing, as right-wingers assume leftists to have, rather than a projection of right-wing brainwashing that ‘capitalism is freedom.’ So Doom’s shooting of a snake arrow at her is more symbolic anti-Soviet propaganda. The Battle of the Mounds, a desert-like region, reminds me of the then-already-underway Soviet-Afghan War that had been manipulated into being by Carter and Brzezinski: Conan and Subotai, luring Doom, Thorgrim, and Rexor to the mounds for a final battle, are thus like the mujahideen, well-paid and armed by the US (as Osric has paid the three thieves with an abundance of jewels), and bleeding Soviet power dry, as Conan does of Doom’s power, by killing Thorgrim and Rexor.

XVIII: Symbolic Castration, and Transcending a Father’s Wisdom

Indeed, the killing of Rexor is symbolic castration (with the help of Valeria as a glowing, Valkyrie-like spirit), with Conan’s breaking of his sword and realizing that the Riddle of Steel isn’t about steel per se, but about having the steely manhood to wield the sword with determination to win. In this way, Conan has outlearned his father, for part of becoming a man is going beyond the limitations of your father’s wisdom. Such an upstaging of your father is a symbolic castration of him (like Cronus‘ rising up against Uranus), and symbolic castration occurs in many forms in Conan the Barbarian.

Since I’ve equated serpents with the phallus, we can see Conan’s decapitation of the giant snake in his raid of the Tower of Serpents as a symbolic castration, too. And since Doom himself can be a giant serpent, his decapitation at the end of the film is also a symbolic castration. It’s interesting in this connection to note how Doom, immediately before Conan kills him, tries to hypnotize him and manipulate him by calling him his “son.” In Conan’s rise to manhood, he’ll have no one as his father, not even a father-figure in Crom, who, in Conan’s prayer to Him, says He can go to Hell if He won’t help him and Subotai defeat Doom.

In Conan’s prayer/curse to Crom, we see how the right-winger can take God or leave Him, depending on the circumstances. We’ve seen how Nazis can pose as Christians or as quasi-pagans. Similarly, such “new atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have embraced neoconservatism as an imperialist reaction against Islam.

XIX: King Conan

The film ends with a shot of an older Conan sitting on a throne with an expression that suggests Henry IV‘s dictum, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This image is reiterated at the end of Conan the Destroyer, with the narrative voiceover of Akiro the Wizard saying, “…he found his own kingdom and wore his crown upon a troubled brow.”

So Conan in the end will himself be a king, a ruler, the governor, as it were, of a people. Since this story, set in an ancient and fantastic world, is meant as an allegory of our times, his becoming a king represents how the libertarian ideal will eventually be the very government that people like Milius and Schwarzenegger so dislike (recall in this connection how Schwarzenegger would eventually be the Governor of California).

Similarly, the Koch brothers, of right-wing libertarian disposition, got heavily involved in influencing the government, as do Rand Paul and Ron Paul. The two Pauls, to be fair, are anti-war and opposed to the kind of rampant corruption we see in American politics today; but neither of them is willing to overturn the capitalist system that is, through the profit motive, the basis of all this corruption and all these wars. Perhaps that is the reason for King Conan’s “troubled brow,” his “uneasy…head.”

XX: Conclusion

Reagan ran on the idea that “government is the problem,” then he became the leader of that very government. His tax cuts to the rich, and those of similarly-minded politicians, allowed millionaires eventually to become billionaires, whose money has since been used to buy politicians to ensure that the state serves the rich rather than the people. The greater accumulation of capital, concentrating and centralizing it in the hands of the richest people, has required a larger government, not a smaller one, to protect all the resulting proliferation of private property. Libertarianism leads not to small government, but big, privatized government, hence Reagan’s inflated military budget. Conan, fighter of the powerful, will become one of them.

The right-wing message of Conan the Barbarian is subtle and muted–fittingly so, given the subtle and muted expression of the neoliberal agenda started by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 80s, when this film came out. Some on the left warned of the dangers of this resurgence of conservative ideas, but the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears, just as many would have considered this film to be harmless fun.

It seemed reasonable to most people of the time, myself included, to think of the collectivism of Doom’s followers to be representative of a supposedly similar Soviet collectivism, mindlessly obeying their leader and lacking in Conan’s virtuous individualism. But just as we don’t see what becomes of Doom’s followers after his head is thrown down the steps, neither did most people see how huge percentages of Russians and other Eastern Europeans didn’t want to see the security of the Soviet system give way to predatory capitalism.

Stalin rightly predicted that a dissolving of socialism would result in the most virulent reaction, grabbing the working class by the throat. In today’s post-Soviet world of extreme wealth inequality, the control of most of the American media by six corporations, epidemic homelessness, ecocide, and imperialist war threatening a nuclear WWIII, we see what Doom really is.

In the allegorical sense, Conan really was a barbarian…and a destroyer.

How Does the Non-dupe Err?

I: Psychoanalytic Punning

Lacan wrote a lot of useful and relevant topics, but he did so, unfortunately, using a prose style that can only be described as…impenetrable.

To take his notion of The Name of the Father, for example, this is a concept best expressed in the original French, as I typically present it: le nom du père. I use the French not to be pretentious, but to get people to see the nuances that the English translation doesn’t convey. Those nuances help to tease out more of the meanings of the concept.

For example, Lacan made two plays on words with le nom du père that the English cannot parallel: these puns are le Non! du père and les non-dupes errent. Again, on the surface, such playing around with French may seem pretentious and self-indulgent on Lacan’s part, but all three of these similar-sounding expressions bring out a lot of hidden meaning in what he was trying to say.

The nom (“name”) in le nom du père represents the legalistic aspect of the concept. In nom, I hear an interlingual pun on νόμος, or “law” in Greek. The non in le Non! du père represents the prohibitive aspect. So, the father (or, the second parent, he or she who intervenes in the dyadic, Oedipal relationship with the first parent), in laying down the law against the child’s wish to indulge in the transgressive pleasure of jouissance with his mother, is saying, “No! You mustn’t indulge in your Oedipal fantasies with your mother…she is my wife!

Apart from the prohibition against incest with her, the child must also give up on his wish to remain in a one-on-one relationship with her, to have her as the only person in his life, to hog her all to himself, to have her as a metaphorical mirror of, and an extension of, his narcissistic self. The child must be integrated with the greater society, which is who the father, as the third person in this set-up, represents: to go from a relationship with one other to many Others.

II: Going With, or Against, Society

So, the father’s (or second parent’s, as against the Oedipally-desired first parent’s) introduction of laws, or what’s more accurately understood as social rules, customs, culture, and a shared language, helps the child in his or her initiation with society. Now, initiation into society includes a confrontation with its illusions and hypocrisies, which one may or may not be duped into accepting.

If one accepts the phoney social charade, or is even duped in to believing that it’s real, one tends, in varying degrees depending on one’s intelligence and talents, to succeed in life. One has learned, socially, how to play the game. If, however, one does not accept the charade, and one is not duped into believing that the charade is real, then one tends–again, to varying extents depending on how well or how poorly one’s competencies can compensate–to fail to climb the social ladder. These social successes or failures are what Lacan meant with his second pun on le nom du père, the paradox that is les non-dupes errent.

So in Lacan’s paradox, we can be both wise and foolish at the same time, but in opposing ways. If we’re the dupes of social convention, believing its illusions are real, we won’t err, because we’ll benefit from playing the social game. If we’re non-dupes, though, we will err from the straight path that leads to those benefits–generally material and those of social status–that come from social conformity.

We can call this paradox, if you will, the ouroboros of social conformity, to return to my dialectical symbolism of the coiled serpent, which I’ve used in many previous blog posts to describe the paradoxical unity of opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, the bitten tail is the opposite extreme, and the length of its coiled body represents all the intermediate points between the meeting opposites.

To apply this concept to les non-dupes errent, if we’re duped too much by the hypocrisies of social convention, our drive to do well will push us to succeed and rise high in society. Such has been the success of our phoney, lying politicians, our trendy, Top Ten pop stars, and our virtue-signalling Hollywood celebrities, among many others. Those who know how to play the game and manipulate the system to their advantage do well…because they’re so thoroughly duped by it, totally believing in the illusion; and provided they have a decent amount of ability (and good connections!), they’re motivated to work hard enough to succeed socially and materially.

These successful people have gone all the way up the coiled length of the ouroboros that they’ve not only reached the biting head of success, they’ve also gone past it, over to the bitten tail of being extreme dupes. They’ve not only been taken in by the deception, to its maximum; they’re addicted to the illusion, and when confronted with the unreality of their world, their cognitive dissonance is so great that they’ll fight tooth and nail to defend their cherished illusion.

Then, on the other hand, there are the non-dupes who err. These ones are so contemptuous of society’s hypocrisies, they despise the masquerade so much, that they refuse to participate in it. Refusing to go along, though, they also don’t get to enjoy the rewards of the system. As a result, they slide down the coiled length of the body of the serpent and reach the pain of its bitten tail. These ones are like Diogenes the Cynic, or in modern times, persecuted journalists like Julian Assange. In their martyrdom and suffering, though, they go past the bitten tail and reach the biting head, which for them represents the honour of keeping it real.

Of course, there are also those who are everywhere in the middle, on the coiled length of the ouroboros’s body. These ones are some combination of partly duped, partly erring, and therefore moderately succeeding or failing to varying degrees.

As for me, I’ve learned that les non-dupes errent has been, for good or ill, the story of my life.

III: Erring in a Toxic Family

When you’ve been raised in a family with a narcissistic parent, as I was, you live out a life with a phoney narrative built up around it. By the time you finally wise up to it (which tends to be around when you’re in your late thirties to early forties), the psychological damage has already been done.

The phoney narrative has a cast of characters that the narcissist narrator has established, a set of roles the members of the family are assigned and manipulated into playing: the narcissistic parent, who has absolute power and is idolized, practically canonized as a saint by the family; the codependent other parent, who, like everyone else in the family, doesn’t dare challenge the narrative for fear of reprisals from the narc parent; the flying monkey siblings, the chief of whom is the golden child (the dupe to end all dupes), who is favoured the most for having pleased the narc parent the most, and the lesser flying monkeys, who are the lost children, given less attention and feeling relatively invisible, but who are at least not the despised one.

The despised one, however–the scapegoat, or identified patient–is the one who defines the dysfunction of the family for being the one who flouts its rules and incurs the wrath of the narcissistic parent. This last family member is the non-dupe who errs. He or she sees past the masquerade that the rest of the family is putting on; he or she is the black sheep who sees through the family bullshit. His or her blunt honesty about the phoney situation, refusing to be duped, gets him or her in trouble; he or she errs into the realm of emotional abuse.

As I’ve discussed in a spate of blog posts, I was the scapegoat of my family. As the sensitive empath, I saw through the phoniness of their presentation of themselves as a ‘respectable,’ and ‘loving’ family. My attempts to expose their charade got me black-balled by them. I was not duped, and I erred from the path they all went on together. They, the duped, didn’t err: they all ended up with better-paying work than mine, and with the respect of their peers.

No good deed goes unpunished.

And as the Marquis de Sade observed in his prose, the wicked prosper. Such is the world we live in.

IV: The Non-duped in School

Similarly, in high school we see our classmates grouping together based on common interests, usually based on their musical tastes, through which these adolescents derive their fragile sense of identity. In the 80s, when I was a teen, there were the metal-heads, or rockers; there were the New Wavers; there were the Goths, and other fans of what was then considered ‘alternative rock’; and there were the fans of mainstream pop and rock, those who included the hero jock football players and their pretty, princess girlfriends.

Then you had people like me, who didn’t fit in with any of those categories, partly because I was too awkward to make it with any of them, and partly because I simply didn’t want to be one of them. I built my own identity around listening to prog rock, modern classical, and avant-garde music. In other words, I rejected the phoney conformity of my classmates. Not being duped by their fashionable posturing, I erred…into the realm of being bullied.

V: Meandering and the Media

Another area where, paradoxically, the dupe doesn’t err and the non-dupe errs is in that of the global media, 90% of which in the US is controlled by only six corporations who, therefore, get to decide, based on their class interests, what is and isn’t newsworthy; and elsewhere there are repeats of what is reported in such dubious sources as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, based in New York, London and Paris.

Much of the global media, including The Guardian, CNN, and many others, is given huge donations from Bill Gates (Don’t get me started on him!), meaning that he can decide on the nature of their content, which will ensure maintaining a positive public image for him.

It is in these contexts that we can understand the contrast between the journalism of Assange and someone like Vanderbilt oligarch heir Anderson Cooper, who worked for the CIA for two summers while in college. The latter is a dupe who doesn’t err, while the former is, as mentioned above, a non-dupe who has erred.

For his work in maintaining the phoney political and social narratives of our time, being himself a dupe of them as well as duping millions of brainwashed CNN viewers around the world, Cooper has done well for himself financially and in terms of social standing. For telling the truth about our corrupt political world, though, Assange is incarcerated and in poor health.

VI: Roaming from the ‘Rona

The fact that the mainstream media is so reliably mendacious is the context in which we should place most reporting on the ‘rona. That millions have been plunged into poverty during this pandemic, while the oligarchs have seen their wealth skyrocket, should give us all pause. And this is all because of a virus that, if you were to catch it, would cause you in most cases to have from zero, to mild, to moderate symptoms, or in a small percentage of cases, more serious symptoms, or death in less than 1% of cases: this reality is more than enough to raise serious doubts of what we’re being told.

As I’ve stated previously, I’m no “anti-vaxxer”; rather, I’m opposed to the mandates. Those of us who are resistant to the machinations of those who are exploiting this pandemic for the sake of their own material gain, we are the non-dupes who err. We refuse the jab as an expression of our civil rights, and because we have legitimate doubts of its efficacy at best, and its safety at worst. Because we won’t be duped by the media, we err, that is, we lose work and the ability to go where we wish. The compliant ones, whom we see as the dupes, they don’t err: they can go about and work as they wish, imagining there’s no dog leash around their necks because they never attempt to walk beyond the length of its reach.

VII: Erring Commies

A final manifestation of the non-dupe erring that I’d like to discuss is he or she who has a realistic understanding of capitalism. The dupe of neoliberalism has a blind eye to how the hell we’re undeniably living in has been caused by the aggravation of class conflict through the unholy alliance of the bourgeoisie with the capitalist state that protects their interests. This dupe insists that the mere existence of a government and its regulations precludes the possibility of our woes having been caused by capitalism, the only ‘true’ form of which is, apparently, the “free market.” By playing the neoliberal game, however, these dupes tend to fall in line, believe in the spurious notion of the ‘American dream,’ work hard for their bosses, get promotions, and achieve at least a reasonable level of success. They don’t err.

We non-dupes, however, we communists, are standing in the rain, as Michael Parenti once observed. We put our jobs on the line; we’ve historically put our lives on the line. Contrary to the right-wing propagandists’ notion that communists hunger for power, we want the power to end hunger. If we’d truly lusted after power, we’d join forces with the Rockefellers and Kissingers of the world (as the dupes who don’t err do); instead, we non-dupes who err find ourselves in, or at least sympathizing with, countries that have to endure economic sanctions and embargoes, as well as threats of invasion.

VIII: Conclusion

So, though the non-dupe errs, he or she can be consoled with the fact that, straying from the straight path that leads to material success, he or she at least isn’t selling his or her soul to the system. Our suffering should be seen as a badge of honour, for we have an integrity and a sense of principles that the duped who don’t err will never have. We’ve erred past the bitten tail of the ouroboros, the realm of failure and defeat, to reach the serpent’s biting head, where we can proudly say that we’ve never allowed ourselves to be deceived.

Keep on erring, non-dupes. Progress is not possible without it.

Stairs

The wealthy, monied aristocracy

causes those of the petite bourgeoisie

to be afraid of those in poverty,

to whom those in the economic centre

may, one unhappy day, have to descend.

Those in the lower social echelons

dream, one day, of ascending to the top;

but those already there would have them stop

for fear that they would, one day, them usurp.

Still, the rich promote the American dream.

In their deceptiveness, they’d make it seem

that anyone financially can rise,

to make them work more tirelessly…what lies!

for their employers; yet, nothing comes of

this extra work. Hence, this misguided love

of all things monetary blinds us all

from the reality that there’s a wall

that separates each step on this stairway.

All walls of glass, invisible, but they

will stay there always, until we, as one,

decide to break them down. Then, we will run

up to the top, and tear the structure down.

Then we will have a world for all the people, not one of rising claimants to the crown.

Who Is to Blame?

One of the popular motivational videos you can find on YouTube is a scene from Rocky Balboa, when Rocky steps outside with Robert, Rocky Jr. (played by Milo Ventimiglia), his adult son, to discuss why Rocky, now in his fifties, wants to go back in the ring and fight Mason “The Line” Dixon, a young fighter in his prime. Robert tries to talk his father out of fighting Dixon, complaining that his ambitions in life have been stifled from living under his father’s shadow, and that this fight will make it all worse; but Rocky retorts with the advice that, to succeed in this harsh world, “it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.” He, significantly, also tells his son that blaming others won’t help him.

I must say that I have mixed feelings about Rocky’s speech. While it is true that our ability to overcome difficulties is based on how much we “can get hit and keep moving forward,” and that when we go and get what we’re worth, we have to be prepared “to take the hits,” I don’t think it’s necessarily cowards who point the finger and say that they aren’t where they want to be “because of him, or her, or anybody.”

Sometimes pointing the finger at others is just plain telling it like it is.

And while sometimes it is true that “Life” is what hits the hardest (i.e., bad luck), it shouldn’t be used as a sweeping generalization to which all our troubles can be reduced. Often, indeed quite often, we really aren’t where we want to be because of other people’s evil-doing. Very often, it’s other people who are hitting us the hardest…literally hitting us, even. Blaming our woes on an abstraction like “Life” is often an evasion of personal responsibility on the part of our abusers.

Indeed, abuse victims are traumatized not by “Life” but by other people, their abusers. Bullies often like to make their victims feel as if it’s their weakness that has put them where they are, but that’s nonsense. It’s the bullies who are the real cowards and weaklings, by taking advantage of their victims’ meekness instead of solving their own problems.

The Jews suffered pogroms, discrimination, hate, and a genocide not because of “Life,” but because of other people…European Christians in particular. On the other side of the coin, the Palestinians aren’t suffering oppression because of some abstract notion called “Life,” but because of the Zionists who are occupying their land, and making life there unliveable for the Palestinians.

The aboriginals of North and South America, as well as Australia, suffered the theft of their land, the rejection of their culture, systemic racism, and a genocide not because of “Life,” but because of other people…whites in particular.

Blacks were enslaved, abused, scorned, lynched, and have to this day suffered police brutality not because of “Life,” but because of other people…whites in particular.

And the global proletariat have been ruthlessly exploited and kept in either poverty or near-poverty not by mere bad luck, but by other people…the ruling class.

(The above examples are, of course, far from exhaustive. I’ve failed to mention the many, many other examples of victimization not out of a wish to trivialize or minimize them, but because I simply need to carry on with my argument.)

Yes, other people cause our misfortunes all the time, and there is nothing wrong with pointing this out. In fact, pointing this out is a crucial first step towards ending the misfortune that these other people keep causing for us.

The idea that “cowards” go around blaming other people for their woes is in line with the neoliberal agenda that those in power, and those with sky-high levels of wealth, needn’t take any responsibility for the toxic effect they have on the world. Instead, apparently, those who are down on their luck are unsympathetic ‘losers,’ or are people who just need to pull their socks up.

A recent manifestation of how the obscenely wealthy have risen even higher, while the poor have been plunged into even worse poverty, has been the global response to the coronavirus epidemic. My focus here isn’t so much on how much of a danger covid is, but rather how the global capitalist class is using this pandemic to further their own nefarious agenda.

Millions of people have lost their jobs (I, myself, have gone from employed to underemployed) and/or have been at least in danger of losing their homes, or are food insecure, while the likes of Bezos and Musk have seen their wealth skyrocket. The common people are being made to wear masks while the wealthier don’t seem to need to all that much.

Bill Gates, a man with no education in medicine whatsoever and therefore no authority on medical matters, has been treated like a health guru in the media, pushing the vaccine mandate. A look into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s history with imposing vaccines on their Third World guinea pigs in India and Africa should give us all pause. This, recall, is the same man who has bought up huge areas of American farmland, who has far too much influence over the media, and over organizations like the WHO through the money he’s given them, and who had an unsavoury business relationship with Jeffrey Epstein…not someone we should be trusting.

I’m no “anti-vaxxer,” but I do believe vaccines should be given a longer testing period than these new ones have been given. I’m definitely opposed to the mandate on them that is being pushed. When people who don’t want the jab are being denied work, re-entry into society, etc., only for refusing an experimental vaccine that doesn’t prevent transmission of covid, that at best gives some protection against more serious symptoms, and at worst could worsen one’s medical condition (due to ADE, something the medical establishment dismisses, but which many of us, not trusting the politics of that establishment, don’t dismiss)–all against a virus where, if you catch it, your chances of survival are at least 99%–this is a potential recipe for totalitarian repression. This is other people hurting us, not “Life.”

Now, some might think the use of the term “totalitarian” to describe vaccine mandates, coronavirus immunity passports, and the like is alarmist. We must, however, think about what all of this is leading to, if we sit back like those unthinking beasts in Animal Farm and passively accept all of this piecemeal chipping-away at all of our rights.

Covid is being exploited by the global capitalist class to usher in not only vaccine mandates, but also to goad everyone into having digital vaccine ID passports, which will further erode our privacy. Governments will be able to surveil and monitor everything we do, everywhere we go, in spite of paying lip service to protecting our privacy. Total tech, that is.

Cashless economies will spring up soon enough, making it possible to take us off the online grid, as it were, and deny us access to the purchasing of anything, if we say or do anything considered a threat to the power of the global elite. Sometimes people are denied access to crucial necessities simply through an online glitch from these biometric ID systems, as has happened to many impoverished Indians unable to get their monthly rice rations…these people starved to death. “Life” didn’t do this to them; other people are to blame–the ruling class.

To get back to the covid controversy, the problem with masks, social distancing, and lockdowns is that it aggravates the already devastating alienation that has grown over the past forty years. Solidarity, worker unity, and organizing aren’t sufficient conditions to bring about a revolutionary situation leading to socialism, but they are necessary conditions.

Adding to all this divisiveness is how the media has portrayed the compliant side vs. the resistant side in the covid debates. The former are portrayed as not only ‘mature,’ ‘reasonable,’ and ‘responsible,’ but also as the bulk of the left…and by ‘left,’ the media presents them as liberals. As for the resistant side, not only are they seen as crybabies, irrational, and selfish, they’re also portrayed as largely right-wing (i.e., libertarians, Christian fundamentalists, NWO/Illuminati conspiracy theorists, and/or Trump supporters).

My resistance, on the other hand, as well as the resistance of many others out there to the repressive measures being used on us, is based on solid leftist principles. More and more of the working class is getting fed up with extreme income inequality, long hours with poor wages, food and housing insecurities, and the like; not only are workers striking, but they’re outright quitting en masse. Add to this the worst economic collapse (predicted before covid) we’ve seen in decades (along with inflation), and it isn’t hard to see how the global ruling class is getting nervous.

Just as, a century ago, the capitalist class used fascism to circumvent socialist revolution, so are they now using these authoritarian measures to rein us in. This current predicament is why revolution is so urgently needed. These months and years could be our last chance before not only these authoritarian measures are implemented and irreversible, but also the ecocide of climate change and the threat of nuclear war between the US, China, and Russia could be realized.

Again, these evils that loom over our heads aren’t to be blamed on some impersonal force called “Life,” or “bad luck.” There are real people to be blamed for all these ills.

With a socialist revolution, we could also settle the covid controversies once and for all by taking all the relevant medical information and putting it in the hands of the people. A big part of the reason that so many of us don’t trust how the medical establishment is presenting the ‘facts’ on the ‘rona is with all the censorship and ‘fact-checking’ going on.

The mainstream media lied about Iraq, Libya, Syria, ‘Russia-gate,’ and is currently lying about China and the Uyghurs. And we’re supposed to trust the same media establishment, paid for and controlled by such oligarchs as Gates and Bezos, to be telling us the truth about the ‘rona? Hearing the likes of Fauci, the top mouthpieces of the medical and political establishment, flip-flop and lie–time and again–over the past two years, doesn’t encourage trust.

A revolution could result in the people gaining control over the narrative. With all the information available, uncensored and free of the undue influence of the wealthy, we the people could scrutinize and thoroughly debate the evidence on the effectiveness of vaccines and masks, the seriousness of covid on people of all ages, and all the other relevant issues. Whichever way the pendulum ultimately swings, and how far it swings one way or the other (i.e., the compliant side vs. the resistant side), we would all have an answer we could trust.

We’d also have a decent chance to solve all the other problems of our world: the endless wars, ecocide, income inequality, homelessness, healthcare, education, racism, alienation, and bullying.

If, given this post-revolutionary chance, we fail to solve these problems, we really will have only ourselves to blame.

Analysis of the Medea Myth

In Greek myth, Medea is something of a paradox: on the one hand, we sympathize with her for her suffering at the hands of her disloyal husband, Jason, who abandons her for Corinthian King Creon‘s daughter, the beautiful young princess Creusa (or Glauce), and for the abusive treatment she suffers as a foreigner, a ‘barbarian,’ and an exile. On the other hand, we are horrified at the wickedness she is capable of: fratricide, treason against her father, King Aeëtes (out of a capricious falling-in-love with Jason), and–as if immolating Creon and Creusa with a cursed, poisoned robe weren’t cruel enough–Medea, by Euripides‘ innovation, commits a double filicide on her and Jason’s sons (although some scholars believe Neophron was the one who added this horror to her list of sins).

This paradox of Medea, arousing extremes of sympathy and antipathy, are representative of contradictory feelings many have towards foreigners: sympathy for their plight as second-class citizens, and the antipathy of xenophobia. Medea as the representative of all foreigners living in a land hostile to them, whose suffering can sometimes drive them to commit criminal, even atrocious acts, is therefore a story most relevant to our times, as I plan to demonstrate.

I will be examining her story primarily from three sources: the Medea of Seneca and of Euripides, and the 1969 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which is based on Euripides’ Medea. What is only incidentally examined in the two classical tragedies–that is, not only the plight of the foreigner, but also the relationship between imperialist plunderers and the countries they plunder–is developed more in Pasolini’s film (in his demythologizing of the source material), as I will also try to demonstrate.

A major contrast between what Euripides and Seneca wrote, and what Pasolini presents on the screen, is precisely that. In the former two, we have excesses of words–long, poetic speeches that are the hallmark of ancient Greek and Roman drama. In Pasolini, we have a relative dearth of dialogue; he is more interested in presenting vivid spectacle (rather like Michelangelo Antonioni, as we see in Blowup, La Notte, and The Passenger) than in providing plot and dialogue.

Medea is, as the daughter of Aeëtes, also the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. It can be said that she derives her ardour from the heat of the sun. She is also a sorceress, her magical abilities therefore making her an object of fear, exacerbating the xenophobia she already has to suffer, and, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, providing her with the power to do the very kind of evil that people are afraid she’ll do.

Jason as a child has been raised by the wise centaur Chiron, to keep the boy safe from his uncle Pelias, the usurping king of Iolcus who otherwise might want to kill Jason out of a fear he’ll be a threat to his power. Pasolini’s film begins with Chiron educating the boy; first we see him as a centaur, then, when Jason (played by Giuseppe Gentile) has come of age, Chiron is seen as fully human. (Such a representation of Chiron isn’t completely without precedent, for there are traditional Greek representations of him with human front legs, demonstrating his unique status as a centaur.) In the context of Pasolini’s atheistic demythologizing of the narrative, then, Chiron as a centaur represents the fanciful imagination of Jason as a child, while human Chiron as seen in Jason’s adulthood represents his loss of that childhood imagination. Put another way, the half-human, half-bestial Chiron represents the not-yet-developed reason of Jason’s childhood; the fully-human Chiron represents adult Jason’s fully developed reason.

Pasolini’s Chiron (played by Laurent Terzieff) admits to having lied to young Jason, who isn’t his son, as he’s previously said. He emphasizes to the boy that everything is sacred, that nothing in nature is ‘natural,’ that gods inhabit everything in nature. The sacred, however, is a mix of good and bad, that the gods love and hate. Again, Chiron admits to being a liar and to being too poetic. He predicts that, when fully-grown Jason goes to Pelias to demand his right to the kingdom, that the usurper will demand that he first fetch him the Golden Fleece. Finally, we see fully-human Chiron admit to adult Jason that there are no gods: his talk of gods inhabiting everything in nature has been another lie. Myths are essentially lies, in the opinion of atheistic Pasolini.

That we see centaur Chiron with Jason the child, and later, human Chiron with adult Jason, a mentor who admits to having told the boy poetic lies, represents the shift from an earlier, poetic, metaphorical use of language (as Northrop Frye discussed in The Great Code) to the later prosaic, descriptive kind of language (Frye, pages 24-28, 31-32). Analogous to this shift in language is also what his change from half-human, half-horse to fully human represents: a shift from animalistic primitivism–and its belief in myths, gods, magic, etc.–to a more advanced civilization lacking in gods. This contrast between god-fearing and godless, between the mythically and non-mythically oriented, between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilization,’ will be especially apparent in the Corinthian attitude towards Medea as seen especially in the film.

Since Pelias assumes Jason will never succeed in getting the Golden Fleece, he shrewdly claims he’ll give his kingdom to Jason if he gives Pelias the Fleece. Pelias doesn’t realize, however, that Jason will get crucial help from a woman whom Eros (according to Apollonius of Rhodes) will hit with one of his love-arrows…Medea.

One interesting point to mine for meaning in is how some writers, such as Apollonius of Rhodes and Seneca, regarded the Argo as having been the first ship (in Greek mythical history). The implication of this first boat, as regards sailing off to a distant land to steal the Golden Fleece, is that Jason’s mission can be seen to represent the beginnings of imperialist plunder.

The choral ode at the end of Act Two of Seneca’s play deals with this mythologizing of the dawn of imperialism:

Glorious were the ages our forefathers saw
when deception was far distant.
Each person lived an unambitious life, at home,
then growing old on ancestral farmland,
rich with a little, they knew no wealth
except what their native soil brought forth.
The world was once divided into strict partitions,
but those were broken by the pinewood ship,
which ordered the ocean to suffer a beating
and the sea, once inviolate, to turn into
one of our reasons to fear. […]
What was the prize for this journey?
The Golden Fleece,
and Medea, greater evil than all the sea,
a worthy cargo for the world’s first boat.
Now at last the sea has yielded and obeys all laws.
Now there is no need of a ship made by Pallas’ hand,
rowed back by kings, a well-renowned vessel–an Argo.
Any old skiff can wander the deep.
All boundaries are gone and the cities
have set up their walls in new lands;
the world is a thoroughfare, nothing remains
where it was. [Seneca, Act II, lines 329-339, 361-372]

In fact, the ending of this choral ode was famously quoted by none other than that exemplar of colonialism, Christopher Columbus, in his Book of Prophecies:

The ages will come, in faraway years
when Ocean will set free the links of Nature
and the great earth lie open, and Tethys will open,
new worlds, and Thule will be no longer
the end of the earth. [Seneca, Act II, lines 373-379; the original Latin can be found here]

So Medea and the society of Colchis can be seen, in relating Euripides’ and Seneca’s plays to our world, as representative of the Third World of today; for though imperialism in its capitalist form of course didn’t exist in the ancient world, class conflict did, in the analogous form of the master vs. slave contradiction. Recall Marx’s words: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The Corinthians’ regarding of Medea and the Colchians as barbarian has its parallel in the modern world, with Western imperialists’ racist labelling of those in developing countries as ‘uncivilized,’ or not considered “decent,” and using such labelling to justify taking over their land and stealing their resources for the imperialists’ enrichment. Pasolini’s film, in its vivid, graphic depiction of the Colchians performing a human sacrifice, with an exotic soundtrack of music from such places as Tibet and other parts of the Orient, emphasizes the foreign contrast between mythically-oriented, ritualistic Colchis and ‘civilized’ Corinth. The ‘civilized’ countries could cite this human sacrifice as proof of the lack of civilization in Colchis while turning around and stealing from the Colchians, or exiling Medea, and not considering their own behaviour as, in its own way, equally cruel.

In his atheistic treatment of the Jason and Medea myth, Pasolini largely removes the supernatural elements, replacing them with characters’ perception of, and belief in, a divinity that isn’t physically there. So instead of seeing Eros shoot a love arrow into the heart of Medea (played by Maria Callas in her only film role, also in which she doesn’t sing), she sees Jason’s arrival, and it’s love at first sight, expressed through her falling on the floor on her back.

Similarly, in Pasolini’s film, we don’t see her use her magic to help Jason plough the field with the fire-breathing bulls; nor do we see her use her magic to help him defeat the army of warriors that grew from a dragon’s teeth sown in the ploughed field; nor do we see her use her magic to put to sleep the dragon that guarded the Fleece. Instead, she simply has her brother, Absyrtus (Apsirto, played by Sergio Tramonti), steal the Fleece and take it with her by chariot to Jason and the Argonauts.

The film portrays Apsirto as rather weak-willed and dim-witted, for he shows no resistance to Medea’s wish for him to help her commit what his family and all of Colchian society would deem an act of the most abominable impiety. He just smiles like a fool and does her bidding without question. Indeed, when Aëetes and his men chase her and her brother to retrieve their prized Fleece, she raises an axe to kill Apsirto, but he shows not the slightest ability to defend himself.

Her helping Jason to steal the Fleece, a coveted possession that can be seen to represent the natural resources of a developing country, can in turn be seen to represent the puppet leader of said developing country collaborating with its imperialist oppressor.

In the film, when Medea finds herself outside of Colchis with Jason and the Argonauts, and therefore in a land foreign to her own, she feels alienated from it. The men all set up tents, but do not pray to the gods to bless them. Such irreligiousness is inexplicable to her.

She thus goes through a spiritual crisis. She runs about the land, which is barely covered in any vegetation, and calls out to her gods of the sun and earth; they do not seem to hear her in this strange, foreign land.

Jason returns to Iolcus and gives Pelias the Fleece, but the king feels no obligation to keep his promise and give Jason his rightful place on the throne. Unlike in the original myth, in which Medea schemes to have Pelias’ own daughters kill him, the Jason of Pasolini’s film simply accepts not regaining the throne, telling his uncle that the Fleece is of no use, value, or meaning outside of Colchis. Of course not: its meaning exists only for those who believe in it; in Pasolini’s godless world, the Fleece cannot mean anything outside of the Colchian culture that reveres it.

Pelias’ wives strip Medea of her black priestess robes and jewellery, replacing them with humble clothing similar to their own, the clothing of a wife. Medea has lost her gods, the Fleece’s value is no more, and she is now a mere housewife. Still, she’ll bear these losses, as long as Jason remains true to her…

She and Jason live in Corinth for ten years. Various sources say the couple have had anywhere from one to fourteen children. In the plays by Euripides and Seneca, and in Pasolini’s film, they have two sons.

Now, with this family living in Corinth, Medea is not the only foreigner–all of them are. In fact, Jason finds himself and his whole family in danger of Acastus, son of Pelias, who wants revenge for the killing of his father (for which, recall, Medea is responsible), and who has driven all of them out of Iolcus.

Jason can find only one practical solution to his predicament as an exile: marry Creusa, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, and thus abandon Medea. This new marriage should at least give protection to him and their two boys…and with this scorning and rejection of Medea, the tragedies of Euripides and Seneca begin.

Pasolini’s film only subtly shows Medea’s realization that her husband is abandoning her for another woman, a disloyalty grown out of his fickle nature rather than a need to protect himself and their sons from Acastus, who doesn’t figure in the film. She goes to Corinth with her nurse (played by Annamaria Chio), who is reluctant to go because she knows what Jason is about to do; Medea sees a kind of dancing competition among suitors as to who will win the princess’s hand. Jason is participating in the dance with the other men, and Medea takes the shocking hint.

Euripides’ play opens with a long speech by the nurse, who describes Medea’s anguish on learning of her husband’s betrayal. Seneca’s begins with Medea herself giving the long, anguished speech.

Comparisons and contrasts can be made between the Medea plays and a couple by Shakespeare with regard to the theme of revenge, namely, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Medea is disenfranchised both as a foreign “barbarian” and as a woman; Shylock, in TMOV, is disenfranchised for being a foreigner and a Jew in Venice. Because of their ill-treatment, both Medea and Shylock are pushed over the edge and driven to commit violent, horrible acts. As a result, both characters are sympathized with and abominated for what they do (Medea) or at least intend to do (Shylock). Shylock is allowed, at the end of TMOV, to live, but he has been financially and spiritually destroyed. In the end, though Medea physically gets away scot-free to Athens on her grandfather’s solar chariot, she can be said to have destroyed her own soul by her double filicide. Shylock is punished for his sins; Medea is punished by her sins.

As far as comparisons, or really, contrasts with Hamlet are concerned, Medea clearly shows its protagonist (if such a violent woman can be called such–i.e., a sympathetic character) to be firmly resolved in her wish not only to get revenge on and kill Creusa and Creon, but also to kill her two boys. In contemplating the double filicide, she wavers somewhat in her guilt, as can be seen in the Seneca, but she goes through with it all the same. She’s firmly resolved to commit all the killings in Pasolini’s film, too.

But in Hamlet, as we all know, the Danish prince delays his revenge all the way to the bitter end, when he’s been pricked by “the point envenom’d,” and only when he knows he’s going to die does he finally get his revenge on his uncle Claudius. A number of characters either in Hamlet or referred to in the play take (or want to take) their revenge more decisively than the Dane does: namely, they are Laertes (Act IV, Scene v, from line 109), Fortinbras, who is slowed down in his revenge only by a vast stretch of land to traverse, and Pyrrhus, who hesitates only briefly before killing Priam to avenge his father, Achilles (Act II, Scene ii, lines 444-491). And certainly, Medea is much quicker to revenge than Hamlet is.

Now, Colchis, Iolcus, and Corinth can be contrasted in terms of how “barbaric” vs ‘enlightened/’progressive’ they are. Colchis, as we already know, represents ‘primitive’ society, that of the developing world. Iolcus, with its usurping, double-crossing King Pelias, represents the unapologetically imperialistic part of the world, that which takes from other countries (i.e., the Golden Fleece), that which enriches itself at the expense of others, and feels no remorse for that foreign policy. In our modern world, Pelias is the conservative.

Corinth, however, is more like today’s liberal world. Creon would take in Jason and his sons; taking in Medea, however, would be crossing over the line for him. As we on the left know, liberal generosity has its limits, to put it mildly. As a manifestation of modern liberal thinking, social democracy would improve the lives of those within one’s own country, and has no qualms about taking from the Third World to enrich itself. Creon’s treatment of Medea, and of Jason and their sons, can be seen as symbolic of this liberal double standard. We’ll take care of the needy among us, and a select number of foreign refugees, but anyone outside of these must fend for themselves.

In Euripides’ play, Medea laments the miserable existence of women. She says,

Of all the sentient creatures of the earth, we women are
the most unfortunate. First there is the dowry: at such
exorbitant expense we have to buy a husband–pay
to take a master for our bodies. And as the seasons pass,
if he prove false, then are we twice abused…
…All our hopes and striving lean
on this one thing: whether the husband that we take
turns out good or ill. For marriage is the only choice
we have, and divorce discredits women utterly.
We leave the house we knew, the dear comfort of familiar
ways. We must enter the husband’s world, accommodate
strange practices, the habits of his house, and figure out–
oh, hardest yet–how best to deal with his whims, for little
in our past prepares us for this task of satisfying him. […]

A man when he is bored at home, or irritated by
the burdens of domestic life, goes out into the streets,
or to the baths, debates philosophy for sport, diverts
himself with games and friends, and does what pleases him.
Our lives are monotone: for on one man we’re forced
to fix our gaze. Men say we lead an easy life,
safe at home while they risk all at the point of a spear.
What do they know? I would rather stand three times
in battle with shield and spear than give birth once. (Euripides, lines 252-256, 259-267, and 273-281)

Medea might want to pause before preferring to fight three battles, and risk a violent death on the battlefield, to giving birth to a child; then again, I as a man should pause before presuming that risking one’s life to give birth, especially without modern medicine, as would have been the case with women in Medea’s time, would be preferable to going to war. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I suppose.

While the patriarchal aspects of the sources of Medea’s suffering are so obvious as not to need much further comment (beyond how her leaving of Colchis and her family, to be with her new husband, Jason, is symbolic of patrilocal culture), I suspect we could be dealing at least in part with matrilineal customs, too. After all, though Jason is working to secure the safety of his and Medea’s sons in Corinth, threats of exiling the boys as well as Medea also loom over the course of the play. See, for example, in Euripides’ play, lines 976-977, where Medea says, “Do I not have the children? And aren’t we–they and I–/now exiles in need of friends?”

If descent in their world were patrilineal, the boys’ association with their father would ensure their safety without question; after all, only Medea, with her magic, is a threat to Creon and his daughter. The boys’ matrilineal association with Medea would make them as much foreigners as she is, and this association would threaten them with exile as well as her. Finally, Jason is marrying into Creon’s family, not Creusa into his family; his entrance into Creon’s family is thus matrilocal.

In Act Four of Seneca’s play, the nurse and Medea give detailed descriptions of the scorned wife preparing her “uncanny rites” (Seneca, line 680) and magic spells. In Pasolini’s film, we see Medea looking out of a window at the sun, her grandfather (as she, in this atheistic production, imagines it to be: she can easily be understood to be imagining the sound of Helios’ voice), and does something rarely seen in the film…she smiles. Then she assembles her ladies-in-waiting, including her nurse, who is ever-reluctant to participate in Medea’s violent plans, and chants with them, pacing back and forth ritualistically, to prepare the spell to make lethal her gift of a gown, necklaces, and a tiara for Creusa.

The film shows Medea’s revenge on Creusa (played by Margareth Clémenti) and Creon (played by Massimo Girotti, who incidentally was also in Last Tango in Paris) twice: first, as a vision Medea has of the gown literally burning the princess and king; then, as the actual revenge carried out, with Creusa looking at herself in the mirror fearfully while wearing the gown, identifying with Medea and her suffering, and then killing herself in remorse, with Creon following after and imitating her suicide.

Pasolini’s atheistic, demythologized representation of Creusa’s demise can be interpreted along Lacanian lines. Her beholding of herself in the mirror while wearing Medea’s gown, necklaces, and tiara can be seen as her looking at her ideal-I in the specular image. The ideal wife for Jason isn’t Creusa, but Medea. Creusa sees herself dressed like Medea and knows she cannot measure up to Medea’s ideal, because she cannot replace the woman who ought still to be Jason’s wife. Therefore, Creusa cannot marry him. The pain she feels from having caused Medea such pain, a pain Medea has projected onto Creusa in the form of the gift of clothes, is a metaphorical burning of her entire body, her entire self. That metaphorical fire is the fire of suffering caused by desire, the desire to have a man who isn’t hers for the taking.

After the killing of Creusa and Creon comes the atrocity of Medea’s killing of her two sons. Seneca has them killed onstage. Pasolini doesn’t show the killings, but he slowly builds up the suspense leading up to the implied act; this leading-up includes Medea’s last moments as a mother with the boys, bathing them and holding them lovingly. Seeing the boys naked as she bathes them reinforces our sense of their vulnerability and helplessness; seeing her cuddle with each of them after their baths is a touching moment that reinforces how heartbreaking it is to know she is also planning to kill them, given that we watchers of the film know the original myth.

Euripides shows Medea, having already killed them, on Helios’ sun-chariot, a subversion of the notion of the deus ex machina, which is normally used to resolve a difficulty in the plot, in a contrived manner, through divine intervention. To use this plot device is actually rather lazy writing, as having a god resolve a problem is conveniently far easier than doing so through human effort, which requires the writer to devise a thoroughly thought-out solution him- or herself.

The deus ex machina appearance of Medea resolves her problem of where she, as an exile and a murderess, is to go to escape punishment. Earlier in Euripides’ play, Aegeus, king of Athens, has promised her he’ll let her live in Athens if she uses her herbs to cure his infertility. So she will go there and be safe, never punished for her crimes, since Aegeus knows nothing of them. He will also marry her.

Using the deus ex machina for her, however, is a perversion of the purpose of the plot device, since it’s meant to resolve difficulties and thus prevent tragedy. In Medea’s case, she uses it just after aggravating the tragedy, not preventing it, and ensuring that her victims won’t receive justice. After all, the chthonic religion that she adheres to resorts to revenge, not to justice, to settle grievances (the Furies, for example, were chthonic deities of vengeance). Recall that Hecate, one of the prominent chthonic gods, is one to whom Medea prays to aid her in her revenge in, for example, Seneca’s play (Act IV, lines 833-842).

In killing their boys, Medea has done to Jason what he’d initially planned to do to her: deprive a spouse of a family, a country, and a future. She kills the boys not to hurt them, but to hurt him. Now Jason has lost not only a family to marry into and thus to protect him from the dangers of exile and avenging Acastus, but he’s also lost the future of his family line through the boys’ deaths. In destroying Jason’s hopes of patrilineal descent, Medea’s revenge can be seen as a proto-feminist act.

The ambiguity over whether we’re dealing with a matrilineal or patrilineal society could be resolved by imagining that Medea, like Aeschylus‘ trilogy, the Oresteia, represents a transition from lineal descent by the female to that by the male, and therefore also represents a conflict between the two. Just as we see in Medea a mythologized beginning of imperialist plunder, so do we see in the play a mythologized beginning of the patriarchal family’s oppression of women.

That we see the mythological origins of the imperialist plunder of ‘primitive’ societies coinciding with the origins of the oppression of women is significant, for Friedrich Engels, in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, also noted the coinciding of the end of matrilineal society with the end of primitive communism…and therefore the beginning of not only patrilineal society, but also societies based on class conflict.

Now, one cannot go on plundering, oppressing, and mistreating the poor, women, the landless, and developing societies indefinitely without expecting some eventual form of horrifying karmic retribution. For we should see the excesses of Medea’s revenge as just such a retribution, a dialectical shift from the oppressor hurting the oppressed to vice versa.

In our modern world, we shouldn’t be too surprised at this or that terrorist attack in, say, New York City, London, Madrid, Paris, or in Israel. We may lament the deaths of these victims (as we do Medea’s sons), but when we allow the existence of governments that cause mayhem in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World, and when we as First Worlders benefit from such oppression (as Jason, Creon, and Creusa were meant to benefit from a marriage that would undo Medea; or as Pelias planned to benefit from the theft of the Golden Fleece), when karma gets back at us, we shouldn’t pretend to be shocked by such violence.

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

Euripides, Euripides, 1 (Medea, Hecuba, Andromache, The Bacchae), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998

Seneca, Six Tragedies, New York, Oxford University Press, 2010

‘Bite,’ A Children’s Story

[The following is a story I hope one day to have published as a children’s book. I originally intended to add illustrations to this blog post, drawings that I made myself, but they were so awful-looking that I decided not to use them. So instead, what you have here is an unillustrated children’s narrative in verse. As dull as it may look, at least it doesn’t have pictures so badly done that they distract from the story. Maybe in the future I can find an illustrator who can do artistic justice to my verse narrative, and then I can find a publisher for it.]

In the land of Asu, where the people were hungry,
One bit other people to live.
Because Mr. Lone Skum, who had all of the money
And food, never wanted to give.

Mr. Skum was a big, greedy, selfish old man
Who made everyone work like a slave.
For their work, he would never feed any more than
They all needed: that’s all that he gave.

So the poor, hungry people would bite one another
To get any food that they could.
Every girl bit her sister, each boy bit his brother,
And hurting became the new good.

Now, the weakest of them, who were bitten so much
That they crawled about, barely alive,
Had to get out of Asu, and search for a touch
Of food elsewhere–so they hoped to thrive.

Some found the land Bacu, where people were kind,
Where they helped the weak regain their health.
Bacus helped all the weak Asus that they could find
Even though they lacked Mr. Skum’s wealth.

And they even let Asus bite them for their food,
And they didn’t, in anger, bite back;
For they knew that in fighting an unending feud,
You will never regain what you lack.

But instead, they would hug the weak Asus with love,
And this caused all their bite marks to heal.
With their newly-found strength, these Asus rose above
The need only cruel hatred to feel.

Then the Asus and Bacus were one! Hand in hand,
They combined to become all one giant.
Then, this giant left Bacu and returned to the land
Of Asu, where it would stand defiant

Against Mr. Lone Skum and his army of guards.
But the biters of Asu, still wanting
The food of flesh, saw the giant, and they tried hard
To climb it and eat, however daunting

They found its size. Though it was bitten, it held
Them all in one big, loving embrace.
The hug weakened their anger, which from them was felled
Like a tree, and with love was replaced.

Then they merged with the giant, and together, grew big
As a mini-moon, rolled like a ball
To the mansion of Skum, that mean, greedy old pig–
From his throne of power, he had to fall.

But first, it had to face Skum’s great army of men,
Who were pointing their guns at the sphere.
It rolled over them, flattened, absorbed them, and then
It proceeded to Skum without fear.

At dinner, his table all covered with dishes–
Pork, turkey, wine, rice, beans, and cake–
He ate all the food that any great glutton wishes
For, and cooks in his kitchen must bake.

The ball crashed through the walls of his opulent house
With a fearful noise, rumbling like thunder.
Then he saw it: so big, it made him seem a mouse,
And he quivered in terror and wonder.

It rolled over him, flattened him, made him a sheet.
The people, at last, were all freed!
And the ball came apart where their hands all did meet,
For the people were all free to feed

On the food at the table. And that kitchen now
Makes food for the Asus, not for money.
And the Asus, together in friendship, would vow
No more biting each other when hungry.

They gave thanks to the Bacus for giving them aid,
And the Bacus went back to their land,
Being glad to have helped, for Lone Skum once had made
Them his slaves, too, bound each Bacu’s hand.

So, the lesson that we all must learn from this fable
Is never to fight with each other.
When the rich people won’t let you sit at their table,
Fight them, not your sister or brother.

Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

A Tale of Two Cities is an 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, set just before and during the French Revolution, the two cities being London and Paris. The story is about the intersecting lives of Doctor Alexandre Manette, his daughter Lucie, and Charles Darnay in France, and Sydney Carton in England.

A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’s most famous work of historical fiction, and it’s one of the best-selling novels of all time. It has been adapted for film, TV, radio, and the stage, and it continues to influence popular culture.

Here is a link to famous quotes from the novel.

Of all the themes in this novel, the dominant one seems to be duality, expressed in many forms: London/Paris, feudalism/capitalism, light/darkness, Darnay/Carton (two men so fortuitously similar in appearance as to seem twins), Lucie Manette/Madame Defarge (personifications of light and darkness, respectively), and life/death…or death/life, as manifested in symbolic resurrections in the story.

The famous beginning of the novel establishes this theme of duality: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…” The dualistic paradoxes continue with this famous long opening sentence: wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, Light/Darkness, hope/despair, everything/nothing, Heaven/”the other way,” and good/evil.

These juxtaposed opposites represent their dialectical unity, the clash of contradictions. Though the above opposites are of the Hegelian dialectic of ideas, they refer to an epoch famously discussed by Marx as of the historical, materialist dialectic. The novel begins in 1775, just fourteen years before the French Revolution, when the old feudal system would be violently replaced by the capitalist mode of production.

Another duality is seen when Dickens compares the French Revolution to politically radical activity going on in England around the time of the novel’s publication. He fears that a similar bloodbath to that of the Reign of Terror may occur in England, though by the end of the novel, things seem more hopeful for England, even to the point of a tinge of nationalistic pride (recall patriotic Miss Pross‘s defiant words to Madame Defarge: “I am a Briton”–Book Three, Chapter 14, page 407).

The duality of death/life becomes apparent in Book One, Chapter 2, when it is learned that someone has been “RECALLED TO LIFE.” This enigmatic phrase, we later learn, refers to Doctor Manette, who in his 18-year incarceration in the Bastille–a kind of death–has been freed, a kind of resurrection. Other symbolic resurrections, two of them, will occur for Darnay, thanks to his look-alike, Carton.

The trauma of Doctor Manette’s incarceration stays with him after his release, when we find him still making shoes, his work in the Bastille, in the darkness, something he no longer needs to do, but a task he feels psychologically compelled to continue doing. His union with Lucie, the daughter he’s never known and who until now has thought him dead, will bring him back into the light. ‘Lucie‘ literally means ‘light.’

She is so shocked to learn that her father is actually alive that she faints. Symbolically, father and daughter have exchanged the states of life and death, unified opposites like so many others in this story.

Another example of duality is that of two spilled reds: wine, and blood. In Chapter 5 of Book One, a large cask of wine is dropped on the ground by the wine shop of M. Ernest and Mme. Thérese Defarge, in the Faubourg Sainte-Antoine, a suburb of Paris. The poor people of the area rush over to have as much of a drink of the spilled wine as they can. One of them smears BLOOD on a wall with the muddy wine (page 32).

This eagerness of the poor to drink wine off the filthy ground is a reflection of their desperation, want, and hunger. “Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.” (page 33)

Soon after, Dickens relates Want to violent imagery: “The trade signs (and they were almost as many as the shops) were, all, grim illustrations of Want. The butcher and the porkman painted up only the leanest scrags of meat; the baker, the coarsest of meagre loaves. The people rudely pictured as drinking in the wine-shops, croaked over their scanty measures of thin wine and beer, and were gloweringly confidential together. Nothing was represented in a flourishing condition, save tools and weapons; but, the cutler’s knives and axes were sharp and bright, the smith’s hammers were heavy, and the gun-maker’s stock was murderous.” (Dickens, page 34)

This juxtaposition of red wine and blood with hunger and want, and with references to “sharp and bright” knives and axes, heavy hammers, and with the “murderous” gun-maker’s stock, is altogether a foreshadowing of the violence in the impending revolution, when the poor and hungry will finally have their revenge on the rich.

Later in this chapter, we meet not only the Defarges, but also the three “Jacques.” These revolutionaries name themselves after the Jacquerie, a popular peasant revolt in northern France back in the 14th century. The nobles of the time derided these peasants as “Jacques” for the padded surplice, called “jacques” that they wore. The term jacquerie became synonymous with peasant uprisings in both France and England thereafter.

I don’t know if there’s a direct connection in meaning between the kind of Jacques the French nobility were scorning in the 14th century and the “sly, insinuating Jacks” (I, iii, 53) that Richard III was railing against in Shakespeare’s play, but there’s an interesting association that can be made in the “Jacques” of Dickens’s novel trading positions of power with the 18th century French nobility and the Duke of Gloucester’s contempt for such people of low birth when he famously says, “The world is grown so bad/That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch./Since every Jack became a gentleman/There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.” (I, iii, 70-73).

Meanwhile, Madame Defarge is typically seen knitting (see Book Two, Chapters 15 and 16 in particular). She will be a tricoteuse during the guillotine executions, doing her knitting there. This knitting symbolically suggests an association with the Fates, who in their spinning determined everyone’s life and death. Since Defarge is also seen knitting long before the revolution and its Reign of Terror, this early knitting is a foreshadowing of the violence to come.

She encrypts the names of those to be executed into her knitting, again connecting her with the Fates, but also, in a way, with Penelope, who wove a shroud while waiting ever so patiently for her husband, Odysseus, to come home and kill all of her suitors, who were eating her out of house and home. Madame Defarge, as she knits, is also waiting ever so patiently for the violent overthrow of those who, like Penelope’s suitors, have done violence of one form or another to her home (more on that later).

To jump ahead in Dickens’s story, we encounter the first time Carton saves Darnay, who is on trial for treason against the British Crown, by simply demonstrating to the court his uncanny physical resemblance to the accused. The witnesses, two spies, claim that they could pick Darnay out from any man; but their testimony is undermined by Carton’s likeness to him.

The doubles share more in common than just their looks. They share some sense of shame, Darnay’s by his association with his uncle, the wicked Marquis St. Evrémonde, and Carton by his life as a drunken wastrel. Both men redeem themselves: Darnay, by renouncing his uncle’s family and changing his name from Evrémonde to an Anglicizing of D’Aulnais (his mother’s maiden name); and Carton, by taking Darnay’s name and place in La Force Prison, from which he’s to be taken and guillotined, the former thus sacrificing his life to save that of the latter.

Yet another duality is to be found in the two systems of class oppression portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities–namely, the outgoing feudalist one and the incoming capitalist one. Though the revolutionaries, the left-wingers, were hoping for a genuinely new society based on the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité, this was a bourgeois, not a socialist, revolution. It was good that feudal France was no more, but a new form of class struggle was about to be born.

The despicable decadence of feudal times is personified in the unnamed aristocrat known as “Monseigneur.” In Chapter 7 of Book Two, we learn that he needs no less than four men, in “gorgeous decoration,” to get his morning’s chocolate into his mouth (Dickens, page 114)

The cruelties of feudalism, however, are personified in the marquis, whose carriage runs over a little boy, killing him. The marquis’s reaction to the death he’s caused is beyond insensitive: to compensate Gaspard, the dead boy’s grieving father, the marquis tosses him a gold coin and drives on. Gaspard will kill him in revenge, hide out for a year, then be hanged for murder.

The chateau of the marquis is vividly described in terms of the wickedness of the man who lives in it. The first paragraph of Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Gorgon‘s Head,” repeatedly uses the word “stone” or “stony” to describe so much of the marquis’s property as to suggest that Medusa‘s head had turned everything to stone two hundred years prior. This emphasis on stoniness, of course, reflects the marquis’s stony heart, just as the petrifying ugliness of the Gorgon’s head is a mirror to his moral ugliness.

It is this ugliness of feudal France that is the context in which the ugliness of revolutionary violence must be understood. Dickens’s tone, during his narration of all of the events from the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, gives the clear impression that he considered the actions of the revolutionaries to be no less evil than those of their former feudal oppressors.

As with A Christmas Carol, the Dickens who was otherwise thoroughly sympathetic to the poor is in this novel showing what we today would call peak liberalism.

For my part, I’m ambivalent about the wrongs the revolutionaries committed. Their main fault resides in ultimately leaving France with a new system of economic exploitation–capitalism–to replace the old system. The Defarges, after all, are the petite bourgeois owners of a wine shop. As for the violence of the revolutionaries, what can I say? Recall Mao’s words: “A revolution is not a dinner party.”

Were there excesses of violence? Undoubtedly. But revolutions are by definition chaotic, bloody, and messy. The oppressing class can’t be voted or legislated away…they can only be violently overthrown, for they will undermine every attempt to tax them or rein in their power over us. French revolutionary violence was, properly understood, a reaction to centuries of violence done to a starving, wretched populace of peasants.

As for Madame Defarge, her violent excesses may be wrong, but they’re perfectly explicable. Her sister was raped by Darnay’s uncle; her brother confronted the uncle about the rape and was run through with the uncle’s sword. Both her brother and sister died after the best, though failed, efforts of Dr. Manette, who was imprisoned for attempting to report the crimes, and who wrote of them in a manuscript in his cell. Having found the manuscript, which denounces the whole Evrémonde family, Madame Defarge uses it to avenge her dead siblings by trying to destroy not only Darnay, but his whole family, too.

She was “imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.

“It was nothing to her that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them.” (Book Three, Chapter 14, page 402)

One set of excesses tends to lead to an opposing set of excesses, like the teeth of the ouroboros biting into its tail, a symbol of the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve used many times. Since we don’t like riots, we should recall MLK’s words: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Similarly, if you don’t like revolutionary bloodshed, you should bear in mind that such bloody excesses are the words of those who have hitherto been silenced by their oppressors, often spoken in gory fashion.

Madame Defarge is motivated by revenge, personified in one of the other revolutionary women, known literally as The Vengeance. She is the “shadow” of Madame Defarge, a darkness within darkness. All of those who have suffered under feudal rule have been in darkness, such as Doctor Manette in his shadowy prison cell, and in the garret of the Defarges’ wine shop where he is found obsessively making shoes (Chapter 5, The Wine Shop). So when the revolutionaries have their revenge, they put men like Darnay in the darkness of cells in La Force, too. Indeed, his second arrest occurs at night.

Lucie’s light is in dialectical contrast to Madame Defarge’s darkness. The former says of the latter, “that dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me and on all my hopes.” (Book Three, Chapter 3, The Shadow, page 298) Her light, symbolized by each golden thread of her hair, pulls her father out of the dark. (Book One, Chapter 6, The Shoemaker, pages 47-49)

Elsewhere, we have Jerry Cruncher, the “resurrection man” who raids graves in the darkness, and is thus a dark parody of the real resurrection man, Carton, who by taking on Darnay’s identity recalls him to life, bringing him out of that dark cell and into the light, to be reunited with the light of his life, Lucie.

Thus Jerry, a nasty fellow who abuses his wife early on in the story, is the darkness to Carton’s light. Before he is to be guillotined, Carton compares his fate to that of Christ. He quotes the Gospel according to John: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” (John 11:25) Carton, as a Christ-figure, dies so Darnay can live. In this we see the dialectical relationship between life and death in Dickens’s novel. Recall in this connection another important quote from John: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Though Carton loves Lucie, he knows he can never have her. After all, light doesn’t sit with light, but rather with its dialectical opposite: darkness. Carton will go into the darkness of Darnay’s cell so the latter can go out into Lucie’s light.

And while darkness and light are intertwined, so are life and death. Having approached the guillotine, Carton imagines a future world, one long after his death, in which Darnay and Lucie will name a son after Carton. He can “see the lives for which [he] lay[s] down [his] life,” (Dickens, page 417) and in his prophetic visions, as well as the son, Carton has his own resurrection, his own recalling to life after death.

Speaking of ‘resurrections,’ though, another resurrection can be seen today as compared with what was going on back in Dickens’s day and before: the exacerbated immiseration of the poor. A Tale of Two Shitties: the shittiness of Dickens’s time, and the shittiness of our world ever since the dissolution of the socialist states. In this, we see yet another duality: class conflict then, and class conflict now.

Dickens, sympathetic to the plight of the poor but horrified at revolutionary violence, was using this novel to warn the rich of the danger of aggravating class conflict to the point of provoking such violence. When one considers the extremes of income inequality today, as well as all these unending imperialist wars, climate change, and how fear of disease is a distraction from the contemplation of revolution, one would think the ruling class would be heeding Dickens’s warning.

Instead, would-be leftists virtue signal in such ways as AOC wearing a dress with the message “TAX THE RICH” (of which Dickens would have approved) while ignoring protestors outside the Met Gala. In some photos of that dress, the T in TAX isn’t really showing, a kind of fortuitous prophecy. Then there was that small guillotine set by the front door of Bezos’s mansion.

May the Evrémondes everywhere in the world watch out.

The modern-day Madame Defarge is doing her knitting.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Collins Classics, London, 1859