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Literature The global class war in five novels

MARK STEVEN, author of Class War: A Literary History, recommends five contemporary novels that convey a vision of liberating combat against the exploiters and the expropriators 

Iron Council
by China Mieville (Pan, £8.99)

THIS is the final book in China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, three sprawling dark fantasy novels all set in what the author describes as “an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind!” 

By the time I arrived at book three, I was already infatuated with the unholy city at the heart of the trilogy, with its arcane geography and its nightmare monstrosities, because Mieville’s language does so much to golem the whole thing into feverish existence, with a vocabulary that feels as overgrown and mutant as the city it describes. 

But this finale is also uniquely captivating in its dramatisation of militancy as enacted and experienced by individual characters and the collectives they become.

Across a fantastical geography, here a diverse array of magically augmented anti-heroes stands together against industrial expansion, imperial bloodletting and an increasingly fascist sense of nationhood. 

I cannot think of a better, more glorious, more imaginative narrative about the meanings of obligations of class solidarity in times of conflict.

You will find yourself cheering along during the great railroad mutiny, which reimagines the Railway Strike of 1877, and will perhaps know genuine heartbreak when a world of revolt suddenly is frozen out of time.

The Flamethrowers
by Rachel Kushner (Vintage, £9.99)

Rachel Kushner recontextualizes the belligerence of Italian workers during the infamous Years of Lead. 

With an intergenerational narrative that moves at the speed of a turbo-charged motorcycle burning across salt flats, The Flamethrowers ranges from the early years of European fascism, through peripheral resource extraction in the jungles of Brazil, into the artworld of 1970s New York, and finally the streets Rome at a time of revolt. 

Its protagonist — a young woman from Nevada — becomes a prism through which refracts the modern world-system in a moment of transformative upheaval, as well as gendered perspective from which to re-emphasise the oppression of working women both in the factory and the home. 

And in that electrifying moment when protest erupts into riot, when the movement becomes an insurrection, Kushner’s novel highlights the actions of oppressed women, now the agents of revolution: “It was women throwing the firebombs now. Dress shops. A department store. A lingerie boutique. Up the Corso they moved.”

How to Be a Revolutionary
by CA Davids (Verso, £10.99)

How to Be a Revolutionary by CA Davids takes its guidebook title from a list of useful skills its protagonist, Beth, might learn from her radical friend, Kay, a charismatic organiser who might teach her “how to kiss a boy” as readily as “how to apply lessons learned from Communist China to South Africa.” 

Focalised to these interpersonal dynamics, this is an elegiac novel about the challenges of sustaining political commitment against the tides of disillusionment: “After she was gone, nothing could be thought of as normal, if there’d ever been such a thing. The sadness never let up: waited beneath my eyelids, watched when I went to school, when I spoke, breathed on my behalf.” 

Spending time in Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward, apartheid-era Cape Town, and the Harlem of Langston Hughes, this novel explores international and intergenerational connections among ageing revolutionaries on three continents, all of whom long for a better world than this one but who are all haunted by defeat. 

Steeped in left melancholia, this is a narrative that finds its way forward via unflinching commitment to an internationalism that demands acts of practical solidarity with comrades both known and unknown, to those who have gone before and those who will come after.

Babel
by RF Kuang (Harper Voyager, £18.99)

I teach literature at a university in the south-west of England. The ongoing culture shock of doing this as a working-class immigrant has fuelled in me a critical fascination with the student subculture known as “dark academia,” which seems to be all about the performance of reading old books, wearing cardigans, and leaning into autumnal dreariness (and is, in Amelia Horgan’s characteristically sharp assessment, “a response to marketisation, in particular to the temporal stresses of the neoliberal university”). 

RF Kuang’s tremendous alternative history, Babel, is marketed as a work of dark academia, or at least that’s the impression its cover design and publicity signal, but it is so much more than that.

It is a forceful, decolonial critique of the institutions of higher education and literary attainment and of all their complicities in reproducing class hierarchy and imperial power. 

At the same time, it combines that critique with the historical actions of those who fought against such as system, from the Luddites and the Chartists to the dispossessed and enslaved persons on the peripheries of empire, in China and the Caribbean. 

As the novel thunders toward its almighty, insurrectionary conclusion, the book’s subtitle becomes crucial to knowing what it’s all really about: “Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.”

The Ministry for the Future
by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, £9.99)

If environmental crises are a profound violence perpetrated against the global poor, a neoliberal holocaust of the dispossessed, then literary fiction is correct to read climate change as class war. 

In The Ministry for the Future, sci-fi legend Kim Stanley Robinson uses an almost Melvillian sense of capaciousness to explore our collective potential to end capitalist accumulation to save the biosphere. 

The narrative refers to its diversity in tactics, from legislative reform through sabotage and assassination, as “The War for the Earth,” and that war is framed as emphatically and necessarily international, organically weaving hundreds of local actions into a global tapestry upon which capitalism would cease to remain viable. 

It is also a war waged by and on behalf of the global underclass. 

The opening chapter, which is both devastating and catalytic, is a gruesome depiction of a massive heat wave hitting India and killing millions. What follows is a proliferation of both independent and interlocking actions, each with local objectives but also wide-ranging and often symbolic appeal, each geared toward the demolition of capitalist social relations so as to ensure a liveable future for all. 

When asked if this novel is a work of “combat literature,” which is Frantz Fanon’s term for writing composed under the force of decolonial insurgency, Robinson suggested why such a literature might be necessary, but also why it alone is not enough. 

“It’s going to be chaotic and confusing,” he says, “and it’s going to last for as long as anyone alive is still alive. We have to get used to it, and fight effectively. Combat literature might help give us ideas or warn us of ramifications, but it’s the actions in the world that will matter — laws, norms, behaviours.”

Mark Steven is senior lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Red Modernism: American Poetry and the Spirit of Communism (2017) and Splatter Capital (2017). His most recent book is: Class War: a Literary History.

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in Counterpunch.org.

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