A Revolutionary Hate to Salvage Utopian Love: On China Miéville’s “A Spectre, Haunting”
By Hugh Charles O’ConnellFebruary 18, 2023
A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto by China Miéville
Miéville’s recasting of the opening words of the Manifesto for his title is particularly telling in that “a spectre, haunting” offers a continual, omnipresent, global apparition. If we normally think of ghosts as rooted to a particular time and place, then this specter is as rootless and shifting as capital itself. The title thus reflects the most important aspect of this primer: the Manifesto’s enduring legacy and necessity in the contemporary moment. Therefore, what concerns Miéville isn’t the nonsensical right-wing propaganda that spuriously passes under the epithet of communism. Instead, the focus of this work is its radical and opposite number: true communism. Fox News fearmongers, whose vitriol is animated by their hatred of the poor, of immigrants, of non-heteronormative communities and anyone else who isn’t a Christian ethnonationalist, cannot contain or even properly name true communism because the movement’s real basis is fidelity to radical love. However, salvaging the possibility of such radical love, Miéville insists, will likely take some revolutionary hatred. This revolutionary hate is necessary to overcome our cynicism, apathy, and overall resignation to the status quo of capitalist realism, which, following Mark Fisher, he describes as “not an acceptance of capitalism, but a belief that, regrettably or otherwise, it represents the boundaries of the possible.”
If the right-wing specter of communism lacks substance and specificity, then Miéville’s challenge is to give this true specter presence. Perhaps, then, we should read Miéville’s text as a séance, as a call to body forth this specter, to give it the flesh with which to confront the miseries of our global capitalist present. Tellingly, for Miéville, this often means engaging with the weaknesses of the Manifesto itself. While members of the right wing often invoke “communism” as a way to shut down any conversation related to feminism, anti-imperialism, race, or LGTBQIA+ rights, Miéville’s analysis of the Manifesto’s most serious faults often works through how such issues were not fully articulated (when not ignored entirely) by the authors in relation to their otherwise stringent critique of a society predicated on capitalist relations.
However, Miéville suggests, we must first learn how to read the Manifesto before we can critique its faults. Foremost for understanding the Manifesto is to return it to its pugnacious roots: to read it as a manifesto that desires to produce a profound rupture with existing sociopolitical conditions. For Miéville, then, it is emphatically not a scholarly critical text, one whose “tenets could be falsified or verified like mathematical proofs” by adherents or detractors. Given the multiplicity of functions, styles, and motivations of the manifesto form, Miéville — one of the most prominent practitioners of the genre-blurring New Weird — is a perfect emissary and commentator. He’s less concerned with hard and fast boundaries and more attuned to the overlapping and multivalent nature of the manifesto form itself as a text that “slides between registers.” As Miéville stresses, these different genres and purposes don’t add up to one congruent whole. Instead, the Manifesto points in many different (and at times contradictory) directions all at once. Rather than trying to square the circle, then, Miéville reveals the power of such contradictions that underwrite the manifesto form and especially the Manifesto itself. This doesn’t mean that the text (and its many interlocutors) can’t be criticized or analyzed, but that its form and genre need to be considered when doing so.
A Spectre, Haunting saves most of its critical ardor for addressing leftist misconceptions and conceptual lacuna within the text itself. For Miéville, such criticisms are necessary as an act of self-reflective autocritique to build a better, stronger communist project worthy of its name.
This means that the Manifesto’s root terms of class and labor must be raced, sexed, and gendered. This is not simply an additive process, however. Rather, such root concepts must be dialectically rethought through active engagement and interrogation. As he writes in the context of gender, “The missed opportunity for the project isn’t one of merely adding gender to class, but […] of gendering class, of understanding class as a relation from which gender is inextricable, precisely to better understand class, gender and capitalism.” To do so gets to the center of capitalism’s exploitation of women’s oppression: “Here, a relationship between capitalist exploitation and women’s oppression suggests how the latter — an axis of oppression that pre-exists capitalism — can be deployed for the benefit of the former. But this insight isn’t developed.” Thus, while the text provides the grounds from which to produce a fully gendered-classed critique of capitalism, the work of doing so is left incomplete and needs to be done.
Similarly, the Manifesto’s shortcomings in relation to imperialism receive some of the most stringent criticism from Miéville, since there’s no real “soil” from which the critique can be leveraged:
It isn’t merely that there’s a lacuna to be filled. The point is that the imperialism-shaped gap makes for a flawed and inadequate understanding of capitalism as a world system, exaggerating its seeming dynamism, the supposed “Promethean vision” of the bourgeoisie, the potential limitlessness of its expansion — as well as underestimating how, through imperialism, capitalism is able to endure.
This original seismic error, then, underwrites contemporary “left appeals to patriotism and the nation” staked by strong-state, “class-first” leftists who support right-wing immigration and border reforms in order to bolster the power and wages of nationals.
Any marxism that fails to account for these (and other weaknesses) not only remains inadequate to its own aims of systemic rupture but also cedes this ground to capitalism. A main lesson of Miéville’s in terms of reading the Manifesto today is our acute awareness of capitalism’s recuperative power. Not only does capitalism overcome countless intrinsic economic crises that threaten to topple it from within, but it also absorbs oppositional positions to ideologically bolster itself. In today’s parlance, we’d refer to this as “woke capitalism,” exemplified by greenwashing, pinkwashing, and other such methods that are utilized as a bulwark against horrendous labor practices or as cynical buy-ins for otherwise oppressed populations.
But there are also problems from within leftist discourse that need addressing: particularly, for Miéville, the sense of a “pathological optimism” that infects much of the Manifesto and leftist politics tout court. Here, A Spectre, Haunting’s critique begins to line up with Miéville’s other expressly political work. In his essay “The Limits of Utopia,” Miéville argues that utopianism, although important for activist movements, has been overly emphasized. Putting pressure on the marxist utopian tradition, then, he argues that “utopia has its limits: utopia can be toxic” in that utopias can create a dueling, conjoined sense of inevitable victory and depressive defeat. It is in this sense, then, that Miéville warns of a pervasive pathological optimism:
Rather than seeing in the Manifesto a mortally wounding certainty about inevitable outcomes, we should diagnose in it a poignant example of a political tendency towards pathological optimism — and one that’s undercut by clear anxiety that such optimism isn’t warranted. An anxiety that is correct.
Such inimical optimism not only infects radical thought but also undergirds technoliberalism’s “cultish faith” in a “rapacious system” to supply the solutions to capitalism’s problems. It’s a belief structure where capitalism, to quote Homer Simpson, is “the cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems.”
For readers interested in the development of Miéville’s own radical marxist thought, the last chapter — “The Communist Manifesto Today” — will likely be the most interesting. Here, Miéville engages with two tropes — hate and salvage — that often appear in his writings in the political journal Salvage, which Miéville helped to found and continues to edit. For Miéville, these concepts serve as critical correctives to the pathological optimism that debilitates much leftist practice. In the earlier essay warning against the limits of utopia, Miéville highlights how these limits elide class difference by mitigating working-class hate: “The utopia of togetherness [of corporate environmentalism] is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we,’ without a ‘them.’ That we are not all in this together.” Doubling down on this combative theme, the opening editorial of the same issue of Salvage asserts, “This is an epoch of surplus contempt and insufficient hate.” Much of A Spectre, Haunting’s last essay, then, expands on these ideas, and it provides the clearest articulation of Miéville’s controversial stance (a stance that, on the surface, seems to run counter to many contemporary marxists who, following the work of Alain Badiou, focus on the revolutionary power of love).
Consequently, for Miéville, Marx and Engels’s pathological optimism meant that they did not hate capitalism or the bourgeoisie enough. As he extols, “We must hate harder than did the Manifesto, for the sake of humanity,” since for Miéville, there is no solidarity or human liberty, no rupture, without it. A principled hate, then, is the proper stance of contemporary revolutionary subjects:
Who would we be not to hate this system, and its partisans? If we don’t, the hate of those who hate on its behalf will not ebb. […] We should feel hate beyond words, and bring it to bear. This is a system that, whatever else, deserves implacable hatred for its countless and escalating cruelties.
Moreover, hate moves beyond an ethical knee-jerk affect and provides the incisive, epistemological edge that Miéville argues is necessary to cut through capital’s “flat abstractions” and “implacable logic.”
Crucially, Miéville warns against making hate “the only or main drive to renewal,” as it is “deeply dangerous” and “[w]e should neither celebrate nor trust” it. Indeed, Miéville notes how many of today’s most radical leftist and marxist thinkers instead turn to love as a “shattering, reconfiguring event, a key revolutionary motivation.” For such thinkers, love is “a profoundly social emotion” that undercuts and points beyond our “system of mass cruelty,” with its divisions, discriminations, and fealty to antisocial individualism. But in this focus on love, Miéville finds, perhaps, more than a passing resemblance to the inimical optimism and overemphasis on utopianism that quickly turns to despair. “By all means let us take love seriously,” Miéville agrees, but while doing so, we must not neglect and fail to understand hate and rage as potentially positive destructive forces, as “[t]he hatred of such systemic hate.” Thus, despite the necessary warnings, in a very real sense, Miéville is arguing that in today’s overly degraded world, revolutionary hate might be vital to pit against a prevailing capitalist anti-utopianism that thrives on equal parts cynicism and optimism. The gambit is to redirect the mass amounts of hatred produced by capitalist relations, which drive wedges between potential sites of solidarity, and to redirect them against the system itself. However, if hate is a key driver of anti-capitalist revolution, then it is so only in the name of a more proper and powerful communist love: “It’s for the sake of love that, reading it today, we must hate more and better than even The Communist Manifesto knew how.” In this sense, if love is the opposite of systemic hate, then revolutionary anti-systemic hate is the force that negates such hatred in order to let love flourish.
Moreover, it’s important to situate this emphasis on hate within the context of Miéville’s own conception of a contemporary communism that goes by the name of “‘ruin communism,’ or ‘salvage communism.’” The salvage communism that Miéville refers to here was originally theorized in the editorial introduction to the first issue of Salvage. Expounding on the title and concept, the editorial directs us to the mass devastation and destitution that contemporary capitalism propagates:
Salvage because we are wrecked.
Because we need a strategy for ruination. […]
A bleaker perspective is necessary.
Hope must be abandoned before it can be salvaged.
Ruins, pessimism, hate: these make up the detritus of late-stage capitalism, and salvaging a potential future from within them is the goal of salvage communism. However, this means also reevaluating the form of the future that can be erected from within such ruins. Here the legacy of the Manifesto — the possibility of a new humanity formed by the complete and utter rupture with all existing capitalist relations — is both more pressing and tempered:
Because to read the Manifesto today is to have to acknowledge that after centuries of exploitation and planetary degradation, the rupture is more urgent than ever — and is unlikely to be into a realm of freedom and plenty, but of necessary slow repair.
There is a world to win: won, it must be fixed. This is “ruin communism,” or “salvage communism.” As part of such project, naive dreams of profligacy have to be set aside.
It is a vision of communism more in line with degrowth than fully automated luxury communism.
Yet, for all this focus on hate, our depleted world, and the sense of a reduced communist future, Miéville doesn’t entirely forgo optimism. In “A Communist Catechism (after Engels),” which serves as the more personally inflected afterword to his critical interrogation of the Manifesto, Miéville provides a question-and-answer format that gives voice to a new generation of communists (the “us”), while simultaneously targeting the capitalist-realist detractors that seek to disabuse them of their goals (the “them”):
Yes, we know that even many who love us are bewildered by our ‘unrealism,’ our la-la land dreamwork, our utopian foolishness, in striving for what we strive for; but can you understand how unrealistic their beliefs are to us? Their wager that this system, this carnival of predatory rapacity, will ever be fit to live in? Their sad certainty that we can do no better? […]
Yes we will change the existing state of things. Not we will in the sense of it is inevitable but in the sense of it is not impossible, in the sense that it is necessary, that it is utterly worth the wager and the fight.
At first glance, A Spectre, Haunting departs radically from the genre-bending novels that Miéville is best known for. Its plain-spoken political stridency instead mirrors that of Marx and Engels and is thus far removed from the enigmatic prose and disturbing unrealities of his novels. However, its insightfulness ultimately derives from Miéville’s talent as both an incisive political commentator and a first-rate literary conjurer of fantastic worlds. Consequently, what might initially sound like a dry, academic exercise becomes in Miéville’s hands a decidedly vital, world-building, utopian text. Not in the sense of an idealist utopianism that Marx and Engels spurned for offering up imaginary visions of a model world without any sense of how such a world could be won, but in the sense that it concretely identifies the impediments to such a world and the means to overcome them. In “Limits of Utopia,” Miéville refers to this as an “antinomian utopia,” a “hope that abjures the hope of those in power.” As such, the text burns with urgency, offering the possibility of a better world if we are brave enough to fight for it. The clock is ticking, and the new world will require much work and repair. Yet through revolutionary, systemic-oriented hate, Miéville implores, a communist future utopia of love can still be salvaged.
Hugh Charles O’Connell [he/him] is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His current research examines the relationship between speculative fiction and speculative finance.
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