Book Review: Dialectics of Revolution by Kevin B Anderson

Book title: Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender, and colonialism
Author: Kevin B Anderson
Released: 2020
Review by: Victor Osprey

What is Marxism? Is it a philosophy, a science – or both? What distinguishes science from philosophy, and is it a distinction as easy to determine as we might imagine? After all – what even is science? And what does dialectical reason, or indeed philosophy in general have to offer when it comes not only to understanding but to changing society?

Kevin Anderson, a long-time scholar-activist and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, has set himself exactly this task in the latest book, Dialectics of Revolution. Taking the form of a collection of essays, Anderson examines Marx, Engels, Lenin and Bukharin – and especially Hegel – in considerable detail, alongside the ‘Western’ Marxists Herbert Marcuse and Georg Lukács. Coming from his distinctive Marxist-Humanist perspective, drawing upon the work of Russian-American Marxist Raya Dunayevskaya, Anderson provides a substantive explication and defence of dialectical reason throughout and in dialogue with its critics.

This red thread serves as a launching pad for the topics examined in the essay. These range from Lenin’s encounter with Hegel, to Lukács 1948 work The Young Hegel, the relationship of critical theorists like Marcuse to Hegel, and other related subjects.

Underlying the whole text is a proposition as to what Marxist (or what Anderson may prefer to call Marx’s) philosophy can give philosophically and politically to struggles around race, class, gender, and colonialism. In other words, the unity of theory and practice – praxis.

Science as compass, philosophy as guide?

The interrelationship between science and philosophy goes back thousands of years, with each interpenetrating and influencing the other in conceiving reality, social processes, and the natural world. The separation of science from philosophy into strictly delineated fields is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the intellectual life of humanity.

When it comes to socialist theory, the extent to which it is a ‘science’ has long bedevilled the movement. One approach has been to attempt to mirror the hypothetical-deductive model approach of the natural sciences, as if Marxism were a branch of chemistry. Another approach rejects this positivist tendency, instead pushing Marxism’s merits as a philosophy and an ideology in itself. For example, the insights derived from dialectical and historical materialism and indeed the critique of political economy, without attempting to prove it is an exact science that could be replicated in a lab like other fields of knowledge.

The former, and similar currents in the social sciences attempts to prove that their methodology is on par with physics, and believe this necessary to be taken seriously as a ‘science’ in the sense of being a lookalike of physics. However, it is perfectly acceptable for science simply to be a field of study; the difference between chemistry and Marxism is that humans cannot change the laws of chemistry or biology, only make use of them as far as they are understood. Whereas societal formations and social relationships are human made, and thus their laws can be changed, which is where Marxism as a social science has genuine insights in comprehending and transforming such social structures.

Marx and Engels, deeply influenced by the natural sciences of their time for all that they were dialecticians and dialectical thinkers anchored in German philosophy, relied on now partly outdated science as a metaphor and stimulant to their theoretical conception of mutually interacting and excluding agents. Taking Engels as an example, he toyed with rapid developments in chemistry ‘to get a better understanding of interacting and mutually determining systems. In other words, abstract dialectics could be seen in the metaphorical mirror of chemistry.’1

As author Joost Kircz notes, attempting to prove whether nature is or is not dialectical according to human-made models (Hegelian or not) may be an intriguing intellectual exercise; what is more important however is how it spurred creative thinking around the concepts of mutually interrelated and determining systems, and how they could be extrapolated further and built upon. Whether applied to the natural sciences or, perhaps more appropriately, the social structures investigated by the social sciences.

Evolutionary biology is one example of a crude scientific materialism that, while superficially super-scientific, is an abstract materialism, largely excluding history and its processes – in other words, a non-historical, non-dialectical materialism. As Kevin Anderson notes: ‘Sociobiology/evolutionary biology denies historical materialism’s notion that human consciousness grows and develops through history, which is a product of the self-creation of human beings.’2 It has also regularly been used as a ‘scientific’ justification for predetermined racist conclusions.

Marx’s debt to Hegel, and to ‘German’, ‘philosophical’ critical science precisely comes in handy in teasing out the limitations of the ‘hard’, positive sciences, without simply rejecting them. French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd summed up the contribution of positive sciences nicely: ‘They are a necessary moment in the movement of knowledge – on condition that we not stop there.’3 ‘German science’ forms part of an intellectual tradition which French rationalism and English empiricism have always rejected, despite themselves regularly falling into the trap of scientism; of taking the scientific conclusions of the moment for a permanently settled reality. Critique in the sense of Marx’s approach instead undertakes to critique an established science and its underlying intellectual assumptions while critically assimilating its real insights – hence Marx’s conception of his task as the critique of political economy.

Bensaïd further elaborated in an interview about the ‘misinterpretation’ of Marx as a scientist, in whose shadow was constructed a scientistic, doctrinaire Marxism4:

Marx points out the difference between what he calls “German science” and “English science”. For him, English science means the exact or positive sciences. He is very admiring, sometimes excessively so, of the progress of physics, chemistry, geology… And then there is German science, Wissenschaft, which is not ‘science’ in the French sense of the term: it is the dynamic movement of knowledge. Very few people in France realised this. In particular, the early Althusser, the one of the 1960s, built his fame on a complex scientificity, on a wish for Marxism to be so scientific that Marxists could be recognised by their academic peers as serious people, and not as signatories of petitions, as intellectuals for hire. Hence the (unaccomplished!) search in Marx’s work for an untraceable ‘epistemological break’: when did Marx become a scholar, instead of an ideologue and philosopher?

Louis Althusser, Marxist philosopher and long-time member of the French Communist Party sought as part of his effort to make Marxism more scientific to de-Hegelise Marx, to ‘drive the shade of Hegel… back into the night.’5 Althusser downplayed the extent of the continuity between Lenin’s conception of the dialectic and Hegelian idealism – a difficult task, given the assertions made in more than 200 pages of notes and commentary Lenin wrote on Hegel in 1914-1915 (published as the Philosophical Notebooks).

Raya Dunayevskaya herself criticised making a fetish out of science: ‘glorification of science is the mark not only of the ruling classes… but also of theoreticians busy revising Marxism… genuine historic revisions have always used “science” in the fight against “the Hegelian dialectic”… Eduard Bernstein was the first, back at the end of the 19th century; Louis Althusser is the latest but he is sure not to be the last since, of necessity, these proponents of “science” and opponents of “philosophy” are sure to keep reappearing…’6

Although it may be said among certain sections of the ruling class these days the glorification of science no longer holds as much purchase as it once did, with these types preferring instead outright mysticism and submerging into wells of conspiracy theory.

Nonetheless, there was value in Althusser’s effort, despite its foundational flaws and unhelpful schemas (an artificial distinction of a break between young, humanist Marx and old, scientific Marx, and the attempt to excise Hegelianism like a leftover evolutionary tail).

Notably his understanding that ‘unlike a science, an ideology does not provide us with adequate instruments of knowledge’ and how ideology as a system of representations ‘is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important than the theoretical function (function as knowledge).’7

Or as Norman Geras, a then-sympathetic critic of Althusser puts it in more nuanced fashion: ‘The problematic of a science (or ideology) governs not merely the solutions it is capable of providing but the very problems it can pose and the form in which they must be posed.’8

Despite his appreciation, Geras reserves significant criticisms for Althusser, stating that his account of science is idealist, and goes as far as to say Althusser’s account of the relation between Marxist theory and politics is both ‘theoretically incorrect and harmful.’9

Moreover, if Althusser begins by stressing the universality of knowledge in its content, ‘he ends by denying the historicity of its condition and processes of production’, a point exactly like Kevin Anderson and Marxist-humanists of various shades would make.10

And to top it all off, in what is perhaps his severest critique, Geras elaborates how Althusser’s concern to stress the scientificity of Marxism ‘fails to provide an account of what distinguishes this particular science from the other sciences.’11

In effect, the differences between Marxism, mathematics, the physical and natural sciences are submerged rather than highlighted, all so Althusser can assimilate the entry of Marxism into the hallowed halls of a high respected science.

The problem is, when cracks are identified in that carefully constructed, apparently scientific edifice, the whole thing tends to come crashing down soon afterword; much like what happened after an initial wave of Althusserianism swept the world, then quickly receded in the wake of serious problems identified with Althusser’s approach and account of things years later.

A more all-rounded and nuanced conception of the interrelationship between science, philosophy, and the distortion of Marxism by Stalinism and other factors into economic reductionism (to take one example) is provided by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács.

Lukács details how this degeneration of Marxism was12:

directly connected with the fact that the specialisation of knowledge led to the separation of the sciences from each other… the working class movement and its ideology adopted this division of labour, the independence of scientific disciplines from each other. Marx had defined the economic as the material foundation of a more total historical process.

By the 20th century, the economic had become a more or less ‘exact’ individual science, and this was largely replicated in the workers’ movement, including its Marxist component. Marx had seen the economic as one factor of social evolution, organically interconnected with other social causal determinants. Individualised sciences for Lukács, removed from their interdependence with other causal agents, ‘easily slides into mere tactics’, distorting the ‘Marxist conception of the economic [into] mere industrial productivity.’13

Thus, the turning of economics into an isolated science laid the methodological basis for its ability to be manipulated.

As a result, when the moment came, Stalin was able to first distort the meaning of the economic ‘on the theoretical level, and this distortion then became an instrument for his brutal manipulation of socialist development. When Stalin distorted the economic as a specialised positivist science, when he detached it from any political connectedness, he could claim to be building socialism by exclusively concentrating on industrial growth while totally ignoring the question of socialist democracy.’14

This sat entirely at odds with Marx’s notion that the economic is ‘more than just technology, more than a specialised individual science, but one causal factor within a larger total social formation.’15

The larger total social formation remains a major focus of Marxists today, influenced by a form of dialectical reason deeply indebted to Hegel’s intellectual offerings.

The alternative of dialectical reason – and its critics

Dialectical reason as a mode of analysis and thinking has come under sustained assault for some time, with its popularity significantly declining in the last half century in the face of other ideas like positivism, pragmatism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.

Explaining and elaborating foundational Hegelian thinking is first necessary in order to understand the discussion and criticism that follows.

Hegel’s classic example of the dialectical process is the master-slave dialectic.

Despite the inherent power imbalance, the master lacks something – the fulfilment of their need for acknowledgement. Being acknowledged by the slave is insufficient, as they are merely a thing to the master, and vice-versa. The twist is that while the slave works and the master receives the products of consumption, in their work the slave fashions and shapes material objects, becoming aware of their consciousness as objectively creating the fruits of their labour.

As author Stuart Jeffries explains16:

Clearly, this connects with the Marxist notion of man as essentially a producer, one who defines himself or rises to self-consciousness, even personal fulfilment, through meaningful work. For the slave, Hegel thought, labour, even at the direction of a slave master, makes him realise he has a mind of his own and means that the situation is not stable; its tensions generate a dialectical movement that leads to a higher synthesis. That synthesis leads to another dialectical tension, to another synthesis, and so on, at least in Hegel’s conception of history. Forty years after Hegel set out this dialectical process, Marx argued that if the object produced through labour is owned by another (be that another slave-owner or a capitalist), the worker has lost his own objectified essence. Such is alienated labour.

For Hegel, history was the unfolding of these dialectical processes towards the self-knowledge of what he termed the Absolute Spirit.

One of the key propositions of Hegelianism is that all the phenomena of any one epoch – its law, philosophy, economy, polity – are ‘merely the externalisations of one moment of the development of the Idea, i.e., of one internal spiritual principle which is the essence of those phenomena, manifesting itself in each and all of them…’17

In other words, ‘Hegel conceives every social totality… as having a unique spiritual principle to which all the diverse realities can be reduced, since each of them is only an expression of it.’18

Hegel’s dialectical conception of the social totality was profoundly idealist, while Marx’s dialectic, by turning Hegel on his head, functioned as a materialist inversion of Hegel’s dialectic. This gave it an interpretive power an idealist dialectic alone could never have, getting at the root of social phenomena and their historic emergence.

German Marxist and prominent member of the Frankfurt School Herbert Marcuse broke down the critical virtue of a materialist version of dialectical thought in the 1960 preface to his book, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory19:

Dialectic thought… becomes negative in itself. Its function is to break down the self-assurance and self-contentment… to demonstrate that unfreedom is so much at the core of things that the development of their internal contradictions leads necessarily to qualitative change: the explosion and catastrophe of the established state of affairs.

Although Hegel’s dialectic of negativity critiques the existing world on the basis of a ‘principle of freedom’ such freedom is ‘relegated to the realm of pure thought, to the Absolute Idea’ according to Marcuse.20

Expanding the boundaries of dialectical reason beyond the realm of ideas, and its role as a ‘negative philosophy’, i.e., the negative and critical stance towards the world as illustrated in German philosophy, was a task was taken up by a wide range of Marxist and Marx-inclined figures in the 20th century – like Marcuse.

Ranging from activists and scholars to rank-and-filers in the socialist and workers’ movement, theoreticians, and organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense.

They faced up to the charge levelled at dialectics by pragmatist, postmodernist and post-structuralist camps positing that it was a totalising, false perspective incapable of conceptualising particularity and difference.

That is, dialectics did not have room for the perspectives of oppressed racial, ethnic and national minorities, or of women, because it can only grasp grand totalities like progress and capitalism, not special oppressions at the interstices of society.

On the contrary, the Czech Marxist Karel Kosík, an original philosopher of Marxist humanism in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, regarded dialectics as fundamentally ‘the opposite of doctrinaire systematisation or romanticisation of routine ideas’; his concept of the pseudoconcrete serves a useful function in this regard.21

For Kosík, the pseudoconcrete represents ‘the collection of phenomena that crowd the everyday environment and the routine atmosphere of everyday life’ i.e., the world of ‘man’s fetishized praxis (which is not identical with the revolutionary-critical praxis of mankind).’22 The pseudoconcrete would include unsubtle totalities that crowd out differences and the ability to understand them, standing essentially at odds with revolutionary-critical praxis and communist potentialities.

Interestingly enough, the late 19th century founders of pragmatism first embraced and then broke with Hegel. Pragmatist William James called Hegel’s philosophy a form of ‘vicious intellectualism’, because Hegel sought truth through reason instead of the multiple truths of a relativistic worldview.23

Perhaps this is a partial explanation for the hostility of the esteemed German jurist, political theorist, and prominent Nazi Carl Schmitt, who wrote that on the day Hitler came to power, ‘Hegel, so to speak, died.’24

Indeed, a contemporaneous review of Marcuse’s book on Hegel noted how ‘Hegel’s philosophy was fundamentally rationalist, while the philosophy of national socialism is fundamentally irrationalist.’25

Another review came from the US Communist Party orientated journal Science & Society. While highlighting the ‘interesting argument’ of Marcuse demonstrating the Hegelian component in Marx’s philosophy, it came down on the side of positivism, declaring it scientific and therefore revolutionary.

If that latter approach represented a dead end, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, influenced by poststructuralism and sharing the postmodernist critique of totality, essences and dialectic, took it even further.

Rorty wished to uproot not just Marxist dialectics but the entire tradition of critical dialectical thinking from Plato onwards.

In the name of pragmatism, given no alternative to capitalism exists, Rorty concluded in 1992 that the only hope for getting the money to end intolerable inequalities is to facilitate the activities of those like Henry Ford – and Donald Trump.

Thus, the political-philosophical nadir of pragmatist philosophy was reached; acceptance and conciliation with the untrammelled existence of the likes of Donald Trump. Needless to say, it failed to reach even that low bar. A system facilitating such individuals, far from moderating inequalities, has only made them worse.

Poststructuralists proposed, instead of dialectical reason, a philosophy of difference, with the goal of, as Gilles Deleuze and Daniel Cohn-Bendit put it in 1986, a ‘culture of dissensus’, striving for ‘a deepening of individual positions and a resingularisation of individuals and human groups. What folly to claim that everyone – immigrants, feminists, rockers, regionalists, pacifists, ecologists, and hackers – should agree on a same vision of things!’26

Kevin Anderson’s response is brief and effective: ‘How the various spheres of the left, even if taken seriously in each of their particular manifestations, could eventually come together with enough force to challenge the rule of capital is probably not advanced by such a formulation. It should also be noted that Cohn-Bendit and Deleuze conspicuously leave aside the labour movement from their list of movements…’27

Long-time collaborators and communists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, influenced by postmodernism, took a more distinctive approach. Critiquing dialectics, they saw their project as being in sync with both Marx and Lenin while asserting ‘the postmodernist project must be nondialectical.’28

They alleged that Hegel’s theory of contradiction subsumed difference ‘into totality and teleology’, and labelled all forms of the dialectic as part of the logic of modern domination.29

Dialectics relegate, as they put it, ‘the multiplicity of difference to binary oppositions and its subsequent subsumption of these differences in a unitary order.’30

Hardt and Negri are referring specifically to the process in Hegel’s Science of Logic where identity is broken down into difference, with difference then subsequently subsumed by contradiction.

Reconciling the particular into the universal is a legitimate criticism of dialectical philosophy. Is it an inherently negative feature, or actually the basis to address and overcome the issues and oppressions poststructuralists and postmodernists identify?

The particular and the universal – race, class, gender, colonialism

Hegel’s notion of the concrete universal is undeniably related to Marx’s own views about universal emancipation.

Drawing upon Hegel, the pull of the universal upon the particular, steering it in the direction of universal human emancipation is evident in Marx’s body of work, for all that he addressed the particular.

Particulars like race, ethnicity and nationalism, especially in relation to subjects like Ireland, Poland, and the United States during the Civil War.

He distinguished between more narrow forms of group consciousness and more emancipatory ones, as when he emphasised how Irish Fenian nationalists had a class politics that opposed all landlords, pointing to the possibility of class unity across ethnic and national lines.

Such writings ‘belie the notion that Marx’s conceptualisation of capitalist modernity constitutes a “totalising” grand narrative under which the particulars of race, ethnicity, and nation are subsumed.’31

Or indeed gender, given Marx considered gender oppression a foundational form of social hierarchy and domination. Marx paid special attention to gender and family relations in non-Western societies like stateless Native American ones, perceiving elements of gender equality and women’s social power ‘far beyond the limited women’s rights of his time.’32

The women’s rights of Marx’s time were themselves a focus of his, concerned as he was with the social conditions of life for women across varying class strata. This included middle and upper-class French women driven to suicide by parents or husbands.

One of the specific tasks Raya Dunayevskaya set herself was to reinterpret absolute idea as absolute negativity, ‘rather than as any kind of ultimate metaphysical rest in a closed totality.’33

In other words, a reinterpreted dialectic that didn’t emphasise totality to the exclusion of difference and identity.

This enabled the dialectic to connect to the rich variety of progressive movements for change – the emerging LGBTI+ movement, women, ethnic and national minorities, without giving up on a universal drive towards emancipation in its most absolute and complete form.

Through the dialectical vision of a new society as a unifying point, free of the domination of capital and its value form alongside racism, sexism, and other oppressions, Dunayevskaya ‘avoids the pseudoconcrete that envelops so many of the postmodern philosophies of difference.’34

If dialectical thinking seeks to stay relevant, it must not seal itself away from questions of difference, otherwise it would atrophy into a fetishized ‘classical’ perspective, instead of remaining a living, critical philosophy in the present.

Moreover, dialectical reason can critically assimilate genuine insights from poststructuralism and postmodernism without ceasing to be dialectical reason. If it didn’t, it would cease to be a critical science.


Kevin Anderson’s book is well deserving of a wide readership and audience, given the clarity with which it explicates and summaries key ideas, debates, and the histories it engages.

In terms of criticisms, there is slight repetition in the text, understandable due to it being a compilation of essays thematically if not chronologically linked. Some of the repetition is not entirely unwelcome, as it reinforces points made earlier and then provides greater detail.

A background in Hegel or the particular ideological and intellectual controversies and debates would certainly help, though it is not a requirement to understand the essential arguments in each of the essays.

The main objection is to Anderson’s assessment of Engels.

While Anderson is careful to note the ‘highly significant’ contributions of Engels, he largely agrees with ‘the philosophical critique of his tendency towards positivism by Lukács… his reductionist writings on gender even after studying Marx’s far subtler treatment in the 1879-92 notebooks… his disparagement and misreading of the strength of the Union side in the U.S. Civil War, and his editing of Capital, Vol. I.’35

Fair enough, although it is also fair to say that most of the criticisms of Engels in general are equally applicable to Marx. Intellectually, some figures have sought to ‘rescue’ Marx from Engels, ascribing to Engels alone the blame for Second International determinism (Althusser and Lukács) and the crudities of the Stalinist version of dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism, at least in its Stalinist version, had strongly positivistic qualities, especially evident in the work of its English popularisers like Maurice Cornforth, and French popularisers like Georges Politzer. Engels was much more nuanced than either, although a positivistic element can be read into certain writings of his.

As Joost Kircz explains: ‘The Diamat ideology of Stalinism is a prime example of taking creative reasoning out of its socio-historical context and recasting it in eternal truisms.’36

Herbert Marcuse, Georg Lukács, Karel Kosík and Raya Dunayevskaya, whatever the strengths and limitations of their own politics and perspectives, were four individuals who sought to do the opposite without ceasing to be dialecticians or Marxists.

Moreover, for all the real determinism evident in the thinking in the Second International’s leading thinkers, it is perhaps sometimes a little overstated.

Exaggerating the differences between the two life-long intellectual partners strikes this author as a largely unnecessary and unfruitful exercise. To be fair Anderson makes an effort not to do that – but it does read like that is the direction he is more than once heading in.

While nobody could disagree with Anderson that we need to assess what Engels had to offer critically, like with other Marxist figures (Luxemburg, Bukharin, Lenin, Trotsky) the framing of them as ‘post-Marx Marxists in a negative sense’ (and here Anderson is following Dunayevskaya) seems unhelpful.37

Does it matter whether or not such figures ‘do not measure up to Marx’ as Anderson puts it?38 What about aspects of their political and intellectual activities that arguably exceeded those of Marx? It seems to lead ultimately into an argument about who was better, smarter, or less compromised intellectually and politically as a result of the historical role they played in their time.

The ‘power of the negative as the creative element’, words written by Dunayevskaya (echoing Marx’s 1844 manuscripts) was a central concern of hers, and it is for Anderson.39 Such power points in the direction of new beginnings, the ‘dialectic of negativity as the moving and creative principle’ as Marx described it.40

To give the last word to Karel on dialectics – it ‘dissolves fetishized artifacts both of the world of things and the world of ideas, in order to penetrate to their result.’41

For communists today, that is just the first step in unlocking ‘the present that is in the future’ as CLR James once said, and dissolving the present day structures that uphold oppression and unjustifiable hierarchies.42

All so the red shoots of a universalist emancipatory project breaking through the concrete – and pseudoconcrete – can flourish in the air of freedom.

1 Kircz, J 2014, ‘Elements of an essay on human change’, in R. Farris (ed.) Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis, IIRE, Amsterdam, p. 187.

2 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 157.

3 Bensaïd, D 2009, Marx For Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, Verso Books, London, p. 207

4 International Institute for Research and Education 2021, ‘What it means to be Marxist’ (2007),

5 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 115.

6 Dunayevskaya, R 2017, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings, Haymarket Books, Chicago, p. 433

7 Geras, N 1983, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment’, in New Left Review (ed.) Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, Verso Books, London, pp. 255-56.

8 Ibid, p. 244.

9 Ibid, p. 259.

10 Ibid, p. 264.

11 Ibid, p. 266.

12 Lukács, G 1968, Democratisation Today and Tomorrow: Part II.The Pure Alternative: Stalinismor Socialist Democracy. 6. Stalin’s Method,,

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Jeffries, S 2016, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso Books, London, p. 143.

17 Geras, N 1983, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment’, in New Left Review (ed.) Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, Verso Books, London, p. 249.

18 Ibid, p. 249.

19 Jeffries, S 2016, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso Books, London, p. 143.

20 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 101.

21 Ibid, p. 165-6.

22 Ibid, p. 166.

23 Ibid, p. 161.

24 Ibid, p. 97.

25 Ibid, p. 98.

26 Ibid, p. 159.

27 Ibid, p. 160.

28 Ibid, p. 160.

29 Ibid, p. 160.

30 Ibid, p. 160.

31 Ibid, p. 186.

32 Ibid, p. 222.

33 Ibid, p. 168.

34 Ibid, p. 169.

35 Ibid, p. 220.

36 Kircz, J 2014, ‘Elements of an essay on human change’, in R. Farris (ed.) Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis, IIRE, Amsterdam, p. 174.

37 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 222.

38Ibid, p. 222.

39Ibid, p. 168.

40Ibid, p. 164.

41Ibid, p. 201.

42Ibid, p. 191.

Urbanism for Women: what is, and what could be (Book Review: Feminist City)

Book title: Feminist City
Author: Leslie Kern
Released: 2020
Review by: Daphne Lawless

I forget the source, but I remember a socialist writer saying something like “the middle class are the vanguard of living well under capitalism”. Quite often, due to having more education, more disposable income and more leisure time, professionals and the relatively well-off are among the first to experiment with new ways of living – such as minimising the use of animal products, or making carbon-neutral and sustainable choices in housing and transport. Crucially, they also have the time and resources they need to advocate effectively for such positive social reforms.

This leads to a paradox whereby these reforms can be stigmatised as “elitist” or “anti-working-class”, by those seeking to promote reactionary politics – even if they would benefit working people if they were adopted across society. Thus, in a recent council by-election in working-class Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, a Right-wing candidate was able to describe Māngere’s new network of cycle lanes as “elitist and bordering on racism”[1], echoing a line promoted by Conservative-Left blogger Martyn Bradbury[2]. Attempts to promote alternatives to car dependency, such as the “Safer Streets” trial in Ōnehunga, or the campaign to open up the Auckland Harbour Bridge for cycling, are vulnerable to cynical commentators playing upon the fact that quite often the leading “faces” of such events are white professionals. Working people who don’t have the time or confidence to participate in formal consultations, and who are understandably suspicious that reforms proposed by the already-privileged will inevitably make their lives harder and more expensive, will be vulnerable to such bad-faith messaging.

To be clear, there are already many strong brown and working-class advocates of carbon-neutral and active transport modes.[3] But to give another example, many disabled Aucklanders complain that the new cycle lanes on Karangahape Road have made the street less accessible for those with mobility impairments; a problem which could have been avoided if disability advocates had been consulted in design and planning.[4]

All this is a roundabout way of saying that – while we should reject bad faith criticisms from the Right and the Conservative Left – there is a problem of lack of intersectionality in the movement for sustainable urbanism, housing and transport. Solutions such as intensified housing and removing some of the privileges of private automobiles, as long as they are mainly designed and advocated for by the already privileged, will inevitably have “blind spots” and “gaps” which might paradoxically make things worse for some of the marginalised and vulnerable, and offer opponents of sustainability an easy line of attack, that will disrupt the broad coalition necessary to make such changes stick.

This is an absolutely huge topic, but Leslie Kern’s Feminist City offers a convincing call for a better urbanism along one axis of intersectionality – that is, gender. Kern, an academic geographer working in small-town Canada, is refreshingly upfront with her acknowledgements that this is only one issue, and repeatedly reminds her readers to also listen to Black, indigenous, queer, trans and working-class voices on the issues:

Asking “women’s questions” about the city means asking about so much more than gender. I have to ask how my desire for safety might lead to increased policing of communities of colour. I have to ask how my need for stroller access can work in solidarity with the needs of disabled people and seniors. I have to ask how my desire to “claim” urban space for women could perpetuate colonial practices and discourses that harm the efforts of Indigenous people to reclaim lands taken and colonized (p.26).

Kern is conscious that certain urban reforms which make things easier for a certain class of women or a certain class of parents might paradoxically make things worse for others – for example, urban cafés which are comforting and safe “third spaces” for professional women often push out working-class and marginalised groups’ spaces (p. 106). This is an example of ways in which

making cities seem safe for women also tends to make them less safe for other marginalized groups. Efforts to “clean up” downtown areas and “revitalize” residential and retail districts are typically accomplished through a combination of aesthetic measures (beautification projects) and the active removal of groups of people that have been marked as symbols of disorder, danger, crime, or disease… Bodies that do not conform due to age, illness, disability, racialization, class, sexuality, addiction, etc., are marked as “out of place” and targeted for displacement. (pp. 160, 168)

Amid a discussion of the notorious phenomenon of gentrification, she raises the issue of the gentrification of parenting:

The norms and cultural signifiers of good parenting have been gentrified as they’re increasingly defined by the particular product brands, styles, and kinds of activities purchased and practiced by middle and upper class urban households. This plays out in the urban environment and middle-class parents demand and draw resources to their neighbourhoods and provide a market for upscale shopping and carefully curated child-centred activities…

As the work of motherhood becomes costlier via the gentrification of parenting, those who can afford privatized services benefit while those who cannot are shoved into neighbourhoods that make their lives even harder… low-income women are forced to find ways to weave care and paid labour together. (pp. 46, 57)

Key to Kern’s argument is the difference between what is and what could be in urbanism, for women. She understands very clearly that the suburban, car-dependent model of urban life is not only ecologically sustainable, but destructive to community life and individual flourishing, particularly for women:

the suburbs are anything but natural. Suburban development fulfilled very specific social and economic agendas… The suburban lifestyle both assumed and required, in order to function properly, a heterosexual nuclear family with one adult working outside the home and one inside…

the suburbs are not consciously trying to keep women in the kitchen and out of the workplace, but given the assumptions they rest upon, the suburbs will actively (if not agentically) stymie attempts to manage different family shapes and working lives…

The isolation, size of the family home, need for multiple vehicles, and demands of child care can continue to push women either out of the workplace or into lower-paying, part-time jobs that mostly allow them to juggle the responsibilities of suburban life…

For families headed by women, “their very survival,” argues Wekerle, is dependent “on a wide network of social services frequently found only in central city areas” (pp. 38–40)

In principle, dense urban living should thus offer much more possibilities for not only women, but for other oppressed groups – Kern goes into details on the way that lesbians and other queer people have built their communities on the basis of an urban lifestyle that would have been impossible in any other environment (pp. 80–2).

On the other hand, actually-existing urban life is not much more friendly to women than the suburban wastelands. Kern explains that since the 19th century, women have been considered to simply not belong in the urban environment – “streetwalkers” and “public women” were euphemisms for the despised class of sex workers. (p. 12) Contemporary urban form continues to indicate that women (and parents of small children, in particular) are not welcome:

The city has been set up to support and facilitate the traditional gender roles of men and with men’s experiences as the “norm,” with little regard for how the city throws up roadblocks for women and ignores their day-to-day experience of city life…

“Why doesn’t my stroller fit on the streetcar [tram]?” “Why do I have to walk an extra half mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous?” “Who will pick up my kid from camp if I get arrested at a G20 protest?” These aren’t just personal questions. They start to get to the heart of why and how cities keep women “in their place.”

The constant, low-grade threat of violence mixed with daily harassment shapes women’s urban lives in countless conscious and unconscious ways… the spectre of urban violence limits women’s choices, power, and economic opportunities. Just as industry norms are structured to permit harassment, protect abusers, and punish victims, urban environments are structured to support patriarchal family forms, gender-segregated labour markets, and traditional gender roles. (pp. 15-18)

Kern is dismissive of the nostalgic view of small-town or suburban life “where everyone knows your name”, understanding that the autonomy and anonymity of urban living offers space and freedom for women traditionally marginalised communities.

The extent to which violations of women’s personal space via touch, words, or other infringements are tolerated and even encouraged in the city is as good a measure as any for me of how away we actually are from the sociable – and feminist – city of spontaneous encounters… It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to navigate the public and private spaces of the city alone as a woman. (pp. 91, 94).

Kern centres the right to be left alone as the basis of urban life. Violence, harassment, and even the sheer unwillingness to allow a woman to enjoy public space without demands for male attention, make urban living unsafe for women, and this is redoubled for pregnant people. Kern describes how her pregnant body became “public property” and an “inconvenience”, something that my family is currently experiencing:

Although women often experience comments on our bodies and uninvited physical contact, pregnancy and motherhood elevate these intrusions to a new level. People read my protruding belly as if it said, “rub here please!” I was expected to cheerfully welcome all manner of unsolicited advice … [S]trangers’ fascination with my body didn’t translate into much of an uptick in urban courtesy. In fact, I sensed a constant, low-grade reminder that I was now different, Other, and out of place. (pp. 33-4)

On the other hand, says Kern, “I could function without a car. Compared to the suburbs, this kind of urban density offered a lot more ways to manage parenting, grad school, and domestic responsibilities” (p. 37). She is clear also about the way in which media narratives promote a climate of fear which leads to women self-excluding from urban spaces,

through sensationalized reporting on violent stranger crimes against women and a relative lack of reporting on intimate partner violence… In contrast, domestic violence, sexual assault by acquaintances, incest, child abuse, and other “private,” yet much more prevalent, crimes receive far less attentio.n (pp. 144-5)

Making the issues of violence and harassment worse is the prevailing neoliberal logic of responsibilisation – the idea that victims of oppression are “responsible” for keeping themselves safe and healthy, rather than a focus on the systems causing oppression. This need to be “responsible” is a constant drain for women, taking a huge toll on their ability to participate: “It’s depressing to decline events or leave early because there’s no safe and affordable way home. It’s psychologically draining to second guess our choices, wondering if we’ll be blamed if something bad happens” (p. 149)

Kern weaves her personal narrative together with humility in acknowledging that marginalised people in the city have never been granted “the right to be left alone”, as any street-based sex worker, homeless person or person struggling with addiction could tell you (p. 107). She mentions the availability of public toilets as a crucial factor which excludes, not only women, but trans people from urban life – not to mention people of colour who might have the cops called on them for asking to use a business’s facilities (pp. 108–11). Once again, we are faced with a gap between what urban life is, and what it could be – possibilities which don’t exist in suburbia.

Also resonant for me was Kern’s account of how, growing up in mega-cities such as Toronto and London, public transport gave her and her teenage friends the necessary freedom to explore not only their cities, but their own identities: She makes the excellent point that often-derided urban spaces such as shopping malls and streets are essential places of self-discovery for young people:

Girls must learn to make do with the limited spaces that they’re offered. In my suburban adolescence, that space was the mall… Girls paradoxically identify public spaces, such as city streets, as “private,” because these spaces allow them anonymity away from the prying gaze of parents, teachers, and other caregivers. The home was strangely more like a public space, since girls didn’t feel a sense of privacy or control over their bedrooms and possessions her (pp. 70-5)

The same goes for adult women, of course –Kerr points out that department stores and shopping malls originated as places where women could be out in public without male chaperoning or harassment (pp. 101–3). But her stories from her teenage years strike a chord with me. As a teenager growing up in Wellington, what is now known as the Kāpiti rail line was my lifeline out of the stultifying conformity of the outer suburban fringe into what seemed to be an exciting, colourful and cosmopolitan urban environment. (Of course, it’s pretty “cringe” to be comparing Wellington to Toronto or London; imagine if I’d gotten to Melbourne, my head would have probably exploded.)

Nevertheless, public transport (ideally) means freedom to younger people and others who don’t have access to cars. But again, actually existing transit has exactly the same problem as the actually-existing urban form, that it is specifically not designed for women’s actual lives:

Most urban public transportation systems are designed to accommodate the typical rush hour commute of a nine-to-five office worker… However, research shows that women’s commutes are often more complex, reflecting the layered and sometimes conflicting duties of paid and unpaid work… Recent research has found that transportation is yet another area where women pay a “pink tax” (paying more for similar services than men). Women are more likely to rely on public transportation than men, although they’re more poorly served by it. (pp. 41-2)

Every aspect of public transit reminded me that I wasn’t the ideal imagined user. Stairs, revolving doors, turnstiles, no space for strollers, broken elevators and escalators, rude comments, glares: all of these told me that the city wasn’t designed with parents and children in mind… I sheepishly realized that until I faced these barriers, I’d rarely considered the experiences of disabled people or seniors who are even more poorly accommodated (pp. 43-4)

Added to all this, of course, is the possibility of violence and harassment raising its head on public transport as well (p. 151). Unless such problems are dealt with, women are only acting rationally if they think like the classic song by Gary Numan – “here in my car, I feel safest of all”. Kern is careful to emphasise that being afraid in an urban environment and in public transit is a highly rational response (p. 145), that must be dealt with by material changes, not by “responsibilising” it away.

A particularly fascinating chapter of this book for Fightback readers is Kern’s discussion of cities as a place for mass protest. She is refreshingly critical about the sexism, racism, ableism, and transphobia that I witnessed” in protest and labour-movement spaces (p. 127) and the way in which women and parents of small children are excluded in “activist culture”:

I realized this was a choice women throughout history have had to make: be politically active, with all of its risks, or perform your duties as a caregiver in the private, depoliticized space of the home… Not only is this a systemic way that women are excluded from opportunities to have their voices heard by the state, but women’s disproportionate responsibility for child care is typically ignored by protest organizers as well…

For those who take the activist route, we still have to second guess ourselves both as mothers and as activists—are we appropriately committed to both? Is that even possible? (pp. 131-3)

Kern doesn’t try to offer any firm models for urbanist reform in her book, but returns over and over again to the theme that a sustainable urban future is only possible with the active participation and voices of women and other marginalised urban communities. She sees possibilities for the future not only in the survival strategies of low-income and marginalised groups, but in female friendship networks which she sees as increasingly displacing the nuclear family and heterosexual monogamy as the normative way of living together in the urban future (p. 88). Her statement that “the right to take up space is where the pleasure of being alone meets a wider politics of gender and power” (p. 113) offers a possible rallying call for an intersectional urbanism which includes everyone. And she is also crystal clear that top-down, technocratic planning won’t solve anything: “no amount of lighting is going abolish the patriarchy” (p. 155):

the faces of urban planning, politics, and architecture have to change. A wider range of lived experience needs to be represented among those who make the decisions that have enormous effects on people’s everyday lives (p. 170)

One caveat for readers in Aotearoa – Kern’s experience of urban form is predominantly that of North America, where working-class people and especially people of colour are concentrated in the inner cities. Contrast that with the urban form as we know it in Aotearoa, where – apart from students and homeless people – the population of the urban cores and inner suburbs are predominantly middle-class beneficiaries of gentrification, while working-class people, tangata whenua and migrant communities are concentrated in outer suburbs at the end of long motorways. It is for this reason that an urbanism which is suited to our local conditions has to start from understanding that suburban, car-dependent living is all that a generation of the marginalised in this country have known. A reversion to a densified, transit- and cycling-based sustainable urban model has to include working-class suburban dwellers as protagonists. They can’t just be “shifted around the board” or have their communities unilaterally rearranged by privileged planners, in the same way that their parents or grandparents had to adjust to being “ethnically cleansed” from the centre of our cities during the 1960s and 1970s.[5] In short, we need a sustainable urbanism from below.




[4] See for example Twitter thread beginning at

[5] See my previous article on this topic:

Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.





Book review: Culture Warlords

Image of Talia Levin via Shondaland.

Book title: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy
Author: Talia Lavin
Released: 2020
Review by: Will Howard

Culture Warlords functions as a look at some hard truths of the world. It’s not very fun to be immersed in white supremacy, so I shy away from it. I let them have their corners, and fight them when they come near my spaces, but there’s only so much time to be sad and angry in life, so I don’t want to constantly give them my attention.

Talia Lavin makes a good case for why we MUST give them our attention, why we need to look at what they’re doing, and why antifascist activism must include monitoring and shining a light on the activities of white supremacists and those who unwittingly support them.

Several things surprised me about this book, that I should have already known but somehow had missed:

I had managed to not realise that white supremacy depended so much on anti-Semitism as a stalking horse for all of the world’s problems. Maybe this shows my sheer naivety, the same way that I felt stripped of innocence the first time I truly understood the level of threat my female friends go through on a daily basis, that our society bakes in with ever present sexualisation, and therefore ever-present danger scanning for sexual assault/

White supremacy depends for a chunk of its power on being unacknowledged. Simply naming these people, showing what they are doing and how they are organising, robs them of essential power (as it makes them less terrifying), but it also makes them less likely to recruit.

Lavin encourages us to be aware of the radicalisation of people via social media such as YouTube, and the seduction of found communities that embrace despair. People who long for imagined golden ages are prime targets for far-right recruitment. Anti-Semitism is used as a glue to hold together a bunch of theories that make no sense if you look at them closely.

People who may have correctly identified capital as the enemy are instead encouraged to hate “The Jews,” who are portrayed by the far-right as insidious elites in control of global capitalism.

Reading the book will give you a familiarity with terms associated with the alt-right such as “the Boogaloo” a meme about a second civil war in the United States, and “incels” or involuntary celibates, a deeply misogynistic community which overlaps with the alt-right, particularly in their online spaces where hatred of women is intertwined with racism. Lavin also examines the role the spectre of “Antifa” plays in the psyche of the alt-right, and why we hear so much about them.

Culture Warlords is a wild ride through a lot of seriously unfun stuff. But I came away from reading it mostly hopeful that the nightmares I’d just read about can be resolved.

Essentially, this is a great book to have around if you want a primer on the alt-right and white supremacy to show to others. It doesn’t pull punches on describing exactly what’s going on in the darker parts of the Internet. At the same time, it shows that these people want horrifying things, and hatred is sadly not something we have left in the past.

It’s a great book for getting angry, and for inspiring you to do something with that anger. And for showing that your anger CAN make a difference. That the nebulous forces of modern-day fascism, racism, and chauvinistic anti-feminism can be countered, and while they’re great at making noise, they’re not as big as they try to make themselves appear. Lavin describes many of the things we can do to fight:

Catalogue those who take part in white supremacy. People still in general know it’s wrong, it is rare for someone to be willing to back up their statements of intent, and people know there are consequences when they are named as part of these kinds of hateful groups.

Interrupt their planning/infiltrate their spaces. While I would leave this particular tactic to people with more energy than me, it’s recounted in the book, and definitely works.

Find ways to shut down their “dark-web” sections. As an IT professional, I feel that calling the places reported on here the “dark-web” is mystifying them, as in most cases these are websites and messaging applications anyone can go to. The more we can deplatform racism, the harder it is for white supremacists to connect openly and plan.

Support the efforts of any who humanise the other. Do your part to know other cultures, don’t accept racist jokes, make people think about the things they say, and help each other. Find a way to de-escalate people who have started falling into this stuff.

Point out that it’s capital that’s the enemy, not “the Jews.” Fight coded messages about bankers and rich families. Don’t let racist assholes derail the very real villainy that’s contained in the wealthy by mislabelling it as a Jewish conspiracy.

Come up with alternative communities to slide the disaffected into. So that they are not preyed upon by the far-right.

Talia hints at most of the above, though this book is intended as a guide, not a manual for disassembling the structures of power that white supremacy and anti-feminism are living on. Her words are heartfelt, and her descriptions poignant. This book catalogues what kind of hate is out there in the world, and gives a lens to view it. It calls for action, because inaction is to surrender. We should hear that call and unite to fight for a world worth living in.

All in all, I’d say it’s an excellent book for either stoking your rage, targeting your rage against the kinds of assholes who want to watch the world burn, or perhaps to give to friends or family members to provoke discussion. I’m not sure it will give you easy discussions, or that it will definitely sway anyone who’s already bought into white supremacy. But I think it might be the wakeup call that some people need to recognise the ills of our modern world.

These Nazis aren’t going to deplatform themselves, let’s get to it.

Book review: Troll Hunting – “she deserved it”

Image by Carl Wiens.

Book title: Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout
Author: Ginger Gorman
Released: 2019
Review by: Karen Effie

I like Ginger Gorman a lot. She would make a good, thoughtful friend. She’s open about her life and the difficulties she had with the book: the shaky boundaries between her and the trolls she researched, her gradual desensitization to the worst of trolling language, and her occasional changes of mind and heart as she got deeper into this world of misogyny, far rightism and mental chaos. I’m an older woman and an observer. My reactions may be similar to hers on a personal level, except I am much less internet savvy. I’m a good audience for her.

The book was also published in 2019 and talks about events that took place as long ago as 2010. 2019 seems like about a hundred years ago online. Gorman naturally omits much of what went down from about 2018 onwards, such as the Christchurch shooting and the scattering and hardening of important far right groups since Charlottesville. But politics is not her forte. She is interested in trolls as people, the effects of trolling on individuals, and in measures that could be taken to curtail predatory trolling (her term).

She begins with her own experience. As a liberal journalist she wrote up the story of two gay men who adopted a child, and her story portrayed them in a positive light. Later she discovered they had in fact kidnapped the child and were part of a paedophile ring. Gorman became the target of right-wing trolls who linked LGBTQ to paedophilia. She and her family were easily doxed and had to take measures to protect themselves. From there, she began to communicate with trolls, investigating their motivations and their lives. She also investigated the problems with legislation and the lack of political will that leaves targets of trolls with shattered lives and no official recourse.

The trolls themselves came from different ideological starting points. One man specialized in targeting left wing public figures he felt were not left wing enough. This particular man gave up trolling, seemingly maturing out of it. A larger number of trolls were avowedly on the right, including weev (real name Andrew Auernheimer) whom she interviewed by Skype while in hiding. In this interview, weev described himself as a professional racist who had always held Nazi views. For many trolls, however, ideology took a back seat to the lulz. Trolling was fun, brilliant, cruel, meaningless, sarcastic, pointed, transgressive, uniting, witty, elegant, powerful, self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, chaotic, vicious. Targets were chosen because they were seen as hypocritical or annoying.

Within that mess of obscure motivations and plausible deniability (it’s just a joke!), two organizing features stood out.

The first was misogyny, either nascent or open. Women are shallow, they said. Women can’t hack or troll. Women don’t want us. Women are cancer. None of the trolls Gorman interviewed took an openly incel position but they weren’t far off it. Misogyny was more baked into the trollish worldview than racism. Apparently targets always deserved to be trolled, sometimes for reasons obscure even to the trolls. Women targets almost automatically deserved it. Being a woman online was enough. As for ‘she deserved it’, the book has a chapter on trolling and partner violence.

The second was the absolute drive for free speech. These guys pursued free speech in a manner entirely devoid of irony, given their efforts to shut down anyone who pissed them off. The free speech argument was complete, axiomatic, and a position to fall back on when pressured.

Ginger Gorman’s book explores these larger issues but comes to no particular conclusions. She unpacked the diffident stance taken by the police and other authorities. She also managed to get some useful information out of the Facebook representative for Australia and New Zealand (she is Australian). She called for stronger legislation and a more positive police response, and for social media giants to take responsibility. Much of this has been overtaken by events with recent bans by social media of Donald Trump and some far-right figures anyway.

She’s better on the micro issues, the terrible effects of trolling on the lives of targets including public figures, and has some discussion about the blurring of public and private life online, and how much of our work makes an online life necessary so we can’t just “not look at the internet”’ if we are being trolled. She also comes to the idea that lack of parenting has led to disaffected young men to take to trolling, a view based partly on what the trolls themselves told her. She doesn’t go into the history of trolling or the broader concern of how a socio-political environment arose that enabled trolling to flourish.

I enjoyed reading the book and I would like to have a coffee with Gorman. But being amiable and empathetic is not enough for me. The problem is liberalism: the same general wistful confusion about how the hell we came to this that I experience when I consider such complex issues. Why can’t we live and let live? Why can’t we accept each other’s differences? Why are we shouting and cancelling each other all the time? Why are we all so damaged? What happened to human decency? I am a natural liberal. I am of the generation that argued for free speech as part of a Left leaning agenda. I want a nuanced response to difference that values us all. I want to listen to the experiences of real people and only judge them once I know them, if at all. I could have written this book.

Since the Christchurch shooting, I have read what I can about the far right, and I have some disturbing experience of it from people in my life. I am perpetually perplexed and worried about it, but I don’t think the answer lies in better parenting (whatever that is) or legislating social media, which would probably hurt the Left more in the long run. I don’t think the overarching values of Left liberalism are anywhere near capable of dealing with the problem of trolling or any other feature of the far right.

Because, capitalism.

It is too late for all that. Trying to claw back good sense and decency and so on is not just an inadequate response to the sheer extremity of the multitudinous reactions to our truly dire socio-political and environmental situation. Cynicism, transgressivism, nihilism, atavism and accelerationism seem to me to be relatively meaningful reactions, and you don’t get them just on the far right.

Also, this. The various far right projects, online and in vivo, serve to block attempts at dismantling capitalism, and even to get to those attempts we need to get through the far right because they are a genuine and more immediate threat. Unless we do, we risk being inveigled into working alongside them because some of them want to dismantle the system too, and they are way pragmatic, and gleefully transgressive, and armed for bear. And yet it is the totality of the terminal stage capitalism we experience which makes clear thinking difficult and genuine organizing exhausting and piecemeal. Troll Hunting is not about the far right as such, but it is about bad faith abuse of power differentials, and all the qualities of moral damage in which the far right abounds. Taking all this on, at ‘real people’ levels, rather than expecting authorities or media corporations to rescue us, seems to be a better solution.