Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been revisiting the novels of John Le Carre, well known for producing genuinely literary works within the spy novel genre. It seems to me that there are three phases to his work. In his earlier novels, he treats spying as a game. That is to say, he refuses to recognize the good/evil dichotomy that characterized Cold War rhetoric and instead highlights the moral equivalency of both parties. and the tactics they employ In Smiley’s People, our main character, George Smiley, is reminded by his younger associate Peter Guillam of something he had said long ago—that they would defeat their counterpart within the USSR, the mysterious Karla, by the strength of their system and worldview. That is, the West would inevitably defeat the Communist East because it was morally superior. And George Smiley does, ultimately, engineer Karla’s defection, but not through any exercise of ideological purity; instead, he masterfully exploits Karla’s personal needs—that is, threatens the well-being of his mentally ill daughter. No moral superiority here—only the game.
In the next phase of his writing, Le Carre expands upon this by looking at those who exist at the fringes of immoral systems and what occurs when they attempt to resist evil. He anticipated this turn, I believe, with The Russia House, whose Barley Blair betrays his native country for the love of a Russian woman, thus rejecting the very premise of the game so important to spies and politicians. Le Carre really develops this focus upon the individual with novels like The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song. In the former, British diplomat Justin Quayle travels across the world in his investigation of his wife’s murder, slowly uncovering information about fraudulent drug testing in Africa, and though he’s murdered in the end, his work ends up revealing to the public some of the bigger picture. In the latter, a translator named Salvo happens upon information that an attempt by Western backers to install a friendly regime in Kivu is really a cover for acquiring coltran and other precious metals in the area, and though he is incapable of getting this information out to the public, knowledge of Salvo’s inevitable betrayal forces this coup attempt to launch before it’s ready, resulting in its failure. The message here is that individual acts of resistance may not overturn the system but can gum up the works, if only mildly and at great cost to the resister.
More recently, however, Le Carre has taken a turn toward Greek tragedy, with “The System” standing in for fate or the gods whom it is useless to resist. Take Our Kind of Traitor, for example. In this book, the Russian money launderer Dima, makes an offer to British intelligence of information linking high-ranking officials in the British government with Russian criminal cartels, and though he has the backing of significant people within British intelligence, he is murdered when those people attempt to smuggle him over to England for a full debriefing. The System remains undisturbed, and the criminals get away with it all in the end. Le Carre does not even allow for a coda showing that there were any ripples outward from these heroic actions—the sacrifice has not the slightest salvific effect.
There is a continuity between these three phases. After all, Smiley’s People does not concern itself with the morality of the game—just who can play it best. The Mission Song depicts a person outside the game (and thus without a team) trying to play and being broken in the process. Our Kind of Traitor comes around full circle. If, in Le Carre’s early classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the narrative hinged upon the identity of a traitor to the service (that is, someone who was secretly playing for the other team), this later book questions the extent to which there are actually two teams at all. Globalized investment firms mean that the wealthy in each nation have more in common, and more in commerce, with each other than they do their fellow countrymen, and the end of Cold War rivalries, the battle of ideologies that offered their own prescriptions for the future, means that the world’s political and financial leaders have their own interests at heart and are not interested in playing that old game—after all, that Russian bank linked to a money laundering operation will, nonetheless, be bringing much needed capital into the British economy, and did you not stop to think of that?
So where does this meditation upon the development of spy novels lead me? First, contrary to our Western, liberal views, the individual has very little power. Oh, we do love the stories of our wronged hero who takes on the system, our movies of epic justice, but power is, by its nature, collective. The medieval king might imagine that he stands alone, but he only has castles and armor and food on account of the appropriation of others’ labor and money, and he maintains his power through a network of powerful people beneath him, lords of their own manors, who may occasionally compete with him for the throne but will never call into question the nature of monarchy (precisely because they would love to have that power themselves one day). If you want the power to overthrow an entrenched and evil collective, you need collective power. Do you think that others who are deeply invested in the system will help you change it out of the goodness of their own individual hearts? The work of many whistleblowers disappears into the trashcans of many reporters due to the failure to mobilize the collective pressure that would make those revelations necessary and desirable. And sure, you can assassinate Hitler, but the business interests who put him in power will still be there, and Hitler was not so special that he couldn’t be replaced. Do you honestly think that you can kill them all before you are caught or killed? If your goal is martyrdom, make sure that you actually have disciples. As the philosopher Paul Dumouchel notes in The Barren Sacrifice, political violence “is violence that legitimizes itself. It is violence with which those other than those who commit it identify.” Do you grand gesture, but if nobody identifies with it, is willing and able to replicate it, then it dies alone.
So, to escape the weakness of the individual, you must join a group. In other words, in this world that sees only one team playing the game, you have to create an organized opposition, another team. Let’s think about the nature of teams for a bit. Another recent book I’ve read is Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Our stereotypical view of the French Resistance is probably akin to the BBC series Allo Allo, with its trenchcoat-wearing women in berets passing along secret messages and occasionally opening fire on some group of Nazis with their submachine guns. Charles de Gaulle, shortly after France’s liberation, insisted that all of France resisted the Nazi occupation, but his own pre-occupation was reuniting the country, as well as mythologizing his own role in its release from German control. In fact, many Frenchmen actively collaborated with either the Vichy regime or the Nazis themselves, and the resistance itself was not one single movement but rather a patchwork of movements, some of whom (like the Communist Resistance) saw the Resistance as the means of bringing an egalitarian revolution to France, while others would have been fine under Marshall Petain but objected to the German occupation. In addition, there were a number of Christian groups and individuals who sought not to drive out the Germans by means of violence but rather focused upon saving the lives of those destined for the concentration camps.
Despite their various fundamental aims, however, these groups were able to cooperate at times with their eye about the initial goal of liberating France. So when I say that it’s necessary to join a team, I don’t mean that you have to scour the field for the strongest opposition party or organization—but your group has to be able to work well with others. So how do you pick a group?
Work with those close to you, if you can—those with whom you can share the greatest bonds of solidarity. One side effect of the modern state is the weakening of those bonds of solidarity; or, as the philosopher Paul Dumouchel puts it: “‘Universal’ solidarity detaches agents from their specific bonds of solidarity, and brings into contact individuals who, a priori, nothing but the prohibition of violence unites into a community. It leaves them free to choose, in their relationships with one another, between indifference and optional affinities.” If you have a group for whom affinity is not so optional—family, members of the local community—then work with them. Work with people for whom you are not just another name on a checklist. In my mind, the great mistake of the Democratic Party has been the abandonment of interpersonal interaction and its replacement with a studied focus upon demographics and targeted marketing. They focused more upon getting out the vote and less upon community, and thus they lost both. When was the last time you saw a political party host a barbecue or a picnic? The Democratic Party ceased to be a local organization and, thus, is on its way to cease becoming a national one.
So if there exists a local group, try to work within that. But in addition, you also need a group that serves as an expression and extension of your values, if possible. I have friends who are conservative Christians and Republicans to boot who understand the threat that Donald Trump poses and are interested in opposing his regime. Such people probably do not need to sign up for the League of Junior Communist Drag Queens—they won’t really be effective in such an organization, even if it is committed to resisting the Trump regime. Lining up with those who best align with your values is not an attempt to undercut diversity but rather to ensure the smoother operation of the group (while also building some of that specific solidarity mentioned above). After all, as I noted above, your group should be working with others where your aims overlap. My Christian friends may not be that interested in creating a socialist paradise after the downfall of fascism, but we can agree on the threat to be removed, even if we don’t agree on the future we want to see afterwards. Arguing about the future will be for the realm of politics once we have recovered it from corporate hands.
One final word about groups: Every single one of them has some blood on its hands. I am, after all, fairly far Left in my politics, and I have to recognize that the twentieth century witnessed some incredible violence in the name of Leftist ideologies. I once caught myself in the middle of trying to explain away the death toll from Stalin’s forced collectivization of agricultural as a departure from Marx’s vision, not a culmination of it—and I realized that I sounded just like those Christians who insist that violent manifestations of the faith (Crusades, witch burnings, slavery, genocide) constitute deviations from the teachings of Christ rather than manifestations of Christian theology. You won’t find a group that hasn’t betrayed its principles. But those principles are important. Does your group offer hope? “The absence of hope is the elephant in the room of contemporary human culture,” write Christopher Kyriakides and Rodolfo D. Torres in Race Defaced. Does your group offer a vision for a better world? As Stefan Arvidsson notes in Morgonrodnad, utopianism may be a moderate expression of political idealism (indeed, Edward Bellamy saw the perfect society arising slowly from a series of changes), but a utopian vision can serve a rhetorical function, if nothing else, by the opposition it produces—the conservative and rather Panglossian insistence that this present world is the best of all possible worlds, never mind its many obvious deficiencies. More than that, though, a clear vision for the future unites people and gives them something to work toward, not just against. Finally, does your group have a vision for a world without violence? As Nick Hewlett writes in Blood and Progress: Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation: “The way in which we struggle for change affects the goal we are pursuing, and the more we know about the type of society we are struggling for the more this will affect the way we pursue it.” Yes, every group has some historical blood on its hands, but there is a feedback loop between the ends and the means of the struggle, and the point when otherwise utopian visions have succumbed to endless purges and cycles of violence has been the encroachment of violence upon the imagined future, the addition of violence into that vision of the society to be.
The failures of the past should inform how you pursue justice today, but historical purity is a luxury you cannot afford (simply because you will not find it). Yes, there is no Christian denomination without a terrible history (not even the Quakers), but there are many churches today gearing up for a real defense of immigrants, and black churches formed the nexus of the civil rights movement. And yes, state communist parties have engaged in many atrocities, but that doesn’t negate Cuba’s high rate of literacy and healthcare, the fact that the Communist Party USA was a true leader in civil and labor rights in the early twentieth century, or that the social democracy that makes many European nations such great places to live resulted, in large part, from leftist organizing. If it’s where you belong, go for it.
So, to sum up: 1) organize collectively, 2) within local circles of solidarity, if possible, 3) and with those with whom you are most ideologically aligned, if possible, 4) so long as they embrace a utopian vision that entails a democratic world without violence, and 5) cooperate with other groups on goals that you share, even if you differ on the world you would see result from your actions, because if you are both committed to democracy, you can hash out the differences once you have established your democracy.
Now—we have answered the “who” of resistance, but what about the “how”? What activities are permissible when resisting a fascist threat? That will be for the next post.