My new book Class War is a literary history, but it is committed to literature as something more than a record of past events. With a textual archive comprising letters, slogans, songs, manifestoes, memoirs, and field manuals in addition to novels, poems, and other more obviously literary modes of expression, literature is to be understood here as an active participant in the revolutionary process.
To conceive of conflict at the scale of war, and to develop a potent language with which to inspire comrades to war, revolutionaries have borrowed forms and figures and concepts from literary writing, and in turn they have contributed to an arsenal of ideas and associations identifiable as class war, from which future revolutionaries have drawn.
In the years before the Paris Commune, for example, literary expression is said to have become newly militant: “prose and verse and music disappeared,” recalled Louise Michel, “because we felt so near the drama coming from the street, the true drama, the drama of humanity. The songs of the new epoch were war songs, and there was no room for anything else.” Or Trotsky, in explaining his history of the Russian Revolution, insists that social transformation be understood in relation to narrative. He compares his writing to the sheer amount of literary detail afforded bourgeois insularity in the novels of Marcel Proust.
It would seem that one might, at least with equal justice, demand attention to a series of collective historic dramas which lifted hundreds of millions of human beings out of non-existence, transforming the character of nations and intruding forever into the life of all mankind.
Or Fanon, for whom the native writer addressing their own people in a decolonial struggle composes “a literature of combat,” a unique narrative form that “calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation.”
Taking formulations such as these as a guiding principle, my book demonstrates how, within the tempest of anti-capitalist mobilization, revolutionary leaders look beyond political theory and military science to draw from literary writing in order to imagine and reimagine the significance of their actions. By asking what and how revolutionaries were reading as well as how they were writing and written about, we learn that class war owes its viral ubiquity to existence as a narrative concept, in the way historical events are reflected within the contested space of literature but also in the way that militants have drawn inspiration from and composed literature in formulating their strategic and ideological positions.
Examples of this abound, beginning with Marx’s well-known claim that he learned more from reading the novels of Balzac than from all the historians, economists, and political theorists combined. We see it in English radicals engaged with literary romance and the Communards’ invention of naturalism; we see it in Lenin’s affection for the novels of Tolstoy and in Mao’s compositions in classical poetic verse; we see it in Huey P. Newton’s engagement with carceral and slave narratives and with Assata Shakur, shot to pieces and also under police guard, shouting lines from Claude McKay’s best-known sonnet at her captors. “I read them over and over,” she says, “until I was sure the guards had heard every word. The poems were my message to them.” Indeed, we see literature in the words and deeds of countless revolutionaries, right down to Che Guevara’s insistence that, in addition to the essential if ascetically instrumental rations of soap and toothpaste, the guerrilla combatant should always carry a book in their pack so as to read and exchange with other members in the band. “These books,” he says, “can be good biographies of past heroes, histories, or economic geographies, preferably of the country, and works of general character that will serve to raise the cultural level of the soldiers and discourage the tendency toward gambling or other undesirable forms of passing the time.”
While literature reminds us of flesh and blood combatants, of the lived experiences that take place under the homogenizing abstraction of common interest, of the real glory and the happiness as well as the doubts and misgivings that underwrite human struggle, revolutionaries have committed to fighting not only as a group of combatants but also as readers and writers, in such a way that class war emerges as a rhetorical device and narrative concept attached to real people enacting revolutionary measures before enjoying its half-life in poems, novels, and drama.