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Revolutionary Rupture: A review of China Miéville’s A Spectre, Haunting

Originally published: Ancillary Review of Books on December 28, 2022 by Anna McFarlane (more by Ancillary Review of Books) (Posted Nov 09, 2023)

China Miéville is the most important UK author of the early twenty-first century; his Bas Lag fantasy trilogy brought a new kind of socially-conscious weird fiction into the mainstream of British literature. Even as he changed the face of fantasy literature with Perdido Street Station, The City and the City, and Embassytown, alongside his fantasy criticism, he has been equally public about his Communist politics. Marxism infuses his work, particularly through the image of the railway. It was the railway that carried Lenin back from exile to Moscow, heralding the intensification of the Russian revolution, an origin scene that Miéville mythologizes in his last significant work of non-fiction, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017). The railway shapes the direction of the mutilated proletariat in his final Bas Lag novel Iron Council, as indentured railway workers lay the tracks in front of the train in a direction of their choice, seizing control of the means of production. Since then, Miéville has also served as one of the founding editors of Salvage, a communist periodical that seeks to find the future in the ruins of late capitalism.

For Miéville to turn to The Communist Manifesto, as he does in his latest book, A Spectre, Haunting, is a turn to the original source of much of his thinking. The Manifesto claims that the speed of the railways and the incipient globalization of the Industrial Revolution destroys the old feudal power structures, spreads the grip of the bourgeoisie, and ultimately therefore leads to the communist revolution, since the bourgeoisie are producing their own “gravediggers”: the proletariat.

Subtitled “On the Communist Manifesto”, the book intends to provide an introduction for beginners, and is well kitted out to do so. It includes the complete Manifesto as an appendix, alongside various prefaces added by Marx and Engels over the years, with explanatory footnotes to clarify translation. Miéville provides chapters on the manifesto form, a commentary on the Manifesto, and a historical contextualization of the Manifesto, explaining the various grudges and philosophical differences guiding Marx and Engels as they chose what to include. The League of the Just had given Marx a deadline to write a document that would outline the position of communists across Europe (the “Communist Party” of the Manifesto’s original title refers to a general position, rather than a specific political organisation).

Beyond this introductory and contextual material, the book makes a wider point  around the power of reading and interpretation. Miéville repeatedly draws attention to the rhetorical stance of the Manifesto and the bravado of its language. Marx and Engels address the bourgeoisie directly, in a way that situates communism as a real threat to their power, despite the small number of committed communists at the time and their factional nature. As Miéville puts it, the communists were “a tiny group of embattled leftist reprobates”, and yet theManifesto would be reprinted and passed from hand to hand during times of capitalist crisis, bringing a class together through the performative power of class consciousness spread in the Manifesto’s rousing words. For Miéville here, the key means of understanding the text—and, it is implied, the world—is through reading, and in a sense this book acts as a manifesto for reading and for generous hermeneutic attention. To quote Miéville at some length:

The only reasonable way to read the Manifesto—or anything—is to be as flexible as the text itself. To proceed with rigor that’s both sympathetic and suspicious, allowing for grey areas, uncertainties and good-faith disagreements. What errors and fallacies there are must be counted as such, without inferring that in and of themselves they necessarily fatally wound the text. We should strive to read as generously as possible—and to read ruthlessly beyond that generosity’s limits. Both bouquet and brick bat should be predicated on an understanding of how the text works. That it performs distinct tasks, and deploys distinct, if overlapping, voices.

Miéville brings this sensitivity to his close analysis of the Manifesto and its continuing relevance to readers today. He devotes chapters to common criticisms of the work, namely  that Marx and Engels rely on an optimistic interpretation of human nature, and that the Manifesto deals insufficiently with issues of race, gender, and nationalism. Miéville’s section on race is particularly fascinating, reading race as co-constituted with class, drawing on a long history of Black activism from W.E.B. DuBois up to contemporary debates within the Black Lives Matter movement and wider culture. This invaluable section demonstrates the power of a Marxist-historicist understanding of the construction of racism, while also showing the seeds of working-class solidarity across racial difference already present in the Manifesto. As throughout the book, Miéville’s generous footnotes give the reader a starting point to delve far deeper into the discussions with which he engages.

In reading the Manifesto today, Miéville addresses accusations that it provokes a religious ecstasy and dogmatism in its readers, accepting the former while warning against the latter. As a result, this chapter embraces and develops the emotional, even spiritual, power that the Manifesto has inspired. Powerfully, Miéville recounts a  story of workers in pre-WW1 Bavaria begging their doctor to ensure that they would be buried with a copy of the Manifesto. Miéville writes that “whether or not they believed they would rise again, it brought them comfort to bring it with them across that ultimate divide, on their own rupture, that moment of private eschatology”. That concept of rupture, of changing the status quo through a potentially violent and certainly irreversible act of revolution, infuses Miéville’s reading, including his provocative argument for the role of hate as a motivational force in political life, which unfashionably makes the claim for the value of class war and the consciousness of class war as such.

Miéville argues for a kind of salvage communism, one that takes the rupture of revolution as synonymous with building something from the ecological and political ruins that surround us. A Spectre, Haunting shows and builds upon the Manifesto’s continued power to inspire radical imaginaries courageous enough to work for that rupture, and to imagine what might grow in its aftermath.

Anna McFarlane is a Lecturer in Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds and author of the monograph Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (2021). Her current research was awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and focuses on traumatic pregnancy and its expression in fantastika. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture, and the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.

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