Postcard from Mauritius

Ian Parker travelling east in the Indian Ocean

Mauritius is an African country, but Hinduism is the most widely-followed religion, one of the legacies of enforced travel to the island as indentured labour – debt bondage with promise of release after the cost of travel has been paid back, usually a scam. The arrival of indentured labourers is commemorated each year on 2 November. Creole, Kreol Morisien, is most widely spoken, but signs at the airport on arrival are in English, French, Hindi and Chinese.

Arab traders knew of it and then the Portuguese and then the Dutch had their fingers all over the island before the French moved in. The Brits ran Mauritius as a plantation economy from 1810, when it took it from the French, until independence in 1968.

Mauritius is often touted as a successful capitalist economy after independence (and a counterweight to the horror stories sold to Réunion about what would happen to them if they broke from France). It is about the same size as that island to the west, actually a bit smaller with a larger population, despite what taxi drivers tell you. They insist, indignantly, that their island is much larger than Réunion.

Unemployment now runs at about 8%. A B&B host complained that Réunionese on unemployment benefit (with unemployment over there at over 40%) come to cheaper Mauritius on the 45-minute flight east to holiday here.


Among many of the dominant Hindu population, a strong work ethic, tuned-in now to contemporary neoliberalism, is seen as the way out of poverty, and so racial divisions function to divide and rule, and also to often marginalise Afro-Mauritians. They are part of the ‘General Population’, which is one of the four official categories used to balance representation in parliament, the Assembly; the three specific designated groups are Hindu, Muslim and Sino-Mauritians.

Gandhi stopped in Mauritius in 1901 on his way to South Africa, and he sent an envoy back to represent Indo-Mauritians in court still battling over their indentured status. Our Hindu host in one place said her family had been here for five generations, lured here by the British with the promise of gold, but she was glad she was here; she was not Indian, she said, but Mauritian. It was then clear, as she spoke about her neighbours, that lines of heritage among different Indo-Mauritian groups, Marathi, Telugu and so on, was keenly felt.

Discussions at dinner among host and visitors included trading of stereotypes followed by a caution; that it is fine to say such things in private, but if you post anything negative about another group on social media you will be visited by the police. During a minor robbery here in the centre of the countryside one night – three youth were caught by a German tourist running off with some electrical equipment – the B&B host, Hindu, asked if the miscreants were African (they were not).

Some Afro-Mauritians turn to Rastafarianism. Dope was criminalised here though there is still widespread use, with a crackdown in 1999 leading to mass arrests and then the death in custody of a well-known local musician Kaya. Kaya, Joseph Reginald Topize, had been one of the founders of Seggae, a blend of Reggae and Sega music. One of his concerts was followed by arrests and imprisonment, and claims by police that he had suffered concussion after banging his head against jail bars during withdrawal from drugs. There were riots, including against exclusion and pathologisation of Afro youth.

We were told that there are no Jews in Mauritius, but there is a Jewish cemetery in Saint Martin. The British diverted a ship carrying refugees from Nazi Germany during the Second World War to Mauritius and Jews were then contained here, dying here or leaving as soon as they good after the war.


There were no indigenous people here on the island prior to colonisation. Slaves were transported from Madagascar, and then augmented by import of more slaves and then indentured labour from the Indian subcontinent. Sugar-cane was developed as the main crop. Chinese labourers were also brought across, the descendants of which are now part of the ‘Sino-Mauritian’ community.

40% of the land is agricultural, with 90% of that still taken up with sugar cane plantations, but that is much less than the old colonial days, and the government is keen to move into finance in which India is a key player. Mauritius the main provider of Foreign Direct Investment, FDI, to India through the so-called ‘Mauritius Route’. India is second largest FDI provider to Mauritus, after the US (then it is the UK, Cayman Islands and Hong Kong). Most of this investment now goes into tourism. Most real estate investment, including hotel complexes, comes from France, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

The decline of the sugar industry and the interplay of different racial stereotypes, including of Chinese as shopkeepers and docile manual labourers, is evoked well in the 2014 film Lonbraz Kann. The title of the film is in Kreol Morisien. You can get an idea of how Kreol transforms the language of the colonialists to find a voice for the people if you say the title of the film and then the title in French, “A l’ombre de la canne” (or, in English, “In the Shadow of the Sugar Cane”).


There is an active local feminist movement, and also a backlash here from men who throw the phrase ‘cultural Marxism’ around (and the unspeakably reactionary British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, known for repeating this far-right phrase, is daughter of a Mauritian mother who herself was a Tory councillor and parliamentary candidate in north London). So, resistance and reaction of different kinds abounds here, ideological confusion and internalised oppression. Feminism is present in politics and culture, with some writings by feminists initially banned.

Ananda Devi’s 2014 Eve Out of Her Ruins is a case in point, and it captures something of this context for women, and the way their lives operate at the intersection with other forms of oppression. The book published originally in French, and then made into a film before it was translated into English, is set in a deprived part of the capital, Port Louis. The fictional name of the suburb is Troumaron, which will serve for Kreol and French speakers to convey that it is a shithole.

In the course of the story the four teenage characters encounter sexism, racism and poverty. There are passing references to French Johnny Hallyday, to conflicts between Hindu and Muslim youth, and to the scapegoating of Afro youth by the police. The core of the story, however, is the plight of Eve and her relationship with her lover Savita and sexual exploitation by a school-teacher. Desperation and power drive the young women, and the young men are torn between violence and solidarity.


The second largest political party in the National Assembly is the Mauritian Militant Movement, MMM, which is now an affiliate the (Second) Socialist International. There is a Hindu-dominated ‘Labour Party’, also a Socialist International affiliate, and a local party representing Rodrigues island, and fighting for autonomy. The largest party is the misnamed Militant Socialist Movement, a split from the MMM, and governing in an electoral alliance with the Rodrigues Island representatives and the Muvman Liberator, another MMM split-off following a spat about MMM support for a Labour Party Prime Minister.

There is also a far-left local party, Lalit, which split from the Mauritian Militant Movement in 1981, and which defines itself as feminist as well as environmentalist and internationalist. Lalit, “struggle” in Kreol Morisien, campaigns against the presence of British and US military forces on Diego Garcia, land which is historically part of Mauritius. Ecology is also a key issue here, with the fate of the dodo, native to the island, seen as emblematic. Other species are set to go the same way.

Bats with a wing span of up to 31 inches, Flying Foxes, are endemic, but with deforestation driven from rural areas into the cities. They can be seen swooping down at dusk to eat lychees and mangos in gardens. Viewed as a pest by many people, they have been wiped out in Réunion, and are now under threat here. Macaque monkeys, introduced by the Dutch, roam wild in some parts of the island, and are then harvested and contained and exported; Mauritius is the biggest exporter of monkeys for research, the rate now is over 10,000 a year.

Lalit has not bad positions on most international questions, and activists have worked in the past with Fourth International comrades in nearby La Réunion (and I saw a copy of a Kreol translation of a book by Ernest Mandel published in Port Louis). There is also a smaller ecosocialist breakaway group called Rezistans ek Alternativ that has been in active contact with the Fourth International in the last few years. A former government minister from the MMM told me that they were still in friendly contact with Lalit and Rezistans ek Alternativ. This is a small place, about 1.3 million people in total, and in radical politics circles people know each other well.

Current Rezitans ek Alternativ mobilisations have been around the case of Bruneau Laurette, arrested for drug-dealing. There have been protests and a strong police presence against demonstrators outside the court in Moka, just south of Port Louis. This is a test case for civil liberties connected with environmental concerns, but difficult. Laurette emerged as a problematic populist leader following the Wakashio oil spill off the south coast in July 2020. He raised questions about failure to clean up after the tanker burst open on a coral reef, and about corruption. There were significant demonstrations with an ecosocialist dynamic.

Capital accumulation in Mauritius is no longer directly colonial, but the ruling class is busy investing the fruits of the labour of others overseas, with the finance sector operating effectively as a site of money-laundering. The future of an opposition movement is intimately linked to what is happening in the region, and internationally. Much of the left is caught in electoral politics, but there are repeated attempts to break out of that, and as activists do so they are linking different forms of resistance to envisage a real alternative to the form capitalism has taken here.

This is a corrected version of an article that appeared on the Anti-Capitalist Resistance site


Postcard from La Reunion

The flag on sale in the local Chinese-run multi-mart is for La Réunion, with the number 974 displayed in the red triangle. There should be a point in the number, for this island is a French département, sending representatives to the mainland from around 900,000 inhabitants, and it is at the bottom of the list with the other overseas territories. It is not even marked with a full number; it is just the number 97.4.


There is a history of struggle here, against colonialism and the forms of sexism that link racism with capital accumulation, and also a vibrant radical history. Activists who built anti-apartheid movements against the South African regime, a regime that the local politicians were willing to back, are still around, some standing for the far-left in the recent elections. Support for the left is difficult to harness, however, either to elections or to popular struggle. Many local votes for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round then went to Marine Le Pen in the run-off with Emmanuel Macron.

There are strong institutional connections to France and attempts to resist that. During the May 1968 events, travel from the mainland was temporarily stopped altogether, but many of the images of what was happening in Europe were of the inexplicable chaos there. It was and still is localised action that counts, action that addresses immediate exploitation and oppression.

Recent protests Fifty years later, in 2018, gilet jaunes protests were massive in La Réunion, bringing the island to a standstill. The movement was quickly bought off, with leaders of the movement being given jobs and housing. The movement is still alive and well, though those involved no longer refer to themselves as gilets jaunes.


When we arrive at the ‘Qj des zazalé’ old gilets jaunes encampment in Le Tampon in the ‘sud sauvage’, the wild south of the island, accompanied by a long-standing militant and local candidate in the recent elections, we are met with friendly banter that marks us as ‘zoreilles’, old whites from La France.

Why ‘zoreilles’? Possibly from ‘les oreilles’, and that may be because you have to be careful what to say in front of the whites, or it may be because the whites arriving from mainland France had red ears from the sun and stood out to the locals, or it may be that they cupped their ears while getting the incomprehensible locals to repeat what they were saying.

At the same time, whites are still very much in command, and class politics is refracted through racial domination and anti-racism. Those who travel from mainland France, the zoreilles, are given additional salaries, with the ‘correction’ adding a sizeable amount as well as tax concessions which enable them to buy houses, sometimes two or three extra houses, which can then be leased to the locals. This is settler colonialism in practice.

The ‘Qj des zazalé’ camp (General Headquarters of the Azaleas camp) was attacked by the police two weeks ago and has had to be rebuilt after the cyclone. Land nearby in a ravine that was used to grow food has been seized by the authorities. They are under pressure, but a small group keeps the place going, which includes a garden area, “guest quarters”—that is, a small hut—and a café. There are open meetings every Monday to which everyone in the local community is welcome.

These are the remains of the gilets jaunes, and the radicals involved have taken on a new autonomous movement form. Many of the old activists, those who were not bought off, got caught up in anti-vaxx conspiracy stuff during the pandemic, and there are still posters on the walls in nearby Saint Joseph for a mobilisation against the authorities wishing to impose on their right to refuse vaccination passports. The poster carries two flags, those of France and of La Réunion, a sign that this movement is now run by the far right.  

Here, as on the mainland, the left has had to be careful around this because these documents pose a real threat to civil liberties. During the pandemic, there were a lot of conspiracy theories, and people didn’t know if deaths were caused by COVID or by dengue, which was a real threat.


If ‘zoreilles’ are the privileged, and the term used as an insult, if sometimes affectionately so, the ‘kafs’ are those most subject to exploitation and oppression, with ‘kaf’ a racist term that is also designed to infantilise those who are black. A child might also be referred to as a ‘kaf’.

There are local organisations that reclaim the term, one of which, ‘Association Rasine Kaf’, was set up with the help of local comrades building a section of the Fourth International in the 1970s. Comrades then hoped for the island to be another Cuba, allying with Mauritius and Madagascar. Today, anti-racist activists tend to move away from Marxism and only talk about slavery and the fight against colonialism.

There is a focus in these movements on racism and on the interiorisation of colonialism, the way that it becomes embedded in everyday relationships, and that is also a necessary response to the way that French colonialism has operated here. Slavery may have been formally abolished in 1848, but it took many years for it to be effectively put an end to.

Some local cultural practices of ‘maloya’ music, for example, were prohibited until 1981 with the election of François Mitterand. A maloya event was broken up by the police on the day of the election and took place successfully two weeks later.

Internal colonisation proceeds alongside obvious state control from Europe. There is a mural on a wall in Saint Joseph’s for Raphael Babet, for example. Babet was a deputy from La Réunion to the mainland from 1946 to 1957. One of Babet’s big ideas was to found a white-governed enclave town in the middle of nearby Madagascar, also a French colony at the time. The town was founded and named ‘Sakay’, later ‘Babetville’, with La Réunion as a local staging post for the colonial administration. “Colonialism” replicates itself inside each of the colonial possessions.


The local press systematically misrepresents what is happening on the ground. The right-wing daily newspaper Le Journal d’île de La Réunion carries a scare story today over the front page and the first two inside pages about the dangers of prostitution. The centre-left Le Quotidien de la Réunion et de L’Océan Indien fills these three pages of its issue with photos and reports of the run-up to the 11 November celebrations of the end of the war, the First World War.

The local communist party was not a branch of the French Communist Party, PCF, but was Réunionaise and was a mass party that fought for independence (against the PCF) and so the shift to the right during the 1970s, formalised in 1981 with election of Mitterand (when it concluded that independence was unnecessary because it could fight inside the system) was all the more dramatic (and it finally lost all electoral influence in 2012). One result was a lingering hostility among the social movements towards political parties, a suspicion that was present in the gilets jaunes protests. Leftists were welcome, but as individuals, not as representatives of organisations.

Before Macron abolished the wealth tax, the disparity between rich and poor was more visible, with the highest proportion of high taxpayers to those living below the poverty line – now running at 40% – of any other French département. Réunion also scores the highest in whisky consumption. The island imports pretty much everything and exports very little, except some sugar cane. Lifting the wealth tax was a win-win for the super-rich here, whether they are white or not. They kept their privilege, and it was hidden from the official figures. Power is sometimes very obvious here, but the material conditions that make power possible are often hidden. As a concept, poverty is used to put current struggles in context and connect different progressive moments. Everywhere is a function of class position, and the left has a hard struggle ahead to reorganise.

This is a corrected version of an article that appeared on the ACR site

Booker Prize Books 2022

Ian Parker has some reading recommendations from the Booker Prize for your holidays

The Booker Prize process has seen some rocky times since it began in 1969, ranging from controversies over the composition of the panel to hissy-fits by authors imagining they should have won it. The scope of the entrants has expanded over the years, and that, along with a greater sensitivity to various dimensions of oppression, has given rise to some interesting long and short lists. This year’s crop gives us some good interesting work, books that raise political questions from different contexts in an interesting way.

The prize is now supposed to be ‘international’ in scope, though still listing only books published in the English language. This year we have five books from the United States, two of which explicitly tackle racism, and one of which tries to take a long view of the history of racism in the US. There are two books from Ireland, one of which is concerned with colonisation. There are two books from further afield, one from Sri Lanka and one from Zimbabwe. There is a continental European book written by a US author, and there are three home-grown English books. So, some openings, and some restrictions.

The short list

This is my order of preference from the short list, and I’ll try to give you an idea what you are letting yourself in for without unnecessary plot spoilers, and I’ll try to be clear about what I liked and didn’t like. These may be idiosyncratic choices by the panel, of course, and you may well like the look of some of the books I was less keen on, but here goes.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Sevens Moons of Maali Almeida is a real book; long, well-structured, a compelling ghost-perspective on a time of many deaths in Sri Lanka. I’m not into supernatural stuff, but this works, having been written and rewritten for different audiences, now with some explanation of what the different local and international players are in Sri Lanka. It is by turns horrific and funny. At times it seems to be too balanced, throwing a plague on all parties, but it has its soul in the right place, raising questions about the role of a gay photo-journalist in times of war, and what hopes for redemption there might be for those who collude and those who resist.

Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker is a disconcerting and downright weird tale of someone, we don’t know their age or who they live with, though they seem young, or when it is set, or where they live – though we guess it is somewhere up north of England. Garner is an old hand at mystic stuff written for young adults, and I’ve avoided his work up to now. At some point characters bleed out from a comic the main character is reading, and there is a chase through mirrors out of this world and back into it again. It is cryptic but intriguing, and I really liked it, thinking about it a lot afterwards and wondering about what it was supposed to mean.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory is set in Zimbabwe, a surreal satire on the Mugabe regime that is configured as a cast of animals, with dogs, the ‘defenders’ as the shock troops of the state. The word ‘tholukuthi’ appears again and again scattered into the text as if at random. I found that very irritating. It means something like ‘and so we see’ or ‘you find that’, and the phrase has become a trademark of the book. The corrupt viciousness of Mugabe is captured well, and no opportunity for scorn at him or his successors is lost. We have a window into the history of anti-colonial struggle that eventually, and unsatisfyingly, in my opinion, tries to end more hopefully than Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book it deliberately alludes to more than once.

Percival Everett’s The Trees conjures up the world of benighted white hillbillies in the US, and they are made to seem all the more backward and ridiculous viewed from the perspective of some black cops brought in to solve some bizarre murders. The plot builds and the deaths accumulate. I liked this a lot, but puzzled over where it was going. This is about slavery and its aftermath, about society haunted by its past, and the failure to acknowledge and resolve racist trauma. And then, perhaps this was inevitable, there is no resolution at all. Unkindly, perhaps, I felt that the author had a great idea, and started writing and then didn’t know how to click things into place. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William is based in the US, musing on the nature of character and relationships, and eventually successfully draws us into the little lives it describes. It is also often annoying, too-cutely written from the perspective of someone who is barely aware of what they are tangled in, written so well that one suspects that the writer herself is as naïve as the first-person viewpoint character they inhabit. None of the characters are really likeable, and there is a quasi-reflexive aspect to the book that is also annoying, but finally it works out, with threads surprisingly tied together.

Claire Keegan’s Small Things like These is very slight, a novella. It’s not bad, but it’s too brief, set in Ireland in the aftermath of the Magdalen laundries scandal, with an afterword about the thousands of young pregnant unmarried women confined and exploited by nuns. The writing is fluid and – like her Foster which was made into a film as The Quiet Girl – it homes in on family life, in this case contrasting that with what is going on behind the convent walls. It sets the scene well, but does not pull together, leaving us rather hanging, wondering about what all this might mean for the characters and for the society that allowed this to happen.

The long list

Some of these lower down in the top thirteen are very good, and I would bump some of them up into the short list, while some of them are so-so. For the moment, let’s just take these seven that did not make it into the short list. Again, roughly in order of preference, here they are.

Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho patches together in a really neat way the queer lives of a network of women – mainly literary types and mostly very rich – who disturb given categories of gender and sexuality from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1930s. Many of them idealise ancient Greece, and ‘Sappho’ here is a potent signifier, exciting and inspiring them to live way beyond what they are told they should be. This is fiction and history, beautifully written and exhaustively researched, with a detailed account after the end of the book telling us what was adapted from what.

Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is a weirdly-formatted book, and that’s something that disrupts the text – words are compressed, split, and wound round each other, and images complement the narrative. This makes it difficult to read on an e-book, and I converted it into simple text to read. The typographical image work is actually unnecessary, and that makes it feel overworked. But this debut novel is a surprisingly engaging moving story of a family ravaged in different ways by cancer told in fragments; the family fragments and we watch them fall apart.

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study is, at times, very funny, crafted as a kind of elaborate spoof of the life of a radical psychiatrist – it’s clearly based on R D Laing, with that character appearing at other points to give some Zelig-style real-feel to the book. It rattles along through the voice of a relative of a patient out to outwit the shrink and revealing something weird about herself in the process. At some farcical moments I pictured it as a song-spattered Dennis Potter TV series. There is nicely-observed stuff about people pretending to be clients of therapy, as well as ‘untherapists’ critical of their own institution, and unwittingly getting drawn into what they think they are setting themselves against. It’s a good long joke.

Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling is a painful journey with a young black woman in Oakland. This debut novel just about escapes cynical charges that this is poverty-porn, and it hits some predictable buttons around the contradictions of sex-work and the intersection of racism and sexism among the exploited and oppressed. It feels at moments like different kinds of sexual lifestyle are pasted in, playing to an audience. There is good stuff here clearly schooled from creative writing class, with lows and highs, moments of desperation and then heart-warming bonding, and some legal tension and police violence. Written from the heart, but formulaic.

Audrey Magee’s The Colony is set on a remote Irish island 1970s, and the intrusion of an English painter – symbolic violence – is interleaved with a sequence of sectarian killings in the North. There are some clunky explanatory facts about language and colonisation inserted through the research writing of a French visitor who, for his own complicated reasons, wants to save the language. Despite some nicely observed scenes, the real menace and violence seems always to be located on the side of the Irish, and so some kind of journalistic ‘balance’ ends up betraying whatever positive critical points that are being made.

Hernan Diaz’s Trust is structured around the conceit of ‘perspective’, with four different books in this book giving different viewpoints on the economic success of a US businessman centring on the 1929 Wall Street Crash, from which he benefits. There are more red herrings than solutions, and what is revealed in the fourth book – and that, and this is a heavy clue, is about the Wife – is not the most interesting answer to the most pressing questions that are raised and forgotten as we go through the thing. The book displaces attention from who labours to create wealth to who is creative enough to calculate and invest wisely.

Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth is a rather tiresomely padded-out family story about the life and crimes of the guy who killed Abraham Lincoln in a theatre. It is a mythic narrative of interest, maybe, to US-Americans, and I remember seeing images of John Wilkes Booth pop up in DC comics stories and puzzling as a kid then about what was going on. It is too long and, infuriatingly, much of the life and family is fabricated. You won’t learn much, except that the good guy in the story, Lincoln, was himself a dodgy character who hedged his bets on whether or not to actually end slavery, so I didn’t care so much when he meets his maker at Booth’s hands.

The top three

The books are pitched in very different ways to different readers, and perhaps it is stupid to rank them. Different styles make for real difficulty in imposing criteria. I have two criteria here that clash against each other. There needs to be a political sensitivity that makes me feel that I’m immersing myself in something of the real world and getting a different, progressive, vantage point on it; there should be critique. And there needs to be an enjoyable flow so that I feel that I am finding a way out of this world, stepping out into a quite different landscape, of the world and characters; there should be escape. 

So, bearing that in mind, if I had to choose, I would select the following as the top three from these thirteen listed books. First place to Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (which beautifully and horrifically combines escape with critique), so I agree with the final Booker panel verdict. Then, second, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho (for progressive historical critique in absorbing vignettes). Then, third, Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies (for taking us into some surreal places to examine our mortality). In different ways, these works of ‘fiction’ are also, as all good fiction should be, windows back on the real world.

This article appeared first on the ACR site

Edenfield: Mental health in crisis

Ian Parker reports on what has been revealed in the modern-day asylums

A protest bringing together around fifty people at very short notice took place outside Manchester Central Library on Thursday 29 September. This was following an undercover BBC investigation that revealed abuse inside the Edenfield Centre in north Manchester. This was widely reported in the local press and nationally. The undercover reporter was employed as a healthcare support worker, and covertly filmed patients being restrained, sworn at, humiliated and placed in seclusion.


There were banners from Unison and from the Manchester Users Network, from which Alan Hartman and Paul Reed spoke at the protest. The Tory MP Christian Wakeford (who jumped ship to join Labour after being elected) whose constituency includes Edenfield, also spoke, calling for a public inquiry.

The Manchester Central Library protest was organised by CHARM (Communities for Holistic Accessible Rights-based Mental health). CHARM was set up precisely to combat the attempts to condense mental health care in Manchester in a massive new facility in the north of the city. Park House Hospital in Crumpsall will not only imprison patients in a new unit which is cut off from the local community, but ‘treat’ patients from across Manchester.

With the push to outsourcing and competitive tendering that was ramped up by a Labour government, that also means that Park House will be competing to offer its services to other parts of the country. And so, patients will be wrenched away from their own communities and families, who will have, in many cases, to travel long distances to visit them.

Speakers from CHARM included Paul Baker, a long-standing activist in radical mental health politics, and Anandi Ramamurthy, an activist whose daughter is in one of the north Manchester institutions. There were workers from mental health services in Manchester who were wary about speaking at the protest, but were there in solidarity. They spoke privately to members of the crowd about receiving emails from Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust to employees after the story broke. Emails first referred to ‘alleged abuse’ – and this is after the video evidence was shared widely on social media – and then employees were told to refer any press inquiries to managers.


This is the disaster of privatisation and containment in large central units that destroys the best hopes of community care in mental health. It is part of the package of top-down unaccountable health care that leads to the kind of abuses that have occurred at Edenfield. The BBC undercover investigation shows a little of what is going on, but there needs to be a response that puts the blame not only on hard-pressed staff who are inducted into a regime of abuse that takes short-cuts, but on the kind of neoliberal austerity capitalism that sets the managerial rules that lead to this abuse. The short-cuts are made for financial reasons, and cuts to services are now at the heart of capitalism.

This is a protest that raises broader issues about the nature of this wretched economic system that makes us sick and then punishes us further when we have broken under the strain. Actively supporting the CHARM protest, and present at the Central Library were supporters of Asylum Magazine for radical mental health, a collective of activists inside and outside the mental health system that have exposed such abuses over many years. Supporters of the Red Clinic also participated before their own public meeting later that evening. This is a struggle for mental health that must, of necessity, also be anti-capitalist.

You can read and comment on this article here

Communists in the Clinic

Ian Parker reports on the progress of the Red Clinic and the role of communism for its workers and supporters

We all know well the toll that capitalism takes on our lives, and the physical and mental strain that exploitation and oppression involves. Distress intensifies in times of austerity, with isolation of people from each other giving new actual and virtual twists on alienation at work, and for those excluded from the workplace. Capitalism is bad for your mental health.

Whether or not everything would be hunky-dory when we have overthrown capitalism is a moot point, and anyway we cannot wait, so what should communists involved in the field of mental health do now, and how should they think about their role and aims? One answer has just been given by Dorotea Pospihalj of the Red Clinic, an avowedly internationalist collective of therapists committed to providing accessible treatment who define themselves as communist.

Free associations

This recent thought-through answer in the online paper For a Communist Clinic is conceptualised using specific theoretical resources; it is psychoanalytic, which not all radical mental health practice is nor should be, and Dorotea’s paper is aligned with the work of the old Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou. For Badiou, the ‘communist hypothesis’ is about an always open possibility that we enact through a range of events that will include the domains of politics, of course, and science, art and love, the last of which frames much clinical work whether it is psychoanalytic or not.

This does not mean that communists in the clinic attempt to indoctrinate, nor even subtly suggest that their patients become communists, but there are aspects of the ‘free association’ that is possible in the clinic that chimes with the kind of ‘free association’ that we struggle for in the field of political economy. As Dorotea Pospihalj points out, there are psychoanalysts of the right as well as of the left, and she draws on her own experiences of political activism in Slovenia – she is based in Ljubljana – to show how some bizarre political choices can be made by therapists who think they are ‘radical’.

There is a sometimes jokey recent webcast with Dorotea, who stood as a candidate for the ecosocialist Left party in recent elections in Slovenia, available on the Psy-Fi Psychology and Theory show, and another Psy-Fi episode is about similar initiatives in Brazil with Christian Dunker and myself; we can see here how important an internationalist perspective and organisation is to the Red Clinic, and to anything that pretends to be ‘communist’ in clinical work. We not only learn from each other’s quite different experiences as we talk and act in solidarity with each other, but we are able to break out of the national peculiarities and limits of our own national traditions. We need to break out of those limits in our therapeutic work and in our conceptualisation of what it is we are doing.

The politics of truth

What underscores communism in the clinic in conditions of capitalism – and who can say whether this kind of clinic will actually be necessary under communism – is a politics of truth combined with theoretical reflection. This argument, again drawing on the work of Alain Badiou, is something that is actually familiar to revolutionaries outside the clinic; we bring our analytic understanding of the nature of capitalism to bear on our politics and we know that we must speak the truth to power. We are beset by lies in this society, and our political activity is grounded in truth; speaking truth to others and speaking truth to ourselves about what we are doing.

The Red Clinic is one of the sites for taking this work forward, but not the only site. Meetings about the Red Clinic have grappled with the role of particular models of therapy and our relation with treatment that is already available on the National Health Service. The NHS is a valuable resource, and anticipates in its form – free medical support at point of treatment for all – what we would hope for under communism. It is not for nothing that rabid right-wingers hate the NHS and want to privatise it, destroy it.

While we fight to defend the NHS we also mobilise to extend what is good about those services, increase participation of service users and make the treatment something that is empowering rather than demobilising, something that embeds support in social networks instead of increasing the isolation of people who are simply doled out antidepressants because that is cheaper and quicker. Here we need to link with other radical initiatives like the Free Psychotherapy Network and the recently formed campaign for universal access to counselling and psychotherapy.

Local and global

These initiatives need to be local as well as international. In Manchester, for example, the CHARM network that was set up to challenge attempts to concentrate mental health care in a large hospital in north Manchester has also been extending its links with activists and users of services to address questions of racism. The Red Clinic has been devoting energies to the struggle against racism and apartheid, with its practitioners supporting a group of clinicians in Palestine, and hosted an online discussion of work on ‘Mental Health in Palestine: Resisting Settler Colonial Partition’.

Communism is an opening to another world beyond capitalism, something that needs to be built now, and we know well from radical mental health initiatives around the world, whether that is in England and Wales or work in indigenous communities in Amazonia, that working class self-activity needs to be intimately linked with struggles against racism and sexism and other forms of oppression. The work in Brazil reflects on the process of listening as the core of progressive work, not immediately obviously communist, nor necessarily psychoanalytic, but congruent with what it is to be a communist in political activity.

For a communist clinic

There is a long history of radical therapy that has known, in its heart, that the capitalist system must be overthrown before the crisis in mental health services can really be resolved. The reflections on communism in the clinic pick up the threads of those debates. Meantime, we need to defend what services we have and build better ones, the kind of services that are democratic and open, and that facilitate the kind of free association that enables people to fight for communism.

You can read this article and comment on it here

Dystopian Science Fiction: Bodies of Ideology   

Ian Parker enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy and wonders why.

Liu Cixin, a darling of the Chinese state whose books are heavily promoted and very popular, may be surprised to hear that his ‘Three Body-Problem’ trilogy, which is named after the first book but which is formally correctly known by the very indicative title ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’, is going to be turned into a Netflix series.

This is not going to be easy because Liu Cixin writes in the genre of ‘hard sci-fi’, that is, the kind of science fiction writing that is not so much concerned with soft social and moral problems that the Star Trek franchise tinkered with but with technological mind-blowing stuff that makes the human species look very small, very insignificant. There is, nonetheless, plenty of social and political stuff woven into the trilogy, and some potent ideological motifs at work, the kind of stuff that makes this work chime with the agenda of the state.

First thing to notice about the ‘remembrance of the past’ claim is that the first book in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, does not dig very far into the past at all; mainly dwelling on the brutal treatment of near relatives of key characters during the Cultural Revolution, something that is very obviously portrayed as a bad thing. An astrophysicist is beaten to death during a ‘struggle session’. Brutal and manipulative the Cultural Revolution may have been, but that, for Liu Cixin, is not the main problem with it because, as he makes clear in the next two books, a measure of brutality – and the number of deaths as we go through the trilogy is truly mind-boggling – is necessary, even valuable for technological and social advance.


The main problem with the Cultural Revolution as seen in the first book is that it is chaotic and random, and here a first lesson of dystopian science fiction of this kind is spelt out in gruesome detail; order is bad but inevitable, but disorder is worst, and you need to report any instances of it to the authorities.

In fact, the ‘three-body problem’ is precisely itself about disorder, about the instability of a ‘three-body’ star system in which three solar-bodies are orbiting each other and producing extremes of heat and cold. The question that needs to be faced by humanity is how they should respond when, on a very long but ineluctable time-scale, ships seem to be coming on invasion-course from that unstable star system towards our own, towards earth. By earth here, read China, and China and Chinese protagonists are at centre stage through the three books. This rebalances, in a progressive way, the usual assumption in Sci-Fi writing that the Western world is the technological advanced centre of our planet and representatives from other cultures should merely come onto the stage as bit parts (think Chekov and Sulu).


The second book in the series, The Dark Forest, deepens the China-centric focus on earthly progress when under threat, with a repetitive meditation on what the consequences might be of sending a message out from this planet to other possible civilizations. The premise of the ‘dark forest’ hypothesis is that the universe, like a forest, is an irredeemably hostile place. While it is tempting to imagine that other forms of life in far-away star systems are necessarily more technologically-advanced and so more socially-advanced, and so likely to be pleased to hear from us because they look forward to visiting us and making friends with us (the Posadist position, for example), it is actually more likely that other civilizations are more brutal and will be intent on colonising us.

The lesson of the ‘dark forest’ is that you should definitely not signal your presence in the world to others, but instead keep yourself hidden; hidden and silent is the safest option. This message is replicated at different levels of the trilogy, ranging from keeping quiet during periods of social turmoil like the Cultural Revolution, to keeping quiet about what technological progress you are making in relation to the West, possibly hostile countries outside China (an historically understandable take on things), to contact with aliens. Assume they are out to destroy you, and attack first.

The trilogy unfolds through the second and third book over literally millions of years, a span of time that also marks it as ‘hard sci-fi’, and it is here that the dystopian aspect is drummed home. Reading the trilogy is like being drawn into a nightmarish march forwards that is inevitable and bloody, marching to the beat of a drum that you do not control, and harnessing yourself, adapting to technological change that, you realise somewhere along the way, will never promise utopia, will never perhaps even promise a better life.


Hard sci-fi here is also hard life, a hardening of our stance towards others – suspect them, and be all the more suspicious the more different they are – and hardening relations of self-control, and ordered social relationships, along with adherence to authority. There is, for example, a lull in the narrative in the middle of the trilogy where there are signs that things are going soft, that things are going wrong, that the human race has lost its edge, is not on a winning streak against the alien forces. The key sign of this is a breakdown in gender relations, specifically that women become more masculine and men become effeminate, a moral-political message that will play well with the Chinese state now, and not so well with the LGBTQI+ communities who are seeing each and every space to contact each other shut down.


But, and here is the good news from Liu Cixin, the healthy natural balance between male and female reasserts in book three, Death’s End, and the onward march to the future is restored. This is not a matter of choice, and personal choice is also something treated with a great deal of suspicion in the trilogy – even almost as bad as alien invasion – but of necessity, and so we have a quasi-Confucian concern with respect for your elders and betters combined with awesome technological expertise, the triumph of technological reason over everything else. If the encounter with the universe will show us anything, the trilogy seems to be saying, it will show us what our deepest nature is as obedient well-behaved and grateful servants to a higher purpose.

Whether Netflix will balance this all out with a liberal-individualist concern with dialogue and a pretence that decisions are taken for the good of all, or whether it’ll glory in the unending subjection of human beings to a machine-like future, bewitched as they are glued to a screen that replicates in their leisure time the lives they lead while working, remains to be seen.

Redeeming Marcuse

Ian Parker reviews the new edition of Herbert Marcuse’s Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia: Five Lectures published by Repeater Books.

There aren’t many really revolutionary philosophers who want to change the world, not as deeply and radically as Herbert Marcuse, and for this alone he is worth reading and thinking with, even when it gets a bit heavy.

Marcuse was one of the key first generation figures in the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’, taken on by the new Institute for Social Research before the Nazis took power, but having to flee Europe and playing a leading role in intelligence gathering as part of anti-fascist activity when based in the United States, later taking up academic posts there. This is trajectory that took him from being a doctoral student in Germany before the war with Martin Heidegger – a philosopher who romanticised the past and threw his lot in with the Nazis when they took power – to being an influential teacher of Angela Davis and, for his pains, Marcuse was denied permanent university appointments.

These five essays are gathered from different times, from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, which was when Marcuse was able to more immediately connect again with revolutionary movements as an inspirational figure in the ‘New Left’, something he was credited with naming as something qualitatively different from old-style rather morally-conservative left-talking men in suits. That, then, and here is also something to bear in mind when we read mealy-mouthed ‘critiques’ of Marcuse for being an infantile ‘Utiopian’ communist, enabled him to connect with his own early revolutionary history; he had been a member of a soldiers council during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in 1919. He never forgave the Social Democratic Party that sent in their paramilitary groups to quell that rebellion, during which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered (and these groups, the ‘Freikorps’, then became shock troops in the rising Nazi movement). Social democrat inclined ‘social theorists’ then respond to that suspicion with the spiteful insinuation that Marcuse is ‘ultra left’.

When things are so bleak, when it seems as if all possibility of resistance has been crushed or, worse, absorbed and its energy turned against anyone who rebels, when everyone seems to be recruited into being an agent of their own oppression, what is to be done? Marcuse provides an analysis of the depth of the problem which never succumbs to pessimism, which always looks for any ‘crack’, any opening; for Marcuse, we live in a cultural-political-economic system that betrays the hopes of the past, covers it over, attempts to blot out attempts to change society, but we can retrieve those positive revolutionary hopes and bring them alive again.

Of a time

There is a paradox in Marcuse’s writing, something that is very clear in these five essays, and which is a source of strength and weakness (if we think dialectically about this, which we must, which is what he encourages us to do). On the one hand, these essays are of their time, and marked by it, the last two essays given as lectures in Berlin in 1967, quite short interventions which are followed by lengthy thoughtful dialogue with students and activists who challenge him and make him clarify what he is saying. It is not only the audience that frames what is going on in these essays, and in the earlier ones in the book, but the political context in which Marcuse found himself by the end of the 1960s. This is a time of rising protest against the US war in Indo-China, and solidarity with the Viet Cong is a priority. Marcuse knows this, and he sees the vanguard of that solidarity movement, and the basis for more wide-ranging revolutionary change in the student movement, a student movement that is connected with ‘third world’ revolutions.

So, one of the consequences of his assessment, which is based on that particular balance of forces in the United States, and which the Berlin students question him about, is that Marcuse does not see the working class as a revolutionary agent as such. In fact this also leads him to think that the working class in the first world capitalist countries have been neutralised, bought off; alienation has become part of the name of the game for everyday life, and here we have some of the grimmest diagnoses that Marcuse became known for in critical social theory circles. The conceptual basis for this diagnosis is spelt out in the earlier essays on technological progress and on the way that what drives us as human beings is turned against us, becoming a force of repression.

It is there we find startling, and still useful notions; that we are subject now to a peculiar kind of ‘reality principle’ in which we must produce and perform, and this ‘performance principle’ that drives and pulls us into becoming little masters of others and of ourselves, locked into ourselves, brings with it an alluring and toxic illusion of freedom. In place of historical collective struggles for freedom – those that Marcuse wants to remind us still exist as latent possibilities – there is false freedom in which we think we are releasing and expressing something genuine but find ourselves simply still ‘performing’, enjoying as we have been told we should. This is, Marcuse argues, ‘controlled liberalization’ that is still repressive. It looks and feels like we are releasing something that has been channelled, ‘sublimated’ into this ‘vicious circle of progress’ of commodity culture, but it is repressive, it is what Marcuse calls ‘repressive desublimation’.

We just need to think of the way that every counter-revolution involves not only brute violence – the kind of thing Marcuse experienced in Berlin in 1919 during the quelling of the Spartacists – but emotional numbing and the ingraining of disappointment so we come to believe change is not possible and we repeat that pessimistic message to anyone who is trying to change the world. After the French Revolution, then, there was ‘Thermidor’, the period of reaction in which the revolutionaries were crushed, and a repressive regime was sedimented, and that then becomes the model for Trotsky’s analysis of the reaction inside the Soviet Union against the Russian Revolution; the revolution betrayed is, he points out, ‘Thermidor’. And what Marcuse adds to this is an analysis of the way that failures and repression involve what he refers to as ‘psychic Thermidor’, the drumming into each individual , into the inside of each individual that they better make do with what little power they are given in this wretched repressive society.

Looking to the past

While these essays are of a time, the one side of the paradox in the book, they are also quite romantic; that is, Marcuse, rather like his old supervisor Heidegger, looks to the past as a source of hope. The risk he is willing to take is to look to the archaic biological heritage of the human being, and this is where Freud and psychoanalysis are woven into the story. The editors of the essays point out that the term that was, in Marcuse’s time, translated as ‘instinct’ should be translated as ‘drive’, and the drive is something that is more malleable, more historical. But even so, when Marcuse writes about Freud, he takes on good coin the description of what he refers to as ‘two basic drives’, of life and death. Yes, it may be true that we are driven to destroy ourselves as well as create new possible forms of relationship and society – there is something of life and something of death in what we do – but Marcuse traces this opposition to underlying forces that Freud had reified, turned into underlying interminable forces.

The third essay, for example is on the ‘obsolescence’ of Freud, but the sting in the tail, and this is where Marcuse attempts to redeem something from the pre-history of capitalism, is that while psychoanalysis seems to be speaking of things in the past that are ‘obsolescent’, actually those things are still buried, still possible, still able to be brought alive again. So, it is not the ability to labour and the working class that is agent of change, a force that is created by capitalism itself as its own gravedigger (which would be the Marxist line) but the re-finding of ‘erotic energy’; what we should celebrate, if Marcuse is right, is not work but ‘pleasure’.

There is something in this, something that Marcuse touches on in his comments about the role of ‘demonstrations’ in resistance against society, and of the way we might find ways of working with ‘humanitarian progress’ instead of ‘technological progress’; for Marcuse, ‘demonstrations’ are sites in which we demonstrate not only against what is wrong but enact an alternative. We ‘demonstrate’ that another society is possible, live it, perhaps experience it for a moment, show that there is an alternative; to declare that ‘civilization arises from pleasure’, however, risks replacing a Marxist account of the role of labour in our lives as human collective beings with a too-simplistic and reductionist Freudian account.

Redemptive reading

I suggest you read the essays in reverse order. Start with the essays 4 and 5 from 1967; they are clearer, not bogged down with Freudian jargon, and have the questions and discussion included. Then track back to essay 3, the 1963 essay which does give the clearest account in the book of what is radical about psychoanalysis. Essays 1 and 2 from 1956 are more difficult, and if you can get through those you should be better placed to make sense of the frankly too-dense ‘introduction’ to the essays which does, even so, usefully remind us that Marcuse historicises the unconscious rather than seeing its operations as eternal and universal, and spells out the stakes of Marcuse’s analysis of ‘alienated labour’ for an account of the importance of production and not merely consumption.

It was Marcuse who gave us the really useful phrase ‘second nature’ to describe how what we experience of ourselves is not given directly by our biology but always mediated, always historical. That is too much for some hard-line psychoanalysts who won’t give up on the idea that what they are describing is real bedrock unchanging biological human nature. There are moments, as I’ve noted already, where Marcuse breaks from key tenets of Marxism, but actually his claim that we should find a way of finding revolutionary change ‘within’ labour rather than ‘beyond’ labour is quite compatible with Marxism. Surely we do want to build a world in which labour is enjoyable, pleasurable, rather than being a drudge.

A first footnote to the introduction of this book is a quote from Theodor Adorno, one of the most well-known of the Frankfurt School philosophers; that the only philosophy that can be practised in the face of despair is from ‘the standpoint of redemption’. This is indeed what Marcuse did, and as close to actual political practice as he could, making use of his position as theorist to link with and energise new social movements in order to redeem the hopes of the past, to find cracks in what seemed like total control of society in the service of capital accumulation, to write for the resistance.

This was published first here on the ACR site

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Inside Putin’s Russia

Ian Parker reviews Ilya Budraitskis’ Dissidents among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia

Much information about Russia now is filtered through a right-wing press that is hostile to Putin because it is hostile to socialism, and here is a peculiar paradox; that dominant view of contemporary Russian capitalism actually mirrors Putin’s own hostility to the legacy of the revolution and the possibilities of radical change.

The sharp readable essays gathered together in this new book by the Moscow-based revolutionary Marxist Ilya Budraitskis are essential reading for anyone wanting to cut through the ideological mystification that permeates the Western press as well as the poisonous nonsense that is pumped out and funnelled into the left by a foolish campist left from Putinite media front organisations.

The essays are themed into three main sections which deal with the historical post-Cold War framing of the world that the West and Putin together operate in, the toxic cultural-ideological conditions that face Russians looking for an alternative, and alternative histories of resistance that pose problems and tasks for the left now. The essays have been reworked and streamed together so they now work as stand-alone pieces and as a coherent whole.

Budraitskis is a keen observer of the historical conditions for the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the possibilities for change, and he weaves together many threads of argument. I will just mention three key themes that stood out for me.


The first is the way that cultural resistance intersects with direct political opposition to Stalin and the bureaucracy after his death, and now to Putin, and the way that traps are set for those who seek to reassert the progressive heritage of the Russian Revolution. The useful brief introduction to the book by Tony Wood points out that we now know less about what is happening inside Russia than during the Cold War because that world east of the old Iron Curtain is more effectively sealed off.

Western intelligence agency funding of research during the Cold War, for example, included funds specifically tagged for the translation of Russian texts into English – part of the globalisation of English and increasing dominance of the United States in academic work – and this enabled different interpretations of what was happening even while the information was used to attack and undermine the Soviet bloc.

The current cultural-ideological consensus, one shared by the Western right and by Putin’s entourage, is that there are, indeed, separate spheres of the world, domains of influence. This idea was voiced and crystallised in the argument by Samuel Huntington in his influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, which included the bizarre idea that there are eight civilizations in the world, and that there are fundamental irresolvable differences between them. The Huntingdon ‘clash’ book was mobilised, of course after 9/11 to make it seem as if the key contest was between the West as the real space for civilisation and the Islamic world which was not really civilized at all.

But this post Cold War world that is divided into separate spheres of influence is exactly the kind of world that Putin inhabits. Budraitskis points out that the ‘Slavic-Orthodox’ civilization that Huntingdon describes in negative terms is claimed and endorsed by Putin as a positive space, one in which terms like ‘democracy’ have a quite different meaning than in the West. This is not to say that either Huntingdon or Putin are right, they are not, but to show deep the cultural-ideological argument goes and what the consequences are. For the West it means working with leaders of separate inscrutable ‘cultures’ on their own terms, and for Putin it means conceiving of his own Slavic-Orthodox cultural domain as an organic unchanging entity.

That means, for example, that the October Revolution was, for Putin, an externally engineered threat to the continuity and stable functioning of Russian culture. Every dissident threat must, if this world-view is right, be a result of external interference, and this, of course, then spins into mystical Russian Orthodox Church fantasies about conspiracies to undermine the natural order of things and antisemitic conspiracy theories that search for the hidden hands responsible for causing dissent.

Budraitskis describes how the Putin regime hardened its nationalist stance and internal security measures following the ‘Maidan’ events in Ukraine in 2013, and how some of the well-meaning Western statements of ‘solidarity’ with the Maidan fell into the trap of making it seem, indeed, as if what was at stake was some local version of the clash of civilizations. An open letter by Western intellectuals at the time, for example, declared that this was a chance for re-founding the progressive heritage of Europe, and this played into the image of the Maidan revolt as only being what it was sometimes known as, first through a Twitter hashtag, ‘Euromaidan’.

What must be noticed, however, and Budraitskis is very clear about this in his account of internal oppositions in Ukraine before and after the Maidan events, is that the stakes for Putin were what was happening inside Russia, and the danger, for him, of an opposition movement developing there that would corrode his authority. There were protests inside Russia, and a harsh clampdown.


Once the separate spheres of influence in the world takes root and a corresponding nationalist atmosphere is generated to demonise anyone who speaks out, then violence becomes a legitimate, even necessary, means of social control. This is what the liberals and the left inside Russia face now. And here Budraitskis gives an alarming account of the role of avowed anti-communist theoreticians around Putin and the way in which those arguments are played out in practice.

One such is Ivan Ilyin, a White Russian émigré in Germany, whose work has been declared by the chancellor of Moscow State University as providing ‘the life giving water reviving the nation’. Ilyin’s 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force was written after he was expelled from Russia, and gives voice to the ‘white warriors’ and bearers of the ‘Orthodox knightly traditions’ that are now eagerly implemented by sections of the security forces.

One influential general in the Russian national police service, for example, gained her doctorate on Ilyin with the title ‘The Culture of Counteracting Evil in the Law Enforcement Agencies’, and she then became a state Duma deputy and, from 2016, commissioner for human rights in the Russian Federation.

For Ilyin, ‘Evil’ is unconscious, but is experienced by the individual as freedom from coercion and control, then it can only be recognised by others, and ‘Love’ as a ‘transcendental law of force’ is a powerful binding spiritual instrument that will bring that person back into the community again. This requires a moral struggle with those who are infected by Evil, and, as Ilyin puts it, fortifying ‘the walls of an individual Kremlin, whose construction comprises the spiritual formation of a person’.

What this does is at least two things. The first is, again, a version of a trap, a trap that those concerned simply with individual ‘human rights’ fall into when they make it seem as if the task of the opposition inside Russia is simply to defend the individual’s freedom of thought and speech against the monolithic power of the state. That argument, in fact, simply corresponds to what Ilyin’s supporters already believe, that individual human rights are what causes dissent; they believe that dissent is a sign of Evil.

The second effect, even more awful for the opposition, is what this argument warrants in terms of the crackdown on Evil. Any measures can be taken to bring individuals infected by Evil back into line, and Budraitsksis correlates the influence of this argument in the security forces with the increase in torture.


The longest essay in the book is a translation from Budraitskis’ prize-winning book in Russian, and gives the title to this present book now published by Verso ‘dissidents among dissidents’. We know well here in the West what immense support was given by intelligence agencies to opposition movements inside the Russian bloc during the Cold War, ideological political support that went alongside avidly scooping up and translating whatever became available. No surprise, of course, that most support was directed at right-wing movements, the heroic ‘dissidents’ who were fighting, we were told, for their ‘human rights’.

But what this obscures, and what Budraitskis makes visible for us now, is the socialist opposition. Much of the opposition, something that was recognised as such by the security forces, was not against the regime because it was socialist but precisely because it was not socialist. One of the touchstones for the many scattered opposition groups that emerged around the Soviet Union was Lenin’s 1917 book State and Revolution, in which the argument was quite explicit. The task of the Bolsheviks, Lenin writes, was not at all to reinforce the Tsarist state, but to ‘smash and break it’.

Lenin’s book was easily available, of course, and one popular initiative was to underline in red the sections of the book where Lenin talks about accountability of representatives and the pegging of pay to the level of that of a skilled worker. This argument unleashes arguments by the regime that masquerade as socialist, arguments that then unravel themselves if they are not held in place by brute force.

One finds, for example, hysterical uncomprehending reaction by the regime, something that continues to the present day, to extreme ‘internationalism’, something that is sometimes labelled and tinged with antisemitic anxiety as ‘cosmopolitanism’. An essay by Budraitskis which is not included in this book is on the obsession with the ‘perpetual Trotskyist conspiracy’ in which ‘permanent revolution’ is portrayed as being a state of permanent instability, something that prevents the natural order of things from being restored.

A dissident among dissidents

Budraitskis is one of the ‘dissidents among dissidents’, one of the left who articulates a Marxist analysis of Russia from within, and against the right-wing dissidents who are easily incorporated into the regime. This book gives lie to the campist claim that there is anything ‘red’ left in the quasi-fascist ‘red-brown’ Putinite movements that are being spawned inside Russia, and also outside it.

This political work is not geared to private individual dissent but to public collective action, and the argument in this book is linked to the emergence of new radical movements that include the Russian Socialist Movement which Budraitskis has been part of since it was founded. This is a beautifully written activist argument for understanding what Russia has become and what is to be done to rebuild an internationalist alternative.

You can read this article where it was originally published here

Anti-Psychiatry now

Attempts to medicalise distress, and the backlash against alternatives

We know that capitalism makes us sick, but there is a deeper more insidious form of this process that we need to get to grips with if we are to find alternatives to the damaging ‘treatments’ that are doled out by mainstream psychiatry.

Psychiatry is often confused with other ‘psy’ disciplines (like psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis), but what marks it out from the others is that it is deliberately and explicitly medical; psychiatry is underpinned by a ‘medical model’ of distress so what we feel when we feel bad is treated by specialist doctors as if it is really a ‘sickness’ that has an physical organic cause that can then be ‘cured’ by physical, usually drug interventions.

What that assumption about sickness and cure does, and it is drummed into the psychiatrist in their medical training before they specialise in ‘mental disorders’, is to effectively ignore the alienation, exploitation, oppression and misery of living under capitalism. The psychiatrist instead is trained to search for the ‘real’ underlying causes, as if poverty, exclusion, austerity, racism and sexism were mere additional factors that might just intensify or ‘trigger’ what the doctor detects underneath the symptoms they are trained to attend to. The fiction that medical psychiatrists really now work according to a ‘bio-psycho-social’ model is a hopeless delusion. When it comes down to it, they reduce distress to biology, or they break with psychiatry.


A psychiatrist, like other medical professionals, is under pressure to make speedy diagnosis, choosing a category from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or the ICD (International Classification of Diseases), and to administer treatment, and so the reduction of distress to a physical cause is the understandable default procedure. This pressure is added to by the marketing of an increasing number of new ‘disorders’ by the drug companies, and by the promise that symptoms can be dealt with by targeting a chemical imbalance in the brain.

So-called ‘psychopharmacology’ is a massive drug market, legalised and state-sanctioned drug-pushing, and big pharma pours huge investment into identifying disorders that are dampened by drug treatments. That investment includes paying medics to endorse or even add their names as authors to already-written research reports, and it includes smearing those who have second thoughts, whistleblowers and psychiatrists who realise that the medical model just does not work.

In some ways, the approach does work, of course. Symptoms are certainly dampened down by the drugs, and patients are got off the books. And many patients are relieved to be given a diagnosis, to find an answer of some kind to their distress, and to accept what they are handed as a life sentence, that is, to accept that the sickness is deep within them and could return at any time. The illusion that root causes have been found is often a comfort to the patient and, of course, the doctor, but it is disabling.


Yet, from the beginning of psychiatry, which took root as a more humane approach to the mad inside the old asylums at the end of the eighteenth century, there were fierce debates; many early psychiatrists favoured physical treatments – restraint and then, at worst, electroshock and surgery – while some, like the Quakers at the York Retreat, looked to ‘moral treatment’ that included encouragement to get back to work, to work alongside others in the community. The ‘chemical revolution’, discovery of major antidepressents in the 1950s, shifted the field of debate.

The more humane psychiatrists objected to the chemical cosh, just as their predecessors had objected to patients being manacled and put on show. It was then that quite a few psychiatrists broke with psychiatry altogether, and looked for alternatives in a disparate movement that became dubbed ‘anti-psychiatry’. That was a misleading label, covering a wide range of alternative approaches to distress, some inspirations, some dead ends and some real dangers for the poor patients who sometimes had good reason to cling to the labels they had been given.

Some of the most prominent ‘anti-psychiatrists’ hated the label, objected to it, sometimes because they weren’t actually against psychiatry as such at all. One of the most prominent, Thomas Szasz, who appears as the main representative of the tradition in psychiatry and social work textbooks, was a right-wing libertarian, who was against the whole notion of ‘mental illness’ because it let people off the hook; as well as leading to coercive practices, medical psychiatry gave people excuses, he said, for their bad behaviour.

Szasz’s spin on ‘moral treatment’ meant getting people to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility, individual responsibility for what had gone wrong in their lives. He was willing to ally with the scientologists to get his message across. This is neoliberalism in the field of mental health, not a progressive alternative, and recently some other critics of psychiatry have also dabbled with anti-vax and conspiracy theories.

The left

Some on the left fell into the trap of putting a plus where the psychiatrists put a minus, and there was a temptation among some ‘anti-psychiatrists’ to romanticise distress, to make it seem as if madness was a kind of journey to enlightenment. Some of these were ostensibly, for a time, on the left but, like R D Laing, they travelled down a drunken road into quasi-spiritual nonsense, and celebration of the family as a refuge rather than, as they once had it, as a prison.

One of the most radical experiments, in Italy, and one that Laing disparaged as being ‘communist’, was the closure in Trieste of the mental hospital in the early 1980s. This was following a massive campaign by the far left against psychiatric abuse that managed to draw in the communist party and a pre-emptive partial reform of the Italian psychiatric system after a successful referendum. This was a time when mental health really became a political issue, politics involving thousands of people debating and building alternatives in the form of community mental health centres.

That experiment inspired a psychiatrist in Sheffield, Alec Jenner, using money left over from a conference about Trieste, to set up Asylum, which fashioned itself as a magazine for democratic psychiatry. ‘Democratic psychiatry’ had been the name of the reform movement in Italy, also led by a psychiatrist, Franco Basaglia who broke ranks with his medically-trained colleagues.

The magazine hosted innovative work around ‘hearing voices’ developed by yet another psychiatrist Marius Romme. Many people hear voices, and for many different reasons, Romme realised; the task then was to explore what that meant rather than silence the voices, rather than put the experience under a chemical cosh. Meetings organised by Asylum magazine also included another group of rebel doctors in the Critical Psychiatry Network.

Prominent among that new generation of psychiatrists turning against the medical model, effectively becoming ‘anti-psychiatrist’, was Joanna Moncrieff who, in her ground-breaking book The Myth of the Chemical Cure, showed that the psychiatric drugs did not in any way ‘rebalance’ disordered brain processes. Instead, as with alcohol, nicotine or other recreational drugs, the psychiatric drugs changed the chemistry of the brain. That ‘drug-focused’ assumption had actually been guiding research before the so-called chemical revolution of the 1950s, but we need to remember it and follow the consequences if we are to break from the ‘illness-focussed’ assumption that the drug companies base their research and advertising campaigns on.

The battlefield now

All of this brief potted history is to make the point that ‘anti-psychiatry’ is a very mixed enterprise, and that we need many alternatives to the medical model, alternatives that take distress seriously. If we don’t do that, there is a big risk that we will take fright and fall for the lure of bedrock biological explanations. This is where we are now, with recent attempts to rehabilitate the medical model and to reduce the alternatives to caricature. And this is where some on the left who are desperate to find what they think of as being ‘materialist’ explanations for distress seem to be giving ground to the assumptions peddled by big pharma.

If we are materialists, the argument goes, then surely we should acknowledge that at least some of the causal mechanisms to distress are biological, so why not call the problem ‘medical’ in a very broad sense, and if there are such causal mechanisms in the brain what would be wrong in sifting out what causes what and valuing the drugs that do actually make a difference. And, here they twist the knife, it seems very difficult to show exactly how what bits of capitalism or other forms of oppression cause exactly what bits of distress.

This is a version of standard right-wing arguments against Marxism, that because you can’t directly and immediately observe and precisely measure the link between personal distress and oppression, it is not capitalism (or racism’s or sexism’s etc) fault. Work on the ‘spirit level’ that shows that inequality in society is correlated with unhappiness goes some way to addressing that, but we need a deeper more radical practical-theoretical understanding of capitalism to keep ourselves grounded in the possibility of alternatives, and not only in the field of mental health.

We’ve seen the medical line of argument, an attempt within the left to roll back critiques of psychiatry, a couple of years ago, in 2020, and there have been good responses to that psychiatric backlash by radicals.

The dice are loaded against us because, it is true, there is something inexplicable about distress that cannot be simply ‘diagnosed’ – whether that is depression or more profound alienation labelled, in the medical model, ‘schizophrenia’ – and we have been unable to construct societies in which we can give people space – genuine ‘asylum’ that the democratic psychiatry and critical psychiatry movements called for – and access to real care.

Instead, the randomised controlled trials, between effects of drugs and ‘placebos’, are all against the background of a rotten society; the ground-rules mean that a base-line ‘biological’ cause becomes as tempting an answer as the possession by demons was convincing to religious folk way back before the asylums were built. Friends and comrades involved in supporting people in distress are desperate to get out of this predicament, but over and again they lose hope that things could ever change dramatically enough to rule out drug treatment. In the meantime, they say, we need to patch people up, and hope for better psychiatric research; this is desperate, understandable, but a mistake that gives ground to psychiatry.


As with every other challenge to the power of institutions under capitalism, vested interests tell us that the fault is in ourselves instead of in society, we need to acknowledge that people need to find ways to cope, but the way they do that has to be collective, which means, short-term, supporting patients subjected to medical treatments to share information and weigh up what they want to accept and what they cannot. That collective agency was the basis of the ‘hearing voices’ movement – groups of people exploring what their voices meant to them – which ‘de-medicalised’ that experience, took it out of the hands of the doctors to define what was normal and what was abnormal.

It also means working with those who have broken and are still are breaking with psychiatry, to expose the research agendas of the pharmaceutical companies. Yes, we can imagine that under other conditions, resources could be put into exploring what drug treatments might help, but that means looking at what works in line with a ‘drug-focused’ model rather than buying into the idea that there is an underlying illness that needs to be cured. Meantime we need to focus on the question of power and on building radical clinical alternatives rather than digging about in the brain. And that means supporting those who are breaking from psychiatry inside the mental health care services.

It is the search for a cure for this wretched miserable society that needs to take priority now, and that collective process is one that can give hope, channel energy and enthusiasm, give meaning for people who are usually labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘sick’ or ‘abnormal’. The apparently ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ arguments about what might be happening in the brain for people who are in distress are not really ‘balanced’, any more than is the fiction of chemical ‘rebalancing’ in pharmaceutical propaganda, and they are not ‘neutral’.

Good research is not neutral, but knows what choices are being made, and why, and in line with what agendas. The medical model locks people into their distress, into their biology, while we need to be finding a way out of it, together.

You can read and comment on this article where it was originally published here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Red Clinic: Strikes Manchester

Ian Parker reports on debates in the context of political struggle over what radical therapy might look like

One of the teach-outs on 31 March hosted by UCU during the ‘four fights‘ strike over casualisation, diversity, equality and pensions in Manchester, after an anti-casualisation picket at the university, was on ‘Red Clinic’. This was a collective discussion in solidarity with, and as part of the strike, asking how we could build a Red Clinic that was oriented to developing truly accessible and sustainable provision of psychotherapy for the working-class and the oppressed in the broadest senses of the terms, attentive to the interrelations between axes of oppression, and transcending national borders.

This initiative, we said at the outset in the publicity, would be informed by Marxist, anti-racist, queer feminist and radical disability theories. It should be explicitly internationalist. We began with an outline of where we were up to so far and gave examples of the kind of work we had in mind.

Mental Health

The Red Clinic initiative is in its early days. It began in London following a Mental Health Workers Inquiry to explore clinical approaches that foreground anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We are dealing here with at least two issues. One is the nature of global capitalism which, intersecting with vicious racism and sexism, is driving spiralling rates of distress; mental health suffering is a political matter. The other is access to mental health support, with privatisation of services replicating the isolation that people feel; mental health provision is a political matter.

So, there was a decision by a small group of radical therapists, lawyers and activists to set up something that would badge itself as run by communists. This term ‘communist’ is deliberately chosen to point to the need for collectively run services that increase peoples capacity to themselves engage in conscious activity together with others to change the world. Solidarity in the practice of therapy, in its form as well as its content, is crucial here. Perhaps it would be possible for those committed to this project to bring in therapists to work face-to-face and online.

We began to advertise for therapists, thinking to employ therapists who would take on a high fee-paying client in order to subsidise work with a low or no-fee paying client. We started to think about how to manage this, and then we took a step back. It seemed too much of a stretch with the small group we had working with us to do all of this. Now Red Clinic is taking another step forward, but on two tracks of work. One is to engage in political dialogue with practitioners, and to set up a political education programme to discuss how to connect therapy with radical theory and practice. The other track of work is to build bases for the Red Clinic, and work out how to offer practical clinical support to those in distress, including to working with trades unions, grassroots organisations and social movements.


So, we need to be clear that this is a project that is riddled with problems, with issues that we believe can only be worked through in collective discussion and in practice. These problems cannot be solved in the abstract by good theory, so we begin this process now by setting out some of the dilemmas we face.

First, what do we mean by ‘therapy’? Is it to be underpinned by radical psychoanalytic ideas about the unconscious and the way that past relationships are replicated and worked through in the clinic, or does it also include ‘client-centred’ humanist approaches that focus on personal growth, and cognitive-behavioural approaches that offer short-term alternative ways of reframing problems, and group analytic approaches that are already collective? We think it includes all of these things, and more, and that means that practitioners with different understandings of the ways that societal distress gets inside people will be working together in the Red Clinic. So, how do we handle those disagreements?

Second, what do we mean by radical politics? We say we are communist, and we hope it is clear that this means that we work in the spirit of the most open and materialist ‘intersectional’ understanding of how exploitation and oppression works. But, does that mean that a good therapist is necessarily a communist of this kind, and should say so, and what are the consequences of that for the expectations that those seeking help will have of the therapists they meet in the Red Clinic. How does that political commitment express itself, if not in turning the therapy itself into a form of political education, which, to be clear, we think it should not. So, how do we avoid turning therapy into propaganda?

Third, must people be radical or turned into radicals? There is a question here about what commitment we expect from those who access the service, if they are not paying, which they should not and which they do not even now in rapidly-shrinking NHS services. We need to ask how therapy can operate as a space for people to speak in confidence without being judged, can operate if there is an implicit expectation that they are, in some way, ‘radical’. How could they be engaged in a radical political project called ‘red clinic’ alongside and as an intimate part of the project to understand their distress and change the way they engage in the world. So, how do we release service users from the demand to be good radicals?

Fourth, what do we mean by ‘collective’. The signifier ‘communist’ is not enough, given the history of the way the term has been used and abused, to guide us, and there are institutional obstacles to this. The therapy as a private enclosed space is necessarily in some way outside the collective sphere, and it is a refuge and space to speak, to speak without the usual consequences of speaking to a family member, or an ‘expert’ or, indeed, a comrade. Advice is absent and so is commitment of the usual kind in everyday life. The collective work of the institution of any clinic is suspended in the actual clinic room. So, how do we square our social project with personal change?


If these were not problems enough, there are more. The very small numbers involved and the conditions in which we work mean that online therapy will likely be the main option, but that is a form of work that has an alienating isolating effect that runs counter to the ethos of the Red Clinic. What it is to be ‘collective’ in these conditions changes radically. That also means that ‘internationalism’ threatens to be reduced into tokenism as we link with radical therapists in different parts of the world and work out what we can offer each other practically in terms of support.

There are in post-pandemic global capitalism, a host of issues that compound those that have beset red or radical therapy initiatives in the past. We know we are reinventing some of those past initiatives in new conditions, and we need help to do that, which is why a meeting in a context of a strike seemed a good place to begin again. We are asking whether we can do this, how, and whether different questions and answers can be developed if we are to have any success in the project.

Laya Hooshyari gave a vivid account of her work in South Tehran with ‘subaltern’ women, those who face oppression that is very different from the usual middle-class clients in psychotherapy. The group took on the name ‘Women with Red Lips’ after a participant in the group there who confronted the cancer she lived with, putting on red lipstick as a sign of her defiance. Laya described how different this work was from the usual therapeutic fake ‘empowerment’ of clients. She also insisted on the significance of the workers’ own presence in meetings and discussions about the formation of the Red Clinic.

Sohrab Resvani talked about his work in a co-operative clinic, run by an assembly of ‘shuras’, self-governing workers and consumers councils in Iran that was focused on ‘social self-understanding’ or, what could also be translated as ‘socialist self-understanding’. He raised a key question for the Red Clinic about its ‘internationalism’; whether we are concerned with simply transferring resources from privileged wealthy sites we work in to other places we are in solidarity with, or whether we are willing to support some form of ‘convoy’ that would physically practically take aid to, say, Mariupol or Gaza. Moreover, he argued that critical psychology needs not only to make a critique of the therapeutic and educational content of psychology, but also the ‘organizational form’ of clinics. It will be self-defeating, he said, if we build a Red Clinic as, for example, a private company or a charity.

Artemis Christinaki, who has worked with asylum seekers in the transit camps in Greece could not attend due to Covid, but a point that she wanted to make was relayed to the meeting, that there is a difference between most versions of psychotherapy and some versions of psychoanalysis that have political consequences. Much psychotherapy aims to soothe people and enable them to happily adapt again to existing conditions, while some psychoanalysts do not at all pretend to make people happy. Instead, the task of analysis is to face up to the unbearable contradictions that we live with, and enable us to actively confront them. In a project such as the Red Clinic a task would not only be to confront them individually but equally build a collective of understanding and action within it.

The opening talks were provocative, and participants at the meeting picked up on these points and took the issues in a number of different directions. A therapist working with the IAPT (government funded ‘Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies’) services asked whether we are ‘experts’ handing down knowledge, and what our target clients are; is it, for example, that we treat radicals, those disappointed by the failure of Jeremy Corbyn, for example, or is this really to be for everyone.

A senior clinical psychologist who had been managing services in Manchester spoke, in similar terms, about the danger of a gap between some of the academic debates about how to provide therapy, and the actual lived oppression of those who are receiving treatment in the NHS. She pointed out that the NHS is the largest single employer in the UK, and that we need to engage not only in the development of something that may effectively function as another tiny ‘private’ service, but also in the context of existing NHS provision.

A number of participants raised the question of the link between education and clinical provision, and asked how the Red Clinic could function as a cooperative, how transparent it could be in its functioning. For example, a recently qualified counselling psychologist asked what the implications are of using money from wealthy clients to subsidise or provide no-cost treatment for those who could not afford to pay. What would be the consequences, for example, on the perception of treatment of those who are paying, knowing that they are subsidising others.

An impossible collective process

Lydia MacKinnnon from the Red Clinic, who had come over to the meeting from Paris, responded to many of the questions, but acknowledged that these were questions that we need to work through. The questions had implications not only for how the Red Clinic might develop as a service, but also for the political education process it wanted to set up. This meeting was part of that process, a collective process. Also mentioned by another participant was the work of the ‘Clinique Contributive’ in Paris, and researchers involved in this work are interested in linking with the Red Clinic.

The Red Clinic, someone commented, was impossible but to say that something is impossible is no reason to say that it should not be attempted. Such a project is necessary. There was commitment by some of those now engaged in therapy, and by some present who have experience in managing services to help with the project. Ten people signed up to stay in contact with the Red Clinic, and others emailed to say they wanted to be kept in the loop. Red Clinic is on Facebook. To keep up to date with the development of the Red Clinic, email Ian Parker at

You can read and comment on this article where it was originally published here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements