Alan Moore, the Communist - a response to [profile] johncwright

Nov. 2nd, 2006 10:13 pm
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Alan Moore isn't an anarchist. He is, perhaps, now. Until about 1990, he was, beyond reasonable doubt, a Communist. Not just a Marxist, a Marxist-Leninist. He would hardly be, of course, the first or only great artist to have adhered to this odious ideology; to avoid reciting the obvious list from Gorky to Luchino Visconti and Gillo Pontecorvo, I may say that Italy's greatest living singer, Francesco Guccini, is still a sworn member of the heresy.

As far as Moore is concerned, it is clear to me that the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the revolutions of 1988-91 coincided with a prolonged crisis in his career. He left mainstream comics about 1988 with Killing Joke. His work at the time had a peculiar quality: an anger against American icons, a desire almost to abuse and rape them. Rape and sexual degradation, as well as the attraction of the non-human, were major themes in the final issues of Swamp Thing. He seemed unable to deal with superheroes except with a sneer. It is the characteristic of Watchmen and, so far as I can see, of the Twilight proposal, where he had Plastic Man as a male prostitute; for brutal abuse of an inoffensive hero, this would be hard to beat. Killing Joke showed he couldn't handle an American icon like the Batman; the story took an age to write, and is lame and unconvincing besides. The Batman is a rabid and unbalanced figure, the fatherly Gordon is foully degraded, and Batgirl, a charming lightweight shadow to the grim male hunter, is brutally crippled. The ghastly vision of good (the Batman) and evil (the Joker) collapsed together in a giggling heap at the end seems to me the nemesis of the dubious climax of Swamp Thing #50, where he claimed to reconcile them. (It must be said that, a year or so earlier, he had made an admirable job of The Last Superman Story.)

1988-1990 is the period of his most aggressive and outrageously political work, Shadowplay: the secret team, in Eclipse's Brought to Light. About this time he is also starting From Hell. But his career is losing itself in a mire: Big Numbers and a A Small Killing both bomb, and while From Hell is deservedly garnering critical applause, it comes out by agonizing fits and starts and makes no money. It is only in 1992-93, when Steve Bissette and Jim Valentino talk him into doing 1963, that his career starts again; as if by a miracle, even From Hell gathers momentum. By now the world has absorbed the shock of 1989-91, and it is possible that Moore too has found it possible to come to some sort of terms with it. Even so, his Captain America character in 1963,U.S.A, is a buffoon.

His magnificent run of Jim Lee's WildC.A.T.s, barely fourteen issues and a few mini-series long, but packed with more and better ideas than anyone had written in superhero comics since Steve Gerber and the early - sane - Chris Claremont, represent the return to some sort of mental balance; and even so, the series contains what is all too clearly an apologia for the Evil Empire - his account of the fallen Daemonites and the cruel and exploitative victors just screams to be placed alongside the facts of Soviet collapse, especially in the visibly corrupt and chaotic Yeltsin period. Majestros may be a sweet bloke, but Khera is a vicious caste-based oligarchy, and Majestros’ own belief in its values is a dangerous mistake. When Moore's eye moves from the individual (Majestros) to the class (the Kheran senate), all sympathy is lost; no Kheran in Khera is anything but a cold, heartless plotter with no consideration for anyone's right. The only likeable characters are the Titanothropes and the Daemonites, victims of Kheran power.

Put like that, the one-sidedness of Moore's view becomes clear; and, I repeat, Khera stands for America (or maybe the West) as against Russia. The decisive fact is that the collapse of Daemon is exclusively economic. And no conflict in history except the Cold War was ever settled purely by economic collapse and internal rebellion, because no other conflict in history was ever fought entirely by proxy, with its chief players never actually coming to grips. This is incontrovertible. I know of no major war (I am making a distinction between major and minor wars, or between wars and campaigns) that stopped so long as an army able to fight was left; Louis XIV, Napoleon, Napoleon III, the Confederate States of America, Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, all had to be broken on the field (Japan was all but defeated, considering surrender, before the bomb). It has been known for a smaller country, armed and financed by a distant great power, to wear other great powers down: Frederick II's Prussia, financed by Britain, wore down France, Austria and Russia, and North Vietnam, armed by Russia and China, wore down America. But where two roughly equal enemies are arrayed against each other, the fight does not stop until one of them is no longer able to fight; and the ability to fight usually
outlasts the domestic economy.

Moore's scenario excludes all that. Psychologically, this has an important point: the Daemonites are entitled say to their conquerors "you never defeated us", and Moore makes it very clear that Daemon's power was finally broken not by military victories, but by the abuse of laws and treaties. This sort of attitude is the constant comfort of the defeated, most disastrously in the legend of the "undefeated German army" that fostered Hitler's rise. Moore, it might be said, depicted with great accuracy the mentality of a conquered people; except that he never presents any opposing view. The case for Khera is never made, and Khera is shown as such a foul, racist, oppressive society that the views of its opponents acquire, by contrast, a positively righteous glow. In other words, we are not only presented this viewpoint, but encouraged to identify with it, to take it as just and right, as the true account of facts.

I think this is a glimpse of Moore's own mind. He has carefully hedged his bets: the person who says "the war is over, and we were probably on the wrong side anyway" (#29) is Priscilla, herself half-Daemonite and therefore sympathetic to her racial cousins. (That race or birth, by the way, should direct one's political views or sympathies, is by no means self-evident to me; but let that pass.) If charged with one-sidedness, he may easily answer that all that was said arose from the situation. Nevertheless the situation is so set up, and the story so told, that we end up sympathizing with one group, and one group alone.

Nobody is born a Communist, and that many different persons gave their support to the Party for many different reasons. Has Moore ever read Das Kapital? I wouldn't put it past him, but I doubt it; and he certainly is too intelligent to talk Party gobbledegook - it would offend his ear. But that is no more than might be said of many committed Communists including Moore's own idol Berthold Brecht. Moore called Brecht his hero and deliberately included obvious references to his work in Watchmen: a fairly obvious marker for Communism.

His path to Communism – and this is less surprising and less unusual than some might think – passes through an excessive and unbalanced relationship with America. The point of Shadowplay, stated with all possible clarity, is that Moore felt that America had let him down by failing to live up to what he took to be its ideals. That is why the book is entirely concentrated on true and supposed American crimes, to the exclusion of what any other country may have done or failed to do; and the reason for what seems the patronizing assumption that no bloodshed or political change would have taken place anywhere had Americans not meddled. The irrationality is fairly obvious. Rationally, it is complete nonsense to imagine that Italy voted against Communism in 1948 because the newly-formed CIA sent Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin over to support the anti-Communist forces; the point is that in Moore’s mind, the US were simply wrong in using any secret means against their enemies at all. You cannot criticize Shadowplay rationally. Despite its ferocious concentration on data, true, manipulated, partial or even false, it is not a cool political essay - even a coolly mendacious political essay - but a work of wild and desperate poetry, opening and closing in a mist of grief, disease and despair.

It is interesting to compare it with From Hell's early chapters, which date from the same period. The English upper classes of From Hell are regarded with a coldly prejudiced eye. From them, Moore expects nothing save oppression and murder. When he shows Dr.Gull condemning Annie Crook to dementia by removing her thyroid, he needs no more explanation than that Dr.Gull is a member of the upper classes, an agent of the Queen, a Freemason intriguer. That's the sort of thing he does, period. The tone is confident, unemotional: Moore does not feel particularly unhappy at having to charge a fellow creature with such a crime, or dozens of others of such a cover-up. (I may add that most of his history is bunk, but that is another matter.) But he has a different complaint about America: not that it is naturally wicked, but that it has wickedly betrayed what it should naturally be.

Moore’s friend and occasional collaborator, the American Steve Bissette, saw things differently. At the same time – again – I had to castigate him in public for his insane and utterly unmotivated belief that the Oklahoma City massacre had been perpetrated by the CIA. That is, he, an American, treats the American establishment exactly as the Englishman Moore treats the English. They kill people, that's what they do, and so of course he feels no need to say why they should ever have wanted to plant the Oklahoma City bomb. (Against a Federal building, yet!)

Clearly, what we have here is a case study in class prejudice, no less unrelenting for being reverse: each of the two artists feels a deep inner loathing for the ruling classes of his own country, a loathing which comes before any facts; and at least one of them hopes, or hoped, for salvation from outside. Alan Moore's demands on America are directly connected with his prejudices about England. From its inception America has been as much an idea as a state, and there is a kind of person who cannot forgive it for not being wholly an idea. That democracy is a messy, compromising, dilatory process, open to corruption and human imperfection, in need of constant watching, makes it fairly stressful, and it is easy to blame the practice for not living up to the ideals, without realizing that there must be a constant dialectic between any ideal, however noble and definitive, and reality. The golden principle that all men are created equal was published by men who not only kept slaves but probably would never have contemplated the right of practicing homosexuals to live untroubled in the commonwealth. (Though actually Cesare Beccaria, the hero of eighteenth-century humane justice reform, stated that "Greek lust" should not be a matter for criminal law.) Even universal male suffrage was not completely established in America until fifty years had passed, and female suffrage not until much later. Yet all these things flow inevitably from the one principle, and the very existence of that principle is an active force that must inevitably lead to them.

For most of this century, the sort of mind that made that sort of claim on America ended up, with almost mathematical certainty, a Communist or a fellow traveller. I met a few Communists in my time, both the standard Italian watered-down type (now quite happily and naturally turned to moderate social democrats) and more rigorous kinds; and one thing most of them do have in common is exactly this unhappy relationship with America. I know dozens of jeans-wearing Disney fans who spend their time ranting at America for having an army and - horror of horrors - a secret service. This may sound sarcastic, but they probably buy too uncritically into the American myth of a single honest man riding into town and ridding it of evil, without realizing that life, even in America, is perhaps not quite so simple. My Communist friends are probably the last John Wayne American patriots. Guess which Italian newspaper distinguished itself in 1970 for a spectacular attack on Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts, guilty of "failing to tap into American optimism and energy"? Which one but L'Unita', the Communist Party sheet!

The reason for this link between early love for America and later Communism should be obvious. Since practical democracy tends to fail most obviously in the matter of equality - that is, since inequality is the most obvious and visible denial of democratic principles - anyone who clung too uncritically to the idea of America as a counterpart of the realities of his/her own country was bound to find the appeal of radical egalitarianism quite irresistible. When they realized that life in America isn't simply about realizing ideals, they naturally gravitated towards a Party that claimed to be about just that. Only people willing to deny the beautiful and beloved words of the Declaration of Independence could ever be consciously Fascistic; Communists, on the other hand could easily represent themselves as believers in the principle unhappy with the practice. And that is what most of us are.

To the question, therefore: is Moore a Communist, the answer is: at the right time, and taking the word in a broad enough sense, he could hardly help but be. Probably the best definition is "fellow traveller". If you told him of the horrors of labour (death) camps, of the savagery with which loyal party members were suppressed, of the daily violence and cringing fear, of the tens of millions dead, of the racist suppression of whole ethnic groups, of infinite power in the hand of cruel nonentities, of religious persecution, torture, famine, and, creeping finger by finger underneath it all, of the tendrils of corruption and bribery that made all daily life a humiliating and dishonest ritual, he would probably answer he was quite aware of the flaws in the system, but he did not stand for the system, he stood for the ideals. That the ideals inevitably lead to the system, he would not have been willing to admit. Communism hasn't failed, comrades. It just has never been tried.

Karl Marx' doctrines are both relevant and irrelevant to this. They are irrelevant, because few fellow-travellers take much interest in them. Their motives are mainly negative, not for "scientific materialism", but against the failures of "bourgeois" democracy, and they can carry entirely different and incompatible ideologies, from Sartre's existentialism to "liberation theology". But they are also highly relevant, because the mental environment they create is highly sympathetic to some things we just met. Marx's vision is class-centred, with one class - the bourgeoisie - bound inevitably to do evil, and another – the industrial workers - bound inevitably to carry progress on its shoulders. This is very close to what we just found in Moore and Bissette: the unthinking assumption of universal depravity in the upper classes, the firm belief that they naturally, by birth, or by culture, or by self-interest, do evil. I am not speaking of Marx' elaborate and often brilliant economic analysis, but of what a non-specialist may perceive as its basic thrust. It is not the economic analysis that draws people to Marxism, it is the mental atmosphere - an atmosphere highly congenial to Moore.

Look, in particular, at From Hell. This is a comic conceived as the Evil Empire had fallen and Thatcherism seemed triumphant. One thing that leaps to the eye is that Moore's murderous and hate-ridden version of Queen Victoria, so unhistorical that even his artist Eddie Campbell protested, is all too clearly influenced by his hatred for another and more recent English female political leader. But above all, there is From Hell chapter 8, pages 31-32 - a flaming, though already resigned, proof of Moore's attitude to Karl Marx

This is a case where the story really speaks for itself. As the renegade Netley, working-class agent for the murderous Dr.Gull, entices yet another "working woman" (in both senses of the word) to her death, in a room just above them the socialist poet William Morris is declaiming his poem Love is enough to a little group of workers and intellectuals. Morris and the little group never appear again; they play no part in the story; the only role they have is to appear, here and now, as a counterpoint of helpless - indeed unaware - but noble idealism to the ugly realities of aristocratic/ capitalist power as Moore sees them. On the one side, conspiracy, murder, cover-up and oppression; on the other, poetic and idealistic nobility, glanced over by the wise, fatherly, bearded, benevolent portrait of Marx. That all these noble intellectuals and workers are powerless and unaware, that they do and indeed can do nothing, while all the time murder and oppression is going on all around them, shows that Moore has by now (1993-94) lost hope that Marxist socialism may uproot what he sees as the evils of aristocracy/capitalism; but he hasn't lost affection. His representation of budding Marxism, in fact, is blatantly false. Neither the ferocious party games in which Marx routed Bakunin (displaying a power-lust to startle anyone who believed in his benevolence), nor the unhappy private life of Morris and his associates, are allowed to spoil our glimpse of this idyllic nest of idealists. The misassociation of Morris' simple, naive pieties, with Karl Marx' complex and typically Prussian system of economic and philosophical analysis - though Morris would have endorsed it, silly man - really gives the game away: we are not asked or allowed to consider early Marxism as anything except as a simple, apostolic love for the poor. If this is not falsification of history, I don't know what is. It's even demeaning to Marx' indubitable intellectual achievement.
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