Socialist Worker

China Miéville: A Marxist guide to monsters

Award winning fantasy writer China Miéville spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya on why Marxism and monsters are natural allies

Issue No. 1960

Humanity and the monstrous — Gustave Moreau’s 1864 painting Oedipus and the Sphinx

Humanity and the monstrous — Gustave Moreau’s 1864 painting Oedipus and the Sphinx


I’m a fan of horror — someone who has always loved monsters. So I’m now trying to make some sort of political sense of why I was so interested in them.

I stress this isn’t an academic exercise for me — I have a visceral love for monster movies, and I’m trying to make theoretical sense of that.

What fascinates me about monsters is that even when they’re supposed to be bad guys, they are incredibly creative figures.

Across all sort of cultures, people take human fears and express them in this sort of symbolic poetry — sticking bat wings onto a wolf for instance. Even as we’re scaring ourselves, we’re also being creative.

And there isn’t a culture that doesn’t have monsters. All cultures create their own monsters, no culture just uses regular animals in its tales and myths. It’s as if homo sapiens is an intrinsically monster creating species!

Monsters are highly polysemic — you can use them to “mean” almost anything. And the same monster can have four or five contradictory meanings in the same film or book.

Take Frankenstein’s monster for example. In Mary Shelley’s original book the monster does not simply represent knowledge beyond what people should know. It is not initially destructive — the violence only emerges after Frankenstein abandons his creation.

So on the one hand, it’s a horrific expression of our anxiety about not taking responsibility for our investigations and actions. But on the other hand, Frankenstein’s monster is clearly a figure of sympathy.

You see the same thing in King Kong — on the one hand he’s a nebulously colonial symbol, dark islands and dusky savages, but by end of film he’s very much the victim.

So we have an ambivalent relationship to monsters, we’re attracted to them and repelled by them at the same time.

Moreover, you can track the different concerns of societies over time by looking at the phases their monsters go through.

Zombie stories in the 1920s and 1930s were about race. From the 1960s onwards, with George Romero’s films, they become about class and the stultifying effects of mass media.

But in the latest wave of zombie movies — 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead — the zombies are no longer shambling around, they’re running in scenes of social disorder that can’t help but remind you of anti-capitalist demonstrations.

They’re post-Seattle zombies, anti-capitalist zombies — and, although they are clearly the baddies, part of the joy is that you also love the zombies!

And there’s a much wider political resonance here. The cover of the Marxism 2005 brochure has a mural depicting neo-liberalism as a vampire. This is part of a long tradition of seeing capitalism as somehow undead.

But our side is also the monster — the insurgent working classes have always been pictured as a monstrous thing, a many-headed insurgent hydra. So somehow everyone concerned with class society conceives its enemies as the monster.

I think what’s going on here is that there’s something about modernity and capitalism that you simply can’t think about it in “realistic” ways. Instead it keeps coming back as the “return of the repressed” — you can’t conceive of it except in monstrous form.

And I think that on our side there has always been a sneaking sympathy for the monster. The notion of the monster as mere social pathology is put about by people whose ideal is the social status quo.

But there are those of us who, because of our class positions, realise that the status quo is all about violence. So it’s not surprising that we wouldn’t completely buy into the idea that “pathologies” are a bad thing.

I very much want to preserve this critical view of monsters. If we go down the route that they are just “about” social pathology, then it follows that we should just get rid of them. But if there are no monsters after the revolution, I don’t want to play!

China Miéville’s books, including his latest novel The Iron Council, are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to www.bookmarks.uk.com


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Sat 16 Jul 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1960
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