Darko Suvin’s fiery poetry and ‘Insubordinate Essays’
Artwork from the cover of 'Communism, Poetry.'

In 2016, at the age of 86, Darko Suvin did something that would have taxed the energies of someone half his age. In that single year, he published three books: one he wrote in English, a second he translated from Slovenian, and another he translated from Croatian.

After a brief hiatus, Suvin is back, with a diverse collection of declarations and sentiments, some old, some new, all ardent. The full title is Communism, Poetry: Communicating Vessels (Some Insubordinate Essays, 1999-2018).

Early in this passionately written book, the author sums up a century with a troika of bold pronouncements:

  • First, both communism and revolutionary democracy have at times led to violent catastrophes.
  • Second, this “catastrophic turn,” Suvin believes, “came about because full political decision-making in the community by all citizens (democracy) and full economic decision-making within the production by all workers (communism) were sundered instead of fused.”
  • Third, “If and when fused, they remain the only way out of the present anti-utopian and counterrevolutionary horizons.”

The resulting premise—that we need to “discuss the lessons of the past”—will surprise no one. But the principal terms of Suvin’s title—Communism, Poetry—promise more and do not disappoint. In and among the volume’s ten flaming, risk-taking, manifesto-like chapters, more than twenty poems are distributed—including a brilliant translation of Bertolt Brecht’s versification of the Communist Manifesto by Suvin himself. “Poetry is essential for justice and communism,” Suvin argues, for the worker must have both sustenance and beauty: “There is no poetry without communism, and no communism without poetry.”

Chapter 1 is the translated and updated text of a lecture Suvin first delivered in Paris in 1999, the central focus of which is the enduring symbiosis between capitalism and war. In the 20th century, Suvin reminds us, “probably more people have been murdered in mass killings than in all of world history up to 1900.” Continuous warfare is at once a concomitant of capitalism and the “allegorical essence” of bourgeois human relationships: “Capitalism brings war as the cloud brings the tempest.”

The reason the United States spends on armaments as much as the next 12 nations combined is simple: wars have always been the greatest and most profitable investments. Even in the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union, when a reduction in military spending might have been expected, the U.S. added to its arsenal eight nuclear submarines, each one equivalent in injuring power to 4000 Hiroshima bombs. In the same period, the U.S. accounted for more than half of the world’s armament exports. Here is the author’s takeaway: “Disposal of surplus commodities that simultaneously disposes of surplus people; what a neat trick!”

Suvin, a renowned scholar and critic born in Yugoslavia in 1930, is an erudite and versatile intellect who speaks and writes multiple languages. What he does with the English language in this book impresses, surprises, and delights. His syntactically rich, 405-line verse translation of Brecht, for example, is a treasure. Though Brecht’s versification of the Communist Manifesto was never completed, Suvin’s English version closes with a flourish that the translator hopes will be deemed “sufficient”:

How may the workers break their own class chains?
Only by breaking everybodys chains.

Utopian studies

A clue about the book’s unconventional mix of poetic and scholarly content is located in Suvin’s early career as a leading theorist of science fiction literature or “Utopian Studies.” Half a century ago, Suvin publicized a theory that the essence of the science fiction genre lies in cognitive estrangement—a process of representing alternative realities that liberate thinking about human society and eventually inspire resistance to oppression. In this volume, lyric poetry is added to the roster of subversive literary forms. Characterized as it is by estrangement, poetry disrupts the status quo.

But so does each of the multiple forms of discourse in this collection. Chapter 3, “Explorations of Terror, Terrorism, Anti-Terrorism,” takes readers into the psychic question of what drives “the lust to power, profit and killing.” A central finding is that, as in Orwell’s 1984, “the war on terrorism is terrorism.”

Moreover, the routine uses of terror bombing—a technoscientific form of mass murder—by the UK, the USA, Russia, and other nations from Guernica to Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Hanoi, and Serbia, indicate that State terrorism is far bloodier than the reprisals it makes inevitable. Suvin’s resulting lamentations, that “Hitler has won” and that “internationally, we live in a Hitlerite world,” advance the idea that terrorism cannot be defeated with ever more terrorism. Rather, the force that thwarts and defeats terrorism is Justice.

Chapter 6, “What is to Be Done?: A First Step,” challenges the radical left to return to its roots in “those whom capitalism has hurt,” a group defined as “all people and social classes who live by their physical and/or mental work rather than by means of wealth and privileges.” The remedy for the twin sicknesses of fascism and “turbocapitalism” is a political alliance of laborers, wage workers, the white-collar masses, refugees fleeing hunger and bombs, and—most notably—women who are doubly oppressed by public and domestic work.

A self-government of these associated groups is indeed possible, for “there are millions of de facto communists among us” who need only to grow conscious of their power. Reaching the many who remain vulnerable to “banks and tanks” will not be easy, Suvin asserts; it requires “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.”

In Chapter 9, Suvin’s internationalist perspective leads to omens that seem prescient and urgent: “Capitalism’s legitimate son fascism is returning,” he warns. If we fail to “reestablish revolutionary horizons, we are lost. Humanity is lost.”

Chapter 10, the final and briefest chapter, is the most relevant for progressive-minded teachers of the humanities and literature, whose work is grounded in inevitable questions: What is the function of literary art? What is its role in the evolution of human society and politics? Suvin explains:

“The specific possibilities of poetry—standing here for literature and art in general—create in all significant cases an impediment to thoughtless acceptance, to facile, superficial, or brainwashed believing common in the age of capitalist massification and media saturation.”

To the extent that literature offers access to radically new horizons, it is “diametrically opposed to the doctrinal bias of monotheist religions and status quo certainties” and is, therefore, in essence, vital and revolutionary.

Suvin argues that the job of the critical reader is to draw back the curtain on the process of estrangement through an “emancipatory intervention in which criticism and creativity meld.” The unveiling of an author’s salient ways of seeing also entails a recognition that “the reader’s certainties are not certain but bound to strong value judgments and cognitive frameworks.” Estrangement is salutary because it transforms art into “a boomerang returning to knock some sense into us.” The politically committed literary critic is, therefore “in the company of poets or philosophers and an ally of the ruled and exploited classes.”

At first glance, Communism, Poetry may seem a confusing or enigmatic title. By the end of this volume, its significance is clear.

Also worthwhile and entertaining are the book’s many thought-provoking quotes or epigraphs, which appear in the front matter and on the title pages of each chapter. Here is a sampling:

Darko Suvin. | Jaka Gasar

“Content warnings serve as advance notification of difficult material to enable participants to work effectively with the material. Content warnings should not serve the purpose of avoiding controversial content.” From MLA Statement on Content Warnings, 2018

“Understanding the poem is not only an intellectual act but a political act.” —Frantz Fanon

“I do not dispute the need for priests to remind people that one day they’ll die. I say only that in certain strange ages, such as ours, we need another kind of priests called poets, to remind people that they are not dead.” —G. K. Chesterton

“The issue which has swept down through the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks.” —Lord Acton, 1881

Finally, Suvin’s original poetry offers us an enticing way to connect with the feelings of the author in a book that is largely “academic” in form. This untitled verse is used as a lead-in to Chapter 1:

I seem insane to you. I’m not sorry.
But tell me your reasons. “Because you go on
About justice, because you were always bewitched
By the Great Goddess.” Indeed I do, indeed
I was, I am. This folly, all ye godheads
& sea-nymphs, may it never leave me!

I am not knowledgeable enough to confidently evaluate every one of Suvin’s offerings in this fascinating volume. Gaps in my coverage are due to my lack of preparation for some of the topics touched on, including Marxology and Yugoslavia (Chapter 4), Tribal Communism (Chapter 5), and the political phases of Yugoslavia after the communist revolution (Chapter 7).

Nevertheless, I loved this difficult-to-classify book and found it inspiring.

Darko Suvin
Communism, Poetry: Communicating Vessels (Some Insubordinate Essays, 1999-2018)
Political Animal Press, 2020

280 pages, $29.99 (paperback)
ISBN: 13‎ 978-1895131437


Patrick Chura
Patrick Chura

Dr. Patrick Chura teaches courses in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature and culture studies at the University of Akron. He is the author of three books and has published articles on a variety of literary-historical topics. His book, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, won the 2022 Literary Encyclopedia Book Prize and the Paul Cowan Award for Non-Fiction.