Naomi Klein in the Tracks of Her Double

Marxists understand what it’s like to have liberal intellectuals and hostile media pundits distort their ideas as if “refracted through a funhouse mirror”. Similarly in Naomi Klein’s book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (2023), the bestselling writer explains what it has been like to have her progressive ideas fed “into a bonkers blender” so they can be delivered to a mass audience as far-right “thought-puree” by her would-be doppelganger, Naomi Wolf.

But in writing about the relationship of her own ideas to Wolf’s paranoid contortions, Klein assures her readers that the point of her book’s mapping exercise “is not to stay trapped inside the house of mirrors, but to do what I sense many of us long to do: escape its mind-bending confines and find our way toward some kind of collective power and purpose.” This is a vital objective: hence this review will engage with the solutions that are proposed within Klein’s timely text.

Class Interests

Klein states that “the conspiracy… is capitalism.” And she is right that “one of the most battle-worn tactics used to bury and marginalize ideas that are inconvenient to those who wield economic and political power” is to dismiss such ideas as conspiracy theories. “Every serious left-wing analyst of power has faced this smear, from Marx onward,” she adds. This is an important point, and it is interesting to note that Klein’s discomforting confrontation with her darker alter ego has pushed her writings far closer to the ideas associated with revolutionary socialism than usual.

Capitalism is designed to make profits for a small minority in society “no matter the human costs” because, as Klein puts it, it is a system that is “structurally designed to protect the propertied classes against any and all challenges from below.” This is why elites seek to pit ordinary people against one another in order to render “them less likely to unite based on common economic and class interests.” There can be no question about it, “most people are indeed getting screwed—but without a firm understanding of capitalism’s drive to find new profit sources to enclose and extract,” Klein says, “many will imagine there is a cabal of uniquely nefarious individuals pulling the strings.”

This is why socialists believe that attaining such a “firm understanding” of how capitalism exploits us is best achieved by embracing the types of revolutionary ideas that were popularized by Karl Marx. But it is important to highlight that in staking out this position, genuine socialists have always stood firmly opposed to the anti-democratic legacy of Stalin and his murderous cohorts.

As it turns out, just over 23 years ago a very partial acknowledgment of the relevance of this conflict between socialists and Stalin was featured on the opening page of Klein’s first bestselling book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Knopf, 1999). She did this, if only in passing, when she mentioned how garment workers living in her hometown (of Toronto) during the 1920s and 1930s would discuss the relevance of Leon Trotsky’s ideas to the ongoing fight to improve their lives. Trotsky being one of the celebrated leaders of the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 who would go on to lead the socialist opposition against Stalin’s regime. (Note: Socialist Alternative, the group of which I am a member, traces its direct legacy to the socialist groups inspired by Trotsky that developed in opposition to Stalin during the 1920s.)

Anti-semitism as a Response to Revolutionary Struggle

With far-right conspiracies being the primary fare promoted by Klein’s troubling doppelganger, Klein explores the relationship of such reactionary theories to antisemitism. And while Naomi Wolf, her darker doppelganger, does not promote antisemitic theories herself, other individuals who are close to her do. A recent example is provided by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who suggested that Covid-19 was a genetically engineered bioweapon that may have been “ethnically targeted” to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people. Another antisemitic conspiracy booster who is a fellow traveler of both Wolf and Kennedy is the infamous host of Infowars, Alex Jones. Either way in summarizing some of the history of such vile conspiracies, Klein writes:

“Over the centuries, anti-Jewish conspiracy has played a very specific purpose for elite power: it acts as a buffer, a shock absorber. Before popular rage could reach the kings, queens, tsars, and old landed money, the conspiracies absorbed it, directing anger to the middle managers—to the court Jew, to the scheming Jew, possibly with horns hidden under his skullcap. To Shylock.”

As might be expected, as a leading revolutionary Trotsky was “routinely portrayed as a Jewish devil (horns and all) by his political adversaries,” Kleins explains. Thus, she says we can see how the active propagation of antisemitic conspiracies has served as “a reliable means of blasting apart nascent alliances and coalitions of working people and safeguarding the interests of the wealthy and powerful.” Klein argues that it is partly for this reason that many individuals of Jewish heritage (including her own family) have tended to maintain an active “interest in the theoretical side of what we now call Marxism” as “an attempt to compete with those conspiracy theories that have dogged our people through the ages.”

In explicating how antisemitism has been turned against revolutionary struggle in the past, Klein makes the point that:

“The failed Russian Revolution of 1905 was a particularly tragic case. In January of that year, workers and peasants across the Russian empire staged a wave of strikes and revolts, including inside the military, challenging the monarchy and the rule of Nicholas II. The revolution was led by a multiethnic and diverse alliance, with one of its key factions being the Jewish Labor Bund, a socialist party with tens of thousands of members and hundreds of local councils and defense militias…”

Incidentally, here the history of the Jewish Labor Bund’s militant activism touches directly upon Klein’s own life, as her husband’s great-grandfather had been a local leader of the Bund in Poland. But as Klein goes on to explain: the failure of the 1905 revolution was indeed “particularly tragic” because Russia’s elites responded “by unleashing a virulent campaign of anti-Semitic hate that painted the 1905 revolt as a plot by seditious Jews to rule over Christians.” This is true, but Klein neglects to highlight the important fact that Trotsky was one of the leaders of this 1905 revolt. She omits the leading role he played in this early revolutionary struggle and simply reported how “Trotsky, in his early career as a journalist, was shaped by covering outbreaks of anti-Semitic mob violence, describing scenes of gangs ‘drunk on vodka and the smell of blood.’” It is perhaps ironic that this quote is derived from Trotsky’s book 1905, which was first published in 1907 as an early history of this vital revolutionary struggle.

Models For Socialist Change

Nevertheless, in maintaining her focus on class-based struggle, Klein asks: “Where do we find models for a society” beyond capitalism? And so, in addition to highlighting the aforementioned Jewish Labor Bund, she draws attention to the model of “democratic socialism that Rosa Luxemburg imagined as the only alternative to barbarism.” Luxemburg was assassinated in 1919 by her primary political opponents on the Left precisely because of her commitment to revolutionary Marxism, with her murderers acting at the behest of the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party. A tragic murder indeed.

Klein, in discussing other models to capitalism also says, “I think about Abram Leon, writing his book The Jewish Question as the Nazis closed in, carefully explaining how racist conspiracies change the subject from capitalism to cabals.” And this model is particularly important because Leon was a little-known Trotskyist who had been organizing in Belgium amongst the working class, that is, before he was hunted down and liquidated by the Nazis in 1944.

But the model that apparently most inspires Klein remains the example set by Red Vienna, a socialist model that saw the Austrian Social Democratic Workers’ Party hold “power in Vienna for over a decade” before eventually being physically exterminated by the Austrofascists in 1933.

Klein is correct that “Red Vienna’s soaring vision transformed an impoverished, disease-ridden city into a beacon of another way of living,” but, that being said, we should be mindful of the major limitations of this famous experiment in socialism. This is because the Social Democrats had pushed forward their “third way” socialist experiment in direct opposition to the revolutionary method of organizing that had been popularized by the Communists in Russia. Thus, the most serious problem that was inherent to the Austrian’s reformist model of organizing was that they adopted a pacifist approach to combatting the violence of fascism.  Tragically the leaders of the Social Democrats only belatedly came to understand the merits of the type of revolutionary analysis that had been promoted by Trotsky when it was too late, that is, in 1934 after the fascists had already assumed power.

Another significant limitation concerning the case of Red Vienna owed to the fact that the socialist leaders of this socialist movement — many of whom were Jewish — failed to firmly counter the threat posed by a weaponized anti-Semitism. This issue was raised by Helmut Gruber in his important book Red Vienna: Experiment in Working Class Culture, 1919-1934 (Oxford University Press, 1991). Gruber explained that while the Austrian Social Democratic Party did “formally” oppose anti-Semitism, they chose to adopt a “passive approach [which] simply allowed their opponents to make the wildest charges and associations — ‘Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy’ — without being confronted as hatemongers.” As if this weakness was not bad enough, the Austrian Social Democrats even went so far as to “attempt to fight anti-Semitism with anti-Semitism in socialist pamphlets and broadsides.” The socialists did this by targeting Jewish bankers in some of their propaganda!

Building Democratic and Socialist Mass Movements

But despite the confusion evident in Klein’s visions for building a socialist alternative to capitalism, when it comes to answers it remains the case that she is still pointing in the right direction. This is because she is unwavering in promoting efforts to unite the entire working class in the fight against our common capitalist oppressors.

Highlighting some of the Left’s weaknesses, Klein reminds her readers that “every story of triumph for the fascist right is also a story of fragmentation, sectarianism, and stubborn refusal to make strategic alliances on the anti-fascist left.” And here many vital historical lessons should be learned from the needless mistakes of the past, like those that were made in the 1920s and 1930s by both the Stalinists and the Social Democrats (not just those in Austria) – tragic mistakes that Trotsky and other Marxists had warned them about at the time.

Klein, in contrast to the leaders of the Austrian Social Democrats of Red Vienna, appreciates that the primary way that our class will build new mass movements for socialism is not by reading books — no matter how useful they are — but by taking collective action together. As “When individuals organize toward a goal, they discover not only that they share interests with people who might look (and vote) very differently from them but also that a new sense of power flows from this alliance.” So, Klein remains hopeful that ordinary people can overcome our fragmentation “to weave ourselves together in new ways.” She adds: “The wave of unconventional union organizing at corporations like Amazon and Starbucks shows that many young workers are already figuring out those new ways.”

This faith in ordinary people to unite and fight back was again confirmed by Klein in a recent interview she gave on Democracy Now! When asked by the host of the news show “What is the main takeaway from your book” Klein stated that people need to “collectively organize and rebuild our social movements so they can offer people material improvements to their lives. That is the only way we fight this surge in conspiracies; it’s not going to be fact-checkers or content moderators, it’s going to be a robust Left.”

No one has ever said that rebuilding a working-class social movement will be easy, but it is vital, nevertheless. And one way of joining this global struggle for socialism would be to consider getting involved with a revolutionary organization, with a good example being a group like Socialist Alternative, the group of which I am a member.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).