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Class War in Ten Novels

Mark Steven, author of Class War: A Literary History, lists the ten greatest novels of class warfare, from a mythic retelling of the Haitian Revolution to a radical reassertion of humanity in the face of dehumanization.

Mark Steven17 May 2023

Class War in Ten Novels

Within the history of class war, the relationship between politics and literature has always been mutually reciprocal. From the standpoint of politics, literature enables the transmission of revolutionary thought, military strategy, and ideological messaging across time and space; and, from the standpoint of literature, a politics of class war serves as catalyst for aesthetic transformation – infusing literary forms and modes and genres. The following ten novels are all about class war. Each one epitomizes not only the literature of it time and place, the ways that a novel about England in the 1810s will be very different to one about China in the 1930s or Italy in the 1960s, but also the ways that unique revolutionary movements have reshaped how we read and write literary narratives.

[book-strip index="1"] Émeric Bergeaud, Stella: A Novel of the Haitian Revolution

Published in 1859 and sometimes described as the first novel of its nation, Émeric Bergeaud’s Stella is the mythic retelling of how an army of former slaves transformed their homeland from the French colony of Saint-Domingue to the independent republic of Haiti. Eschewing anything like historical realism, this novel narrates revolution via the myth of Romulus and Remus, who are presented as collective beings who, combined, embody the personage of decolonial insurgency. Punctuated by explosive set pieces like the conflagration of Port-au-Prince, here epic narration aspires to the deeds of its heroes, all while recognizing that the true agent of history is not one but many, not the charismatic individual but an energized class.

Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, A Tale

Charlotte Brontë’s romantic novel of 1849, Shirley, is set against the arrival of the factory system in England, when craftsmanship was displaced by heavy industry and disenfranchised workers took up arms under the banner of a mythical leader Ned Ludd. ‘Misery generates hate’, writes Brontë. ‘These sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings’. But this workers’ revolt is neither against the machines themselves nor against local mills and factories. Rather, the Luddites directed their attacks against industry as a whole and capitalism as a system, where the mills and factories would, in Brontë’s phrase, be reduced by violence to ‘a mere blot of desolation on the fresh front of the summer dawn’.

Emile Zola, La Debacle

During the nineteenth century, urban warfare was seen as endemic to Paris, and the novels of Émile Zola portray that warfare with its political and class coordinates. In his capacity as the originator of literary naturalism – a kind of storytelling that rejects myth and romance to instead foreground an otherwise submerged, underclass perspective – Zola’s twenty-book cycle Les Rougon-Macquart sings an epic of France during the Second Empire from the moment of its inception to its demise in the Paris Commune. The penultimate book in this cycle, 1892’s La Debacle is a novel of the French defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, which sends one young and embittered soldier, Maurice, back from the frontline to the heart of Paris, where he joins his comrades on the barricades. ‘He saw the Commune as the avenging angel for all the shames endured’, we read, ‘as a liberating force bringing the severing iron, the purifying flame’.

Jack London, The Iron Heel

Jack London’s 1908 sci-fi novel The Iron Heel aligns itself with the notion that, in a climactic war of world-historic proportions, an avenging class of the dispossessed and the exploited will finally have its victory against the impersonal machinery of accumulation. Before this novel, London had lived an adventuresome life, having laboured in canneries, mills, power plants, and on ships, as well as being incarcerated for vagrancy. He also worked as a muckraking journalist, writing on poverty and deprivation, and a war correspondent. The Iron Heel reimagines London’s journalistic accounts of class and reads like an alternative history of the national strikes of 1877. Narrated from the standpoint of an imagined post-capitalist future, around the year 2600 AD, this novel takes the form of the fictional ‘Everhard Manuscript’, an incomplete document written during the first and failed American uprising of a great class war. What makes it all so exhilarating is that, rather than isolate utopia from its embattled prehistory, it describes how we might someday, somehow get there.

Victor Serge, Birth of Our Power

Victor Serge was perhaps the writer most sensitive to the relationships between class and war in the early years of the Soviet Union. Born in Belgium in 1890, Serge started political life as an anarchist. He participated in the Barcelona uprising of 1917 and was in a military prison in France during the closing months of World War One, from which he was eventually returned to Bolshevik Petrograd and then to Soviet Moscow. While best known for his later novels of World War Two and Stalinist betrayal, with The Birth of Our Power, written in 1931, we read a fictionalized treatment of his journey to Russia, in which revolutionary enthusiasm and youthful ideals are recalibrated by participation in the Red Army. Vividly brought to life in this narrative is an impossibly tense relationship between the lived experience of a socialist army fighting a brutal civil war and the reckoning of a brilliant future built through international solidarity. This tension equips the novel a unique mode of description, one that we might compare to architectural constructivism, which puts it in league those more obviously avant-garde works from the Soviet 20s.  

Zhou Libo, The Hurricane

In March 1927, Mao predicted that, ‘in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back’. This metaphor returns with Zhou Libo’s justly celebrated novel of revolution, The Hurricane, from 1948. Written by a communist organizer who had been tasked with winning the trust of agrarian peasants during the land reform movement during the 1940s, this novel not only repurposes Mao’s storm metaphor for its title but quotes it in its epigraph. ‘Language is the medium with which a writer works’, Zhou would later reflect, ‘and if we present peasant dialogue without using the language of the peasants, the result will certainly be unrealistic. The speech of peasants is characterized by richness of imagery, liveliness and simplicity born of their rich knowledge of work on the land and of struggle’. It is of such speech that this prairie fire of a novel is composed!

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat is set during a Kenyan village’s preparations for their independence day, Uhuru, held to celebrate the hundreds of thousands of rebels who swore an oath to each other and their cause to overthrow British rule. While this historical novel dramatizes the colonial undevelopment of Africa, or what Walter Rodney famously described as ‘the exploitation of one country by another,’ it also documents the idiomatic and cultural forms of solidarity that flourished in decolonial Africa. Here solidarity finds its living embodiment in Kihika, a revolutionary war hero who was captured and hanged by the British. Providing an explanation of a traditional practice newly radicalized, Kihika insists that to swear the oath is a commitment to solidarity amid conflict. ‘In Kenya’, he says, ‘we want deaths which will change things, that is to say, we want true sacrifice. But first we have to be ready to carry the cross. I die for you, you die for me, we become a sacrifice for one another’.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

After the Cuban Revolution, Latin America became just about synonymous with guerrilla warfare, and that synonymity shapes what is perhaps the most celebrated of all Latin American novels, Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. This novel is a harmonization of narrative form with how the guerrilla movement would describe its own actions. One of its central eccentricities is that so many characters share the name of an exemplary guerrilla, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, including his seventeen children, making them virtually indistinguishable and practically uncountable. And if that multiplication resembles the revolutionary process that took place in Cuba between 1956 and 1959, in which nineteen rebels became a revolutionary people’s army, it also resembles the rhetoric of the guerrillas, who often described themselves as the nucleus of revolution.

Nanni Balestrini, We Want Everything


Nanni Balestrini’s 1971 novel We Want Everything is a document of escalation in the politics of Italian workers, when, in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, the factories in Turin were rocked by a wave of increasingly militant strikes. Balestrini’s novel is the fictionalized autobiography of a ‘mass worker’ who presents as an everyman figure for immigrant labour. Crucially, this first-person narrator knows that for workers to make reformist demands is to labour against their own interests, and that any reforms won by the unions would only be conceded on the state’s terms, amounting to an inadvertent collaboration with the bosses. ‘Never, with these strikes, with these reforms’, he says. ‘Things always had to be taken, by force. Because they’d had it up to here with the State that always fucked them up and they wanted to attack it, because that was the real enemy, the one to destroy’. This novel has the force and clarity of a revolutionary dispatch, a communiqué sent back from the frontlines. It reads like a letter from the war of manoeuvre to fuel the war of position, speaking in the voice of a ransom note or a list of demands.

Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography

A reassertion of humanity in the face of dehumanization, an insistence that this life matters, the autobiography is a novelistic form that has often been recruited to tell the story of class war from the standpoint of race. Perhaps for this reason, the autobiography is central to the aesthetics of Black radicalism – with its origins in slave and prison narratives – and it undergoes militant treatment in the writing of figures like Huey P. Newtown and Angela Davis. If just one autobiography were to be singled out as exemplary of this tendency, it would be that of Assata Shakur, a narrative that shuttles back and forth between the years before and after her shooting, arrest, and incarceration. Composed as a revolutionary bildungsroman, a form usually reserved for moral and spiritual education, the overall narrative dramatizes how its author arrives at an unflinching militancy, and in so doing doubles as an explication of how class war meant facing off against racial capitalism in the wake of the Black Panthers.

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Class War
A thrilling and vivid work of history, Class War weaves together literature and politics to chart the making and unmaking of social class through revolutionary combat. In a narrative that spans the...

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