Star Wars, socialism and twentieth century models of historiography


Warning: this brain dump contains spoilers for Rogue One

Earlier this week I took my son to see Rogue One when he was off school sick. I was hoping for a good film - I’m a big fan of Gareth Edwards’ previous offerings Monsters and Godzilla, and of course a massive fan of the original Star Wars films - but I didn’t have any particular expectations; especially as this was the first Star Wars film to sit outside the main canon (perhaps excluding Caravan of Courage).

What I wasn’t expecting was to love it. It was a different take on a universe I had grown up loving, replete in the visual and auditory iconography of the original trilogy. But it had license to do things differently, from the score to the opening crawl. There were nods throughout to the original films that this preceded, and of course the plot very much leads into the original Episode IV: a New Hope story. But there was enough scope to explore different narratives within the same universe. The characters from the original series have strong cameos but they exist as backdrops to the film’s own story, one that can stand alone without needing to be directly read in relation to the films set before and after it.

What I loved about this film, however, was how it made me think. In light of Brexit, Trump and post-truth it felt like a Star Wars film for the twenty-first century; and a rallying call for collectivism over individualism.

Politics, Individuals and Chronology: the Idolatry of Lucas

“According to Simiand, there were three idols [in the study of history] which must be toppled. There was the ‘political idol’ – ‘the perpetual preoccupation with the political history, political facts, wars etc….There was the ‘individual idol’ – in other words, the overemphasis on so-called great men…Finally, there was the ‘chronological idol’, that is, ‘the habit of losing oneself in studies of origins’.” Burke 1990, 11

In the early twentieth century a movement of French historians set up a movement - led by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch - to counter traditional approaches to the study of history. They created the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale founding what has come to be known as the Annales movement [2]. I studied the Annales movement whilst studying for my archaeology PhD as I thought their focus on social and collective history was a relevant one for the study of our material past.

"But what the blazes has this got to do with Star Wars?" I hear you cry.

For me George Lucas was obsessed with the stuff of traditional history that the Annales movement fought against: politics, the individual and origins. This is nowhere more prevalent than in his laborious prequels which play out like a complex Shakespearean tragedy without any of the charm or excitement of the original trilogy. As Simiand, Febvre and Block attempted to remove the ego from the histories they wrote - making history a study of people over the study of kings and queens - they also attempted to remove the ego of the historian from the narratives they wrote. It was the Annales movement that first looked at what was called a ‘problem-oriented’ history focusing on data to tell their stories of the past over solely written accounts [3].

The Star Wars prequels (I-III) were killed as much by Lucas’ obsession with politics, events and personalities as they were his obsession with himself. His constant tinkering (including revisiting the original trilogy with CGI) to leave his own mark on the films - culminating even in him placing himself in the final instalment of the prequels - left the film series feel somewhat tainted, especially efforts to fit the original trilogy into the origin myths he was trying to construct.

Of course the stories told were Lucas’ own but we tend to forget Lucas had only directed one of the original trilogy. The most critically regarded - Empire Strikes Back - was directed by Irvin Kershner whilst the Return of the Jedi was directed by Richard Marquand. So Lucas’ tinkering to further his own narrative seems somewhat perverse, especially for Return of the Jedi given these updates occurred after the death of its original director, Marquand.

So back to Rogue One. The story and Edwards’ direction reminded me of the Annales movement through this shift away from origin myths, politics and individuals towards a more Annales history; a history of movements rather than of individuals. Of course this narrative was driven by the individuals that provide the focus of the story but they are joined together and consumed by a cause; the Rebellion.

Rogue One was a license to step away from the Skywalker dynasty (which the Star Wars series is ultimately a tale of) towards the expanded universe; the tales around the things that take place in the Star Wars universe. Yes there are nods to the characters and places of the original series - obviously Darth Vader, Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia as well as more fleeting supporting characters such as Doctor Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba from Episode IV, members of the Rebellion such as Mon Mother, and Bale Organa from the Lucas prequels. But these are there to frame the narrative rather than drive it.

Rogue One took me back to seeing Star Wars for the first time because it wasn’t a story about the Skywalker dynasty but rather a story about the Rebellion. In the film the various characters all have their own agendas but in the end they (literally) sacrifice themselves for the cause they are fighting for. In many ways this tale reminds me of Orwell’s writings about the Spanish Civil War.

Fascism, anti-fascism and the Spanish Civil War

Without going into too much detail (I heartily recommend you read Orwell’s accounts as well as Haycock’s fantastic I am Spain, the Spanish Civil War was defined by the call to action of people from across Europe against the growing dangers of Fascism within Spain. This was within a context of most western leaders turning a blind eye to the growing threat of Fascism from Germany, Spain and Italy with many (including Winston Churchill) preferring their chances against Fascism than against the growing threat of Communist Russia.

The analogies between Star Wars’ Galactic Empire and Fascism are nothing new). However there are obvious comparisons between the Rebel Alliance and the Republican forces of Spain; defined by guerrilla fighting against the seemingly unrelenting war machine of Spanish Nationalism (headed by Franco and assisted by Hitler) and in-fighting between different socialist and Communist movements.

In-fighting within the socialism and resistance forces has been a recurring reality amongst leftist organisations (The People’s Front of Judea, anyone?) and is a trope that has lived out throughout the twentieth century (and before) through to contemporary politics (see the current battles between the Labour Party and Movement in the UK). In the Spanish Civil War Orwell was lucky to escape Spain alive after the in-fighting within the foreign socialist forces supporting the Republican cause, the Communist Party crushing organisations like POUM.

In Rogue One when Jyn goes to Yavin to rally the Rebellion cause against the impending threat of the Empire she is confronted by in-fighting between the various factions of the Rebellion unable to decide on action, a Rebellion that had already seen a split between the direct action of Saw Garrera and the more diplomatic aspirations of the Rebel Alliance.

I’m not suggesting that Rogue One is directly analogous to the circumstances of Spain in the mid-1930s or socialism more generally. However, what both provide is a redolent metaphor for the struggle between worker movements, society and authoritarianism. A struggle that is strikingly relevant to 2017.

Rogue One a tale for 21st Century socialism?

In an era of Post-Truth and Selfies [4] we have all become the centre of our own political landscapes. With Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US we have seen a surge in populist, media-fuelled, ego-centric, me first politics, exacerbated by the social media echo chambers we have come to immerse ourselves in. Seeing Rogue One I was reminded of the challenges presented by Febvre and Bloch and the battle against the idols which we have built up around ourselves; idols celebrating and worshipping politics, individuals and origins.

Sitting in the cinema with my son earlier this week I was genuinely moved by Rogue One, partly because I felt was a film that eschewed these idols; a film that celebrated collective action over the cult of dynasties, where the character development was about personal sacrifice in the face of threat from global (Galactic?) forces that people felt powerless against (for Fascism now read Capitalism?).

So what does this all mean for socialism in 2017? Well that is a conversation for another day. However, call me an old-fashioned socialist but Rogue One - for me - gave a new lease of life to a much loved franchise that had grown tired under Lucas, despite the recent rejuvenation by JJ Abrams. And reminded me that the struggles we face today are ones that have been faced - and overcome - many times in the past. Even a long, long time ago.

Viva la Rebellion and thank you, Gareth Edwards!

1 Why Rogue One is my favourite Star Wars film

2 I’ve written about the Annales Movement before

3 Of course, all history is subjective

4 The OED Words of the Year for 2016 and 2013 respectively

Originally posted on Github