Our fandom is rarely without some kind of controversy. It’s been like this since the times of message board wars and it feels like social media has only exacerbated this tendency towards grabbing pitchforks and torches that we often show. Sometimes these controversies become full-blown online wars (just look “Reylo” up on Google), sometimes they just fizzle down after a couple of annoyed grunts, and sometimes they actually become polite discussions. A couple of weeks ago one of the latter happened when Florian from Jedi-Bibliothek revealed that then-upcoming book Leia: Princess of Alderaan (since then positively reviewed by Jay and Sarah in this website) had a very disconcerting scene: at one point, Leia happily speaks of an old Alderaanian proverb, strength through joy. For those not in the know, Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude) was the name of a Nazi leisure organization; our friends at Jedi-Bib, a German fan site, were understandably puzzled, so were I and many others, especially European fans (I wonder why!). The fan reactions were multiple if muted, from the fans that suspected that it was intended to be a sarcastic commentary on the reach of the Empire to the fans that thought that it was not that big of a deal because to American readers it was an obscure reference, to even a few that said “STJ was just a tour operator, not a big deal, get over it.” I personally thought that the obscurity of the reference was what made the reference complicated, as it meant that in practice it worked like a dog whistle. Anyway, the strife lasted just one day: author Claudia Gray was horrified when she found out about the phrase’s origins, explaining it was just a coincidence, and everyone seemed to accept it and move on (although word is still out on what’s going to happen with future reprints and especially with the upcoming German translation). It was obvious from the start that it was most likely just an unintended reference: if George Harrison can accidentally copy one full song, the chances that Claudia Gray had referenced Strength Through Joy without knowing of its very dark origins were not small.
Yet the reaction of some fans who were just unwilling to contemplate the possibility that a Star Wars book could somehow have an intentional Nazi reference—while understandable because the author is well-liked and the book is really good—highlighted the sometimes complicated relationship that fandom has with both the representation of fascism in the Star Wars saga and the influence that fascism itself has had on it. I’ve mentioned before that I personally find the commodification of Imperial chic to be slightly disturbing, but this time I’d like to dig a bit deeper and to talk about the very tortuous relationship that Star Wars has always had with the concept of fascism itself. Is Star Wars a fascist dream? Is Star Wars actually anti-fascist?
Let’s go back in time a few months. After the far-right’s attempt to boycott Rogue One, author Matt Miller wrote a piece for Esquire called Star Wars Is Not Anti-Trump, But It Is Anti-Fascism. It’s a point of view that initially we would be hard-pressed to disagree with: the Galactic Empire and its modern iteration, the First Order, appear clearly modeled after Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes of history. Yet Disney CEO Bob Iger responded to this (pretty much failed) boycott by insisting that Star Wars was “not a political film.”
Now let’s get back to social media. Recently, a meme started making the rounds on Twitter: “Star Wars is not escapism”. It’s a statement that goes straight against Iger’s insistence on Star Wars’ political virginity. But if Star Wars is not escapism, if it’s more than mere entertainment… then what is it? Is it a way of engaging politically? I think we all agree that it is not political engagement. Is it political indoctrination, then? Or is it a kind of political education, perhaps — although this kind of education is pretty much the same as the aforementioned indoctrination, with the only difference being that we agree with the points of view it espouses?
No matter the role that we think that Star Wars has in the way we interact with politics, it’s undeniable that Star Wars is politically important because of its massive cultural weight and the influence it has on what Habermas called the public sphere of the bourgeoisie, the virtual space where we all come together to talk about societal problems. It’s certainly immature—and dangerous—to see politics exclusively through the lens of Star Wars, but that doesn’t mean that Star Wars and politics exist in completely separate spheres. When we complain that Jar Jar Binks seems to recall awfully racist sidekicks of the past like Ebony White or Stepin Fetchit, or when we affirm that, no matter how loudly Lucasfilm insists that things have changed, the creators involved in the saga remain strikingly white and male, we do it for a strong reason: because it matters. Because these things will influence how many children will see the world and try to affect it once they become adults. Its importance compared to real political engagement is probably minimal, but it’s still there.
So, when I say that we should be open to acknowledging the strong influence that fascism has always had on the Star Wars saga, I say this because it’s something that really matters, even if, yes, at the end of the day Star Wars is mostly escapism. It still delivers a political message—no matter how much Bob Iger complains about it.
From Germany to Vietnam
From its very inception Star Wars has always been based on nostalgia. George Lucas was calling over to the serials and pulp films that he had loved as a kid and writing his own love letter to these. If we take a look at the original movie, the implied universe seems very clear-cut: we have a tyrannical Empire (so depersonalized and large that it doesn’t even warrant a proper name, as it literally is everything that exists) fighting a Rebel Alliance, a group of freedom fighters working to destroy this tyranny and reestablish democracy. We have an outlawed religion based on a Dao-like concept called “the Force”, again with clearly defined light and dark sides. Our hero, Luke, dresses in white, and the bad guy, Vader, dresses in black.
This portrayal can easily be seen as a simple fable of democracy versus tyranny with villains inspired by America’s favorite baddies at the time: the Nazis and the Soviets. And sure, Imperial officers dress like Nazis, and Imperial architecture seems to take a couple of pages from Soviet brutalism. Yet for all we hear that the movies were a response against the moral murkiness of the Vietnam era, a longing for a more simple time, it’s impossible to understand the political context of Star Wars without looking at the Vietnam War. The two forces in conflict, Alliance and Empire, are presented with the same language that American media used to portray the two sides of the Vietnam war: the perky freedom fighters of the South versus the tyrannical oppressive regime of the North. And indeed J.W. Rinzler, in his fantastic The Making of Star Wars, says that Star Wars was heavily affected by Lucas’s inability to shoot the anti-war epic Apocalypse Now. But of course Star Wars is not Apocalypse Now: despite our heroes fighting for the return of a federal Old Republic pretty much inspired by the United States—thus our heroes being coded as Americans—the use of cinematic motifs from World War II movies and America’s own Revolutionary War helps make the Vietnam analogy considerably more palatable. As writer Tom Engelhardt said, “Star Wars denied the enemy a role they had monopolized for a decade—that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come they got all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s […] be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”
But how does Star Wars really portray this transference of the “burden of empire”? Let’s look at A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie; at how it starts and how it ends.
It starts with a very Wagnerian fanfare and the now-familiar Star Wars logo, a logo that, according to designer Suzy Rice, was intended to look “very fascist”.
It ends with our heroes walking down a parade straight out of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, with our proverbial wild man Chewbacca of course not even receiving a medal.
We see fascist motifs, yes, but this time they are not applied exclusively to the Galactic Empire.
They are applied both to the heroes and to the identity of the saga itself.
The Ur-Fascist Alliance
I’ve cited Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism before, as its description of what exactly makes fascism proves useful and accurate time and time again, but let’s take a look this time at how the traits of ur-fascism can apply to the good guys. Can we see a cult of tradition? Undoubtedly so: the Rebellion is all about the good old times, when the Republic—a corrupt and unequal Republic—reigned over the galaxy, and they are so obsessed with a defunct cult known as “the Jedi” that they have even adopted one of their salutations as their war cry.
What about irrationalism, another trait that Umberto Eco finds in all fascist regimes? As sci-fi writer and noted anarchist Michael Moorcock said in his famous 1977 essay Starship Stormtroopers, the Force can be accessed only by eschewing a rational approach and trusting one’s instincts, so yes, completely. And related to this, do our heroes value action over reflection? Indeed they do: as wise master Yoda says, “do or do not, there is no try.” Is disagreement with the Rebellion seen as treason? Maybe not in the original movies, but the leaders of the Rebellion as portrayed in Rogue One are more than happy to get Galen Erso—a former ally—killed not for any crimes but for any future actions he might do. Is there a xenophobic core to the Alliance? While the Rebellion doesn’t seem as overtly racist as the Empire is (or was, or ought to be, but we’ve had that discussion before) much criticism has been levied at how homogeneously white and male the Rebellion is still portrayed.
We can continue down Eco’s list. Does the Rebellion derive its strength mostly from the middle classes? That’s harder to tell, as the saga doesn’t really show us how the galactic classes are related to each other, but at least we can see that the Rebellion is led by Imperial Senate members and monarchists, and they sure seem to see the lower classes of the galaxy—relegated to places like the Mos Eisley cantina or movements like Saw Gerrera’s populist revolution—with a certain degree of mistrust and disdain (that Mon Mothma side-eye!). Rejection of pacifism? Why, that’s the message of Rogue One: that war is inevitable. What about a cult of heroic narratives? Boy. Oh boy.
I could go on and on, but this should be enough to prove that we can seriously make an argument that the Rebellion, if not as clearly fascist as the Empire, could be seen as just another side of the same coin. Do I actually think that the Rebellion is fascist? No, I don’t: if anything, the Rebellion has never been described with enough detail to tell us what kind of political agenda motivates it beyond the restoration of the Republic (although author Chuck Wendig has described Mon Mothma as politically centrist and Saw Gerrera pretty much fits the radical leftist archetype), but this vagueness when it comes to defining Rebel politics, this political tabula rasa that the movies offer us, makes this point of view—that the Alliance is nothing but a crypto-fascist organization—a plausible one and thus seems to discredit any supposed anti-fascist message. If we give credence to this new point of view, even as a simple thought experiment, it would seem that there’s no way that Star Wars, so mired in fascist allegory, could be against fascism except as a matter of who gets to be in control: it’s telling the story of two different brands of authoritarianism, two highly hierarchical organizations duking it out for control of the galaxy—indeed, my friend and ETE collaborator Jay Shah relishes in telling anyone that will listen that the old RPG books gave Mon Mothma the very Maoist title of “Leader Mothma”.
And why not? After all, duality is a central part of the Star Wars myth. As Leia Organa said in the often-reviled novel Children of the Jedi, “the Force is not the only thing with a light and a dark side”. The Rebellion and the Empire, the Resistance and the First Order, could easily be considered two sides of the same coin. The heavily-armed and well-funded Rebellion, not a true state yet not just a guerrilla force; the state-sponsored Resistance, so uncomfortably similar to right-wing death squads like the Nicaraguan Contras. It works.
The fascist with a thousand faces
At this point it’s almost a trope to talk about how Star Wars was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Something that has also become a trope? To affirm that the Campbellian monomyth is pretty much an ur-fascist narrative template, a template that has been used by the ruling class through human history to extol the superiority of tyrants over the masses they lorded over. Leftist philosopher and political writer Sam Kriss, in his very thought-provoking essay Smash The Force, has straight up called the monomyth a distillation of the “syncretic cultural milkshake” that Eco notes as a prerrequisite for fascism (Kriss’ essay is, by the way, where I first learned of Campbell’s apparent racism and antisemitism.) Let’s not forget that acceptance of this monomyth is not universal, not even close, and that it’s been criticized by anthropologists, historians, and folklore experts for being Eurocentric, for promoting a messianic and authoritarian vision of what the best way to control a society is, and, well, for being just plain untrue.
Still, we can’t deny that the original trilogy willingly follows the Campbellian template, and that that’s how it ends up being the story of a young white man becoming a Nietzschean übermensch by claiming his—of course—inherited powers. This right to power is passed through blood — midi-chlorian rich blood, father to son. It’s a story that ends up being uncomfortably close to the Nazi heroic ideal: the original movie depicts, to quote Moorcock’s essay again, “quasi-children, fighting for a paternalistic authority, [who] win through in the end and stand bashfully before the princess while medals are placed around their necks.”
The prequel trilogy, which I have praised for its subtle anti-bellicism before, doesn’t fare much better if we look at its two sides through this new lens. The Clone Wars are a manufactured conflict that is fought exclusively for the interests of dark monastic cults and capitalist juggernauts. The common man doesn’t even need to fight in the Clone Wars because the elites, the Force-strong demigods that actually rule the galaxy, have created their own myrmidons of metal and cloned flesh. The galactic population is limited to feeling passivity and awe in a war reduced to mere spectacle — and of course to dying off-screen as collateral damage. War is presented as unequivocally wrong — yet the sides in conflict are even more corrupt and tyrannical than the ones seen in the original trilogy. The prequels drop all pretenses and should be praised for this sincerity: the Jedi Knights that Luke revered in the first trilogy are shown as politically powerful, unmistakeably aristocratic, completely unaccountable, and apparently more than willing to remove a democratically-elected leader from power over differences of faith (what are Jedi and Sith if not two different cults of one single religion?). Look at how casually the Jedi discuss the fate of the whole galaxy from high atop their tall spires! Look at how Darth Sidious and Darth Maul do exactly the same thing! The clones marching by the Jedi’s side wear the famous white of the future fascistic enforcer, perhaps because that’s what they always have been. And this portrayal is not accidental.
Iden Versio and homegrown fascism
But why would Star Wars focus that much on the multiple faces of fascism? Is Michael Moorcock right when he says that Star Wars unconsciously extends a dangerous fascist message? Is Matt Miller right when he says that anti-fascism is at the core of the saga? Or is everything just a terrible application of the Rule of Cool? Fascists wear the best uniforms, after all.
Fascism is deeply ingrained into Star Wars, yes, but in my opinion this ugly component is always portrayed as a negative, be it through the Empire’s brutality or through the Jedi’s aristocratic-by-way-of-eugenics cult. I still wouldn’t dare calling Star Wars an anti-fascist fable because its internal politics are too confusing, too meandering, but likewise it’s hard to see it as just a fascist power fantasy unless it’s through the most shallow of analysis. The only thing we can affirm is that fascism is a part of Star Wars: multiple parts of it, actually.
We could be arguing about this for years — some of us certainly have been. But perhaps we should try a different approach: instead of focusing on that nostalgia that I mentioned before, we could consider that when the original movie was released, despite its retro appeal, Lucas was talking to a very contemporary audience. Star Wars has become a cultural artifact through the years but, when we look at is as a contemporary work, one clear message we can easily extract from the surprisingly messy political composition of the saga is that fascism has always been closer than we think. Maybe for all our saying that Star Wars has very clear political content that’s a lesson we have never bothered to learn.
Stephen McVeigh says in his essay The Galactic Way of Warfare, published as part of Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, & Critics, that “critics tend to opt for a simplistic view of conflict in the Star Wars universe” suggesting that “the Empire represents the communism of the Soviet Union or the Nazism of Hitler’s Germany” when “the dark truth of Lucas’s evil Empire is that it presents a version of America itself.”
That certainly is a possible way to look at it, and it’s one that I’ve been favoring. This perspective has never been as explicitly depicted as in the recent Inferno Squad — a video game tie-in novel, of all things. What Iden Versio and her cohorts do has little to do with the Nazis. This kind of clandestine operation, of black ops, that we instinctively recognize as morally repugnant when we see it on the page, could be taken straight from any season of the series 24. It’s a kind of patriotic fiction born out of post-9/11, post-Patriot Act America, where brave operatives lie, cheat and murder their way to defending the strong and lofty principles of freedom, justice, and the right to turn on our AC twelve months a year. It’s not a World War II tale. It’s not Vietnam. It’s now, it’s today, and it’s right here, and worst of all: it’s been right here for decades.
Never too late
I wasn’t kidding when I said that Star Wars and fascism have had a very complicated relationship. We know that it’s present, we recognize it when it appears as marching troops and steel-eyed officers, yet we often turn our heads the other way when we see the deeper roots it has on the saga via the Campbellian archetypes. We will probably never agree on what the political core of Star Wars is, nor on the way the merchandising juggernaut distorts and subverts it. But it’s undeniable that whatever that core might be, many of us have managed to extract a positive message from it. We’ve largely ignored this truth that Star Wars is telling us — that fascism has always been with us — but perhaps we still have time to act on it.