Spoilers for the His Dark Materials books and show. Some light spoilers for The Secret Commonwealth.
Quite early on in the His Dark Materials books, it becomes evident that Lyra’s world is an unjust one. The class differences in the story are stark, which becomes clear from the start when Lyra is running through Jordan College and Oxford as a whole, meeting different people. And then children in the lower classes start disappearing… As I’ve discussed before, the way lower-class children are targeted by the Magisterium shows both a disregard for the lives of those children and a willingness to control the (sexuality of the) lower classes and marginalised groups in general. Much of this cruelty and injustice is justified by religion, and the Magisterium has an iron grip on society. Then Asriel comes along, threatening the Magisterium’s rule and getting ready to attack and dethrone God himself. Asriel starts his revolution, gathering forces from all over the worlds to fight tyranny and injustice, to gain freedom.
As I was watching the third season of the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials recently, I couldn’t help but think about how parts of Asriel’s rhetoric reminded me of other revolutionary movements. Specifically, parts of his revolutionary ideals reminded me of Marxist theory. Now, Karl Marx is of course seen as many as a political figure, the father of Marxism and the inspiration of both Socialists and Communists worldwide. But he was also an academic and is often considered one of the founding fathers of sociology. He wrote theoretical texts, analysing society and trying to understand how unjust structures were upheld. That’s Marxist theory. It’s through that lens I want to look at Asriel’s revolution, to see what is similar but also what is different to Marxist theory. In that way, I hope to examine both the strengths and flaws of Asriel’s revolution as well.
Asriel’s revolution- ideology and goals
To begin, I thought it best to look at what we know about Asriel’s revolution, its ideology, and its goals. Here, I’ll look at both the book and the show because while there are some differences between the two, I think Asriel’s plot and motivations are mostly similar. The two media together create a clearer and fuller picture of him and his revolution. In the books, one of the clearest explanations of the revolution and its goals comes from Ugunwe as he talks to Mrs Coulter about it. Ugunwe explains that the Authority has been oppressing angels and humans since he came into being, and that he is not the creator, but that this has only been a myth meant to give him more power and discourage rebellions. He continues to say:
“It shocked some of us too to learn that the Authority is not the creator. There may have been a creator, or there may not: we don’t know. All we know is that some point the Authority took charge, and since then, angels have rebelled, and human beings have struggled against him too. This is the last rebellion. Never before have humans and angels, and beings from all the worlds, made a common cause. This is the greatest force ever assembled. But it may still not be enough. We shall see.”
“But what does Lord Asriel intend? What is this world, and why has he led us here?”
“He led us here because this world is empty. Empty of conscious life that is. We are not colonialists, Mrs Coulter. We haven’t come to conquer, but to build. (…) Mrs Coulter, I am a king, but it is my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The kingdom of heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. We intend to be free citizens of the republic of heaven.”(Pullman 2011, 210-211)
We learn some key things from this. One is that the Authority took charge and has been oppressing other beings ever since. Another is that Asriel’s revolution seeks to set up a republic and that there in this republic will exist fewer (if any) hierarchies. No kings, no bishops, no priests. Fewer class structures if you will. It is also very noteworthy that they point out that they are not colonisers, in my opinion (I’ll come back to this). This quote is one of the very few mentions of what life in the republic of heaven would be like, besides general talk about a place with more freedom. In the show, the fact that Asriel fights for freedom of thought and expression is focused on a lot. We hear it both from Asriel himself:
“This is but one world among many. In every single one of them, the same thing. Children, mutilated. Science, learning, criminalized, and whole civilizations covering under the sky.”(His Dark Materials 2022a, 42:03-42:13)
And from the Authority’s side, as the angel Alarbus tells Asriel what Metatron wants:
“The end to this! Dust is not for you to understand. Conscious beings have become dangerously independent. He will lead a permanent inquisition into every world, on every being. Until they understand complete obedience. And with it, we will bring an end to freedom of thought and will, and control Dust once and for all.”(His Dark Materials 2022b, 19:02-19:28)
The show do also seems to imply that there would be more equality in the republic of heaven, similar to the books. One such instance is in Asriel’s big speech at the end of season 2:
“My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in His name. Those who seek to divide in order to control. And who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right rather than care and need. I fight for freedom of knowledge, and in place of deceit, intolerance and prejudice… I fight for the possibilities of understanding truce and acceptance…”(His Dark Materials 2022, 41:00-41:35)
This definitely implies that Asriel wants to build a world that is based more on care and compassion, not power and hierarchy. There’s less of this explicitly in season three. And it’s not really focused on how this more equal society would be achieved. Something that is noteworthy, however, is how Mrs Coulter continually criticises the idea that Asriel could create equality. She says it to his face in episode 3:
“They worship you, don’t they? Ogunwe, the witch, the insect. Will they bow, do you think, when you finally put yourself on the throne?”
“I’m not putting myself on a throne, woman, I’m trying to defeat one.”
“You know, it fascinates me. How enamoured you are with your own power that you’ve come to embody the very thing you most despise.”(His Dark Materials 2022c, 35:05-35:22)
She brings up it again later to Ugunwe when he says he can’t make a decision without council approval:
“Oh come on. Let’s not pretend. The only vote that counts around here is Asriel’s and he acts purely in his own interests. You should do the same.”(His Dark Materials 2022d, 21:59-22:12)
Now, Mrs Coulter isn’t always a reliable narrator. She’s often trying to manipulate circumstances and people. But she’s not necessarily wrong here, Asriel is the one in charge. It’s his revoulution. And it’s not clear if his republic would truly lead to equality. I’ll unpack that more later, but before moving on I want to add one more quote about how Asriel’s actions impact other groups. This one from when Asriel meets up with Iorek, on a melting Svalbard:
“I’m greatly saddened to see the damage my work has done to your land.”
“My bears starve because you blew a hole in the sky!”(His Dark Materials 2022d, 24:36-25:44)
As I have said before, both regarding the show and books, Asriel’s man-made climate change has consequences.
Another very prominent part of Asriel’s ideology and politics is of course how he criticises the way religion is used to oppress people. He continually brings up how religious doctrine is used to control people and push down freedom of thought. One key aspect of this is how religious institutions (and the Authority) use the threat of hell and the promise of heaven to control people. As one of the people Lyra and Will meet in the land of the dead puts it:
“When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to heaven. And they said that heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us, and we never knew. Because the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom for ever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep or rest or peace.”(Pullman 2011, 320)
When Lyra and Will set the dead free, they help weaken the Authority’s control. Xaphania says so outright in the show, that after Lyra and Will destroyed “Metatron’s purgatory”, his control is weakened. She seems to mean this literally, that he is somehow physically weaker now, but it’s true in more senses than that. Asriel points out as much in his big war speech:
”Some of us will die today. The Authority wants you to be afraid of that. And why not? We are all of us here mortal. Whether our lifespans are three or 300 years, our time down here in the Earth is finite. So we cower. We cower under the tyranny of an authority who calls himself Creator… Who tells us that hell awaits those who disobey him. And that paradise exists only for those who obey. This is a lie. A lie that has prevented us from living our lives to the utmost. Today is our chance. It is our chance to tell him that our lives are beautiful and precious, and that we should be allowed to experience all they have to offer without the fear of retribution. Because if we don’t fight until the end, we will lose everything. So, yes, today, some of you will die. But thanks to my daughter… thanks to Lyra… We need no longer fear that fate. For from today, death is no longer an ending, but instead a journey back into life. So, from today, the Authority has no power over us. Today, life confronts death, and our light shines through the darkness. Today we will tell him that our children shall experience paradise, but they will know it down here, in the earth. Today, we are free!(His Dark Materials 2022e, 10:42-12:42)
So, Asriel fights his war. He and Mrs Coulter kill Metatron. Lyra and Will accidentally kill the Authority, and then they Fall. But as anyone who has read The Secret Commonwealth knows, this isn’t the end of oppression. Because as John Parry says, we can’t flee to another world and build a perfect society there:
“And this is the reason for all those things: your deamon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. (…) Lord Asriel’s great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”(Pullman 2011, 364)
So, having looked at the goals and some of the results of Asriel’s revolution, let’s look at revolutionary theory.
A basic tenant of Marxist theory is that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx & Engels 1848) This struggle is between the “haves” and “have-nots”, those controlling the means of production and those who do not. By means of production, Marx and Engels mean for instance factories, companies, land, etc. Those controlling the means of production in modern society are capitalists, while those selling their labour to the capitalists are the proletariat. In such a system, capitalists hold power over the proletariat. I won’t go further into specifics in Marxist economic theory here, but instead, I want to focus on how Marx theorised such unequal systems are upheld. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.(Marx 1859)
This is a complex way of saying that the modes of production, and relations of production, determine how we think and understand the world. If we live in a capitalist society, our political, scientific, and religious philosophies etc will be based on such a system. Marx further argues that the dominant “ideas” (political ideology, scientific thought, legal writings, religious doctrine, etc) of an era will support the dominant class:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that, thereby generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one ruling class one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. (…) For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interests of all the members through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interests of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.(Marx & Engels 1845)
That is to say, the ruling class makes use of ideas (philosophy etc) to uphold their rule. To make the status quo seem natural, the only reasonable way for things to be. One way of looking at this is through the concepts of “superstructure” and “base”. The base is the means of production and relations of production, the material reality, while the superstructure is the ideas on top of it. One way of illustrating this is:
Marx would argue that the base is dominant because the superstructure exists because of it. There is a need for ideology to justify the relations of production and its injustices.
One type of ideology that I think is worth looking closer at is religion. One of Marx’s most famous quotes is probably that religion is “the opium of the people,” but that quote is seldom shared in context. So here is the context:
“The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”(Marx 1844)
So, what Marx really says is that religion is often something people turn to in order to seek solace in a dark and harsh world. And this is then used by those in power in order to stay in power. If you can have people striving for happiness in the afterlife, you don’t have to provide for them materially in this life. So what Marx is really saying is that he wants to change the conditions where people need to turn to religion as their solace. What he is critical of is people using religion to not change material conditions. Another way of putting this comes from Swedish-American labour activist (and Marxist) and songwriter Joe Hill in his classic protest song “Long Haired Preachers”:
Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (…)
Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump and they shout
”Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
”He will cure all diseases today.” (…)
If you fight hard for children and wife,(Joe Hill 1911)
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.
This is the core of the Marxist critique of religion, that it is used by those in power to uphold injustices. While I don’t have the space to go into that right here, it should still be noted that many have combined Marxism and religion, for instance in Liberation Theology. But in those cases, religion (specifically Christianity) is used as an idea/philosophy specifically to challenge the dominating ideas and structures.
Having described some Marxist theory, it is worth noting that what makes Marx (and Engels) dissimilar from many other intellectual thinkers of the time is that they were not just content to describe society, they also wanted to change it. This is of course clearest in Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx & Engels 1848). Marx and Engels hoped that the proletariat could overthrow the capitalist class and create a more equal world, where the workers controlled the means of production and where society was governed by the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (Marx 1875) A state actually governed by those ideals has not (yet) existed.
Before moving on, I would like to touch on how Marxist thought has been developed both within academia and without, specifically relating to other power structures such as race and gender. While both Marx and Engels were critical of colonialism, slavery, and women’s place in society (all of this is brought up in Manifesto of the Communist Party), this wasn’t their focus. Although, it should be mentioned that Engels wrote Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State where he discusses the oppression of women (Engels 1884). Still, many Marxist feminists would later expand upon how the oppression of women is inextricable from class oppression and how both oppressions must be fought simultaneously (eg. Mitchell 1966). Similarly, others have pointed out how deeply intertwined oppressions based on patriarchy, heteronormativity, racialisation, and colonialism are with class oppression (eg. Bannerji 2020; Davis 2020). That is to say, even as Marxist theory is still used today and is the foundation for a lot of theoretical work, many would argue that it needs to be seen as just that, a foundation that other theoretical perspectives (feminism, post-colonialism, critical race theory etc) are added onto. Otherwise, the true inequality of society cannot be understood, and those inequalities cannot be addressed and changed.
Looking at Asriel’s revolution from a Marxist lens, some similarities immediately jump out. The main is the criticism of religion, and how it’s used to control the people. As stated both in the show and the books, the Authority and its institutions (like the Magisterium) uphold their power by threatening the people with hell and by promising them heaven. If people follow the rules set out, if they obey, and if they don’t question the power structures, they’ll get into heaven. If you try to fight for something better in life, you’re doomed to hell. In this way, power structures are upheld. As I explained above, Marx explains the power structures and injustices of our world in the same way. Those in power use “ideas” (such as philosophy, religion, science, etc) to justify the status quo and make it seem the only possible way for the world to work. Religion often plays a specific role, with certain doctrines arguing that you need to work hard and be obedient in life to then experience paradise after death.
Asriel challenges this view, arguing that from now on “our children shall experience paradise, but they will know it down here, in the earth.” People will no longer need to wait for the afterlife to experience happiness and pleasure, they will experience it in life. This approach allows people to fight for equality and justice in their society, in this life.
In general, Asriel wants a freer world. One where more ideas can exist than those of the ruling class. As mentioned above, he’s keenly aware of how ideas, philosophy, religion, etc are used to oppress people. But while he seems to want a more equal world, one based on “care and need” instead of privilege and divine right and one without bishops and kings, it’s still unclear what this would mean exactly. We can assume some more equality in a republic as opposed to a kingdom, and throughout the series, we have seen that less religious dogma seems to be good for women’s equality for instance (this is also brought up in the show, where teenage girls from Ugunwe’s world mention that they can have an actual life in resistance). But still, Asriel often seems to be focused on the bigger picture, and the superstructure rather than the base. While this makes sense in the story, you have to defeat Metatron if you want the chance to do anything else, it also leads to the flaws in his revolution. In the books, Ugunwe says that they are not colonisers, and that’s why they’ve set up camp in an empty world. But Asriel is still very willing to sacrifice people to win his war, whether they be innocent kitchen boys, witches, or the homeland of the pansarbjørne. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in these series (books and show) we see a tendency from both Asriel and the Magisterium to be more willing to sacrifice people who are from lower classes or ethnic minorities. This is part of the colonialism of that world. On one level, this shows how Asriel definitely isn’t a Marxist (they tend to care about the lower class and working class). But as many Black, Anti-Colonial, and Feminist Marxists have pointed out, traditional Marxism also tends to disregard many issues related to racism, colonialism, and sexism.
But in the end, even if Asriel did win against Metatron, the war wasn’t fully won. Because as John Parry tells us, we have to build the republic of heaven where we are. Which means paying attention to the base, not just the superstructure. And it means fighting the fight in every world, to achieve equality and justice everywhere. The fact that Asriel didn’t (or if we’re being a bit generous to him, didn’t have time to), means that even after attacking and dethroning God, the Magisterium remains. The consequences of that become evident in The Secret Commonwealth. It also becomes evident that defeating God doesn’t necessarily get rid of inequality based on for instance class. So, I guess the message, to paraphrase Marx, should be:
Workers in every world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!
Bannerji, Himani. 2020. “Himani Bannerji.” In Revolutionary Feminisms, edited by Brenna Bhandar & Rafeef Ziadah, 95-118. London: Verso.
Davis, Angela Y. “Angela Y. Davis.” In Revolutionary Feminisms, edited by Brenna Bhandar & Rafeef Ziadah, 203-216. London: Verso.
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Hill, Joe. 1911. “Long Haired Preachers”. Retrieved from: http://www.protestsonglyrics.net/Miscellaneous_Songs/Preacher-Slave.phtml
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His Dark Materials. 2022b. “The Break.” HBO. December 5, 2022.
His Dark Materials. 2022c. “The Intention Craft.” HBO. December 12, 2022.
His Dark Materials. 2022d. “The Abyss.” HBO. December 19, 2022.
His Dark Materials. 2022e. “The Clouded Mountain.” HBO. December 26, 2022.
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Mitchell, Juliet. 1966/2012. ”Kvinnorna: den längsta revolutionen.” [Swedish translation of “Women: The Longest Revolution”] in Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, edited by Johanna Essevald & Lisbeth Larsson, 184-193. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
Pullman, Philip. 2011. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic Childrens’ books.
Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.