Andor and the Politics of Revolution

Against all expectations, the new Star Wars series Andor is one of the best depictions of revolution in recent memory. This article takes a look at the story’s historical inspirations (including the Russian Revolution); the way it reflects the current political climate of instability, creeping fascism and mass radicalization; and what it shows us about workers’ resistance and solidarity.

by | Aug 29, 2023

Andor is a breath of fresh air for the Star Wars franchise, and for television in general. A prequel to 2016’s Rogue One, the Disney+ series is unexpectedly one of the most compelling and gripping in memory. Its combination of dark, dystopian mood, wrenching suspense, and social commentary puts it in a class with Squid Game or Children of Men. Best of all, it’s one of the most thrilling and inspiring fictional portrayals of revolution in any mainstream entertainment.

Andor was created by Rogue One co-writer Tony Gilroy, whose taut screenplays for the Jason Bourne trilogy set the standard for paranoid, politically sharp suspense thrillers. Andor contains more than a little of that mood, but it’s easily the best and most politically interesting thing Gilroy has ever done.

Before we analyze the politics of Andor, it’s important to establish that, however refreshingly bold the new series is with its revolutionary tone, it is not entirely unique within the Star Wars franchise, which has always had a left-leaning undercurrent. 

Star Wars has always been political

The most fundamental thing about the narrative of the Star Wars saga is rebellion against empire. When he started writing the first Star Wars screenplay in the early 1970s, George Lucas deliberately based his fictional rebellion on the Viet Cong’s struggle against the US. He’s never disavowed that allegory; as recently as 2018 he doubled down on it. Once you know that, it’s beautifully clear: the desperate, impoverished grassroots people’s resistance to a massive, terrifying, high-tech imperial military.

Lucas and his collaborators continued that theme with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983) — the invading army and their war machines defeated by traditional weapons made of wood and stone, and by native knowledge of the forest. It’s amusing to learn that the characters considered by many to be the most annoying in the original trilogy are based on the Viet Cong.

There are other politicized elements of the original trilogy: Princess Leia’s feminism; the blatant Nazi look of the Empire’s uniforms (which is definitely interesting considering Lucas says he meant the Empire to be the United States!); the commentary on systemic racism and segregation with droids as second-class citizens; and Lucas’s introduction of a Black hero (Lando Calrissian) in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as a response to criticism that Star Wars was too white.

It’s useful to highlight these things because the eternal cry of the legions of toxic, frequently racist and sexist fanboys is that the progressive politics of newer installments represents a betrayal of Lucas’s vision. Far from it: Lucas was “woke” from the first moment he sat down at a typewriter.

It’s not that Lucas is some kind of radical. He’s a billionaire after all, and it’s an easy bet he’s much more conservative now than he used to be. But the point is that the early ’70s was a time of mass radicalization, especially driven by the movement against the Vietnam War. This shaped the politics of the New Hollywood — the ’60s and ’70s school of cinema that was marked by an explosion of experimentalism and open questioning of the establishment. Lucas’s film career was born at the height of those social and artistic movements.

Regardless of where he’s at now, it’s interesting and heartening that all these years later, Lucas remains clear about the politics of his creation, especially in light of where Andor has taken those politics.

The most fundamental thing about the narrative of the Star Wars saga is rebellion against empire. When he started writing the first Star Wars screenplay in the early 1970s, George Lucas deliberately based his fictional rebellion on the Viet Cong’s struggle against the US.

Andor depicts oppression, police brutality, torture, Indigenous resistance, and insurrection — but so did the original trilogy. Remember that scene in Star Wars (1977) in which Luke Skywalker sees the smoking skeletons of his aunt and uncle after their farm was raided by Imperial troops? It’s worth remembering that before all the Star Wars tropes were so deeply entrenched, the stormtroopers were actually frightening: fascist shock troops with dehumanizing armor that made them look like skeletons. Now they’re a cute, cuddly pop-culture joke about bad guys who can’t shoot straight.

The opening sequence of The Force Awakens (2015) took the franchise back to that original vision of the stormtroopers as a source of terror and oppression. In it, stormtroopers slaughter the inhabitants of a Resistance-sympathizing village down to the last child — surely a deliberate echo of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The Last Jedi (2017) also included anticolonial themes, especially when Rose Tico recounts the destruction of her home planet by the First Order and the burning hatred she’s always had for them. Delivered by Kelly Marie Tran, an actor whose family were Vietnamese refugees, this dialogue takes the politics of the saga full-circle.

“What needs to happen for a revolutionary to emerge”

Still, there’s no question Andor represents something new and different in the franchise, politically speaking — an escalation as it were. Lucas may have had the Vietnam War in mind when he wrote Star Wars, and that makes for extra richness in the storytelling, but when it comes down to it, it’s still a space opera for families. Kids aren’t really supposed to be thinking about Vietnam when they watch it.

But with Andor, the politics are front and center, and the tone has completely shifted towards the grimmer, edgier atmosphere of war movies, spy thrillers and prison dramas. There are no references to the Jedi, the Force, or any other mystical elements of the saga; instead the focus of the plot is on the entrenchment of fascism in the Empire; and on the nascent Rebellion’s revolutionary organization, espionage and armed insurrection.

Furthermore, it’s clearly meant to refer to our world. All science fiction and fantasy is about our world; this is not an earthshaking revelation. But Andor does this with unusual directness. If you’re not thinking about real-life fascism, police violence, mass incarceration, and Indigenous and anticolonial resistance when you watch it, you’re not paying enough attention. There are unmistakable allusions to historical revolutions and to uprisings in Palestine, Ireland and elsewhere. The dialogue echoes real-life revolutionary theory — some of it verges on actual Marxism.

To be clear, Disney is a capitalist media conglomerate, and Andor is just another one of its products. To whatever degree it promotes revolutionary ideas, it does so incidentally. Showrunner Gilroy and his collaborators most likely didn’t have a specific radical agenda in mind; from the evidence, Gilroy is a smart writer who makes use of history and current events to lend his creations texture and weight. One gets a sense of that when he talks about why he took on the project:

I look at it and go, my God, this is about the making of a revolution. This is about the history of a revolution. This is a five-year period that leads to this titanic thing. My God, what an incredibly fascinating tapestry to pull together, if you could find a way into this that they would let you make.

Perhaps not many other Hollywood screenwriters refer directly to the Russian Revolution the way Gilroy does, but that doesn’t make Andor a radical cinematic text compared to, for example, The Battle of Algiers.

Still, Andor is without question a reflection of the current political climate, and an exciting one at that. We are living in an era of permanent crisis, epidemic frustration with the system, and burgeoning radicalization, especially on the part of young people. The reason we see, for the first time, a serious approach to the politics of resistance in this Star Wars series is that there is a large and growing audience hungry for those ideas.

Gilroy and the cast have been explicit about this in interviews. “It’s quite relevant today,” star Diego Luna says, “to tell the story of what needs to happen for a revolutionary to emerge.” Explaining why he insisted Cassian Andor be written as a refugee, Luna says: “The story of a refugee is a story that is very pertinent to the world and where we find it.” Co-star Fiona Shaw, who plays Cassian’s adoptive mother Maarva Andor, agrees: “Our world is exploding in different places right now, people’s rights are disappearing, and Andor reflects that.”

It’s very interesting for the cast and crew of a Star Wars production to be talking about revolution on their publicity rounds. It’s a fascinating barometer of the times.

And because it’s set in a galaxy far, far away, they can show violent insurgency as a good thing, and get away with it. Compare Black Panther, in which the militant revolutionary, whose ire against colonialism and imperialism is perfectly justified, has to be the bad guy. In Andor, the fact that the protagonist is willing to kill is described as a virtue.

Against the Great Jedi Theory of history

The character of Cassian Andor obviously figures prominently in the series — it’s named for him, after all. Andor is an extremely compelling and relatable character and Luna is fabulous in the role, especially in bringing out the trauma and humanity beneath his unsmiling mask of fatigue and detachment.

But there’s also a certain decentering: Andor may be the protagonist, but within the proto-rebellion he’s just a roleplayer. The patchwork narrative, which puts a lot of emphasis on other characters in the rebel movement, has political significance: it reflects the collective nature of struggle.

All science fiction and fantasy is about our world; this is not an earthshaking revelation. But Andor does this with unusual directness. If you’re not thinking about real-life fascism, police violence, mass incarceration, and Indigenous and anticolonial resistance when you watch it, you’re not paying enough attention.

This is the opposite of the usual case in Star Wars, with its focus on the mystical heritage and destiny of heroes like Luke Skywalker. Andor has no time for the Great Jedi Theory of history. For example, Karis Nemik, the eccentric rebel and revolutionary theorist, only appears in three episodes, and only gets a few lines of dialogue. But his character is of central importance to the entire story because he is the author of the manifesto that changes Andor’s life and, it is implied, eventually unites the movement. “The day will come when all these skirmishes and battles, these moments of defiance, will have flooded the banks of the Empire’s authority and then there will be one too many. One single thing will break the siege. Remember this.”

Nemik convincingly embodies those historical epochs when intellectuals take up arms to fight, as they did in Russia in 1917 or in the Spanish Civil War. As Andy Cunningham says in his review for rs21, Nemik’s manifesto “has the same immediacy and cordite smell as Marx and Engels’s more famous inspiration.”

Underscoring this emphasis on roleplaying instead of heroism, Luthen Rael (Stellen Skarsgård), the covert rebel leader who oversees a network of spies and militants in different corners of the galaxy, delivers a stunning monologue about the peace and happiness sacrificed by revolutionaries: “I burn my decency for someone else’s future. I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see.”

There are dozens of other characters we get to know briefly and who all contribute something to the movement.

The same principle applies to the Imperial forces here: there is no black-helmeted dark lord to be the face of evil; the Emperor is only mentioned in passing. The villains are dozens of bureaucrats and functionaries who sit around gleaming conference tables, talking in reasonable tones and making genocidal decisions they believe will promote peace and safety for all. It’s a much more realistic view of how imperialism and mass murder actually happen in our world, whether it’s the Nazi war machine or the US’s invasion of Iraq.

The main villain of the story is Deedra Meero (Denise Gough), an ambitious supervisor in the Imperial Security Bureau (the Gestapo, as it were, or the CIA, take your pick) who uses sophisticated data-crunching to hunt the rebels. Somehow she inspires our sympathy at first, before we see the terrible cruelty she is capable of, reminding us that it takes ordinary people to do evil just as it does to fight for good. In his political analysis of the series at Left Voice, Marxist historian Doug Greene writes,

Meero is a far more terrifying antagonist than Darth Vader, since she has no Force powers, but is a regular human being who truly believes in fascism and uses her ruthless skill to enforce Imperial rule… Meero also shows the hollowness of cheering an ambitious ‘girl boss’ simply based on their gender.

Meanwhile the pathetic Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) represents, as both Greene and Cunningham argue, “the exasperated petty-bourgeois” — the ordinary bureaucrats, small business owners, and other members of the middle classes who historically tend to “throw their lot in with imperial order” to protect their own interests when fascists consolidate power. They are the mundane role players who make fascism possible.

The biggest difference between Andor and the rest of the saga, that there are no Jedi, is an important one politically and socially speaking. As beloved as the Jedi are in pop culture, the fact is they are objectively terrible: an elitist, anti-democratic cult of warrior-monks who act like galactic cops with no oversight. Furthermore, as this video by Pop Culture Detective argues, the philosophy of the Jedi order is based on appalling principles of masculinity and detachment from emotion.

Another reason Andor leaves the Jedi out is so it can leave the Force out. A mystical, all-enveloping supernatural power has no place in a more realistic story about a people’s revolution. This brings the franchise closer than ever to a materialistic view of the universe — the realization that our material conditions are the cause of our social conditions, and that material struggle is the only way to improve those conditions, the only way to change the world (or the galaxy). Not morality, not individual self-improvement, and not anything mystical or external to the physical world.

Andor is about our world and the problems and injustices we face for real. For it to really resonate as a story about revolution is has to be about the solutions to those problems that humans can come up with ourselves, by working together.

The Imperial state and revolution

You wouldn’t have much fun trying to separate Andor from its politics; nearly every aspect of the story has a political dimension, and the details are often quite specific. When Andor flees his adopted home planet of Ferrix after a botched Corporate Security raid, he joins a rebel mission to rob the Imperial payroll on Aldhani; the mission is directly inspired by a 1907 Bolshevik bank robbery led by Joseph Stalin (the only good Stalin ever did in this world!). As Greene points out, even the hats worn by the militants are a visual reference to Red Army-issued headgear, and their blasters resemble AK-47s.

When Andor again flees, he ends up in a dystopian Imperial prison that is comparable to Squid Game in its extensive commentary on mass incarceration and labor. Finally the series climaxes with a funeral that becomes a protest that becomes an uprising, which is strongly suggestive of the Palestinian intifada.

The police stop-and-search that results in Andor’s imprisonment is a queasy reminder of the fates of George Floyd, Eric Garner and others — right down to the police droid’s use of a chokehold on him. The various police forces (Imperial, Corpo, and assorted others) resemble real-life police in their look and behavior, one of the series’s most blatant commentaries on our world. But it’s also worth noting that real-life police have become more and more like stormtroopers in the last 40 years in terms of militarization, intimidating body armor and brutal tactics.

The villains are dozens of bureaucrats and functionaries who sit around gleaming conference tables, talking in reasonable tones and making genocidal decisions they believe will promote peace and safety for all. It’s a much more realistic view of how imperialism and mass murder actually happen in our world, whether it’s the Nazi war machine or the US’s invasion of Iraq.

When the citizens of Ferrix are alerted to Corpo and Imperial raids, they bang on metal cans, pipes and bells to raise the alarm throughout the city — a plain reference to civilian support for the IRA in Belfast.

The colonization or outright genocide of native or Indigenous peoples around the galaxy is a running theme in Andor, and it’s clear that it’s all about Imperial control of their land and resources. The raid on Aldhani is set against the backdrop of the Empire’s forced displacement of the planet’s Indigenous people, the Dhani. Andor’s backstory includes the total destruction of his home world of Kenari, along with his people’s Indigenous way of life, by an Imperial mining disaster. This could refer to historical disasters from Bhopal to Chernobyl, but also to the ongoing pillaging of Indigenous land all over the world by mining capitalists.

Cassian’s adoptive father, Clem Andor (Gary Beadle), was a political dissident who was publicly executed by stormtroopers when Cassian was thirteen. This parallels the history of Vladimir Lenin, who saw his older brother hung for attempting to assassinate the Tsar when he was a teenager.

Here’s Gilroy talking more about how the Russian Revolution influenced his vision:

The Russian revolution, the 30 years [leading] up to it, the amount of infighting and the number of groups and the amount of people who end up hating each other more than they even hate the Tsar, and the difficulties that they have in organizing and what Lenin does to pull them together or slap them into shape, all of that. I mean, that’s just fascinating. We’re going to get to do all of that.

This infighting is outlined in the scene between Rael and competing rebel insurrectionary Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) — who is clearly based on Che Guevara, down to his name. Gerrera disparages the many other factions of rebels (“Sectorists. Human cultists. Galaxy partitionists. They’re lost! All of them, lost!”) and states that he is the only one with “clarity of purpose.” Rael tells him, “Whatever our final version of success looks like, there’s no chance any of us can make it real on our own.”

Rael’s concerns are echoed by Nemik’s manifesto: “Random acts of insurrection are occurring constantly throughout the galaxy. There are whole armies, battalions that have no idea that they’ve already enlisted in the cause.”

It’s a nicely textured and believable view of rebellion — but Greene’s points about the rebels’ fatal lack of a coherent revolutionary program are worth noting. As he argues, the politics of the underground movement seem to be an uncomfortable mix of ideologies, from Gerrera’s anarchism to Rael’s belief that guerilla action will free the masses — a kind of substitutionism that should be rejected by Marxists. Nemik’s manifesto says, “Freedom is a pure idea,” but as Greene points out, “real-life revolutionaries have understood that consciousness does not just appear on its own. An organization needs a scientific program and to disseminate it amongst the oppressed.” 

Lacking this revolutionary ideology (in other words lacking Marxism, or whatever the Star Wars galaxy’s equivalent of Marxism would be!), the rebels inevitably cede ideological leadership to bourgeois liberals, led by rebel senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), and set themselves up for an incomplete revolution and future failure.

Analyzing these disappointing tendencies in the politics of the protagonists only affirms how substantial and convincing Andor is in depicting this galactic society and its conflicts. Plenty of real-life revolutionaries have made these same mistakes!

Galactic workers’ resistance

The focus on labor in Andor is fundamental to its social commentary. Much more than most previous Star Wars installments, the depiction of the galaxy here actually features an economy and workers.

There’s a funny bit in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1995) in which Randal points out that there must have been thousands of workers who died when the new Death Star was blown up by the Rebels in Return of the Jedi — “plumbers, aluminum siders, roofers.” Setting aside the fact that Randal seems to focus mainly on petit-bourgeois contractors rather than proletarian wage workers, this was so memorable because no one had ever raised the issue of who actually does the work in the Star Wars galaxy before.

The Corporate Zone shown in the first episode of Andor illustrates the Empire’s relationship with the capitalist class of the galaxy. Rather than being a totalitarian state that exercises tyranny for its own sake (an “amorphous evil,” as Greene describes this view), the suggestion here is that the Empire actually exists to protect capitalists and their economy — which is precisely the nature of fascism in the real world.

The tension between Corpo versus Imperial control of Ferrix after the disastrous Corpo raid shows how the capitalist state under neoliberalism is content to be hands-off and allow extensive privatization — at least until too much instability means they have to exert more direct control.

So it’s the role of the Imperial state to wage war, to consolidate power over land and resources, and to brutalize workers and dissidents, all on behalf of capital. But capital is allowed a great deal of free reign and even a measure of private power, which is brutal and authoritarian in its own right. This is a very realistic likeness of the current neoliberal order worldwide.

Rather than being a totalitarian state that exercises tyranny for its own sake, the suggestion here is that the Empire actually exists to protect capitalists and their economy — which is precisely the nature of fascism in the real world.

Contending with these forces of fascism and privatization are the ones who do the work. The working class is shown extensively on Ferrix, a “junk planet” with massive scrapyards and metal recycling operations. Workers on Ferrix may be subjugated by the Empire and their corporate overlords, but they haven’t been bowed ideologically; the mood on the planet is one of settled resentment and simmering unrest. When Corpos raid Ferrix to arrest Andor, workers help raise the alarm and also sabotage the Corpos’ ship. The climactic funeral of Maarva Andor effectively becomes a general strike, as workers down their tools and amass in tribute to a beloved dissident.

The episodes set in the prison factory on Narkina 5 are much more explicitly about labor, to the point that they function as a parable about the hopelessness of life under capitalism and the need for workers to join together to revolt. As Greene puts it, these episodes provide the show’s “clearest example of a collective revolutionary hero.” It’s probably the first time the franchise has ever portrayed collective action by workers so extensively.

Though the action during the prison riot itself is terrific, even more memorable is Andor’s efforts to win his fellow prisoners over to the need to organize, particularly the gruff foreman Kino Loy (Serkis) who keeps his floor in line as a matter of survival and scorns hope in resistance. At one point in his desperate attempts to win Loy over, Andor very nearly approaches Marxism when he tells him, “We’re cheaper than droids and easier to replace.”

Loy finally comes around, and during the riot, he gets on the facility’s intercom, making a rousing speech to inspire his fellow prisoners to stop working and revolt. “If we can fight half as hard as we’ve been working, we will be home in no time. One way out!” It feels very much like he’s talking to us and saying, “One solution, revolution!”

Maarva Andor’s posthumous monologue, delivered via prerecorded hologram during her funeral, is just as inspiring. In it, she addresses the complacency that’s natural for anyone to feel when living in an unjust system: “We’ve been sleeping. We’ve had each other, and Ferrix, our work, our days. We had each other and they left us alone.” She mentions work more than once, and makes it clear that the Empire couldn’t function without workers: “We kept their engine churning.” Then she urges her people to set that complacency aside: “If I could do it again, I’d wake up early and be fighting those bastards from the start! Fight the Empire!”

Again, with all that’s going on in the world, from the epidemic of police violence to the climate apocalypse, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is for our benefit.

One way out

That we already know Cassian Andor is going to die fighting for the cause in a few years (at the end of Rogue One) paints a glaze of tragedy over everything, but somehow it’s liberating too. It disposes of the possibility of a happy ending right from the start, and lets us focus on the value of what Andor can contribute to the movement in the short time he has left. It’s another lesson for us.

We shouldn’t go too far in suggesting a TV show — especially one made by Disney — could change people’s politics or persuade them to mobilize. But this one is such a vivid, powerful, unapologetic portrait of revolution, packed with so much savvy detail and historical knowledge, one wonders if it could actually inspire people, in the same way The Hunger Games has.

Time will tell, but in the meantime, Andor has certainly set a new bar for intelligence, visceral power and social relevance in franchise entertainment, and it’s hard to imagine anyone topping it anytime soon.

This is a revised version of an article originally published at Under the Paving Stones.

Jim Poe
(he/him) is a member of Firebrand and an at-large member of Denver Communists based in Sydney, Australia. Read more from Jim on his blog.
Categories: articles, reviews

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