Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Verso Book of Dissent": Review

Commemorating four decades of radical publishing at Verso, whose name comes from the “left” side of the page, Andrew Hsiao and Audrea Lim gather hundreds of contrarian voices “from Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad.” The currency of their effort extends their coverage past these two markers. It begins with an anonymous “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” ca. 1800 BCE. It ends with Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell’s judgement on the flotilla he boarded that challenged Israeli forces to end the Gaza blockade this past May: “I believe so strongly in solidarity as an instrument to change the world, and I believe in dialogue, but it’s the action that proves the word.”

Such activism, chanted, muttered, televised, spat, or reasoned, characterizes the tone of the rebels and protesters from four millennia. Tariq Ali’s preface admits that to “preserve a geographical and historical balance,” much had to be excised. This collection, therefore, serves more as a compendium than a book to be read straight through. The editorial effort to ensure fair representation from all over the globe does allow stodgy recitals of platforms and policies. Some leaders rallying resistance lack memorable rhetoric . Speeches by politicians and monologues from theorists drag down the livelier utterances, often spoken from jail cells or at the stake, for many of these revolutionaries died for their courage.

Familiar cries by Socrates or Marx join protesters otherwise unknown to the common reader. St. Basil of Caesaria, a bishop who gave away his own wealth in the 300s, preaches what will become a frequent plea: “If each one would take that which is sufficient for his needs, leaving what is superfluous for those in distress, no one would be rich, no one would be poor… The rich man is a thief.” Lenin a hundred pages later urges in 1917: “From each according to his ability, from each according to his needs!” 

In between radical early Christianity and later communism, the discontented rumble. Some overcome their foe: Le Loi in the 1400s inspired Ho Chi Minh: “Today it is the case of the grasshopper pitted against the elephant. But tomorrow the elephant will have its guts ripped out.” Some lose to their conqueror. In 1781, the final Inca rebel, Tupac Amaru II, spoke his last words to the general who would execute him: “There are no accomplices here but you and I. You the oppressor, and I the liberator. Both of us deserve to die.” His namesake, 2Pac, earns his own place in this anthology with 1998’s “Changes.”

Women’s rights, and those of wage-slaves and chained slaves, earn coverage as the nineteenth century arrives. Anti-colonial and working class uprisings increase, and the entries become pinpointed to rebellions, names, and manifestoes as more of the downtrodden learn how to read and write, so their recorded defiance is not left to those who will persecute them. That century’s causes of feminism and abolition combine in Sojourner Truth. In 1851, she addresses the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio: “Why children, if you have women’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear.” 

For some, less polite entreaties dominate their practical discourse. Lucy Parsons, a former Texas slave of Mexican, black, and Native American heritage, joined with her anarchist husband, who would be executed as a Haymarket riot conspirator. She went on to help start the IWW, the “Wobblies,” and her 1884 address “To Tramps” concludes: “Learn the use of explosives!”

Mother Jones speaks to striking coal miners in 1912 about the hypocrisy of the “robbing class.” How to make out of those whom workers must serve an honest nation? “You can’t be honest today. A girl goes to school, to church, and prays to Jesus. On Monday she acts like the devil when she sells to you. The whole machinery of capitalism is rotten to the core.” Social frustration turns palpable, and bloody.

Brief notes by Hsiao and Lim accompany each entry. They inform the reader of the context in which each passage was produced, and give a sentence or two about what is known of the speaker or writer. One pleasure of perusing this collection is finding a familiar author in a surprising context. For example, Helen Keller explains “Why I Became a Socialist.” She sided with the IWW, opposed WWI, and campaigned for birth control, women’s suffrage, and workers’ rights. In our generation, when “socialism” has been discredited and is used as an insult over much of the developed world, her arguments remind us of a hundred years ago, when the idea promised hope and change. Keller muses how her mooted work on the movement would be titled “Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”

What sustains so many dreamers turned fighters against the odds?  In 1925, Peruvian Marxist thinker José Carlos Mariátegui notes how the power of the revolutionary comes “not in their science; it is in their faith, their passion, their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual power. It is the power of myth.” Later theorists will struggle to generate a proletarian, organic sensibility of opposition to the bureaucrats, the bosses, the empire. They also, as Theodore Adorno and Isaac Deutscher lament, warn of the bias instilled within workers against radicalism, and the tendency for most laborers to side with their employers against those who wish to tear down the system in order to level it and start all over.

A few students and soldiers resist, as totalitarianism of the left and the right dominates much of the twentieth century. The White Rose clandestine anti-Nazi group’s fourth leaflet challenges the silent majority. “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” The editors explain that in 2006, Raed Jamar, an “anti-Iraq war blogger,” was stopped from boarding his flight until he changed a t-shirt reading in English and Arabic “We will not be silent.” Such juxtapositions enhance the relevance of the messages anthologized.  Many connections can be made by the alert reader, in between the lines.

Eduardo Galeano in 1986’s Memory of Fire retells the surrender by the Dutch of Manhattan. “New Amsterdam, the most important slave market in North America, now becomes New York; and Wall Street is named after the wall built to stop slaves from escaping.” Three centuries later, Fannie Lou Hamer confronts the Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention.  “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Lyndon Johnson derides her as “that illiterate woman.”  Hamer will later run for Congress and criticize the Vietnam War.

About half of this volume covers the past sixty years. That war, and others against imperialism, jolt dissenters to take over the streets, and perhaps to take up arms. The mainstream media enters, and those interviewed seek to be heard clearly by those who might distort their voices. Central in this coverage, radical debates between non-violence and self-defense escalate in the 1960s. Dom Hélder Cámara, a Brazilian archbishop, sums up the dilemma. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 

Guy Debord, a founder of the Situationists, in 1958, ponders how to achieve “authentic direct communication.” He craves sincerity rather than consumerism. “The point is to produce ourselves rather than the things which enslave us.” He figures that “victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it.” 

The Situationists would inspire the late Malcolm McLaren. While no punk lyrics enter this edition, musicians and poets march alongside policy makers and armed rebels. Verso also sells a spoken word and song anthology. It ranges from Langston Hughes to Mario Savio, Salvador Allende to Harold Pinter. It spans William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” and a Nicaraguan Misa Campesina

Humor is in too short supply in this earnest collection, but a wry sense of realism or release glimmers. Kurt Vonnegut sighs that there’s “no reason goodness cannot triumph over evil, so long as the angels are as organized as the mafia.” Five years later, in 1968, #9 of predictions from the Yippies proclaims “public fornication wherever and whenever there is an aroused appendage and willing aperture.”

Normally, sobriety dampens exhilaration. The stakes are often the highest imaginable. “Poem in Blood” documents the defiance of an Indochinese Communist Party guerrilla. This “rosy-cheeked woman,” tortured to death, on her cell wall wrote her final statement in her own blood. After the Communist triumph over much of Asia, Tibetan poet-blogger Woeser sits today in house arrest. In 2008, “The Fear In” shows how the society of the spectacle which Debord predicted has indeed come to pass. 

Woeser tells what she sees in Lhasa: “Where the fear is now minutely scanned by the cameras that stud avenues and alleys and offices, and every monastery and temple hall;/ All those cameras,/ Taking it all in,/ Swiveling from the outer world to peer inside your mind.” Is this the freer society imagined a half-century ago or a more Orwellian one? This decade’s contents encompass our cyber-connected, digitally accessed, endlessly monitored present-day predicament.

"For the problems that come from the barrel of the pen can only be resolved by the barrel of the pen." Liu Xiaobho, new Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chinese prisoner, argues thus; but many others in this anthology take up the barrel of a gun. This tension permeates dissent: can peaceful protest drive out violence and oppression?

This book ends with recent protests from Greece, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, China—and the Internet. It returns to these ancient lands where the eloquent peasants complained namelessly. Some protesters still share this nameless worker’s status. 

Today’s fear of speaking out contends with the necessity to speak out. Their archived dissent spans four thousand years. This edition provides a thoughtful compilation of the reactions to the privileges some possess today, alongside the injustice the dispossessed endure-- next to the pyramids of the powerful.
(Posted in shorter form to Amazon US & 10-29-10. Featured as above 11-5-10 at PopMatters: Happy Guy Fawkes day.)


AM said...

Great review. The book is now a must read

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

AM, by "the action that proves the word," you and your partner continue the good causes this book compiles.