Join Our Mailing List
Email:

Bookmark and Share


  Home > News > Additional Stories

Crashing the Party: A Review in Radical Criminology

by Irina Ceric
Radical Criminology
November 2016

Just as activists tend to take the availability of legal support for granted, so have both social movement writers and scholars tended to ignore the work of providing radical legal support, particularly the contributions of non-lawyers. In Crashing the Party, long-time activist and legal worker Kris Hermes takes on two tasks aimed at overcoming these erasures. This unique book provides what is arguably the first in-depth examination of radical legal support in North America, an analysis framed by his meticulous recounting of the mobilization against the Republican National Convention [RNC] held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2000. To tell both stories, Hermes recounts the organizing that culminated in days of creative and diverse actions against the RNC as well as the repressive police tactics deployed against the protesters, tactics which continue to serve as a blueprint for protest policing. What makes Crashing the Party distinctive, however, is its focus on the court solidarity organized by the R2K Legal Collective, a group made up of legal workers, lawyers, law students, defendants and activists. As a result, Hermes documents the emergence of jail and court solidarity and radical legal support as forms of collective action, neglected legacies of the global justice movement.


That the 2000 RNC protest was undoubtedly one of the all too brief series of mobilizations that made up what we now refer to as the global justice movement—a moment that continues to exert a hold on the imagination of the North American left, particularly as younger generations of activists (re)discover this history—is one reason to publish (and read) a book about a now 15 year old struggle. But the 2000 RNC protest was also—and remains—a unique example of radical legal organizing, one we can and should learn from in order “to preserve our shared legacy of political and legal resistance”, as Hermes argues. (8) These lessons would be even more accessible if the book’s depiction of the 2000 RNC was not so detailed. Crashing the Party is almost too ambitious, combining an exhaustive, action-by-action retelling of that summer’s resistance while also discussing many aspects related to movement history in the US more generally (e.g. histories of surveillance, infiltration, and judicial intervention in policing practice and policy—sometimes going back decades). Nonetheless, the result is a work that ought to be read by a wide audience, activists themselves as well as academics interested in social movements, policing, state repression, and critical legal studies.


Hermes’ central argument is that “[b]ecause of mistreatment on the streets and in jail, as well as the excessive charges applied to hundreds of protesters, the RNC 2000 arrestees sought vindication in the courtroom, spurring a court solidarity strategy that began with a mass refusal to accept plea bargains and a mass demand for trials.” (7) More contentiously, he contends that the tactics underlying this strategy (“activists staging political trials, overcoming charges, exposing widespread surveillance and infiltration, raising unprecedented funds for legal defense, and using media to shift public opinion”) have never been used together since. (8)

Recent examples in Ontario (the 2010 Toronto G20) and Quebec (student strikes and anti-austerity protests since 2012) suggest otherwise, as most if not all of these court solidarity tactics were used in fighting charges arising from these recent mobilizations. This oversight is at least partly due to the book’s US focus, although Canadian law collectives are included in the list of radical legal collectives compiled by Hermes.

Regardless of the uniqueness of R2K Legal’s strategy, however, Crashing the Party’s comprehensive account of radical legal support from the perspective of legal organizers is not only valuable as movement history but also provides a glimpse into the political tensions underlying activists’ interactions with law and the state. Hermes engages with issues long debated by progressive lawyers and legal scholars on the complex dynamics between legal and political activists, particularly questions of strategy, knowledge, and decision-making power that inevitably arise during interactions between legal professionals and the movements they support. The book contains many instructive, grounded stories of such interactions, not all of them pleasant or productive. The civil suits that resulted from the RNC arrests however, do illustrate a successful attempt at creating “a new way for activists (both plaintiffs and supporters) and lawyers to work together collectively” through the use of consensus decision making and extensive discussions in which everyone affected would be heard. (201)

Crashing the Party also explores key questions that anyone who has participated in direct actions will immediately recognize. For instance, how do we challenge legal support fatigue or a lack of faith in jail solidarity (suspicion that often threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy)? (232) He reminds us that it is “crucial that we assess the state’s resources, strategies, and tactics, as well as its limitations and vulnerabilities” when thinking about legal responses, offensive and defensive. The 2000 RNC protest serves as a potent example of how movements can grow and develop new capacities not despite repression, but in resistance to it, learning “ways in which we might gain collective strength against the state.” (12) As someone who has been involved in providing radical legal support for the better part of two decades, such reminders, especially coupled with Hermes’ critical yet hopeful analysis of the promise—and perils—of radical legal activism, serve as a much-needed validation. Legal support is no one’s favorite organizing role, but the work is both necessary and generative: “Arguably, it is in the realm between the legal world and the world of political organizing where, when boundaries are pushed, unexpected results can occur.” (228)

Buy Crashing the Party now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Kris Herme's page




Get your gift to where it needs to go: 2016 USPS Shipping Deadlines

To ensure package arrival within the continental U.S., please order by the below dates:

  • Standard Mail: December 14th

  • Priority Mail: December 20th

  • Priority Mail express service: December 22nd 


To ensure package arrival for International shipping please order by the below dates:

  • First-Class or Priority Mail International: December 1st 

  • Priority Mail Express International Service: December 7th 

  • Global Express Guaranteed Service: December 20th




    If you have any questions regarding these deadlines, email info@pmpress.org.




The Role of Radical Publishers: An Interview with PM Press founder Ramsey Kanaan

by Odette Sheffield
Demos Project
November 8th, 2016

dsc_0264PM Press’ Stall at the World Social Forum

At the 2016 World Social Forum in Montreal, I sat down to talk to Ramsey Kanaan, founder of PM Press. PM Press is a radical publisher based out of Oakland, California. I first met Ramsey two weeks before the World Social Forum, in Richmond, California at Soil Not Oil. I was blown away by the quality and variety of PM Press’s content, and eager to learn more about the origins and vision of the project.  

ODETTE: Would you describe PM Press as an anarchist publication?

RAMSEY: The folks who started PM were all anarchists, but there’s a range of ideas. Literature that is not explicitly, or perhaps even implicitly anarchist. I still think the ideas matter: I don’t really care about the labels, or the particular sectarian pigeonhole they’re in. It’s the utility of the ideas.

O.S.: How would you describe the works you publish?

R.K.: Well I think they run the gamut, the politics are all certainly radical, definitely left-wing. But, they’re equally likely to be independent Marxists – by independent I mean non-party political Marxists. We’re not interested in electoral politics, and we’re not interested in building “the revolutionary party”, the one big idea which will lead the masses to, you know, we’re not interested in that. We’re interested in things that will help people self-organise, so organise from below if you like. Within that, there’s a wide tradition, and vary varied tradition. That would include anarchist, Marxist, the radical end of religious folks – Catholic workers or Quakers.

O.S.: What’s the selection process like? What do you look for in the books you publish?

R.K.: Firstly, they have to be really good. It’s the quality of the work and the ideas within. So, we’re only interested in publishing radical left-wing stuff, which will hopefully make some small contribution to a better world. For example, we’re not interested in publishing escapist fantasies – we all need to escape, but that’s not the role of PM Press.

We publish all kinds of fiction, but it’s leftwing fiction. It’s a different way of conveying ideas – it’s not pure escapism. Whatever subject-matter it tackles, we want it to be through a left-wing prism. We’ve published books about sports. While it could be argued that sports are reactionary, it can also be argued that the way people organise around sports is very progressive. It’s not an either/or. We also publish music. The music we do is a way of conveying ideas.

O.S.: So for people submitting books to you, would you say you look at quality of publication and whether it’s through a left-wing prism?

R.K.: Yeah, and the other thing is the commercial aspect. It could be the best book in the world on the most important topic, but if we don’t think we can sell it, then we’re not doing anyone a favour. We’re not doing the author, the ideas or ourselves a favour if it’s going to languish. We turn down books sometimes, not because of the quality of the work but because we don’t think we can sell it.

O.S.: What sort of books lack commercial viability?

R.K.: Well you could have a very narrowly defined subject book. You could have a book about say, I don’t know, a worker’s collective in 1936 in a region of Spain. That might be the best historical investigative work ever written, and it may illuminate all kinds of things – but the chances of a wide audience reading about a very narrow piece of history are pretty slim. So that’s not about the value of the book or the importance of that story – but if there are only 200 people around the world who want to read it, it’s not commercially viable for us to print 2000 copies.

O.S.: In terms of the left-wing leanings of PM Press – what does that mean for how you organise internally? What does it mean for what your group looks like? How many people do you have?

R.K.: There are eight of us. Everyone gets paid the same. On paper, me and another chap Craig are the owners – we have 50 per cent shares in the company. We all work fairly independently, we have more or less specific job duties. So someone’s full-time job is events/tabling, another’s is production, another’s is marketing and publicity, another’s is editorial/copy-editing.

O.S.: What advice would you give to anyone setting up their own independent publication?

R.K.: I would urge everyone to think about what you want to do, why, and realistically who’s the audience? If you want to do obscure historical research, that’s actually really important, and modern technology means you can just print 200 copies – but that would be very different to if you want to reach a wide audience?

O.S.: What are your print runs like?

R.K.: We won’t print anything if we don’t think we can sell 1,500 copies. But for us, it’s not commercially viable because we’re paid – if we’re paying someone to copy edit, layout, proof it and try to sell it. That’s a different economy of scale. I’d encourage people to think carefully about what you’re doing and why, because that will tailor what you’re producing and who it will reach.

O.S.: What are your dreams for the future of PM Press?

R.K,: My ultimate dream would be that PM would be redundant, because we’ll have a massive social, political revolution.

O.S.: But won’t we want to write about it?

R.K.: Yeah, that’s true. My dreams are that we can continue to make some sort of, however modest impact. PM is also a political project, we’re trying to contribute to a “better world”, if that doesn’t sound too banal. Some of my dreams are that we continue to be effective, somewhat, in doing that.

O.S.: Do you think you’re effective in doing that?

There have been a few things we’ve done where we have seen clear cause and effect. So we published a book of writings by this Black Panther who’s been in prison for the last 40 years, called Russell Maroon Shoatz. Recently he won a court case that meant he was no longer kept in isolation, and it was cited in the court case that he was a well-known person now that he had a book of his writings published. So, that had a direct, tangible impact.

You can also see the effect of some of the ideas that, when, one of our authors become more well known, and their ideas because of the books we’ve published. I think it’s fair to say that both Silvia Federici and Selma James, went to the next level in terms of their recognition and the circulation of their ideas when we published their books.

Odette’s current favourites from PM Press

untitled

“The fight over the tar sands in North America is among the epic environmental and social justice battles of our time, and one of the first that has managed to quite explicitly marry concern for frontline communities and immediate local hazards with fear for the future of the entire planet.

Tar sands “development” comes with an enormous environmental and human cost. But tar sands opponents—fighting a powerful international industry—are likened to terrorists, government environmental scientists are muzzled, and public hearings are concealed and rushed.

Yet, despite the formidable political and economic power behind the tar sands, many opponents are actively building international networks of resistance, challenging pipeline plans while resisting threats to Indigenous sovereignty and democratic participation. Including leading voices involved in the struggle against the tar sands, A Line in the Tar Sands offers a critical analysis of the impact of the tar sands and the challenges opponents face in their efforts to organize effective resistance.’

Contributors include: Angela Carter, Bill McKibben, Brian Tokar, Christine Leclerc, Clayton Thomas-Muller, Crystal Lameman, Dave Vasey, Emily Coats, Eriel Deranger, Greg Albo, Jeremy Brecher, Jess Worth, Jesse Cardinal, Joshua Kahn Russell, Lilian Yap, Linda Capato, Macdonald Stainsby, Martin Lukacs, Matt Leonard, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Naomi Klein, Rae Breaux, Randolph Haluza-DeLay, Rex Weyler, Ryan Katz-Rosene, Sâkihitowin Awâsis, Sonia Grant, Stephen D’Arcy, Toban Black, Tony Weis, Tyler McCreary, Winona LaDuke, and Yves Engler.”

untitled-2

“This book reveals Australia’s radical past through more than 500 tales of Indigenous resistance, convict revolts and escapes, picket line hijinks, student occupations, creative direct action, street art, media pranks, urban interventions, squatting, blockades, banner drops, guerilla theatre, and billboard liberation. Twelve key Australian activists and pranksters are interviewed regarding their opposition to racism, nuclear power, war, economic exploitation, and religious conservatism via humor and creativity. Featuring more than 300 spectacular images How to Make Trouble and Influence People is an inspiring, and at times hilarious, record of resistance that will appeal to readers everywhere.”

Read more at http://www.pmpress.org/




Unfree Labour?: A Review in Rank and File

unfree

By Daniel Tseghay
Rank and File
September 29th, 2016

In 1947, when Jamaican agricultural workers were already making their way to Canada on short-term contracts, Canadian officials resisting the possibility of permanent residency on explicitly racist, and curiously paternalistic, grounds. “The admission to Canada of natives of the West Indies has always been a problem with this Service and we are continually being asked to make provision for the admission of these people,” reads a federal memo. “They are, of course not assimilable and, generally speaking, the climatic conditions of Canada are not favourable to them.” Meanwhile, between 1946 and 1966, 89,680 primarily Polish war veterans and Dutch farmers became seasonal agricultural workers in Ontario. These migrants were largely granted permanent residency status.

Today, despite the change of rhetoric, and the image of colour-blindness, racialized migrant workers in Canada are still exploited and treated much worse than other workers.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) includes: the Caregiver Program, which was, until November 2014, the Live-in Caregiver Program, consisting of racialized, women care workers from the Philippines and the Caribbean; the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), mainly composed of Mexican and Caribbean workers; the Stream for Lower-Skilled Occupations; and the Agricultural Stream.

They do the critical work of growing food, serving in restaurants, in the homes of the elderly. They do so over long hours, with few days off, and no vacations. And for all that, permanent residency is being offered to few people every year. Their immigration status is tied to a specific employer so if they are unlucky enough to have a bad boss they can’t simply look for another job. SAWP workers, for one, have to work for a specific amount of time and if they don’t they can be both deported and prevented from being employed by the program in the future. And, while they’re in Canada, their families cannot join them. They’re both isolated from the community and their family, and they have no other source of economic security while they’re here. Migrant workers are, according to the editors of Unfree Labour? Struggles of Migrant and Immigrant Workers in Canada, Aziz Choudry and Adrian A. Smith, “commodities, labour units to be recruited, utilized, and sent away again as employers require.”

And the TFWP is only growing. Before the Harper government put a moratorium on the restaurant industry employing migrant workers (because of inaccurate and divisive fears that migrants were taking the jobs of “real Canadians”) the Stream for Lower-Skilled Occupations grew from having 1,578 workers to 30,267 between 2003 and 2012, with the majority being women.

But while the books various pieces detail the indignities migrant workers experience in their workplaces, and offers a sober look at just how difficult the challenges are in light of the TFWP’s roots in a deep economic incentive and a global structure with an interest in reaping those benefits, they also linger on the victories. They amplify those moments of resistance, courage, and hope, those instances when migrant workers and their allies, with few resources and institutional support, wrested concrete material gains from the government and their employers. And the pieces discuss practical ideas on what to do next, on how to organize differently and creatively to not only win greater concessions but to gain real power.

In October of 2010, migrant workers with the support of Justicia for Migrant Workers began the Pilgrimage to Freedom trek from Leamington, Ontario, the “Tomato Capital”, to the Tower of Freedom “underground Railroad” Monument in Windsor, Ontario. The journey is recurring this year as I write this. In that same province, farmworkers have been excluded from labour relations legislation allowing freedom of association and collective bargaining but, since the 1990s, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) has worked to win the legal right to organize and bargain collectively for agricultural workers. The campaign connects legal battles with grassroots organizing so that agricultural workers are already in bargaining units in case a union certification is achieved. In some sites, the UFCW achieved collective agreements obligating employers to help workers apply for permanent residency under the Provincial Nominees Program.

Live-in caregivers have incredible difficulty organizing, since they live in their workplace, but that hasn’t stopped many of them from coordinating with other workers. They “have been overwhelmingly Filipina, giving them a common language and cultural references when they leave their workplaces to seek companionship and services on their days off,” writes Jah-Hon Koo and Jill Hanley in “Migrant Live-in Caregivers: Control, Consensus, and Resistance in the Workplace and the Community.” “Second, in many Canadian cities, the LCP has been the major vehicle for Filipino immigration, removing some of the stigma related to doing domestic work that has been noted in previous studies on domestic work and allowing Filipinas to feel comfortable coming together as domestic workers.” As a result, they’ve been able to engage in direct action casework and have prevented workers from being deported because they were unable to complete the hours required during their work permit period (due to unexpected illnesses or pregnancy). They’ve won mandatory private insurance offered by employers if caregivers are excluded from public health insurance or workers’ compensation; an extension of the time limit for completing the required live-in service; and, now, they are counting hours worked (a required 3,900 hours) rather than simply months, making it easier to meet the requirements during their stay.

Some of the organizing has even gone global. “By organizing protests and worker delegations to address the minister of labour, Barbadian farmworkers demanded an end to double pay, a process whereby workers were paying into both the Barbadian and Canadian unemployment schemes without receiving entitlements in either country,” writes Chris Ramsaroop in “The Case for Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Migrant Agricultural Workers in Canada”.

In 2009, the Toronto Workers’ Action Centre (WAC) worked with the Caregivers’ Action Centre and won new protections for live-in caregivers under the Employment Standards Act. The piece by Deena Ladd and Sonia Singh, “Critical Questions: Building Worker Power and a Vision of Organizing in Ontario” discussed at length the organizing model of WAC. It spoke of their democratic structure, the need to involve workers in campaigns on a deeper level than usual, the lessons of sectoral organizing (although that still poses difficulties for migrant workers who aren’t in the country long enough) and the failure of traditional unions to combat precariousness and the racism of the TFWP.

As informative as the book is, what the reader will likely leave with is the sense that the struggles of migrant workers are fundamental to the labour movement. How employers and friendly governments treat the most vulnerable workers calls on all workers to resist. The book is a vision of what should be – equality for all workers – and gives hints to how we can get there.

“At least in BC,” says Adriana Paz Ramirez, a co-writer of one of the pieces, during the “Organizers in Dialogue” section that closes the book, “we have made a conscious choice to focus on the places where nobody goes – to people’s houses. We start building and opening up spaces where workers can come and relate to each other in a different environment than one of competition. Through that and relationship-building we are working on this transformative aspect of organizing. Although I don’t have a polished definition, I think it has to do with how you regain confidence, regain humanity, regain dignity, regain joy, regain and share this with other people. At least to believe that you are building a sense of community or harmony in the house or farm where you are working and living.”


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Aziz Choudry's Editor Page | Return to Adrian A. Smith's Editor Page




An Interview with Mitchell Abidor in Bookslut

More info about this book at powells.com (new window)

By Corinna Cliff
Bookslut
January 2016

In March 1871, after France lost the war against Prussia, the French army was driven out of Paris, leaving the city in the control of the National Guard and its citizens who formed the Commune, a democratically elected council that held the power in the city for two months before it was crushed by the French Army.

As a unique example of people standing up against the establishment and seizing the power, the Paris Commune continues to be a point of reference for leftist movements, especially anarchists and Marxists.

At the same time it is also one of the saddest and most violent stories in French history, with thousands of civilians killed during the "Bloody Week" when the French army entered the city. Louise Michel, one of the "voices of the Commune," described it as "an immense abattoir where after eight days of slaughter, the hordes of flies over the mass graves put an end to the killings for they feared the plague."

In Voices of the Paris Commune, Mitchell Abidor assembled accounts of people who, in one way or another, took part in the Commune. The largest part of the book is composed of responses to a call for papers issued by the journal La Revue Blanche in 1897, asking participants to write about their role in the Commune and to share their views on it. Abidor dedicated the first part of the book to articles by journalist Jules Vallès written during the Commune, followed by scripts from debates in the Commune.

Abidor translates historical texts for the Marxist Internet Archive, and has published the following books among others: A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès; Anarchists Never Surrender by Victor Serge; Death to Bourgeois Society, a collection of writing by and about the anarchist propagandists of the deed; Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought for It; and Emmanuel Bove's novella A Raskolnikoff.

This is your second book about the Paris Commune. What interests you about the Paris Commune? Why do you want people to listen to the voices from the Commune?

Though I've translated documents from all phases of left-wing activity in France, from Jean Meslier, the first great atheist -- who incidentally was a priest -- to the Maoist movement in the period after May '68, it's the French Revolution, the Commune and the individualist anarchists of the early twentieth century I love the most. With the Commune it's got to do with how remarkable it was that the people of Paris were actually able to establish their own government, one that functioned under constant bombardment and attack, and that they were able to maintain a democracy throughout it all, though it was, to be honest, slightly curtailed in its final days. But to see a marginalized people, the workers, and political opponent of the empire of Napoleon III, people who had been imprisoned and exiled just months before, be able to stand on their own is an impressive sight. But I also think that the Commune can serve as an example for us today. Not that the workers of New York are going to follow the Parisians and rise up and seize power, but as an alternative form of radical left, what the French philosopher Michel Onfray calls la gauche communarde, the Communard left. A left that doesn't follow behind infallible leaders, that has no canonic texts, and that preserves democracy. It's about time the Commune was restored to its true place in history.

La gauche communarde -- Is it just a term from Onfray, or is this a way many French leftists see themselves?

It's a term I've only heard from Onfray, but it certainly explains a current, one that needs to spread all over the world. With the death of the old structures of the left there needs to be some principle all can stand behind, and I really can't think of a better one than the notion of a Communard left, inspired by a whole city that stood up for the rights of the people while ensuring that all voices are freely heard. 

You said that the book received more attention than you expected. Do you have ideas why there is a lot of interest in the Commune at the moment?

I think a lot of it has to do with the Occupy movement, which sparked an interest in movements that sprung up spontaneously to challenge those in power. If you look at it, there are two books other than mine that came out in 2015, Communal Luxury by Kristin Ross and Massacre by John Merriman, and given the timeline in publishing it seems safe to say that Occupy played a role in their gestation. In fact, Ross in her book talks about how the existence of the Occupy encampments led her to go back and examine the questions raised by the Commune. She goes no further than saying they share "resonances," but whenever I speak about the Commune, people try to tie them much more closely together. This, I think, is the falsest of false connections and I oppose it adamantly: the Commune was a real government, voted for by real voters in a real election with real departments that really managed a real city. Occupy brought the issue of income inequality to the forefront, but in the end it was more a moral than a practical movement, and doesn't deserve to share the same page as the Commune.

In your introduction you say that the best accounts of the Commune are fictional. Why is that? What makes writing historical accounts about it difficult? Has it to do with the Commune never having been able to fully develop its potential, which might make it more suitable for fiction?

The main historical account, that of P.O. Lissagaray, who was a participant, is one I never was able to warm up to. By the way, it was translated into English by Eleanor Marx, Karl's daughter. Perhaps the failing is in me. But the fictional accounts I chose, Jules Vallès's L'Insurgé and Jean Vautrin's The Cry of the People [Le Cri du peuple in original, trans. as The Voice of the People -- Ed.], are very particular kinds of fiction. Vallès was a member of the Commune and edited the most important of the Commune's newspapers, Le Cri du peuple: The Cry of the People. His novel, the third volume of a trilogy covering his childhood, his adolescence, and the Commune, is less a novel than a first person account of the events, but a first-person account by one of the great writers. Vautrin is a novelist of the left, and his book takes a cast of mainly working-class characters through the life of the Commune. He's clearly studied the writings of the time at great length, and the combination of this and his political sympathies makes The [Voice] of the People an exciting book.

Some of the problem with historical accounts is that the short life of the Commune, only 72 days, prevented it from doing all it would have, which is expressly why John Merriman's excellent Massacre concentrates mostly on the eradication of the Commune, the defeats that led to 20,000 dead. But what disappoints me in historical accounts is that writers come into them with their preconceived notions and don't let the Commune speak for itself. It's presented as anarchist, as a forerunner of Bolshevism, as a precursor of Occupy, and I find all of that simply wrong. My preference, in this and all my other books, is to simply let the participants explain their actions and then let the reader decide. I have my opinion, but I might very well not be right. So let the reader see what those who were there had to say.

How did you choose the texts you included in the book? Which were your criteria?

In my first book on the Commune, Communards, I chose memoirs by people from all ranges of political opinion within the Commune, which was really varied. There were neo-Jacobins, followers of the great August Blanqui, and members of the First International. Voices of the Paris Commune was meant as a kind of primer using first person accounts, so I chose a representative figure like Vallès, and to show that the Commune was a real government there's the minutes of a stormy discussion there in its final days about the execution of the hostages and the establishing of a Committee of Public Safety. But the heart of the book is a large selection of responses to questions about the Commune posed to Communards by the literary magazine La Revue Blanche in 1897. I wanted to show just how wide the diversity of opinion was among those who fought for it, answers to questions like "Could it have won?" and "What were its failings?" For us, nearly a century and a half later, this is an event that's all of a piece; for those who were there it was anything but that, and I thought it important to show how lively the debates were during its life and after its death.

How was it to translate political texts from two-and-a-half centuries ago? The English versions are all very accessible. Did you have to make difficult choices?

This is what I do, how I've chosen to spend my time, translating revolutionary texts from the mid-seventeenth century to the period after May '68 in France, as well as from particular movements in Argentina, Italy, Portugal, and the world of Esperanto. A friend in London made me my business card with my name and profession: "Militant Translator."

The only difficulty with the texts in Voices of the Paris Commune was limiting them. The selections from the discussion in La Revue Blanche, with the Communards looking back a quarter of a century later on the events, is just a fraction of the full discussion, and I wish I could have done the whole thing. In fact, it's inspired me to do a similar investigation of May '68 in France, which will be published in 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of the events.

Do you have a favorite character from the Commune?

Jules Vallès stands out for me as someone who was both revolutionary and a firm defender of democracy, insisting on the freedom of the press until the final day. But there are individual stories that particularly touch me. The saddest is probably that of the death of the elder of the Commune, Charles Delescluze. The Commune was the culmination of a lifetime of his political activity, and in its final days he walked to the Commune's outer barricades so he could examine the situation. While he was there, he was mocked by the National Guard, as if he was seeking to flee and leave the workers to die. He was devastated, and went back to his office. He sat there for a while, signed some orders, then stood up and left and, not saying a word to anyone, walked directly into enemy fire to be killed. If there was a more noble death in the history of the revolutionary movement I don't know what it was.

The political backgrounds of the Communards were quite diverse -- there were anarchists, Marxists, republicans. Was there a social vision for a state that was shared by all?

Anarchists were few, the movement not yet having really gained hold in France, aside from Proudhonians. Marxists, too, were pretty rare. Such as they were they were members of the First International and their faction within the Commune was called the Minority. They, in fact, fought against the majority, who were followers of Blanqui and various forms of neo-Jacobins, when the majority wanted to become more dictatorial and set up a Committee of Public Safety. They even threatened to stop attending sessions of the Commune, but in the end they did.

But let me get back to the social vision of all the groups: every one of them wanted a republic, but a social republic, one that ensured a decent life and living for all, that wanted everyone -- well, every male, but who knows, with time they might have added women -- to have equal political rights and the ability to express their opinions, and wanted to remove any official involvement in religion. The Commune burned the guillotine, banned night work for bakers, suspended rent payments, freed goods held in the national pawn shop, did away with the standing army... It didn't have the time to implement specifically socialist measures, but they would have, since every current within it believed in equality and social justice. When elections were held for the Commune they happened throughout Paris even in the bourgeois quarters, and those elected from those areas chose not to sit, leaving the Commune unified at least on a general vision of society, though not on some of the specifics.

What is your stance on the fight between the minority and the majority in the Commune?

Though I understand the impulse behind the majority's drive to ensure the Commune's survival through the same measures the French Revolution had implemented, my sympathies are all with the minority. The majority was a prisoner of the schemas of 1792, the minority were admirers of the great Revolution, but feared falling into the mistakes that tarnished its image and caused it great harm.

Do you think the Commune had a chance at survival at all?

No, and as some of the veterans of the Commune who are in my book say, few of them did. This was a war between Paris and rural France -- indeed, the rest of France -- and even had the forces in Versailles led by Thiers not crushed the Commune, the Prussians would have stepped in and finished the job. This makes the Commune even more impressive: that they stood by their ideas and attempted all they did as the bombs were falling on their heads, while they were dead men on reprieve.

Women had no voting rights and very little opportunity to contribute to its politics. They were able to join the National Guard though, and many of the texts in the book mention women fighting on the barricades. I find it strange that women were accepted as soldiers in the army when they weren't even allowed to vote. I was wondering why there were many women who were so passionate about the Commune that they were ready to die for it even though they were excluded from all decision making.

Let's be clear: women fought but not as formal members of the National Guard, which was all male. They went to the barricades just as did so many workers out of uniform: to defend a government that was theirs, that granted even unmarried women the rights to benefits owed to their fallen male companions. Women established their own organizations, which were encouraged and supported by the Commune, and several of them, most importantly Louise Michel and Elisabeth Dmitrieff became emblematic figures. But women were also used as a negative symbol of the Commune, as the pétroleuses, the women who supposedly spread gas around the city and set it alight. The city burned, both as a result of being bombarded and also because it was consciously set on fire, though not by brigades of gas-wielding women. Putting the blame for this entirely on women was another way to demonize the Commune for unleashing a horde of savage Amazons, for upsetting the gender cart.

About women in the National Guard: That must be false information that got copy-pasted over the Internet, then, because I found it in more than one article.

They fought, but weren't formally in the National Guard. They served more as support staff and nurses, courageously so, doing it at the front lines, and dying courageously as well. I don't want to downplay the role of women, and the brave way they took up their roles can't be stressed strongly enough, but I think we have to stick with the historical truth and not make the Commune what it wasn't. But don't kick yourself over false information: it's all over the place, on the right and the left. This is why I think it's so important to read the original sources, and for me to make them available in English.

When I give talks about the Commune I usually start by saying that the Commune is a blank screen that every element of the left projects its refereed image onto. Let me give you a perfect example of how much wishful thinking goes into examining the Commune. Recently I was interviewed by an anarchist, who insisted that the Commune was more anarchist than not, and he gave as proof the fact that National Guard officers were elected, like in the anarchist armies of Spain during the Civil War. I read him an account of the election to a National Guard unit, of how workers were elected to leading positions (though quickly replaced by experienced soldiers), but then told him when the election took place: September 1870, five months before the Commune was even established! Elected officers were a National Guard thing, not a Commune thing, but if you look at what happened between March and May without looking at the context you can easily change the meaning of an act.

I was going to ask you about the pétroleuses. How did this rumor come to pass? Was it widely believed?

Not only was it widely believed, it's a notion that still has to be debunked today, though scholars have pretty much proved it false. After all, of the thousands of women put on trial after the crushing of the Commune, not a one was found guilty of setting any buildings on fire. That said, an official organization of Communard women did call for its members to stock up on rifles and petrol, but again, there's no indication that groups of women then set out to burn buildings like the Hôtel de Ville down.

The legend of the pétroleuses is part of the generally dark legend that grew up around the Commune, as an event of unimaginable savagery unleashed by barely human workers. With the pétroleuses was added the element of misogyny, Communard women being depicted as unnatural, bestial women burning down the very city they lived in. Their burning down the city joined the killing of the hostages -- around sixty victims -- as the image of the Commune in the public's eye, or at least the image the bourgeois press and writers projected. 20,000 workers killed by the forces of order? Never heard of it. Or they deserved it.

In which ways can the Commune serve as an example today?

In a direct sense, it's hard to say. It certainly isn't in the cards that the workers of any of the great cities of the world will be taking over their cities and running them as independent governments. It's really far more as an example of that alternative left I mentioned, one that doesn't fall into silly sectarianism that discounts people with differing views or who fail to follow a line laid out by Lenin in 1905 or Trotsky in 1936. And it's also one that responds to a country's own reality, not falling back on the dicta of long-dead authorities.

Are there social movements at the moment that carry the spirit of the Commune, or that you find otherwise inspiring?

I would say that Podemos in Spain, with its vision of a pluralist left and a more democratic country contains much of the spirit of the Commune. They reject social democracy, but also reject turning their backs on the daily reality, the quotidian sufferings of the people of Spain in the name of some kind of intellectual or doctrinal purity. The free debate within Podemos, its ability to take in all progressive points of view, is in the direct line of the Commune.

Why did you choose to end the book with a letter by General de Gallifet who says nothing but that he is unable to answer the questions about his role in the Commune and his opinions on it?

Gallifet was the man who completed the crushing of the Commune. I thought it was a dramatic way to close the discussion. Maybe I should have made that clearer. Maybe in a second edition...


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Mitchell Abidor's Editor Page | Back to Victor Serge's Author Page




Patty Hearst, Double Agents and the Symbioses Liberation Army in Truth Dig

SLA members Donald DeFreeze, Patricia Soltysik (in foreground) and Patricia Hearst during the robbery of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Paul Krassner
TruthDig
October 21st, 2016

Jeffrey Toobin’s new book, “American Heiress,” presents a mean-spirited approach to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, but he’s clueless about the significance of the SLA, for which she was forced to rob a bank. I covered her trial for the weekly underground paper, the Berkley Barb.

At the end of a tape by Hearst, Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze, the SLA’s black leader of a white group, came on with a triple death threat, especially to Colston Westbrook, whom he accused of being “a government agent now working for military intelligence while giving assistance to the FBI.” This communiqué was sent to San Francisco radio station KSAN. News director David McQueen checked with a Justice Department source, who confirmed Westbrook’s employment by the CIA.

Conspiracy researcher Mae Brussell traced Westbrook’s activities from 1962, when he was a CIA advisor to the South Korean CIA, through 1969, when he provided logistical support in Vietnam for the CIA’s Phoenix program. His job was the indoctrination of assassination and terrorist cadres. After seven years in Asia, he was brought home in 1970 and assigned to run the Black Cultural Association at Vacaville Prison, where he became the control officer for DeFreeze, who had worked as a police informer from 1967 to 1969 for the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Unit.

Advertisement

If DeFreeze was a double agent, then the SLA was a Frankenstein monster, turning against its creator by becoming in reality what had been orchestrated only as a media image. When he snitched on his keepers, he signed the death warrant of the SLA. They were burned alive in a Los Angeles safe house during a shootout with police. When Cinque’s charred remains were sent to his family in Cleveland, they couldn’t help but notice that he had been decapitated. It was as if the CIA had said, literally, “Bring me the head of Donald DeFreeze!”

Consider the revelations of Wayne Lewis in August 1975. He claimed to have been an undercover agent for the FBI, a fact verified by FBI director Clarence Kelley. Surfacing at a press conference in Los Angeles, Lewis spewed forth a veritable conveyor belt of conspiracy charges: that DeFreeze was an FBI informer; that he was killed not by the SWAT team but by an FBI agent because he had become “uncontrollable”; that the FBI then wanted Lewis to infiltrate the SLA; that the FBI had undercover agents in other underground guerrilla groups; that the FBI knew where Patty Hearst was but let her remain free so it could build up its files of potential subversives.

In February 1976, while Hearst’s trial was still in process, a similar charge was made when a Berkeley underground group, Tribal Thumb, prepared this statement:

Donald DeFreeze escaped from the California prison system with help from the FBI and California prison officials. His mission was to establish an armed revolutionary organization, controlled by the FBI, specifically to either make contact with or undermine the surfacing and development of the August Seventh Guerrilla Movement…DeFreeze was let loose and given a safe plan to surface as an armed guerrilla unit. That plan was to kidnap Patty Hearst.

One warm afternoon I was surprised to receive a letter by registered mail on Department of Justice stationery.

Dear Mr. Krassner:

Subsequent to the search of a residence in connection with the arrest of six members of the Emiliano Zapata Unit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, San Francisco, has been attempting to contact you to advise you of the following information:

During the above indicated arrest of six individuals of the Emiliano Zapata Unit, an untitled list of names and addresses of individuals was seized. A corroborative source described the above list as an Emiliano Zapata Unit “hit list,” but stated that no action will be taken, since all of those who could carry it out are in custody.

Further, if any of the apprehended individuals should make bail, they would only act upon the “hit list” at the instructions of their leader, who is not and will not be in a position to give such instructions.

The above information is furnished for your personal use and it is requested it be kept confidential. At your discretion, you may desire to contact the local police department responsible for the area of your residence.

Very truly yours,
Charles W. Bates
Special Agent in Charge

However, a source informed me that the Zapata Unit was a front for the FBI. Was the right wing of the FBI warning me about the left wing of the FBI? Questions about the authenticity of the Zapata Unit had been raised by its first public statement in August 1975, which included the unprecedented threat of violence against the left. After publishing in the Barb the FBI’s letter to me, I received a letter from a member of the Zapata Unit in prison:

I was involved in the aboveground support group of the Zapata Unit. Greg Adornetto led myself and several others to believe we were joining a cell of the Weather Underground, which had a new surge of life when it published Prairie Fire. I knew nothing about a hit list or your being on one, and can’t imagine why you would have been. When we were arrested, FBI agent-provocateur Adornetto immediately turned against the rest of us and provided evidence to the government.

In 1969, Charles Bates was a Special Agent at the Chicago office of the FBI when police killed Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark while they were sleeping. Ex-FBI informer Maria Fischer told the Chicago Daily News that the then-chief of the FBI’s Chicago office, Marlon Johnson, personally asked her to slip a drug to Hampton; she had infiltrated the Black Panther Party at the FBI’s request a month before. The drug was a tasteless, colorless liquid that would put him to sleep. She refused. Hampton was killed a week later. An autopsy showed “a near fatal dose” of secobarbital in his system.

In 1971, Bates was transferred to Washington, D.C. According to Watergate burglar James McCord’s book, “A Piece of Tape,” on June 21, 1972 (four days after the break-in), White House attorney John Dean checked with acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray as to who was in charge of handling the Watergate investigation. The answer: Charles Bates—the same FBI official who in 1974 would be in charge of handling the SLA investigation and the search for Patty Hearst. When she was arrested, Bates became instantly ubiquitous on radio and TV, boasting of her capture.

And, in the middle of her trial—on a Saturday afternoon, when reporters and technicians were hoping to be off duty—the FBI called a press conference. At five o’clock that morning, they had raided the New Dawn collective—supposedly the above-ground support group of the Berkeley underground Emiliano Zapata Unit—and accompanying a press release about the evidence seized were photographs still wet with developing fluid. Charles Bates held the photos up in the air.

“Mr. Bates,” a photographer requested, “real close to your head, please.”

Bates proceeded to pose with the photos. But was there a search warrant? No, though they had a “consent to search” signed by the owner of the house, Judy Sevenson, who admitted to being a paid FBI informant.

Jacques Rogiers—the above-ground courier for the underground New World Liberation Front (NWLF) who delivered their communiqués—told me that the reason I was on the hit list was because I had written about Donald DeFreeze being a police informant.

“But that was true,” I said. “It’s a matter of record. Doesn’t that make any difference?”

Apparently, documentation didn’t make any difference.

“If the NWLF asked me to kill you,” Rogiers admitted, “I would.”

“Jacques,” I replied, “I think this puts a slight damper on our relationship.”

My 11-year-old daughter and I moved to another house.

Graffiti on our house included “SLA LIVES,” which was then obscured in the enigmatic made-over “COLE SLAW LIVES,” a slogan that baffled tourists and convinced one that a political activist named Cole Slaw was dead because it said that he was alive.

Paul Krassner’s latest book, “Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials,” is published by PM Press.


Buy Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders | Buy the e-Book of Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders | Back to Paul Krassner's Author Page




Understanding Jim Crow in Socialism and Democracy

by Barbara H. Chasin
Socialism and Democracy
October 21st, 2016


David Pilgrim’s Understanding Jim Crow is a look back at the images that helped justify the racist system that existed in the south from the end of Reconstruction in about 1877 until 1965 when the successes of the Civil Rights Movement ended the legalized separation of African Americans and whites.

The US version of an apartheid system was enforced by horrific violence. As with other instances of inequality, however, an ideology was created that legitimized it for the perpetra- tors and for all those who acquiesced in it. That ideology and the ways it was disseminated are the subject of this book.

Pilgrim, himself African American, was at once fascinated and disgusted, as an adolescent, by racist memorabilia. Over the years, he collected more than a thousand racist images and objects. He refers to these as “garbage” but nonetheless finds them useful for teaching tolerance and promoting social justice. He became a sociol- ogist, joining the faculty at Michigan’s Ferris State University in 1990. Six years later he established “the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia” there.1 At first the objects were from his own collection, but he continued to enlarge the holdings and has added objects pro- duced after legalized segregation ended in the 1960s. Visitors to the museum can view everyday pieces conveying the message that those of African descent were stupid, ugly, hyper-sexed, and not fully human.

Pilgrim gives a detailed description of the exhibits, discussing the meaning of a number of them. One of the book’s useful themes is that stereotypes change as social context changes. During slavery those of African descent were usually described as docile and unproductive. Male slaves were portrayed as Uncle Toms, loyal and dependable, while Mammy was a loving, faithful female. Children were happy- go-lucky picaninnies who weren’t even likely to be properly dressed by their ignorant black parents. Whether male or female, those of African descent needed whites to manage their lives and make them productive. No whites needed to feel guilty because the slaves were happy, or so the story went.

But when slavery ended in 1865 and 11 years later federal troops were withdrawn from the south, southern elites found ways of creating a labor force comprised of super-exploited and subservient former slaves. There was no powerful group that opposed this and racist forces were free to create a system of terror against blacks and anyone else posing a threat to white supremacy, including labor organizers.

The Jim Crow system bolstering white supremacy served to break up the fragile but important alliance that had been developing between working-class whites and blacks in the period of Radical Reconstruc- tion. During this time more African Americans were elected to public office than at any time in US history, desegregated public edu- cation began in the South, and there was a social mingling that later became impossible.

Racism was used to undo all these advances. Keeping blacks from exercising the democratic rights supposedly guaranteed by the 14th Amendment meant white elite interests would be served. More details on this historical context could add to the book’s impact. The lynch mob, shootings, beatings, evictions, etc. drastically reduced the numbers of black voters. For example, in Louisiana as late as 1898, 130,000 blacks were still on the voting rolls; by 1906 the number was 1,342.2 In the 1970s North Carolina still required literacy tests for
voters.3 Then as, now, powerful institutions, including the Supreme Court, made racism an integral part of American life. Very few opposed the home-grown terrorism destroying black lives.

The list of racist objects described in this book is long, covering vir- tually any household object or item of popular culture, including salt and pepper shakers, ashtrays, postcards, note-pads, cartoons, and books, including those for children such as Little Black Sambo. Carnival “games” used African men as targets, normalizing violence against them. Popular songs and minstrel shows made racism fun, at least for some. The stereotypes were aimed not only at whites but at black self-conception. Norms and laws governed everyday white and black interactions so that these could not be egalitarian. Pilgrim has a long and useful list of these rules.

Summarizing the messages in the museum’s displays Pilgrim writes, “Blacks have been portrayed in popular culture as pitiable exotics, cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society” (5).

New forms for conveying these racist messages appeared with the advent of radio, films, and television. Older readers might remember the Amos & Andy programs, or the servant who went only by the name Rochester on the Jack Benny show. Pseudo-scientific writings supported notions of white superiority, something which has not dis- appeared today. Racist objects are still being produced. Pilgrim men- tions, as examples, targets with Trayvon’s Martin’s face on the center and the game Ghettopoly, created in 2003, with projects and crack houses replacing Monopoly’s buildings.

One example that Pilgrim doesn’t mention is the popular Currier & Ives prints and calendars which included a print series called Darktown Comics, which like so many other depictions showed African Americans as incredibly stupid – like firemen who couldn’t see the fire in front of them.4

While describing the objects and their messages, Pilgrim also describes aspects of the Jim Crow south that very few who had not experienced it would be aware of. For instance, black men who owned new cars would wear chauffeur caps when driving so as not to arouse envy and possible violence from whites. When buying clothes, African Americans would need to know their clothing sizes since they were not allowed to try on clothes that might also be donned by prospective white customers at department stores.

This book is evidence of the validity of the William Faulkner saying “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” While the legal underpinnings of racism have been mostly abolished, there is still a high degree of racial inequality in the US. In spite of the election of Barack Obama we do not exist in a post-racial society. There have been gains. African Americans are more visible on television, in advertisements, in some occupations, etc. Nonetheless, housing seg- regation persists as described in the sociological study with the telling title American Apartheid. Along with segregated housing come segregated inferior schools, neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment, and a prison-industrial complex based on a system that in numerous ways treats whites and blacks differently from the moment of arrest through incarceration. Court rulings, once again, limit electoral access by reinterpreting the 1965 Voting Rights Act; laws against prisoners and ex-felons and new voter ID laws add to the difficulties African Americans have in being active citizens. Racist messages are employed, especially by Republicans, to win white voters.

This is a horrifying but important book that should be widely read to gain an accurate view of the long history of racism in the US. The Museum challenges its visitors to ask what they can do to fight racism. There is a “Death of de jure Jim Crow” area paying tribute to the “wonderful accomplishments” and heroism of many African Americans. These must be a welcome relief from the “mammies,” “coons,” and “Sambos” the exhibit-goer will have been bombarded with.

Another counter to the demeaning images, not mentioned by Pilgrim, was created by African American photographers. A number are depicted in the documentary “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photo- graphers and the Emergence of a People.” The photos serve as a remin- der that in spite of the massive propaganda and violence perpetuated by overt and covert racists, resistance was present then as now.

1. www.ferris.edu/jimcrow

2. Richard T. Schaefer, Racial and Ethnic Groups, 7th edition, New York, Longman, 1998, 

3.    Richard Fausset, “Battle Over Voting Laws Peaks in North Carolina,” New York Times, March 11, 2016, p. A1. 

4.    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-06-26/features/1997177066_1_currier-ives- ives-print-unintentionally-funny; http://campus.albion.edu/library/archives-and- special-collections/exhibits/currier-and-ives-darktown-comics/darktown-comics- historial-context/ 


# 2016 Barbara H. Chasin Professor Emerita, Sociology Montclair State University Montclair, New Jersey chasinb@mail.montclair.edu http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2016.1223825

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Dr. David Pilgrim's Author Page




The Struggle of organising Migrant Workers

unfree

By Andrea Bieler
Trade unions and global restructuring
October 20th, 2016

With precarious forms of work increasingly also emerging within the core of industrialised countries in the global economy, the issue of how to organise migrant workers has become an ever more pressing concern. In his talk at Nottingham University on Tuesday, 17 October, Aziz Choudry reported on related challenges, drawing on two of his recently co-edited books, Unfree Labour? Struggles of Migrant and Immigrant Workers in Canada (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016), together with Adrian Smith, and Just Work? Migrant Workers’ Struggles Today (London: Pluto Press, 2015), together with Mondli Hlatshwayo. In this blog post, I will draw out a couple of key insights resulting from Choudry’s analysis of a large range of different forms of migrant labour organising.

If we want to understand global restructuring of capitalism today, we need to focus on analysing the role of migrant workers, argues Choudry. They experience the most dramatic forms of super-exploitation within the global economy, characterised by ever more insecure working conditions and poverty pay. With their work permits often tied to a specific employer, they are directly subject to extra-economic compulsion, being unable to look for work elsewhere, if their employer treats them badly. In Canada, seasonal agricultural workers pay into the social insurance system without, however, being granted access to its benefits. Analysing the conditions of migrant labour allows us to understand better the ‘geographies of exploitation’, we are confronted with at this point in time. There is a danger that the working conditions of migrant workers demonstrate development in employment relations, which may become the future for the wider workforce. Hence the importance of organising migrant workers against exploitation in the first place.


And yet, traditional Northern trade unions often prove unable to organise precarious workers such a migrants, partly due to the temporary working status of these workers, but partly also because of these unions’ traditional bureaucratic focus on the permanent workforce in large companies. This is paired with an enormous self-confidence about how to organise workers. Trade unionists, if they are attempting to organise migrant workers, often tend ‘to teach’ migrant workers about what they should do. And yet, as Choudry makes clear, this completely overlooks that these migrant workers come with their own experiences and strategies of how to resist exploitation. Rather than us being the 'teachers', it may be us who have to learn from them about how to organise in precarious working environments. Unsurprisingly, it is often new, independent trade unions or more informal labour NGOs, which are more suited to this challenge and provide more space for migrants’ own experiences.


Nevertheless, while securing the rights of these super-exploited migrant workers is of utmost importance and makes a huge difference to their individual lives, the question remains of how securing the rights of some seasonal workers in agriculture, for example, can be translated in transforming the agricultural sector as a whole so that there are no precarious forms of work in the first place. In other words, the challenge is to upscale individual victories in a change of employment relations across industrial sectors and the economy as a whole. Migrant workers' organising strategies may provide us with a glimpse in this respect, but they can only be the beginning of a more fundamental process of transformation.  


Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK

Andreas.Bieler@nottingham.ac.uk
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Aziz Choudry's Editor Page | Return to Adrian A. Smith's Editor Page




From Punk to Professor: Livermore Teacher Details Journey in New Memoir

By Angela Ruggiero
East Bay Times
October 8th, 2016

LIVERMORE — Clues in Michelle Gonzales’ college English class hint there’s a deeper story: the dark hair with red highlights, black-rimmed glasses and tattoos peeking out from behind the professor’s sleeves.

Most of the Las Positas Community College students are too young to know that the woman at the head of the class was a hardcore punk rock star in a groundbreaking all-female punk band in the 1990s.

The band, Spitboy, set a standard for other female punk rockers at the time, performing in front of thousands at Bay Area venues such as 924 Gilman in Berkeley and on tours in Europe and Asia.

Gonzales was a drummer with a fierceness who, along with her three fellow bandmates, pushed boundaries when writing about feminist issues, such as domestic violence and sexism.
The band, she says, faced misogyny and sexism in a mostly male-dominated punk music subculture. And for Gonzales, who is of Mexican heritage and was the only person of color in the group, colorblindness and racism also were factors.

What Gonzales sang about when she was in Spitboy “translates to the types of projects that she’s taking on on campus,” said Los Positas College Dean of Arts and Humanities Don Miller.

Gonzales is the faculty adviser for the college’s Puente Project, which connects disadvantaged students to mentors and counseling programs. Gonzales also is co-chair of the Basic Skills Committee on campus, which focuses on helping students with achieving college-level English and math skills.

Miller said he didn’t know about Gonzales’ history as a punk star until he read her book,  “The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band,” released in April.

But now with her background and push for social justice through her involvement at the college, it makes sense, Miller said.

Gonzales, known as “Todd” during her band days and now by friends who knew her then, teaches English and creative writing courses at the Livermore college. At least once a year, Gonzales joins in the English department’s own band, the “Rawk Hawks,” changing the lyrics to popular songs to sing about community college budget cuts or grading papers.

Gonzales, who was born in east Los Angeles but grew up in rural Tuolumne County, lives with her husband, 14-year-old son and their two dogs in Oakland. She says the transition from hardcore punk band to college professor wasn’t all that far-fetched.

“I knew I needed another art form, another outlet. If I could teach, my art would continue,” she said.

While in Spitboy, or other bands such as Kamala and the Karnivores, Gonzales interacted with young people, exchanging ideas. Being a teacher is similar, she said.

Gonzales said she always considered herself a writer, helping pen songs for Spitboy with fellow bandmates. After the band split in 1996, and after a year stint with the group Instant Girl through 1997, Gonzales got married and went back to school.

She started teaching at Diablo Valley College in 2003 and took the full-time position at Los Positas in 2005. Her students usually are not aware of her punk past, except for the occasional one who recognizes the band’s name if she mentions it.

English teacher Michelle Gonzales speaks to her students enrolled in her English 1A class at Las Positas College in Livermore, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)English teacher Michelle Gonzales speaks to her students  at Las Positas College. 

“I’m aware it gives me a certain kind of ‘cool’ factor,” she said. ” I’m turning 50 in three years — I’ll take anything I can get at this point.”

In her book, which she will be reading from at a Lit Crawl event on Saturday in San Francisco, she talks about her coming-of-age during her punk days.

“We hated sexism, we didn’t hate men,” Gonzales writes in the book. Spitboy, she writes, was “a band that played as hard as men did but sounded like women.”

Spitboy’s sound was aggressive, perhaps more so than other female bands at the time, said Chris Appelgren, former owner of Lookout Records, which put out Spitboy’s first record.

While other bands, mostly “riot grrrl” feminist bands, went out of their way to exclude the opposite sex (have male fans stand in the back of venues and women in the front), Spitboy was inclusive, Appelgran said.

They specifically did not want to be labeled “riot grrrl,” but still their lyrics had a feminist edge. Although part of the punk continuum at the time was to get a rise out of people, “Spitboy had a sense of being provocative but not in that kind of way,” Appelgran said.

“They were influential specifically by example; they inspired women to play an aggressive, hardcore sound of music,” he said. “I don’t recall other female bands at the time necessarily playing that style of punk.”

Jim Ott, a fellow English teacher at Las Positas, teaches Gonzales’ book in his English classes. He says the book is relatable to his students, who are generally the same age Gonzales was during her Spitboy days.

The book represents a journey of Gonzales’ self-discovery as she faced obstacles to being comfortable with who she was and finding her own voice, Ott said.

On the face of it, Gonzales’ life today is a far cry from her days rocking out in cut-up jeans, short dyed hair and faded tank tops behind a drum set on world tours.

But all that has really changed is the stage.

“Being in the band is performative, and teaching is performative,” Gonzales said.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Michelle Cruz Gonzales’s Author Page 




The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

By Julie Phillips
The New Yorker
October 17th, 2016

The literary mainstream once relegated her work to the margins. Then she transformed the mainstream.

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt “eaten up” with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these “hairy gunslinging fake cowboys” from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic.

The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin’s places. She often goes there in the summer with her husband, Charles, a professor emeritus of history at Portland State University, to a ranch on the stony ridge of Steens Mountain, overlooking the refuge. She has led writing workshops at the Malheur Field Station, a group of weather-beaten buildings used mainly by biologists and birders, and published a book of poems and sketches of the area, with photographs by Roger Dorband, called “Out Here.” She likes the awareness the desert gives her of distance, emptiness, and geological time. In a poem, “A Meditation in the Desert,” she imagines a stone being “full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have.”

She has roots in eastern Oregon that go back to the early days of white settlement. Not long ago, she told me excitedly that she’d rediscovered records in the attic of her grandmother’s childhood: “My great-grandfather, with my grandmother age eleven, moved from California to Oregon in 1873. . . . They drove three hundred and fifty head of cattle up through Nevada and built a stone house on the back side of Steens Mountain. I don’t think he made a claim; there was nowhere to make it. He was one of the very first ranchers in what is still very desolate country.” The family stayed there for five years before they moved on, in search of new grass or less isolation—her grandmother didn’t say. The story gives hints of what Le Guin already knew: that the empty spaces of America have a past, and that loneliness and loss are mixed up with the glory.

The history of America is one of conflicting fantasies: clashes over what stories are told and who gets to tell them. If the Bundy brothers were in love with one side of the American dream—stories of wars fought and won, land taken and tamed—Le Guin has spent a career exploring another, distinctly less triumphalist side. She sees herself as a Western writer, though her work has had a wide range of settings, from the Oregon coast to an anarchist utopia and a California that exists in the future but resembles the past. Keeping an ambivalent distance from the centers of literary power, she makes room in her work for other voices. She has always defended the fantastic, by which she means not formulaic fantasy or “McMagic” but the imagination as a subversive force. “Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption,” she has written, “and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”

When I met Le Guin at her house in Portland this summer, she was in a happier mood. Coming out onto the back porch, where I was sitting with Charles in the late-afternoon sun, to offer us a bourbon-and-ice, she was positively cheerful, her deeply lined, expressive face bright under a cap of short white hair, her low, warm woodwind voice rising into an easy laugh. The bourbon is part of the couple’s evening ritual: when they don’t have company, they have a drink before dinner and take turns reading to each other. On the hillside below us, two scrub jays traded remarks through the trees.

The cheerfulness was relative, she told me: it was partly because a conference call set for earlier that day, with the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and some film people who had a project to propose, had been postponed, leaving her with enough energy for a conversation. Her back is bent now with age—she’ll be eighty-seven this month—and she has to be careful with a resource she once had in abundance. “My stamina gives out so damn fast these days,” she said.

The house where Le Guin has lived for more than fifty years has, in certain respects, come to resemble its owner. Past the barriers at the entrance—Charles’s menacingly thorny roses, the lion’s-head knocker that guards the door—the dark-panelled Craftsman living room, with its Victorian feel, might stand for her books set in Europe, or for the great nineteenth-century novels she has always loved, with their warmth, humanity, and moral concern. The front hall is surveyed by a row of British Museum reproductions of the Lewis chessmen, souvenirs of the Le Guins’ two sabbatical years in London, when their three children were small. Some of her awards are in the attic, but she keeps several, notably her first Hugo, from 1970, discreetly displayed in the hall on the way to the kitchen. A place of honor at the right of the fireplace is given to a portrait of Virginia Woolf, a hand-colored print that is a treasured gift from a writer friend.

Later, I went with her into the kitchen, where it’s easy to end up in the Le Guin household. It’s a homey room with white appliances, cream cabinets, and no sign of steel or marble, as indifferent to fashion as its owners. Le Guin dresses well, but casually, favoring T-shirts, and wears little jewelry, though occasionally she puts on earrings fastened with clips or magnets. “You put the stone in front and a tiny magnet behind your earlobe,” she explains. “The trouble is that if you bend down near the stove, for instance, all of a sudden your earrings go wham!—and hit the stove. It’s kind of exciting.”

Europe ends and the West begins outside the windows, on the back porch, with its view stretching over the Willamette River, past the city, to three volcanoes of the Cascade Range: the white peak of Mt. Adams, distant Mt. Rainier, and the sullen ash heap of Mt. St. Helens. The span of it evokes the feeling of distance and isolation that runs through her work, and the awareness, more often found in science than in fiction, that what we can comprehend is a small part of everything there is to know. Imaginative literature, she has written, asks us “to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.”

Michael Chabon, a friend and admirer, sees her as “untiringly opening her work up to a perspective, to a nature that feels somehow beyond human, and yet fully human and recognizable. She gives us a view from the other side.”

To talk to Le Guin is to encounter alternatives. At her house, the writer is present, but so is Le Guin the mother of three, the faculty wife: the woman writing fantasy in tandem with her daily life. I asked her recently about a particularly violent story that she wrote in her early thirties, in two days, while organizing a fifth-birthday party for her elder daughter. “It’s funny how you can live on several planes, isn’t it?” she said. She resists attempts to separate her more mainstream work from her science fiction. She is a genre author who is also a literary author, not one or the other but indivisibly both.

Le Guin can be polemical, prone to what one close friend calls “tirades” on questions she feels strongly about. I once watched her participate in a panel discussion on gender and literature at WisCon, an annual gathering of feminist science-fiction writers, readers, and academics in Madison, Wisconsin. Scowling like a snapping turtle, she sat waiting for illogical remarks, which she then gently but firmly tore to bits. Yet a conversation with Le Guin is often full of comic asides, laughter, and—a particularly Le Guin trait—good-natured snorts. Humor seems to be her way of taking the edge off the polemic, as well as an introvert’s channel of communication.

Behind even the lightest remarks, one is aware of a keen intelligence and a lifetime of thought, held back for the purposes of casual conversation.

She has never felt at home temperamentally with establishments of any kind. But now she finds the establishment wanting to hear what she has to say. Her criticism of the economics of publishing—objections to Amazon, a fight with Google over its digitization of copyrighted books—is widely reported in the news. Earlier this year, a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary about Le Guin, by the filmmaker Arwen Curry, raised more than two hundred thousand dollars, nearly three times the requested amount. In 2000, the Library of Congress declared her a “living legend,” a designation that has made its way into many introductions to her readings. Last month, her “Orsinian Tales” and the novel “Malafrena” appeared as a volume in the Library of America. (She and Philip Roth are the only living novelists included in the series.) “I am getting really sick of being referred to as ‘the legendary,’ ” she protests, laughing. “I’m right here. I have gravity. A body and all that.”

In the late nineteen-thirties, in a tall house in Berkeley, California, a girl climbs out the attic window onto the roof in search of solitude. If she scrambles far enough up the redwood shingles, she can reach her own Mt. Olympus, the roof’s peak. From here, she can gaze out over the rough blue of the bay to the city of San Francisco, row upon row of white houses climbing the hills above the water. The city is strange to her—she rarely ventures so far from home—but the view is hers, and splendid. Beyond it she knows there are islands with a magical name: the Farallons. She imagines them as “the loneliest place, the farthest west you could go.”

Meanwhile, inside the house, the girl’s father is at work, thinking about myths, magic, songs, cultural patterns—the proper territory of a professor of anthropology. From him she will take a model for creative work in the midst of a rich family life, as well as the belief that the real room of one’s own is in the writer’s mind. Years later, she tells a friend that if she ended up writing about wizards “perhaps it’s because I grew up with one.”

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, in 1929, into a family busy with the reading, recording, telling, and inventing of stories. She grew up listening to her aunt Betsy’s memories of a pioneer childhood and to California Indian legends retold by her father. One legend of the Yurok people says that, far out in the Pacific Ocean but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little more slowly, so that a skilled navigator has enough time to slip beneath its rim, reach the outer ocean, and dance all night on the shore of another world.

Ursula absorbed these stories, together with the books she read: children’s classics, Norse myths, Irish folktales, the Iliad. In her father’s library, she discovered Romantic poetry and Eastern philosophy, especially the Tao Te Ching. She and her brother Karl supplemented these with science-fiction magazines. With Karl, the closest to her in age of her three brothers, she played King Arthur’s knights, in armor made of cardboard boxes. The two also made up tales of political intrigue and exploration set in a stuffed-toy world called the Animal Kingdom. This storytelling later gave her a feeling of kinship with the Brontës, whose Gondal and Angria, she says, were “the ‘genius version’ of what Karl and I did.”

Her father was Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the past century. A New Yorker from a prosperous German immigrant family, he went west in 1900, when he was twenty-four, and did field work among the Indians of Northern California.

Throughout his career, he learned about cultures that were rapidly being transformed or destroyed from men and women who were among the last survivors of their people. At a time when the dominant story of America was one of European conquest, Ursula was aware, through her father and his Indian friends who came to the house, that there were other stories to tell and other judgments that might be made.

“With the money we’ll save by shutting down quality control, we can issue some truly spectacular apologies.”

Ursula’s mother was Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, born in Denver in 1897 and raised in the mining town of Telluride. A friend of Le Guin’s recalls seeing her, at the house in Berkeley, “coming down the long staircase, a majestic-looking woman with a long gown and a great big Indian silver and turquoise necklace. She was very stately.” Theodora took to writing in her late fifties, and produced “Ishi in Two Worlds,” a nonfiction account of the last survivor of the Yahi people. Le Guin loved her mother and admired her psychological gifts. But she says that their relationship also contained “something darker and stranger” that she has never quite understood. “We were very lucky, because we never had to act that out. But if I see daughters and mothers act it out toward each other it doesn’t shock me or surprise me. It’s there.”

The Kroeber household was full of voices as well as stories. Alfred liked to pose philosophical questions or puzzles over the dinner table and ask his four children about anything that interested them. The kids were encouraged to take an active part in the conversation, but, as the little sister, Ursula rarely got a word in: “There were too many people, and I was outshouted by everybody else.” Learning how to be heard taught her persistence and gave her a tendency to appear fiercer than she is. “People think I mean everything I say and am full of conviction, often, when I’m actually just floating balloons and ready for a discussion or argument or further pursuit of the subject. It’s my fault—I speak so passionately. Probably because, as the youngest and shrillest child of an extraordinarily articulate and passionate family, I could only be heard by charging over the top, shouting, ‘Marchons, marchons! Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!’ every time I entertained a passing opinion.”

Le Guin’s work combines a Berkeleyite’s love of alternative thought with a strong scientific bent that she sees as an inheritance from her father. In her fiction, she has tried to balance the analytical and the intuitive. “Both directions strike me as becoming more and more sterile the farther you follow them,” she says. “It’s when they can combine that you get something fertile and living and leading forward. Mysticism—which is a word my father held in contempt, basically—and scientific factualism, need for evidence, and so on . . . I do try to juggle them, quite consciously.”

If it was difficult to be the youngest and most precocious of the Kroeber children, leaving the house to enter the world made Ursula feel like “an exile in a Siberia of adolescent social mores.” In the fall of 1944, at fourteen, small for her age, disguised in the sweater, skirt, and loafers of a “bobby-soxer” (a term that still makes her shudder), she began her first year at Berkeley High School, a huge, impersonal institution where popularity mattered more than learning, and fitting in was the ideal. When Le Guin speaks of her teen-age years, she speaks of loneliness, confusion, and the pain of being among people who have no use for one’s gifts. “You’re just dropped into this dreadful place, and there are no explanations why and no directions what to do.”

She found a refuge in the public library, reading Austen and the Brontës, Turgenev and Shelley. In fiction, she could satisfy her deep romantic streak: she fell in love with Prince Andrei in “War and Peace” and once, at thirteen, defaced a library book by cutting out a still of Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy and taking it home to look at in private, guilty rapture. From Thomas Hardy she learned to handle strong feelings in fiction by pouring them into landscapes, letting the settings carry part of the emotional charge. “There’s a patronizing word for that: the ‘pathetic fallacy,’ ” she says. “It’s not a fallacy; it’s art.”

As a child, she was painfully shy, and she still alludes to anxieties that she keeps hidden from the world. I caught a glimpse of that when she asked me, cautiously, “Wouldn’t you say that anybody who thought as much about balance as I do in my work probably felt some threat to their balance?” After a long pause, she added, “Of course all adolescents are out of balance, and very aware of it. To become adult can certainly feel like walking a high wire, can’t it? If my foot slips, I’m gone. I’m dead.”

Equilibrium is a central metaphor in Le Guin’s great works about adolescence, the six-volume Earthsea series, which began in 1968 with “A Wizard of Earthsea.” That book follows Ged, a lonely teen-ager with a gift for magic, who at wizards’ school learns a painful lesson in achieving balance rather than forcing change. There’s little resemblance between the school on Roke Island, with its Taoist magic (a mage is taught to “do by not doing”), and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. There is some resemblance between Ged, the provincial boy with a chip on his shoulder, and Ursula Kroeber, the Californian in jeans arriving at Radcliffe College in 1947, all books and opinions, never before out of her home state, eager to prove herself as a poet. Her Radcliffe friend Jean Taylor Kroeber, who became her sister-in-law, recalls that, before she and Ursula bonded over Russian literature, jokes, and music, she found her “a little frightening. It’s not that she meant to be, but that’s the way it came across . . . that there was a good chance that she was ahead of you, in wherever the conversation was going. And one rather brief acute remark could set you back on your heels.”

Ursula had her first clash with the literary establishment when she and a friend signed up to read submissions for a new Radcliffe literary magazine, Signature. Rona Jaffe worked on the magazine, and its undergraduate contributors included Edward Gorey, Harold Brodkey, and Adrienne Rich, whose poem “Storm Warnings” was published there. The magazine accepted nothing of Ursula’s, and she found those fellow-students “cliquish and unfriendly”: “Their comments on what we submitted ourselves, even the comments on our comments, were often remarkably savage and dismissive. We got out again and gratefully went back to our invisibility.” When Rich won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in her senior year, Le Guin, still unpublished, felt pangs of envy.

On top of that, Radcliffe women were given a double message, receiving an excellent education while knowing, in Rich’s words, that “the real power (and money) were invested in Harvard’s institutions, from which we were excluded.” Though Radcliffe has long since become part of Harvard, Cambridge remains a place of mixed emotions for Le Guin. She has told me both that her college years were wonderful and that she has come to dislike the institution; the two emotions shadow each other. Her senior year was marred by a handsome and arrogant Harvard student, an accidental pregnancy, a broken heart, and an illegal abortion. “I’m often startled at the depth of my anger at Harvard,” she told me. “I know some of the reasons for it, but it wouldn’t be so immediate and uncontrollable if it were accessible to reason. I did get a splendid education there—there was wonderful Widener, the Fogg, the elmy campus, which I remember fondly. But the anger’s there like a mine, ready to go off at a quiver of the ground.”

Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe with a degree in French, in 1951. Over the decade that followed, she wrote poems, short stories, and at least four novels. She submitted them to publishers; they came back with encouraging rejections. She felt her way tentatively forward, unsure of her direction, lacking models. American literature was still under the spell of Hemingway, Faulkner, Richard Wright; realism held sway, and there was little interest in play or fantasy. “I was going in another direction than the critically approved culture was,” Le Guin has said. “I was never going to be Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. I didn’t know who my fellow-writers were. There didn’t seem to be anybody doing what I wanted to do.” She was alarmed by the literary rivalries of the period; she remembers thinking, “I’m not competing with all these guys and their empires and territories. I just want to write my stories and dig my own garden.”

Instead, she found “allies in foreigners I never met,” reading Woolf’s “Orlando,” Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales,” and the short stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner, with their playful and revelatory shifts of perspective. She also became fascinated by the premature, failed revolutions of 1830 and the passionate political documents of the Romantic period, such as “My Prisons,” by the Italian poet and patriot Silvio Pellico. “Books like that were very exciting to me because I could handle them better than I could the contemporary works,” she says. They opened up “the distance that I needed, and probably have always needed, between me and the raw, implacable fact that’s going on right now. I’ve never really been able to handle that. If it’s right in my face, I can’t see it.”

Some writers of her generation embraced confessional literature and, later, memoir. Le Guin has always preferred self-concealment to self-exposure. In the introduction to the Library of America volume, she writes, “I have no interest in confession. My games are transformation and invention.” In college, she began setting her fiction in an imaginary Eastern European country called Orsinia and found that it freed her up as a writer. Away from the “small and stony” ground of realism, her imagination began to flourish. Orsinia also gave her the distance to comment, indirectly, on Communist repression, the persecutions of the McCarthy era, the unfreedom of the age, and her decision to follow her own path.

During the fifties, she worked on “Malafrena,” a novel about a young nobleman who obeys his moral compass by fighting for freedom of speech and thought. Freedom is “a human need, like bread, like water,” he insists. Pressed to define it, he replies, “Freedom consists in doing what you can do best, your work, what you have to do.” For Le Guin freedom is a complex ideal and a word “too big and too old” to be devalued as a platitude or appropriated by hypocrites. “Of course it gets misused,” she says. “But I don’t think you can really damage the word freedom or liberty.”

Another of Le Guin’s places is Cannon Beach, a summer town on the Oregon coast where she and Charles have a small house on a street leading to the ocean. Although she claims to share her father’s “incapacity for reminiscence,” she and I went there to talk about her past. The prospect made her uncomfortable at first, and when we entered the shut-up house she threw nervous energy into cleaning, enlisting me to stand on a chair and brush cobwebs off the ceiling. At a little kitchen table, over tea served in the indestructible handmade earthenware mugs of the seventies, she commented, somewhat defiantly, that she had always taken pleasure in cooking and keeping house. It sounded like criticism of the heroic writer, alone in his garret, but there’s more to it than that. She feels that marriage and family have given her a stability that supported her writing—the freedom of solitude within the solidity of household life. “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again,” she told me. “This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”

When Ursula graduated from Radcliffe, her plan was to get her doctorate and become an academic, like her three older brothers. She got her master’s in Romance languages at Columbia University, then received a Fulbright fellowship to do research in France for her dissertation. On the boat going over, she met Charles LeGuin, a historian with an attractive Georgia accent who was writing his thesis on the French Revolution. They shared a sense of humor; they liked the same books; in Paris, they went together to the opera and the Louvre. Within two weeks they were engaged. When they applied for a marriage license, a “triumphant bureaucrat” told Charles his Breton name was “spelled wrong” without a space, so when they married they both took the name Le Guin.

Ursula abandoned her Ph.D. thesis on medieval French poetry, and while Charles finished researching his own thesis she read, wrote, and talked with him about Europe and revolution. Charles became the first reader for all her work, made sure she got time to write, and when they had children shared in their care. They spent the next few years in Georgia and Idaho, until, in 1959, Charles got the job at Portland State. Ursula recalls flying up from Berkeley with a child on her lap and pregnant with her second. “The plane came in low up the Willamette Valley and circled the city, and I was in tears, it was so beautiful. I thought, My God, I’m going to live there.”

Stubbornness and a self-confessed arrogance about her work helped Le Guin through her unpublished years. Then and now, she feels that she is the best judge of her writing; she is unmoved by literary trends, and not easily swayed by editorial suggestion. “Writing was always my inmost way of being in the world,” she says, but that made rejections increasingly painful:

“I suffered a good deal from the contradiction between knowing writing was the job I was born for and finding nowhere to have that knowledge confirmed.” Then, in 1961 and 1962, two of Le Guin’s stories were published. One, set in Orsinia, a meditation on the consolations of art, went to a small literary journal. The second, about a junior professor liberated from academia by an act of magic, was bought by the science-fiction magazine Fantastic.

“I just didn’t know what to do with my stuff until I stumbled into science fiction and fantasy,” Le Guin says. “And then, of course, they knew what to do with it.” “They” were the editors, fans, and fellow-authors who gave her an audience for her work. If science fiction was down-market, it was at least a market. More than that, genre supplied a ready-made set of tools, including spaceships, planets, and aliens, plus a realm—the future—that set no limits on the imagination. She found that science fiction suited what she called, in a letter to her mother, her “peculiar” talent, and she felt a lightheartedness in her writing that had to do with letting go of ambitions and constraints. In the fall of 1966, when she was thirty-seven, Le Guin began “A Wizard of Earthsea.” In the next few years—which also saw her march against the Vietnam War and dance in a conga line with Allen Ginsberg, when he came to Portland to read Vedas for peace—she produced her great early work, including, in quick succession, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” “The Lathe of Heaven,” “The Farthest Shore,” and “The Dispossessed,” her ambitious novel of anarchist utopia.

Science fiction opened her up further to writing from alien points of view—composing the political manifesto of an ant, wondering what it would be like if humans had the seasonal sexuality of birds, imagining love in a society in which a marriage involves four people. Le Guin says her ambition has always been “not just trying to get into other minds but other beings.”

She adds, “Somewhere in the nineteenth century a line got drawn: you can’t do this for grownups. But fantasy and science fiction just kind of walked around the line.” Another use of the fantastic for Le Guin was to bring her ethical concerns into her fiction without becoming didactic. Take a metaphor far enough and it becomes a parable, as with her widely anthologized story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin’s story begins with an ethical question posed by William James: If all could be made blissfully happy by the fact that one person was being kept in torment, would we accept that condition? She gives the problem just enough reality for the reader to picture the single abused child and feel the consequences of the bargain.

Her influential thought experiment “The Left Hand of Darkness” uses this strategy to explore gender and alterity. Genly Ai, a man from a future Earth, arrives on the planet Gethen, which is inhabited by human beings who are neither male nor female but, for a few days a month, in a sexual phase, can become either. Ai, as a permanent male, is to them a “pervert.” His isolation and wariness are mirrored in the landscape of Gethen, a place of perpetual winter.

No one trusts Ai but Estraven, a Gethenian who is in exile; these two characters take turns narrating the book, so that we see how strange they appear to each other, and how they struggle to connect. Among the book’s central themes are balance—light is the left hand of darkness, the Gethenian saying goes—and trust. These are set against anxieties about otherness, about control and the loss of it. Estraven hopes that Ai can prevent impending war between two rival states, and asks him:

“Do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear.”

To fulfill this mission, Ai must see beyond his own narrow perspective and learn to trust, even love, this person whose nature calls his own into question.

The novel earned Le Guin her first Hugo and Nebula awards, the top honors in science fiction; her migration from the margins was well under way. Despite her growing success, she suffered periods of depression in the nineteen-sixties—“dark passages that I had to work through” is how she described them to me, as if they were vexed sequences in a novel. She wrote them into her fiction, she added, in the Earthsea novel “The Farthest Shore,” exploring a metaphor she borrowed from Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”: depression as a journey through the silent land of the dead.

Another difficult time for her came in the long period that began after “The Dispossessed” was published, in 1974, when she was rethinking the subjects of her work. She had been writing about imaginary revolutions, but by then an actual liberation movement, feminism, was gaining traction. In the light of “the personal is political,” her “Left Hand of Darkness” seemed to some readers too oblique and metaphorical, her sense of play not illuminating but evasive. Up until then, almost all of Le Guin’s protagonists had been male, and she wasn’t sure how to write from a woman’s perspective, especially since she had long resisted writing directly from personal experience. As a wife and mother who had always had her husband’s support, she was wary of the angry anti-family rhetoric of some mid-nineteen-seventies feminists. She explained, “I had lost confidence in the kind of writing I had been doing because I was (mostly unconsciously) struggling to learn how to write as a woman, not as an ‘honorary man’ as before, and with a freedom that scared me.”

She went on working steadily, writing short stories, essays, poetry, and young-adult fiction. She revised and published some of her older work: “Orsinian Tales” (which was a finalist for a National Book Award) appeared in 1976; “Malafrena” in 1979. She did begin writing from female points of view. But her turn to “writing as a woman,” while it won her new readers, alienated part of her old audience. Some of her new work was criticized as unsubtle or moralistic. Her mother died in 1979, a painful loss. She came to think of this time as “the dark hard place.”

Le Guin emerged from this period by stepping over the boundaries that separated science fiction and literature. Starting in the nineteen-eighties, she published some of her most accomplished work—fiction that was realist, magic realist, postmodernist, and sui generis. She wrote the Borgesian feminist parable “She Unnames Them,” and in 1985 an experimental tour de force of a novel, “Always Coming Home.” She produced “Sur,” the epic tale of an all-female Antarctic exploring party that may be her greatest and funniest feminist statement. Her short stories began appearing in The New Yorker, where her editor, Charles McGrath, saw in her an ability to “transform genre fiction into something higher.”

In fact, it was the mainstream that ended up transformed. By breaking down the walls of genre, Le Guin handed new tools to twenty-first-century writers working in what Chabon calls the “borderlands,” the place where the fantastic enters literature. A group of writers as unlike as Chabon, Molly Gloss, Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Victor LaValle, Zadie Smith, and David Mitchell began to explore what’s possible when they combine elements of realism and fantasy. The fantasy and science-fiction scholar Brian Attebery has noted that “every writer I know who talks about Ursula talks about a sense of having been invited or empowered to do something.” Given that many of Le Guin’s protagonists have dark skin, the science-fiction writer N. K. Jemisin speaks of the importance to her and others of encountering in fantasy someone who looked like them. Karen Joy Fowler, a friend of Le Guin’s whose novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” questions the nature of the human-animal bond, says that Le Guin offered her alternatives to realism by bringing the fantastic out of its “underdog position.” For writers, she says, Le Guin “makes you think many things are possible that you maybe didn’t think were possible.”

Le Guin still has strong feelings about artistic liberty. In November, 2014, she travelled to New York with her son, Theo, to accept the Distinguished Contribution medal at the National Book Awards ceremony. In a new collection of nonfiction, “Words Are My Matter,” she writes that drafting her six-minute speech took her six months. “I rethought and replanned it, anxiously, over and over. Even on a poem, I’ve never worked so long and so obsessively, or with so little assurance that what I was saying was right, was what I ought to say.” But, having clashed with corporate publishing in the past, she felt an obligation to take the industry to task.

Standing at the lectern, she gave an uncharacteristically apologetic smile. Then she scowled at her audience of editors and publishers and unleashed a tirade. “I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. . . . And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this—letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to publish, and what to write.” Instead, she admonished them, “We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” At her conclusion, members of the audience hesitated, looked around, and then slowly rose to their feet for an ovation.

Starting in the nineteen-nineties, Le Guin returned in earnest to historical fiction, in “Lavinia,” and to science fiction and fantasy. Some of her best late work in this mode appears in “The Found and the Lost,” a new eight-hundred-plus-page compendium of her novellas. But a few years ago Le Guin stopped writing fiction, saying it took an energy she didn’t have—although she doesn’t rule out anything in the future. “Never” and “last,” she wrote in a recent blog post, “are closing words. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to open closed doors and windows, I have no intention of going around slamming them shut now.”

She still gives readings, which attract a notably youthful audience. And she writes nonfiction, including book reviews for the Guardian, in which she is glowing in her enthusiasms and fierce in her dislikes. (The enthusiasms include works by Saramago, Rushdie, and Atwood; the dislikes include present-tense narration, fiction about “dysfunctional American suburban families,” and mainstream writers who attempt science fiction without understanding its rules.) She is turning more now to poetry; her most recent collection, “Late in the Day,” was published last year. She told me she was writing some poems exploring extreme old age, playing with the metaphor of an explorer’s sea voyage to the West. “I think some testimony from the late eighties could be useful to people,” she said. Then she added, laughing, “Other people in their late eighties might want to read it. I don’t know about anybody in their late fifties: ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to go there.’ ”

At the house in Cannon Beach, she showed me the family’s photo albums. Over the years, Le Guin’s author photos show a steady progression from a wary young woman, ill at ease in front of the camera, to someone more at home in a public role. But I had asked about the private photos, and here was Ursula, age six or seven, with short black hair, bare-legged on dusty California ground, playing with a toy car and staring into the distance at something unseen.

“I like that one,” she told me. “I look feral. I guess I was rather feral.”

Then there was Ursula at the Arc de Triomphe, a gamine holding an armful of roses, and Charles, looking dashing in a new Parisian coat, climbing Mont Sainte-Victoire. Infants enter the pictures, then small children. In a photo of Ursula in her twenties, she glances up from a typewriter with a look I’d come to recognize: startled, her eyes unfocussed, her thoughts in a place the camera can’t follow.

The next morning, Le Guin stood in the front yard of her house at the edge of the world, feeding a family of crows. The sun was out, and a block away the surf beat gently on the broad beach, where the town meets the waters of the North Pacific. Here the land seemed undone by the unknown distances of the ocean, and Le Guin seemed to be standing where the forces met, gazing beyond her garden to some farther shore. ♦

Julie Phillips is working on a book on writing and mothering, and is researching a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin.

This article appears in other versions of the October 17, 2016, issue, with the headline “Out of Bounds.”

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to the Ursula Le Guin's Author Page



Search

Quick Access to:

Authors

Artists

New Releases

Featured Releases


Other Avenues Are Possible: Legacy of the People’s Food System of the San Francisco Bay Area

Headhunters