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Peter Linebaugh's Stop, Thief!: A Review in Anarchist Studies Journal

by Martin Parker
Anarchist Studies 23-1

According to Peter Linebaugh, if a radical speaker wanted to get attention in the hurly burly of a street, one tactic was to shout ‘stop thief!’ loudly and repeatedly until a crowd gathered and began to pay attention. In this megaphone of a book, we are reminded just how much thieving has been going on, and for how long. In its dense series of interconnected essays, most published elsewhere but definitely benefit-
ting from their collection here, the theme of enclosures and commons is repeated in different places and times until we can be in no doubt that the argument is a general one. Thieves have been stealing our stuff for a long while now, and it’s time to start noticing and doing something about it.

We don’t need to run through the general features of the commons argument here, but it’s worth making one point clear. For Linebaugh, commoning is a rela- tionship (p 18), and ‘the commons’ is something produced by that relationship. It’s important to bear that in mind when reading these essays, because otherwise we would easily end up in a series of unhelpful dichotomies. For example, the wide open spaces of the country ended by the confinements of the city; the field replaced by the factory; and freedom by institutions. Though Linebaugh is often enough a romantic when it comes to wild flowers and long walks, he knows that ‘the city itself must be commonized’ (p 40).

The essays here touch on topics which will be familiar to those who know Peter Linebaugh’s work – crime, Marx, history, romanticism, slavery, women in men’s clothing and vice versa – a list of all the ways in which the word ‘common’ becomes a slur in the English language. This books adds Godzilla, cowboys, witches and the importance of rest ‘because earth, air, water and fire, formerly common, are utterly exhausted by the world’s privatizers who call their exploitation “business”. But business is the opposite of rest.’ (p 135)

It’s a tremendous book, bursting with astonishing detail, bizarre entanglements, autobiographical excursions and firebrand rhetoric. It is a most ill-disciplined read too, one that refuses to stay within its constituent disciplines – history and politics – and that instead oscillates between Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’ scholarship and a tub thumping condemnation of the present. Circumnavigating the shores of the Atlantic, Linebaugh forces his readers to think about communing, communism and the deep tides of history that connect ‘then’ with ‘now’. It’s a great read.

This leaves questions, of course, because as Linebaugh says ‘in true dialectics ... each party in the discussion is changed by it’ (p 255). So sometimes, as I read, I wondered what the boundaries of this commons might be. As someone who is interested in organisations, I began to wonder whether Linebaugh would regard all institutions as enclosures, as attempts to channel and restrict the flows of human action. As we might expect from a thunderer on a soapbox, variants of good commons and bad enclosures are conjured with enthusiasm, but there is little reflection on what a more relational account of this politics might look like. In other words, could we consider what sorts of enclo- sures are good and useful, and what sorts of commons might be a problem? For example, when he describes the division of labour as a form of enclosure (p 80), does that mean that any allocation of tasks to different people is an offence to the commons? I hope he wouldn’t argue that, and that the sort of radical history and explosive writing that this book encloses can be turned to the practical business of building the future, as well as re-telling the past for a crowd who will probably roar their agreement anyway.

 
Buy Stop, Thief! | Download e-Book now | Back to Peter Linebaugh's Author Page




New Forms of Worker Organization reviewed in Anarchist Studies

by Jim Donaghey
Anarchist Studies 23-2

Bureaucratic, class-compromise unions have had their day – they are ineffective
at best, totally treacherous at worst, they are no longer trusted to represent the interests of workers, and their memberships are at an all-time low. In their stead alternative unions and workers’ assemblies based on democracy, direct action, and prefigurative revolution are popping-up across the globe, informed by anarchist, syndicalist, autonomist, and council-communist traditions. This is the argument that weaves its way through the collected contributions that make-up New Forms of Worker Organization.

There are thirteen case studies here, with a broad range of contexts, styles
and approaches. They include historical pieces such as Steven Manicastri’s brief history of Operaismo in 1970s Italy, Gabriel Kuhn’s overview of the centenarian SAC in Sweden, Burgmann, Jureidini, and Burgmann’s case studies of workers’ control experiments in 1970s Australia, and Genese Marie Sodikoff’s ethnographic work from 1990s Madagascar. Throughout the chapters, comparisons are also frequently made with the early twentieth century, both in terms of socio-economic circumstances and the syndicalist and worker-run unions which emerged at that time. However, one of the key assertions of this volume is that the qualitative step- change from traditional to alternative union organising is eminently current, and as such most of the chapters take a contemporary focus. Editor Ness writes in his introduction that this focus sets the volume apart, as he argues that ‘[l]iterature on anarchism and syndicalism is almost entirely historical, drawn from the late nine- teenth to early twentieth centuries’ (p6). I’m not sure that this assertion is entirely accurate, especially considering the body of literature on contemporary activism that has been produced in recent years, but the up-to-date focus is very welcome all the same. In addition to the historical perspectives on Italy, Sweden, Australia, and Madagascar there are contemporary case studies from across the global north and global south, with chapters on Russia, China, India, South Africa, Colombia, Argentina, the UK, and the US.

The diversity of case study contexts is reflected in the mixed-bag of approaches and analyses. The most engaging chapters are those which make use of interview material and correspondence with struggling workers, or those written by participants in struggles themselves. Aviva Chomsky’s chapter on miners’ solidarity with indig- enous communities in Colombia, Darío Bursztyn’s chapter on underground train drivers in Buenos Aires, and Jack Kirkpatrick’s account of IWW cleaners in London all benefit from first-hand testimony. Erik Forman’s chapter on IWW organising in the Jimmy John sandwich chain in Minnesota is worthy of special mention, making use of a highly engaging narrative style to recount the details of the struggle from a participant’s perspective, as well as incorporating a good deal of insightful analysis. Other chapters are somewhat dry and overly descriptive. Bizyukov and Olimpieva’s chapter on Russia suffers from this especially with a death-by-data of graphs and tables. While a distaste for this approach is likely to be highly subjective, their data set only extends from 2008 to 2011, and the analysis of a shift in labour relations is quite limited as a result.

Anarcho-syndicalist, autonomist-Marxist, and council-communist analyses all rub-along together in this volume but are united in a shared disdain for ‘traditional’ unions, and an enthusiasm for the democratic, self-directed, and revolutionary forms of worker organisation that they describe – and as Ness stresses in the introduction, there is no ‘ideal type’ being proffered here (p2). It is notable, however, that Shawn Hattingh’s is the only chapter to suggest taking over the mainstream unions as a worthwhile aim (p112), with all the other authors placing their optimism firmly in organically formed workers’ assemblies and councils, and in the (re)emerging ‘scrappy little DIY unions’ (as Kirkpatrick describes the IWW, p246).

This volume will certainly be of interest to those researching labour struggles in diverse global contexts, but the overarching argument of the book should appeal to workplace activists and a wider audience as well. Against the backdrop of rapacious neo-liberalism, the spread of precarious employment, and a nadir for class-conscious- ness, the new forms of worker organisation described here really do give hope for a democratic and militant reinvigoration of struggle which extends out from the work- place and into society as a whole.

Can recent experiments with alternative forms of organizing, such as worker centers and minority strikes, offer a solution to the labor movement’s long half-century of decline?

Racked by globalization, union-busting, and weak legal protections, unions in the U.S. have fallen from representing 35 percent of the working population in the 1950s to 12 percent today. Other countries have seen similar trends.

An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

What these efforts have in common is an approach that editor Immanuel Ness calls “autonomous worker organizing,” which is largely a renewal of an old form of unionism called syndicalism. He promotes it as the best way forward for labor, in the U.S. and globally.

Revival of Syndicalism?

Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time. Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.

It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production. This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

The new book’s case studies take place in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, the U.S., and England. Most have a militancy that’s lacking in many traditional union fights. For instance, they use wildcat strikes and occupations. Ness suggests these diverse efforts share some of the core principles of syndicalism, particularly member-initiated direct action in the workplace.

The book’s U.S. example is fascinating: a detailed, firsthand account by a worker who participated in the Industrial Workers of the World fast food organizing campaign at Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities.

The campaign demonstrates the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model. Without relying on union staff, workers run their own campaign, developing demands and using direct action tactics to fight for them. Jimmy John’s workers created an organizing committee, listed their demands, stopped work, marched on the boss, picketed and occupied the store, published a campaign website, ran a campaign for paid sick days—and over time, made improvements to wages and working conditions.

They also held a National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election, which they narrowly lost after a union-busting campaign by the boss. This raised questions among workers about the utility of the established procedures for organizing.

Bottom-Up Organizing

In many of the book’s case studies, nonunion workers organized independently because of disinterest or hostility from established unions. In others, though workers were unionized, their unions didn’t offer adequate channels to resolve their workplace grievances, so they had to take their own initiative.

Official unions often did little to help the workers, and sometimes even worked to undermine them. This was true in the chapters about several groups of auto workers—at Honda in China, Ford in Russia, and Suzuki in India. Despite the opposition of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Honda workers held a successful and high-profile strike for better wages, inspiring actions at many other plants.

When mineworkers in South Africa launched a wave of wildcat strikes and sit-ins, they faced interference from the National Union of Mineworkers on top of severe repression from the government, which killed dozens of workers in the mining town of Marikana.

Workers organizing independently within mainstream unions are covered in chapters on the militant subway workers caucus within the transportation union in Argentina and on workplace takeovers in the construction, garment, and mining industries in Australia. Workers took over the construction site at the famous Sydney Opera House and ran it for over a month—with greater productivity. They won higher pay and shorter hours.

Two chapters discuss autonomous workers’ movements or organizations that cross industries within a country: the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) in Italy and the SAC syndicalist federation in Sweden.

This book provides a great overview of the non-traditional part of the global labor movement, which needs more attention. A common thread: workers are building power in ways that rely on worker initiative and solidarity, not on formal legal certification or union contracts.

It raises crucial questions about the role of rank-and-file power in a union revival, and offers a challenge to traditional union practices.

Much-Needed Spark

To solve the labor movement’s problems, first you have to understand their origins. In the U.S., mainstream unionists tend to believe the era after the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was a golden age for organizing.

That law is seen as a progressive breakthrough that protected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. In this version of the story, our current troubles are the result of a renewed corporate anti-union offensive begun in the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with a lack of enforcement of labor rights.

If that’s true, then the solution is reformed labor law and better enforcement. But Ness ends the book with a compelling essay that critiques this traditional understanding.

He sees the NLRA as a loss for the labor movement. It created a bureaucratized industrial relations system that stifled workers’ initiative and militancy on the shop floor. Unions traded away their disruptive rank-and-file power for an NLRA that shackled unions as contract administrators and eventually enabled their decline.

Ness shares the syndicalist view that disrupting production is what makes employers yield. Empowered workers should be free to stop work at any time, not hindered by the no-strike clauses and multi-step grievance procedures contained in most union contracts. Without this kind of militancy, he believes, there’s little chance of a revived labor movement.

If Ness is correct, the initiatives the U.S. labor movement has developed over the last few decades—more resources for new organizing, better corporate campaigns, increased turnout for elections—will not be enough. Instead, to make room for the widespread, combative workplace activism we need, unions will have to rethink our attitude toward rank-and-file power.

Of course this is risky. Strikes are often hard to win. Workers can usually be fired easily, no matter how organizing is done or who does it. But the resurgence of a participatory, syndicalist approach to organizing could provide a much-needed spark for labor.

Eric Dirnbach is a union staffer and labor activist in New York City.

- See more at: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/10/review-alt-labor-or-not-it-will-take-rank-and-file-power-revive-us#sthash.pEZlw0kP.dpuf

Can recent experiments with alternative forms of organizing, such as worker centers and minority strikes, offer a solution to the labor movement’s long half-century of decline?

Racked by globalization, union-busting, and weak legal protections, unions in the U.S. have fallen from representing 35 percent of the working population in the 1950s to 12 percent today. Other countries have seen similar trends.

An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

What these efforts have in common is an approach that editor Immanuel Ness calls “autonomous worker organizing,” which is largely a renewal of an old form of unionism called syndicalism. He promotes it as the best way forward for labor, in the U.S. and globally.

Revival of Syndicalism?

Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time. Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.

It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production. This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

The new book’s case studies take place in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, the U.S., and England. Most have a militancy that’s lacking in many traditional union fights. For instance, they use wildcat strikes and occupations. Ness suggests these diverse efforts share some of the core principles of syndicalism, particularly member-initiated direct action in the workplace.

The book’s U.S. example is fascinating: a detailed, firsthand account by a worker who participated in the Industrial Workers of the World fast food organizing campaign at Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities.

The campaign demonstrates the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model. Without relying on union staff, workers run their own campaign, developing demands and using direct action tactics to fight for them. Jimmy John’s workers created an organizing committee, listed their demands, stopped work, marched on the boss, picketed and occupied the store, published a campaign website, ran a campaign for paid sick days—and over time, made improvements to wages and working conditions.

They also held a National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election, which they narrowly lost after a union-busting campaign by the boss. This raised questions among workers about the utility of the established procedures for organizing.

Bottom-Up Organizing

In many of the book’s case studies, nonunion workers organized independently because of disinterest or hostility from established unions. In others, though workers were unionized, their unions didn’t offer adequate channels to resolve their workplace grievances, so they had to take their own initiative.

Official unions often did little to help the workers, and sometimes even worked to undermine them. This was true in the chapters about several groups of auto workers—at Honda in China, Ford in Russia, and Suzuki in India. Despite the opposition of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Honda workers held a successful and high-profile strike for better wages, inspiring actions at many other plants.

When mineworkers in South Africa launched a wave of wildcat strikes and sit-ins, they faced interference from the National Union of Mineworkers on top of severe repression from the government, which killed dozens of workers in the mining town of Marikana.

Workers organizing independently within mainstream unions are covered in chapters on the militant subway workers caucus within the transportation union in Argentina and on workplace takeovers in the construction, garment, and mining industries in Australia. Workers took over the construction site at the famous Sydney Opera House and ran it for over a month—with greater productivity. They won higher pay and shorter hours.

Two chapters discuss autonomous workers’ movements or organizations that cross industries within a country: the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) in Italy and the SAC syndicalist federation in Sweden.

This book provides a great overview of the non-traditional part of the global labor movement, which needs more attention. A common thread: workers are building power in ways that rely on worker initiative and solidarity, not on formal legal certification or union contracts.

It raises crucial questions about the role of rank-and-file power in a union revival, and offers a challenge to traditional union practices.

Much-Needed Spark

To solve the labor movement’s problems, first you have to understand their origins. In the U.S., mainstream unionists tend to believe the era after the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was a golden age for organizing.

That law is seen as a progressive breakthrough that protected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. In this version of the story, our current troubles are the result of a renewed corporate anti-union offensive begun in the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with a lack of enforcement of labor rights.

If that’s true, then the solution is reformed labor law and better enforcement. But Ness ends the book with a compelling essay that critiques this traditional understanding.

He sees the NLRA as a loss for the labor movement. It created a bureaucratized industrial relations system that stifled workers’ initiative and militancy on the shop floor. Unions traded away their disruptive rank-and-file power for an NLRA that shackled unions as contract administrators and eventually enabled their decline.

Ness shares the syndicalist view that disrupting production is what makes employers yield. Empowered workers should be free to stop work at any time, not hindered by the no-strike clauses and multi-step grievance procedures contained in most union contracts. Without this kind of militancy, he believes, there’s little chance of a revived labor movement.

If Ness is correct, the initiatives the U.S. labor movement has developed over the last few decades—more resources for new organizing, better corporate campaigns, increased turnout for elections—will not be enough. Instead, to make room for the widespread, combative workplace activism we need, unions will have to rethink our attitude toward rank-and-file power.

Of course this is risky. Strikes are often hard to win. Workers can usually be fired easily, no matter how organizing is done or who does it. But the resurgence of a participatory, syndicalist approach to organizing could provide a much-needed spark for labor.

Eric Dirnbach is a union staffer and labor activist in New York City.

- See more at: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/10/review-alt-labor-or-not-it-will-take-rank-and-file-power-revive-us#sthash.pEZlw0kP.dpuf

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Immanuel Ness's Author Page




Black Flags and Windmills in Anarchist Studies Journal

by John DuBose
Anarchist Studies 23-1

In August 2005 Mother Nature unleashed the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina. Massive damage was wreaked as Katrina moved inland over New Orleans but the government’s total neglect of the people there was the true devastation. Parts of New Orleans were below sea level and the levees that the Army Corps of Engineers built could not withstand the force of 100mph+ winds. The levees broke, Mother Nature took over, and afterwards, the government abandoned its people. Not just any of its people, but mostly the poor and the working class of the Lower 9th Ward.

Scott Crow’s journey begins in this devastated and neglected community ‘with a question of life and death’ concerning his friend Robert H. King. King (a.k.a. Robert King Wilkerson) is a former Black Panther Party member who was unjustly sentenced to twenty-nine years in Louisiana’s Angola Prison and it was Crow’s ties to King that drew him into the recovery and aid efforts in the Lower 9th Ward in the aftermath of Katrina. What he found in New Orleans was that the government was doing little to help, and even less to account for its own neglect and inability to help. This void was filled, among others, by the Common Ground Collective.

The Common Ground Collective’s story is of a political activist and social organ- iser bringing help to those in need while government agencies fight over who will be in charge and people starve because aid is stalled. Against a background of landlords selling off people’s homes and vigilante groups of racist whites running rampant, it is a story of the strength of the socioeconomic class that is forged when they are forgotten by the government machine. It is a story of hope within anarchy.

As one is taken on this journey with Scott Crow, one can feel the rage of a govern- ment out of its depth and out of touch with the needs of a people it has forgotten. One sees the horror of the events, not as told in the local and national news, but the truthful perspective as experienced on the ground. Scott Crow is not a saviour, nor is he the champion who swooped in to ‘save the day’, he is a person like any other. But he continuously fought for what was right for the people who lived through Hurricane Katrina. He listened to the needs of the people in the area and accepted the help and support of those the government turned away (Michael Moore and others). Black Flags and Windmills is about looking at disaster from the point of view of those who are always forgotten: the poor. The past struggles of the Black Panther Party and the Zapatistas (EZLN) are where Scott and others draw their political activist strength. These groups have to fight against a system that sees them as unimportant and must survive on their own terms. Black Flags and Windmills is not a testament about fighting and winning against the system, rather it a testament of what people can accomplish when they meet collectively on a common ground.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to scott crow's Author Page




Black Flags and Windmills in Maximum Rock n Roll

by John Stehlin
Maximum Rock n Roll
July 2015


In Black Flags and Windmills, scott crow tells the story of the formation of the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans amid the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in fall 2005, which disproportionately affected African-American communities already made vulnerable by disinvestment, poverty, and state inaction. Equal parts memoir, movement history, anarchist polemic, and organizing handbook, the book traces the early months of Common Ground’s efforts to build collective power and self-sufficiency among residents of the predominantly black Algiers neighborhood, working under the banner of “Solidarity Not Charity.” These efforts came at a time when the emergency response by federal and state agencies often ignored and even terrorized poor communities of color while residents contended with trauma, illness, violence, and the loss of homes and lives. The Common Ground story, as the many pages of glowing reviews attest, is a modern narrative of heroism without heroes, demonstrating the vitality and effectiveness of anarchist principles in the face of emergency.

This edition adds a new foreword and rewritten epilogue, photographs from the early days of the CGC, two interviews with the author, a collection of emails and communiqués from crow to supporters, CGC founding documents, and a list of the actions CGC undertook. Though I haven’t read the first edition, I think these parts alone merit another look at the book (though probably not a purchase) from people who have. They show how crow at the time envisioned and related the actions of the CGC to activist solidarity networks. This complements the main narrative, which retells the history based on recollections and oral histories from several years later. The less-than-initiated (like myself) will also appreciate the breadth of the list of tasks the CGC worked on, reproduced in the appendix. Collective members and volunteers pursued these efforts with an “emergency heart” (crow’s phrase), a horizontalist spirit, and a willingness to serve local black leaders that demonstrates anarchism at its best and least dogmatic.

Unfortunately many of the things that make this book great are also shortcomings, and because it’s justly lauded I’ll permit myself to be picky. To begin with, as a memoir the book works almost too well. crow is clearly wary of presenting the story of forming the CGC without accounting for his own formation as a white, male solidarity activist who entwined his fate with those of black residents of New Orleans. Thus, after the first few pages, in which crow and now-infamous Brandon Darby journey to inundated New Orleans in search of their comrade King, a former Black Panther Party member and community activist, the book turns to crow’s personal history and how he came to call himself an anarchist. To be very clear: this is a very important part of the story and shouldn’t be omitted. But at times it can be jarring, and, as crow clearly understands, can play into the mainstream media’s desire for a figurehead and hero. During these sections he also enters brief excurses on the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, the Black Panther Party, and the Zapatistas. Readers already familiar with the histories of these movements will tire of these reminders. By the same token, for people new to anarchism and social movement history, these are valuable sections the book can’t do without.

Furthermore, because the story is told—rightly—from crow’s own perspective, we miss out on how the CGC evolved in the years that followed. crow left New Orleans to return to Austin after nearly two months of intense labor, punctuated by the trauma of grief, loss, and threats of violence from the state. He returned frequently thereafter, but was no longer involved on the ground in the day-to-day. From the epilogue, we know that as the emergency receded, the CGC slowly transformed into a more stable and traditional non-profit agency, while retaining a radical culture and its “Solidarity Not Charity” mission. crow seems ambivalent on this point, at times calling it cooptation and at times celebrating the valuable work the CGC still does. But we don’t get any sense of how this happened. It’s not enough to assert that Power (which crow capitalizes, in my view gratingly, to refer to the state and capital) by necessity coopts and controls. To understand what the CGC story means for future dual power organizing (both resisting the capitalist state and prefiguring its non-coercive alternative), it would help to see the steps by which it became integrated into the “non-profit industrial complex.” As a movement history, the book does not do this.

This means there are gaps in its usefulness for anarchist political theory as well. We don’t get a larger sense of why anticapitalist and anti-state movements for collective security and prefiguring a better world flourish in the gaps left by disasters, whether socio-ecological (as in Katrina) or socio-economic (as in Detroit). crow asserts that Power and the state exist only to control. But despite being punctuated by hostile interventions by the police and military, as well as ineffective ones by FEMA and the Red Cross, Algiers and the Lower Ninth Ward are places the state seemed to abandon at the time. Power (with a capital P) does control, but also controls by ignoring. This is important for anarchists to understand, but there isn’t much space devoted to these finer nuances of power. Nor is there a longer discussion of one of the most interesting aspects of the book: the sharp contrast between violent, racist, and hostile police force, and the somewhat friendlier, more cooperative military. This contrast shows in practice more shades of grey within the state than crow’s theoretical discussions sometimes admit.

Lastly, while crow never celebrates the horrific and totally avoidable disaster that created the conditions for Common Ground’s emergence, we must wonder what it takes to build dual power without some traumatic breakdown. Both anarchist solidarity activists and vulture capitalists can rush into the vacuum left by state neglect, as New Orleans since Katrina shows. At times, statements crow makes about the superiority of the horizontal tactics of the former sound eerily resonant with what you might hear from a right-wing libertarian. What the people of New Orleans deserve is a set of durable, democratic and non-hierarchical institutions that deliver the necessities of life, not a shoestring organization of overworked, committed militants on one hand and Blackwater on the other. Indeed, when CGC tried to buy public housing that was slated for demolition, really threatening capital and the state that facilitates it, their efforts were apparently sabotaged (http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/repression-against-grassroots-hurricane-relief-lingers-in-new-orleans/). And speaking of the state, readers hoping for dirt about scumbag FBI informant Brandon Darby (now a conservative columnist at Breitbart, unsurprisingly), this isn’t the place. Darby gets just a few paragraphs, mostly about his rash egotism and crow’s regrets about defending him.

I would strongly recommend this book to people less familiar with anarchism and social movement history than your average well-read punk or anarchoid is. For the person in your life who thinks anarchists only wear black and smash windows, or doesn’t know who the Zapatistas are, or sees no place for the kind of armed self-defense (yes, with guns) that the immediate post-flood situation required, this is a perfect book. If you don’t know much about the grassroots efforts post-Katrina (and I didn’t), it’s a compelling read, and crow’s passion and heart comes through on every page. I don’t want to accuse crow of not writing the book I want him to have written. But for the reasons I discussed above, I think we still need another history of the CGC, one that brings us up to the present, perhaps told by Malik Rahim, crow’s comrade and former Panther who co-founded Common Ground with him. Without such a history, we have a detailed snapshot told by one man of heroic efforts in traumatic times, instead of a tool we can continue to return to for guidance in similar situations as emergency wanes and the status quo creeps steadily back in.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to scott crow's Author Page




Anarchism, Marxism and Victor Serge on Counterpunch

by Staughton Lynd
Counterpunch
August 24th, 2015

Andrej Grubacic and I have suggested the importance of synthesizing two radical traditions, anarchism and Marxism. (Wobblies and Zapatistas, pp. 11-12, 98-99.)

In search of efforts in this direction in the United States, we called attention to the “Chicago idea” of two of the Haymarket anarchists, Albert Parsons and August Spies. Speaking to the jury and a packed courtroom before he was sentenced to death, Parsons distinguished two forms of socialism: state socialism, which meant government control of everything, and anarchism, an egalitarian society without a controlling authority. (James Green, Death in the Haymarket, p. 238.)

Twenty years later, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, presented their own rich mixture of ideas, practices, and songs, drawn from these two traditions.

This essay presents the lifelong efforts to synthesize anarchism and Marxism by a man who wrote under the name “Victor Serge.”

A New Book

Victor Serge was born in Brussels in 1890. His given name was Victor Kibalchich; he adopted “Serge” as a pen name. His parents had left Tsarist Russia after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. A distant relative, N. J. Kibalchich, a chemist, made the bombs that killed the tsar, and was executed. Thus Serge shared a biological connection to the terrorist act with Lenin, whose older brother was executed also.

In his best-known book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Serge recalled: “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged.” All political differences aside, the martyrs of the People’s Will movement set a standard for self-sacrificial conduct to which later Russian revolutionaries aspired. In a history of the first year of the Russian Revolution, Serge would say of the Narodniks and Social Revolutionaries of the previous generation that they “gave heroes and martyrs in hundreds to the cause of revolution.”

Serge wrote primarily in French. About twenty of his books, divided more or less equally between fiction and non-fiction, have been translated into English. Twenty-seven boxes of documents, mostly unpublished, are housed (improbably) at the Beinecke rare books library of Yale University.

It must be kept in mind that while living in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1936 Serge wrote in difficult circumstances. In anticipation of interference by the Soviet government, he sent much of his writing to French publishers segment by segment. An international outcry caused him to be released from confinement and allowed to go into exile, but the Soviet secret police confiscated manuscripts that were never recovered. Moreover, Serge had always to assess the personal and political context of a particular work. Thus, when he arrived in Mexico soon after Trotsky’s assassination and wrote a biography of the Old Man jointly with Trotsky’s widow, he understandably did not include the fact that he had “broken” with Trotsky a few years earlier (see below).

Anarchists Never Surrender offers precious documentation of Serge’s early career as an anarchist. Initially, it seems, he considered himself a “socialist.” Predictably disgusted with the tepid parliamentary activity of European Social Democrats, he became an anarchist of a more and more individualist variety. At this early point in his trajectory, Serge thought that workers were hopelessly caught up in immediate materialistic objectives, hence a revolution requiring mass participation and support was impossible.

Young Serge apparently drew a line at bank robberies and shoot-outs with the police. However, close friends of his were deeply involved and more than one was eventually guillotined. At their trials Serge refused to snitch. He received a five year prison sentence as an accomplice, and memorably described his experience in his first book, Men in Prison.

Released from behind bars, Serge wrote to a friend that he no longer championed the “sectarian intransigence of the past” and was prepared to work with all those who were “animated by the same desire for a better life . . . even if their paths are different from mine, and even if they give different names I don’t know to what in reality is our common goal.” In January 1919 he found his way to the insurgent Soviet Union. There he attempted to give unconditional support to a Communist government while never abandoning an anarchist concern to protect what Rosa Luxemburg called “the person who thinks differently” (der Andersdenkender).

The first great treasure in this book is a group of messages Serge wrote to French anarchists in 1920-1921. Here he seeks to explain why he “joined the Russian Communist Party as an anarchist, without in any way abdicating my ideas, except for what was utopian.” These documents attempt to communicate the almost indescribable suffering in St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) during the civil war. A young Jewish student from Kharkov matter of factly described to Serge half a dozen moments when he was almost killed by anti-Semites, whereas wherever the Communists established themselves “the pogroms cease.”

Serge concedes in these messages that the Russian revolution “has earned many criticisms, but I don’t know who has earned the right to make them.” He sees clearly that the “greatest danger of dictatorship is that it tends to firmly implant itself, that it creates permanent institutions that it wants neither to abdicate nor to die a natural death.” But the struggle against dictatorship, Serge was convinced, had to wait until after the revolution was secure. He pleads for a new anarchism that “will doubtless be very close to Marxist communism.”

Many years later, but in the same spirit, Serge asked Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov to take to his father a call for Trotskyists in the Fourth International to explore a “fraternal alliance” with Spanish anarchists and syndicalists.

Anarchists Never Surrender ends with a 26-page Serge essay on “Anarchist Thought,” to which I shall return in conclusion. It is a critical document if we are to understand how Serge viewed the possible synthesis of Marxism and anarchism.

Memories

Let’s go back to Serge’s own explanations, in his Memoirs, of the impact of the Russian revolution on the impressionable young anarchist from western Europe.

Serge was enormously impressed by Lenin. It was characteristic of the anarchist in Serge closely to study the conduct, even the physical characteristics, of individuals. Here is what he had to say about Lenin:

In the Kremlin, he still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. An old housekeeper looked after his rooms and did his mending.

Moreover, according to Serge, Lenin kept looking for ways to introduce democratic elements into the dictatorship of the proletariat. In April 1917, before the seizure of state power in November, Lenin proposed:

1. The source of power does not lie in law . . . but in the direct initiative of the popular masses, a local initiative taken from below.

2. The police and the army . . . are replaced by the arming of the people.

3. The functionaries are replaced by the people itself or are, at the very least, under its control; they are named by election and may be recalled by their constituents.

Lenin also advocated a Soviet form of free press, pursuant to which “any group with the support of 10,000 votes could publish its own organ at the public expense.” Serge insisted: “I know that . . . in May 1922, Lenin and Kamenev were considering . . . allowing a non-party daily to be published in Moscow.”

Victor Serge was of great value to the vulnerable young Bolshevik Revolution because he apparently was at home in French, Russian, German, Spanish, and English. But the comradely honeymoon or close working relationship between Serge and the Bolshevik Party lasted less than three years. Also included in Anarchists Never Surrender are fragments concerning the fundamental differences between Trotsky and Serge concerning the savage repression of an uprising by workers and sailors in 1921 at the military base in Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg. I remember being told when I was much younger that Trotsky ordered the rebels to surrender or he would lead the Red Army across the ice and “shoot them down like pheasants.”

For Serge, looking back in 1938, Kronstadt was only the tip of the iceberg. An earlier “black day” occurred in 1918, when the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party decided to permit the Cheka (the secret police) “to apply the death penalty on the basis of secret procedure, without hearing the deceased who could not defend themselves” (italics in original).

So what went wrong? Looking back, Serge found the error in dogmatism, in a Marxist conviction of scientific correctness in all that the Party undertook. Serge wrote in his Memoirs, “Bolshevik theory is grounded in [a belief in] the possession of the truth. Totalitarianism is within us.In the 1930s, according to one of his editors, Serge began to emphasize Bolshevism’s “natural selection of autocratic temperaments,” an emphasis sharply criticized by Trotsky.

In the early 1920s, Serge at first sought to deal with his growing uneasiness by serving the revolution abroad as an underground organizer. In this capacity he witnessed the failure of the 1923 would-be revolution in Germany. That failure sealed the destiny of the Russian Revolution: it would need to find a way to survive in a single country. Serge returned to the Soviet Union to become part of the Trotskyist opposition.

According to Serge’s Memoirs, Trotsky, as commander of the victorious Red Army, could have settled his conflict with Stalin by seizing power. But

Trotsky deliberately refused power, out of respect for an unwritten law that forbade any recourse to military mutiny within a socialist regime . . . . Rarely has it been made more sharply obvious that the end, rather then justifying the means, commands its own means, and that for the establishment of a Socialist democracy the old means of armed violence are inappropriate.

Yet, in the end, Serge broke with Trotsky. He offered three reasons. First, he thought the idea of establishing a Fourth International in the mid-1930s was “quite senseless.” Second, he deeply disagreed with Trotsky’s approval of the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. And third, he also condemned Trotsky’s refusal to admit that the establishment of the Cheka was “a grievous error . . . incompatible with any Socialist philosophy.” Serge considered that Trotsky exhibited “the systematic schematizing of old-time Bolshevism.”

Serge believed that his critique of Trotsky was shared by Lenin. According to Serge, Lenin wrote to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party on December 25, 1922, in a document sometimes referred to as Lenin’s “Last Will,“ that Trotsky was “attracted to administrative solutions. What he undoubtedly meant was that Trotsky tended to resolve problems by directions from above.”

For Serge, it all came down to the following, written at the end of 1932: “I mean: man, whoever he is, be he the meanest of men – ‘class enemy,’ son or grandson of a bourgeois, I do not care. It must never be forgotten that a human being is a human being.”

A Theory and a Way of Life

Probing further, one concludes that the conflict between Marxism and anarchism is essentially not a conflict between two theories, two schemes for understanding present dilemmas and for predicting the future.

Without question Marxism is such a scheme. Despite a tendency to expect events to occur earlier than they actually come about, Marxism offers a sturdy analysis of long-run trends in capitalist economies. The flight of investment in manufacturing from the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to societies where wages are much lower is the latest illustration of the essential accuracy of this engine of analysis.

Anarchism, however, is not such a theory, and anarchists misrepresent what they can and should contribute by presenting Bakunin and Kropotkin as theoretical rivals to Marx.

Anarchism is an affirmation of values, of a way of life. Serge, in his memoirs, writes of “the first symptoms of that moral sickness which . . . was to bring on the death of Bolshevism.” Serge repeatedly attacks a belief that the end justifies the means. In a book entitled From Lenin to Stalin he argues that

moral criteria sometimes have greater value than judgments based on political and economic considerations . . . . It is untrue, a hundred times untrue that the end justifies the means. . . . Every end requires its own means, and an end is only obtained by the appropriate means.

Hence “a sort of moral intervention becomes our duty.” Serge is at his best when he describes the moral dimension of decisions.

In the late 1920s, after Trotsky had been ordered into exile and Serge was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Serge (in the words of one of his editors) decided to turn from agitation to more permanent forms of political and artistic testimony.

An early product was a history of the Russian revolution in the year 1918. Serge was not yet in Russia during that year and the book has a curious flatness, an almost academic two-dimensionality. (He also wrote a history of the revolution’s second year, when Serge was present and deeply involved. But this was one of the manuscripts that was confiscated by the secret police and has disappeared.) In a later work entitled Twenty Years After, Serge sketched the destinies of an endless list of individuals he knew and what happened to them. He sought to justify his approach as follows:

Yes, this struggle of the revolutionists against the machine that grinds down everything has about it something depressing when you think of it . . . in the abstract, without seeing the . . . faces, without being well acquainted with their lives, without the Russian land, the walls, the windows. I would like to efface this impression. Every one of these men has his true grandeur. They are not vanquished, they are resisters and they often have victorious souls.

The corpus of Serge’s work is not free of contradictions. In the book drawn from his experience in prison, Serge condemned the death penalty and the sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, but justified the death penalty when “we need it.”

Unlike many prison reformers in the United States today he saw that guards too are imprisoned, in France at that time from age twenty-five to retirement at sixty, and as a group are “no better and no worse than the men they guard.” Upon release after serving his five-year sentence, Serge wrote: “We wanted to be revolutionaries; we were only rebels. We must become termites, boring obstinately, patiently, all our lives. In the end, the dike will crumble.”

It is also unclear where Serge came down as to a desirable economy. In the last book he wrote, the novel Unforgiving Years, D, a sympathetic protagonist, says: “The planned, centralized, rationally administered economy is still superior to any other model. Thanks to that, we survived in circumstances that would have made short work of any other regime.”

However, a decade earlier Serge had written in his Memoirs that in the New Economic Policy of the Soviet Union in the early and mid 1920s,

small-scale manufacture, medium-scale trading, and certain industries could have been revived merely by appealing to the initiative of producers and consumers. By freeing the State-strangled cooperatives, and inviting various associations to take over the management of different branches of economic activity, an enormous degree of recovery could have been achieved right away.

. . . In a word, I was arguing for a “Communism of associations:” – in contrast to Communism of the State variety. The competition inherent in such a system and the disorder inevitable in all beginnings would have caused less inconvenience than did our stringently bureaucratic centralization, with its muddle and paralysis. I thought of the total plan not as something dictated by the State from on high, but rather as resulting from the harmonizing, by congresses and socialized assemblies, of initiatives from below.

The Final Novels

One forms the strong impression that Serge can say what he feels most fully in fiction. And so the reader turns to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, written in Marseilles, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico in 1940-1942, and to Unforgiving Years. The inscription at the end of the latter is “Mexico, 1947,” the place and year of Serge’s death.

The novel about “Comrade Tulayev” was prompted by the assassination of a leading Bolshevik, named Kirov, in 1934. At the end of the book three men are executed for the assassination of Comrade Tulayev. All are wholly innocent. Two are presumably typical ascending Soviet bureaucrats, venal but not murderous. The third must be one of the most attractive figures in Victor Serge’s fiction. He is Kiril Rublev, an historian who, together with his equally stalwart wife Dora, hopes to be “present at the moment when history needs us.”

There is a relentless integrity about this book, rather like Professor Rublev’s. The workers do not get a free pass. Four thousand women workers at a factory demand the death penalty for those who killed Comrade Tulayev.

Two things about the book stand out for me. I first encountered Serge and this novel seventy years ago. The single thing I remembered over time was the reflection of a character named Stefan Stern, murdered by Soviet agents in Spain. Before he disappears to his death, Stern reflects:

After us, if we vanish without having had time to accomplish our task or merely to bear witness, working-class consciousness will be blanked out for a period of time that no one can calculate . . . . A man ends by concentrating a certain unique clarity in himself, a certain irreplaceable experience.

Not yet twenty, I read this passage with detachment. It seems much closer to me now.

Still more extraordinary is the novel’s portrait of Stalin, known in its pages as “the Chief.”   One old Bolshevik says to another: “The Chief has been at an impasse for a long time. . . . Perhaps he sees farther and better than all the rest of us. . . . I believe he has decided limitations, but we have no one else.” Amazingly, an old comrade named Kondratieff says the same thing directly to the Chief. He makes an appointment with the Chief to plead for Stern’s life. As the two men pace about the Chief’s enormous Kremlin office, Kondratieff says: “History has played us this rotten trick, we have only you.” And amazingly, the Chief does not dispatch Kondratieff to the cellar where the NKVD (successor to the Cheka) is executing a generation of Bolshevik leaders. Kondratieff is sent to manage gold extraction in furthest Siberia.

And where, then, lies hope, for the author whose own hourglass is almost out of sand?     The Case of Comrade Tulayev ends with disjointed acts of individual generosity.

Xenia, daughter of an aparatchik, manages to go to Paris where she revels in bourgeois plenitude. Somehow, in a newspaper that comes her way, she sees next to the announcement of a sports event a note that three men are to be executed for Tulayev’s murder, including Professor Rublev, a sometime friend of the family. Distraught, she goes to see a well-known French fellow traveler. She telephones Russia. She is persuaded to get in a car, then in a plane, and we last see her under arrest, ominously on her way to an unknown destination.

Out on the steppe a collective farm named “Road to the Future” is at a standstill.

There have already been two purges. Famine is at the door. There are no seeds, no horses, no gasoline. They send messages to the regional center but no help is forthcoming. Kostia, a Young Communist, and an agronomist named Kostiukin, come up with an idea. The entire village will walk to the regional center 34 miles away and seek help by means of this direct action. It works! And on the way Kostia holds Maria in his arms and learns that she is a “believer.” In what? She cannot put it into words.

Before his execution, Professor Rublev has asked for the opportunity to take a few days to write a memorandum. He does so and it vanishes into papers connected with his death. Miraculously, these papers come into the hands of one of the very top bureaucrats in the secret police, named Fleischman.

First, Fleischman reads a letter from a young man who does not sign his name. The letter states persuasively that the author, acting alone, killed Tulayev. Fleischman burns the letter.

Then he reads Rublev’s memorandum. It includes the words: “we bear                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  witness to a victory which encroached too far into the future and asked too much of men.” Fleischman finishes the memorandum with appreciation.

Then he leaves his office to attend the sporting event mentioned in the newspaper next to the notice of the execution of Rublev and the others. This is the end of the book.

Five years after Serge finished Tulayev, he finished Unforgiving Years. Very much in contrast to the editor who translates and introduces the work, I believe that the end of this novel is melodramatic, clunky, and altogether unworthy of its author. (Example:   D, the sympathetic character quoted earlier, ends as the proprietor of a Mexican “plantation” at which, he says, “I work my peons.”) But in a first section, before the novel and Serge himself seem slowly to go to pieces, Victor Serge offers some incisive reminders of the synthesis of anarchism and Marxism to which he devoted his life.

Early in the book, D reflects: “When all is said and done, we did this to ourselves.” More at length he reflects:

I have nothing left to invoke but conscience, and I don’t even know what it is. I feel an ineffectual protest surging up from a deep and unknown part of me to challenge destructive expediency, power, the whole of material reality, and in the name of what? Inner enlightenment? I’m behaving almost like a believer. I cannot do otherwise: Luther’s words. Except that the German visionary . . . went on to add, “God help me!” What will come to help me? (Emphasis added.)

He also thinks to himself:

We can trust no one any longer. No one will trust us, ever again. That terrible bond, that most salutary of human bonds, those invisible threads of gold and light and blood attaching men sworn to a common endeavor—those bonds, we’ve broken them.

D and his colleague Daria seek to imbed their anguish in economic analysis.

Daria lectures D on the theme that “Production will bring about justice.” But he is nagged by doubt, thinking:

Should one not, while attending to all those pillboxes and blast furnaces, have a thought for man? A thought for the poor devil of today . . . who cannot content himself with straining under the yoke while waiting for tomorrow’s medicines and railway lines? The end justifies the means. What a swindle. No end can be achieved by anything but appropriate means.

Daria says: “The days of primitive accumulation are behind us.” D responds:

“Not in our country. And the days of destruction lie ahead.”

In the end Daria appears to have come around to D’s perspective, saying:

“Sacha, I’m going to ask a question that might seem irrational or infantile, but listen to it anyway. Didn’t we forget man and the soul?”   D responds:

Our unpardonable error was to believe that what they call soul – I prefer to call it conscience – was no more than a projection of the old superseded egoism.

There’s a stubborn little glimmer all the same, an incorruptible light that can, at times, shine through the granite that prison walls and tombstones are made of, an impersonal little light that flares up inside to illuminate, judge, refute, or wholly condemn. It’s no one’s property and no machine can take the measure of it; it often wavers uncertainly because it feels alone.

. . . We committed our mortal error . . . when we forgot that only this form of conscience can accomplish the reconciliation of man with himself and with others. . . . I’ve boned up on the relevant literature. . . . [The revolution] should have meant the release of what is best in man, but that got smashed along with everything else, I fear. And we’ve become captives of a new prison . . . . I’m getting out.

Conclusion

“Anarchist Thought,” in Anarchists Never Surrender, pp. 202-228, is Serge’s own conclusion as to how anarchism and Marxism might be synthesized.   It was written at the end of the 1930s when he had left the Soviet Union but remained fully at the height of his powers.

Serge accepts Marxist economic analysis. He says of anarchism that it was “the ideology of small-scale artisans” and that as industrial development became more marked in southern Europe “anarchism surrendered its preeminence in the revolutionary movement to Marxist workers’ socialism.”

On the other hand, the workers’ movement of the late nineteenth century and the years before World War I was

stuck in the mud in a capitalist society in a period of expansion. Vast union organizations and powerful mass parties, of which German social democracy is the best example, in reality became part of a regime they claimed to combat. Socialism became bourgeois, even in its ideas, which deliberately suppressed Marx’s revolutionary predictions. The working-class aristocracies and the political and union bureaucracies set the tone for working-class demands that were either toned down or reduced to a purely verbal revolutionism. . . . This socialism has lost its revolutionary soul . . . .

The theory of communist anarchism,” Victor Serge continued, “proceeds less from knowledge, from the scientific spirit, than from an idealistic aspiration.” But as “for how this is to be accomplished, there is not a word of explanation.” Thus at the beginning of the Russian Revolution “events inexorably posed the sole capital question, one for which the anarchists have no response: that of power.” At considerable length Serge demonstrates that when the possibility of insurrection presented itself in Fall 1917, “[o]ne would seek in vain in the abundant anarchist literature of the period for a single practical proposal.”

There is a long discussion of the Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Makhno (a subject about which I know little) in which Serge appears to be at pains to present both sides of a complex controversy, and to attribute some truth to each. Who was responsible for strangling this “profoundly revolutionary peasant movement?” Serge asks. He answers that it was not this or that person, not one or another group; it was “the spirit of intolerance that increasingly gripped the Bolshevik Party from 1919; . . . the dictatorship of the leaders of the party, already tending to substitute themselves for that of the soviets and even of the party.” Whoever was responsible, Serge continues, it was “an enormous error.” A chasm had been dug between anarchists and Bolsheviks that would not be easy to fill. “The synthesis of Marxism and libertarian socialism, so necessary and which could be so fertile, was rendered impossible for the indefinite future.”

Victor Serge ended his remarkably even-handed assessment by quoting the famous last message of Vanzetti, and continuing:

This moral strength . . . is not diminished by the intrinsic weakness of anarchist ideology. It offers little room for doctrinal criticism. It simply is. If, having learned from all we are living through [,] the libertarian socialism it animates would be strong enough to assimilate the gains of scientific socialism, this synthesis would guarantee revolutionaries an incomparable effectiveness.

Staughton Lynd is a historian, attorney, long-time activist and author of many books and articles. He can be reached at salynd@aol.com.

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Jewish Noir on Killer Nashville

by Tessa Bryant
Killer Nashville
October 29th, 2015

At the outset, a book entitled Jewish Noir will, without doubt, elicit a strong response. For me, that response was immediate laughter and intrigue. I had a thousand questions at once: What is Jewish noir? How is it different than other noir? Do the murderers all wear yarmulkes? Are there rabbis involved? Will the mothers help bury the bodies? Will there be latkes at the end?

My questions were, admittedly, culturally insensitive and cliché. However, the book’s skilled editor and contributor, Kenneth Wishnia, validates those questions within the first pages of his introduction. Wishnia carefully examines the myriad ways in which the Jewish identity is closely related to the literary identity of noir. After reading the introduction, I almost felt silly for questioning the concept in the first place. The Jewish voice can—and, after reading this excellent anthology, I believe should—be present in the noir literary community, and to great success.

Each piece in this anthology has a personality all of its own. There are hard-boiled lawyers and caseworkers, upper class folks in witness protection, neo-Nazis, southerners, Russians, and an English professor; this anthology finds a place in noir for every reader. The pieces work together to a common effect and understanding, yet no two stories blend together or fade into the background. Some writers make the noir world their playground, turning the go-to tropes on their heads, while others allow the genre and the subject to speak for themselves. Wishnia presents a celebratory work that is approachable, original, and, above all, a blast to read.

I could use this platform to praise my favorite stories in the anthology, but to do so would be a disservice to the authors included, all of whom are top-notch at their craft (though, I’ll note here that the editor’s contribution and the first-ever English translation of Yente Serdatsky’s A Simkhe certainly do not disappoint). I’ll let it suffice to say that I laughed, my heart raced, I sat on the edge of my seat, and I’ve marketed the book to all my coworkers.

Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this book. Check your expectations at the front cover; they’re bound to be exceeded.

Tessa Bryant is a graduate of the Departments of Theatre and English at Lipscomb University. She is a writer, director, administrator, and researcher of the performing and fine arts, and works and guest lectures at Lipscomb University. She is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.

If you have a book you would like featured, send an ARC for consideration. The Killer Nashville Book Reviews are coordinated by Clay Stafford with the assistance of Emily Eytchison and credited guest reviewers.

For more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com, www.KillerNashvilleBookCon, and www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com.

And be sure to check out our new book, Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded, an anthology of original short stories by New York Times bestselling authors and newbies alike.

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Clandestine Occupations on Counterpunch

By Ron Jacobs
Counterpunch
October 23rd, 2015


The concept of underground political activism in the United States is currently a remote fantasy. I say that without making a judgement one way or the other about the morality or political efficacy of such activism. Despite the efforts of the FBI and other government agencies aligned with the Department of Homeland Security to entrap unsuspecting (or emotionally unstable) citizens to perform armed acts against the corporate state, the fact is there really is no organized left-leaning underground political movement of any substance in today’s United States. Even if one considers the entrapment, trial and convictions of a couple groups of young men charged with conspiracies to blow up bridges and the like earlier this century (the five young anarchists arrested for conspiracy and NATO 3 come to mind), those cases do not represent a movement. The same can be said for the sporadic cases involving young people who have converted to Islam, are opposed to US military intervention in predominantly Muslim nations and are then set up by federal agencies.

This was not the case in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Black Liberation Army, Puerto Rican independentistas, the Weather Underground, SLA, and other similar groups not only made headlines with their actions, they also enjoyed some popular support. Indeed, as something of an indication of their numbers, dozens of their former members are in prison around the nation.

Most of these political prisoners will never get out of prison, especially in today’s political climate where virtually all extralegal (and a fair amount of legal) political activity from the left is considered terrorism by the powers that be.

This is the context of Diana Block’s new novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History. Block, who spent over a dozen years underground because of activities related to her political activity in the Puerto Rican independence movement and was also a member of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee—a group which began as an aboveground support organization for the Weather Underground, has written an emotionally taut and politically discursive tale. Centered around the lives of three generations of women whose lives are entangled in a web of love, politics, work and children, Clandestine Occupations takes the reader on a journey over four decades, at several cities, and numerous political groups. Over the course of this journey, the reader is exposed to a thought process where people of all races, genders and ages put ideals of social justice and liberation ahead of their own individual desires and goals.

Not only is this book informed by Block’s political life and her involvement with the Puerto Rican independentista movement of the 1980s, it also plucks events and individuals from today’s news. The case of her character Rahim, a Black Panther once known as Clarence Jackson, reminded this reader not only of the political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, but also of the recently acquitted defendants in the case known as the San Francisco Eight. Additionally, by setting some of the book in the antiwar protests of 2003 and the Oakland Occupy encampment of 2011, Block simultaneously reminds the reader of the omnipresence of political protest, its similarities and differences, and the never ending determination of the powerful to neutralize those who oppose their designs.

Working with a subversively restrained prose that evokes powerful emotions, Diana Block tells a heartrending and intellectually appealing story of a group of modern women interconnected through politics, family and love.  Multi-generational, the women’s stories weave in and out of a loom created by forces often beyond their control. Intellectually and spiritually informed by a woman’s perspective, Clandestine Occupations is reminiscent of the best work of writers like Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy—who have also tread the path of fictionalizing revolutionary struggle in the belly of the modern Empire. By the same token, it is more than women’s literature. Indeed, it is revolutionary literature of a very high order.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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Jewish Noir & The Very Dark Egg Cream


 
Mystery Playground
October 2nd, 2015

Kenneth Wishnia, editor of Jewish Noir, and Meryl Zegarek have joined forces to bring us the perfect drink for Jewish Noir, Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds. Read on...


Description of book:
Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia is a collection of new stories by some of the best-known crime writers examining the re-emergence of noir in our culture, with a Jewish point of view. This unique collection has stories by Jewish literary and genre writers including award-winning authors such as Marge Piercy, Harlan Ellison, S.J. Rozan, Nancy Richler, Moe Prager (Reed Farrel Coleman), Wendy Hornsby, Charles Ardai and Kenneth Wishnia. The stories range from noirish literary to pulpier crime stories and examine a myriad of issues. There are also a few stories by non-Jewish writers, illustrating that you don't need to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir.  And you don't need to be Jewish to appreciate our drink.

Why pair this drink and this book:
The stories in this collection explore the question of how Jewish identity produces a particular tendency toward the cynical voice of noir. What could be more Jewish than the egg cream, a creation of NYC’s Jewish immigrant with a shady history. Brooklyn candy store owner Louis Auster is commonly cited as the inventor of the egg cream.  It is said he created it in the late 1890s and would go to great lengths to make the chocolate syrup in the back of his store with the windows blacked out. He even took his secret recipe to the grave! His drink had neither cream nor eggs, and it was an instant hit; on a hot day his shop could sell 3,000 to thirsty customers.

But as with many things Jewish, and noir, there is another side to the story.

Retired professor of sociology Daniel Bell disputes this claim, and argues that his Uncle Hymie invented the egg cream in the 1920s at his candy store on the Lower East Side, and he used both cream and eggs in it, but dropped those ingredients during the Depression to lower the price.

Whoever invented the egg cream, it remains a cherished drink. We have added chocolate vodka to our version, making it dark and ultimately more devious.

Recipe:
Fill a tall glass with 1/3 cup of Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup (of if you can't find U-Bet any quality chocolate syrup)
Add 1/4 cup milk  
Add seltzer to fill the glass to the top
Add one shot of chocolate vodka
Garnish with whipped cream and sprinkles
Stir right before drinking.

Enjoy with a straw, always. Unless you want a white mustache!

(photo above taken by MZPR)

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Sport for development and change through activism

By Russell Holden
Idrottsforum
October 1st, 2015

As the worst European refugee crisis since 1945 continues to unfold, one of the few pleasing aspects of the horrors confronting the swathes of humanity advancing westward has been the engagement of increasing elements of European football with the plight of those escaping persecution and economic impoverishment. The displays of solidarity from football clubs ranging in size from Bayern Munich, to Swindon Town and Dulwich Hamlet confirms the view persuasively argued by Gabriel Kuhn in his new work Playing as if the World Mattered, that not all sport, be it team or individually based, is endemically scarred by commercialism, corruption and what he terms reckless competition.

Organised sport has long managed to have both administrators and activists who have sought to use it as a vehicle for promoting social change, dating back to the emergence of the workers’ sports movement in the early twentieth century, whilst more recently utilising the American Civil Rights and the Anti-Apartheid movements as stimuli for generating progressive change. As well as producing larger than life figures, social change has seen sports fans increasingly reclaiming the games they worship from undemocratic associations and national federations as well as greedy owners and corporate interests. However, much work is still needed, most notably within the realms of international football and cricket.

Kuhn’s analysis of how, rather than why, sport is a key social force in shaping political change is based on a three-fold analysis. Yet, by far the most interesting and revealing section is the concluding chapter, which outlines today’s grassroots and community sports movement. His analysis incorporates elements of community organisation, ethics and direct democracy as well as highlighting the increasing weakness of many sport organisations as portrayed by campaigning journalists.

The analysis opens with a retracing of the workers’ sport movement, which he correctly asserts was the most radical attempt at changing the entire characteristics of sports on a grand scale. The movement was not only a key part of the proletarian culture of the time, but it also granted the worker more influence than other worker organisations as it provided real manifestations of the ideals being projected notably through organisations such as The German Workers Cyclists Association. This body became not only one of the biggest workers’ sports organisations maintaining its own bike factory, workshops, inns, cottages and insurance systems; in 1928 it became central to the newly constituted Sozialistiche Arbeiter-Sport-Internationale (SASI). Yet by 1945 its infrastructure had been destroyed and its successor the Confederation Sportive Internationale Travailiste et Amateur (CSIT) never developed a high profile, culminating in its demise with recognition granted by the International Olympic Committee in 1986.

However, at times it is not entirely clear what audience Kuhn is hoping to secure as very specific detail sits alongside some elementary facts.

Kuhn next moves on to portraying the role of sport in the civil rights struggle, demonstrating how athletes, managers, fans and journalists have attempted to influence sport. Whereas chapter one focused largely on organisations, here Kuhn chooses to focus far more on the role of individuals and only latterly on events and institutions. In so doing, he charts the actions of athletes Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente and journalists Lester Rodney and CLR James, before considering anti-colonialism and the political and social unrest of 1968 and its impact on the Olympics and Anti-Apartheid movement. Unfortunately this part of the book reads more like a catalogue of information, making the assumption that the reader is lacking substantial basic knowledge, as opposed to taking the opportunity to offer more insight into the repercussions of these key developments.

However, the concluding element of Kuhn’s analysis is the most interesting. The phenomenon of progressive supports culture most notably, though not exclusively evident in football (he quotes instances from hockey) is a key factor for grassroots democracy and healthy community ties in sports as demonstrated in fans efforts in the creation and the emergence of FC United, FC Wimbledon, Austria Salzburg and Hapoel Kaatamon Jerusalem. Evidence of self management, autonomy and the production of a DIY-zines as opposed to blogs helps to guarantee readership in the stands in addition to fan loyalty.

The volume’s immediacy and reach is extended by its use of a large number of full-colour illustrations which give the work a unique selling point . For some, the imagery will be sufficient to generate a purchase whilst opportunities for further engagement and exploration is assisted by an extensive resource list (though no detailed bibliography is evident) thus making this slim, yet enjoyable publication both accessible and affordable. However, at times it is not entirely clear what audience Kuhn is hoping to secure as very specific detail sits alongside some elementary facts. Though it is wise to try to combine the needs of the scholar and the lay reader, both would have benefited from more attention being given to matters such as women’s sport beyond cheerleading and roller derby, as well as to disability sport. Most critical of all is the meagre attention devoted to the actions of player activists such as cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, rugby footballers David Pocock and Josh Kronfeld, and footballers Socrates and Robbie Fowler.

However, the most pressing exclusion in this publication is the discussion around the discourse of why some sports and some sporting nations are more engaged with activism and the promotion of progressive change, whist others remain either silent, or lack a dynamic purpose in seeking to extend themselves to a wider and more inclusive audience, be it through social justice campaigns such as ridding teams of culturally offensive names and mascots in American sport (Washington Redskins and the Chicago BlackHawks) or in more directly confronting issues such as homophobia.

Although, as Kuhn correctly maintains,the intention is not to weigh down the pleasure and excitement of sport with political and moral baggage, the task of illustrating how sport can weave its magic as a tool for promoting change and fighting tyranny is a message that has to be taken to the masses. Kuhn has provided a very useful starting point, but the key is to ensure that the essence of his agenda is discussed widely within new and old media so that the mainstream sports fan reflects more on the reasons behind why a myriad of migrants and small number of refugees increasingly populate our favourite and least favourite teams, though not their management structures.

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Calling All Heroes reviewed in Upside Down World

 By Ramor Ryan
Upside Down World

October 2nd, 2015

Book Review: Calling All Heroes, A Manual For Taking Power by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Translated by Gregory Nipper, (Heroés convocados © 1982 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II), Published by PM Press.

On the night of October 2, 1968, 10 days before the Olympics in Mexico, Mexican security forces opened fire on a student demonstration in Tlatelolco plaza, killing and wounding hundreds of protesters. Over a thousand were detained, many of them tortured and disappeared. The powerful protest movement was crushed and the Tlatelolco massacre covered up by the government as quickly as they washed the blood from the streets. In a state of complete impunity, nobody from the ruling administration or the military was ever held accountable.

Paco Taibo’s brilliant novel Calling All Heroes is placed in the aftermath of the massacre and is about coping with political tragedy. Taibo was an activist in the huge civil and student movement demanding democratic change in a country ruled then (as now) by the authoritarian PRI (Institutionalized Revolutionary Party), later described as “the perfect dictatorship.” In a previous book, entitled ’68 (Seven Stories Press, 2004), Taibo presented the events in non-fiction form, but in this volume, the writer employs his creative imagination to pen an absurdist novel merging the melancholy of the defeated participants with a preposterous but satisfying revenge fantasy. Taibo describes the work as “a vendetta, dealing with Power by other means.”

While there is much discourse on the tactics and strategy of uprisings and revolutions, and plenty of literature produced in the wake of successful social movements and popular insurrections, the aftermath of defeat is often neglected. Taibo’s novel, then, dwells in the psychogeography of the space-time of the vanquished.

Thus, two years after the massacre, our protagonist Nestor, like the moribund political movement, lies prostrate on a hospital bed. His mind moves deliriously upon the insurrectionary events of 1968, trying desperately to reconstruct and comprehend all that has happened. Through correspondence and bedside visitors, we learn the fate of Nestor’s former comrades: the political prisoners languishing in the dungeons of Lecumberri, the exiles that fled the ensuing repression, the ones that went crazy, the suicides. And then there are those that went underground, continuing to organize in clandestinity - more of them later.

Nestor recalls the euphoric heights of the student movement—then in the 123rd day of a strike, supported by workers’ and farmers’ unions— when “hope for future fulfillment” seemed immanently possible. And then how the sudden crushing violence of the state forced the activists to “take refuge inside ourselves and in a bleak militancy.” Nestor notes how a few of the students “persist in behaving as if nothing had happened.” Deluded and in denial, they continue “in acting as if things were not in decline. A small militant division has taken over The Movement, and a handful of cadres have dominated a once-broad militancy.” Others are lost and confused: “I am tired of chasing the wind” writes one burnt-out activist. The general mood is despondent and bleak.

All Power to the Imagination

At this forlorn juncture, Taibo’s novel takes off. How to combat despair? Nestor invokes the ‘68 slogan, Be realistic: Demand the impossible! by conjuring up a pantheon of heroes from his youth to put things  right. Soon enough, characters like Sherlock Holmes, Doc Holliday, the Four Musketeers and the Kenyan revolutionary Mau-Mau are arriving in Mexico City and creating havoc for the authorities. This exhilarating leap into the absurd has echoes of the magical realism of other Latin American writer luminaries such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, a genre that can be hit or miss according to the tastes of the reader. Nevertheless, there is no denying the atavistic sense of satisfaction felt as justice is meted out to the perpetrators of the massacre. Torturers get sliced by Byzantine scimitars, and the antiriot police fall under the hooves of the insurrectionary Light Brigade from the Battle of Balaclava. The Mau-Mau lose themselves in the maze of Tenochtitlan to later emerge and take Lecumberri prison, releasing all the prisoners and hanging the guards. Women don’t figure much in Taibo’s Boy's Own imaginary revolt, but a female hospital assistant does get to heroically save the day as she takes down two secret police attempting to apprehend Nestor.

All this rip-roaring adventure and revenge fantasy serves not only to titillate but also to fill the space of what lies in-between: in-between the defeat, and the resurgence. Nestor recovers, puts on his jacket, and filled with the phantasmagoria of his cast of pantomime heroes, takes off.

Where are you going? they ask him.

Casablanca, he replies.

Why Casablanca?

To return someday, he says.

What Is Left Unsaid

Readers may notice the striking similarities in the prose style of Calling All Heroes with writings of the illustrious scribe of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos. Marcos is a fan of Paco Taibo, and employs similar literary devices and absurd inventiveness; indeed the two co-penned the political thriller The Uncomfortable Dead (2006). Not one of Taibo’s finest moments, the book nevertheless represents one more intellectual link between the ’68 generation and the contemporary Zapatistas. In Calling All Heroes, Taibo mentions comrades who removed themselves to the city of Monterrey to organize clandestinely. By 1971, the presence of the new guerrilla nuclei, the FLN (Forces of National Liberation) was registered in the city. The origins of the Chiapas-based EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) lie in the FLN and--we may extrapolate--the ‘68 generation. As Nestor had promised, they would return someday, and this is one manifestation of that.

The themes of revolutionary defeat and redemption in Calling All Heroes resonate strongly with contemporary struggles from Occupy to the Arab Spring, perhaps most poignantly in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square uprising. Within Mexico itself, one can’t help but think of the 43 students from the Rural Teachers School in Ayotzinapa, disappeared and presumed murdered in September, 2014. Like Tlatelolco, it was the state that perpetrated the violence in Ayotzinapa. And like Tlatelolco, the hope is that new powerful social movements will emerge from the carnage.

In between, as Paco Taibo teaches us in this invigorating book, there remains the space for the imagination to take control.

Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).

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