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A History of Pan-African Revolt in Insurgent Notes

by Matthew Quest
Insurgent Notes
June 3, 2012

A small and dangerous volume, this republication of C.L.R. James’s A History of Pan-African Revolt is a concise survey of Black freedom struggles in the United States, the Caribbean, and on the African continent from 1739–1969. A product of two periods in his life and work, his first British years (1932–38) where he emerged as the author of The Black Jacobins, the classic history of the Haitian Revolution; and his second American sojourn (1969–79) where he was a mentor to Black Power activists who had been members of SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; this book documents famous and obscure race and class struggles in two parts written from the vantage of 1939 and 1969 respectively.

While some scholars have misunderstood this slim text as perhaps among James’s least original works for its dependence on his past Haitian Revolution research, comrades in the International African Service Bureau such as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Issac Wallace Johnson, and silent reliance on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and other’s scholarship; those who repeatedly have commended it as timeless have arguably not assessed properly the innovative power of the book either.

Pioneering in how it depicted intellectual and social movement history among peoples of African descent, it was not without its limitations. However, what makes A History of Pan African Revolt enchanting is the thread of speculative philosophy that holds the assorted anecdotal historical commentaries on labor strikes, anti-racist rebellions, heroic personalities, and anti-colonial events together. A vision of Black autonomy, James depicts peoples of African descent thinking and acting for themselves as they pursue their own emancipation through movements of their own invention. From a contemporary perspective, we must be careful that this is not received by readers as a cheap platitude.

First written at the dawn of modern anti-colonial revolt for Africa and the Caribbean, it is true that this historical work was distinguished by a collection of ideas ahead of its time. The first incarnation not only anticipated his famous speech “A Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA” (1948) which inspired the African American autoworker James Boggs, and later led white socialists to identify with Black Nationalists such as Robert Williams and Malcolm X. For those familiar with James’s Notes on Dialectics (1948), and its survey of the Puritan, French, and Russian Revolutions, in an attempt to sum up the spontaneity and organization of the toiling masses in socialist and democratic movements in Europe; A History of Pan-African Revolt, without the abstract discussion of Hegelian categories of cognition, might be re-evaluated as a dynamic kindred work.

Early (and even contemporary) studies of people of color tended to struggle to break away from racial categories of contempt and pity (and preoccupations with what white people were doing and saying—whether nice or not nice—and how Black people were to react). This often led to an impediment—the specifying of autonomous criteria for valuing the beauty in Black cultures and the content of people of color’s self-government was often neglected. That all Black people must do is “stay black and die,” while a common refrain, cannot be the basis for such assessments. Neither that Black people always had their own philosophies and cultures and were thus human. Something else was required.

James, while emphasizing people of African descent, even under the status of slaves, “brought themselves” to the Americas, recognized Black people brought notions of moral philosophy, family forms, languages, and artisan and agricultural skills with them and learned to innovate under adversity in the face of new technological challenges and cultural environments. At its best A History of Pan African Revolt, informed unevenly by his affinity for direct democracy and worker self-management, takes a bigger leap forward than most realize. It traces ruptures not merely with mischaracterizations of Black humanity but also with nation-states, ruling elites, and ordinary party politics.

Repeatedly, James shows political treachery, in the age of white supremacy and empire, was not a monopoly of the white race alone. He anticipated the post-colonial moment where some people of color saw their new role in hierarchal representative government as the culmination of what for them was perceived as otherwise an already satisfactory existence without disturbing the empire of capital. James also saw Black freedom struggles as necessarily making evaluations not just on the terms of Black autonomy but the potential of multi-racial alliances.

A sharp reading of James’s A History of Pan African Revolt reveals that his outlook on direct democracy and national liberation struggles at times intersect. Where they do not, that in its own way is an education in history and politics. James was willing to stretch his categories of radical political thought to accommodate Black mass movements and rebellious expressions that the average Marxist or historical materialist (and even himself) might be uncomfortable with. Still, at his best, James rarely did this without criticism of past historical movements or the political thought of others. By this means he advanced these struggles or their representative power as historical lessons. Yet he did not do this as an innovative “Black Marxist” to break with the limits of European socialism around race matters—for that is to reduce James to a fragment of the man.

James, a dynamic partisan of world revolution, constantly made strategic and philosophical adjustments in how he evaluated Russia, Britain, France, Germany, or the Age of the CIO to point the way forward for American and European workers’ self-emancipation, as distinct from people of color, as well. James was not a narrow expert on what was once called “the Negro Question” but told European socialists when he thought they were wrong about the self-emancipating nature of their own working class and the democratic legacies of their own civilizations (of both of which he was quite fond). Not a hegemony theorist, James never spoke of the false consciousness of toilers—regardless of color. He believed recognizing what he termed mass movements’ “partial mistakes” allowed for the later completion of insurgent historical moments which at times became derailed for a decade or even an epoch. To be sure, he did not advocate these delays, but saw himself as facilitating the overcoming of the next social hurdle. Let us take note of these dynamics as they function in this fine work.

The Stono Rebellion of 1739 of South Carolina, which was ultimately defeated, is an opportunity for James to evaluate a slave revolt where white slave masters were killed (but a kind one was allowed to live), property was burned, a military garrison is seized, and a strategic plan to flee across the international border with Spanish Florida where Angolan ancestral affinity is a potential motivation for an alliance. The Haitian Revolution is recognized as an inspiration to a slave revolt which failed to take place in Louisiana of 1795, where whites were allies from the beginning and disputes over strategy and method made the specter of it memorable. Gabriel’s Revolt, a slave insurrection outside Richmond, Virginia, gathered thousands of slaves who, with clubs and sharpened swords, intended to massacre the whites. But it was decided to exclude Frenchmen and Quakers for their perceived politics and strategic sympathies. Elements of contingency, chance storms which flooded rivers and tore down the bridges impeded events. James always depicted slave revolts as not embarrassing outbreaks of anger and violence but the work of African Americans who had original organizational and strategic capacities and moral philosophies. Importantly, he did not manufacture a cheap heroism to justify future capitalist politicians in their civil rights and welfare policies. For James could see how this suppressed more contemporary visions of Black self-emancipation.
Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner are seen as theologians with different political implications. Vesey is seen as having a prophetic vision that insisted all those who opposed the uprising must be killed and who was betrayed by collaborationist house servants. Turner’s revolt, which massacred women and children, is viewed as having linkages to rebellious poor whites. James sees Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad as a change in tactics which anticipated the success of the Union Army in the Civil War.

James is innovative in highlighting labor strikes in Sierra Leone and South Africa.
He unevenly recognizes, but was far ahead of his time, aspects of religious rebellion in the Congo’s Simon Kimbangu or the John Chilembe led rising in Nyasaland (later Malawi). He seems to minimize aspects of the spirit unnecessarily in a nevertheless intriguing materialist reading of Kenya’s Harry Thuku Revolt of 1921 as a general strike. He shows famous statesmen such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta being pushed from behind by the African masses’ self-organization, compelling colonizers to release them from jail to govern, even where the colonizer militarily defeats profound insurgencies such as the Mau Mau rebellion (1952–56) led by Dedan Kimathi. He does not let on that British colonialism also disoriented Nkrumah’s Positive Action campaign of 1950.

We might rethink the notion that the British were forced to release Nkrumah and Kenyatta from jail. Just as the case of Nelson Mandela’s later release from prison and collaboration with F.W. DeKlerk, they lifted the struggle to the moral plane emphasizing they “suffered without bitterness.” But they also propped up Black capitalism each in their own way (in collaboration with multi-nationals) at the expense of insurgent Black workers and farmers. James never highlighted that Mau Mau leaders like Kimathi and Bildad Kaggia, who was a defender of the landless, were betrayed by Kenyatta at the post-colonial moment. Further, that Nkrumah early on in state power purged radical labor leaders such as Pobee Biney of the Sekondi-Takoradi dockworkers, who really pushed Nkrumah from behind into the Positive Action campaign. Biney later inspired the 1961 general strike against Nkrumah’s regime. This labor action, and the mass discontent it represented, should have revealed a reassessment of Nkrumah’s regime, long before the 1966 coup often blamed too narrowly on the CIA, elite Ashanti ethnic leaders, and a military plot alone.

James’s discussion of the period of the great strikes across the Caribbean from 1934–39 is interesting for its highlighting of Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deodarine), an Indo-Trinidadian, as a major labor leader of the era which should be brought to the attention of Pan-African audiences. His more famous Afro-Trinidadian comrade, whom James was to valorize later in his sojourns in Caribbean party politics, was Uriah Butler.

James’s discussion of the Marcus Garvey movement is profound for his capacity to tease out the kernel of desire for provisional government that this huge Black mass movement represented while discarding the conservative and capitalist tendencies of its leader. He accomplished this in an era where the standard approach of socialist people of color toward Garvey was to viciously denounce the personality allowing for little validity of the independent self-mobilization behind it.

Robin Kelley’s introduction to this volume shows the evolving publication history from A History of Negro Revolt to A History of Pan African Revolt in global social movement context and highlights some interesting dynamics. He restores James’s pioneering leadership as a coordinator of global resistance to the Italian invasion of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia (1935–41) as a major context for the first crafting of this volume in 1938–39. Yet close readers will observe remarkably that James did not write an Ethiopia section for the part which discussed Africa, with these events seemingly fresh on his mind. What are we to make of this? In a brief instance, in the part on Caribbean revolts, he acknowledged that the plight of Ethiopia heightened the consciousness of militant labor action against empire in Trinidad. James underlined that the majority of peoples of African descent everywhere had the mistaken conviction that Ethiopia was treated badly on account of race. Certainly, James was aware that colonialism had racism and capitalism intertwined as causes for the denial of self-government. But this fragment suggested James held deep beliefs, with complex nuances, on how national liberation struggles were to be understood, that are still not grasped by most scholars and activists who are fond of him.

Kelley’s approach, which seeks to reconcile James, the anti-Stalinist and libertarian socialist, and African American and Caribbean communists affiliated with Moscow through a “Black Marxism” framework around the Ethiopia Question cannot principally highlight James’s ultimate clash with his associates in Pan African activism over the need for “workers’ sanctions” (not League of Nations or later United Nations sanctions). Peace, James insisted, unlike Popular Front communists, could not be genuinely sponsored by imperialists such as Britain or the United States. Dockworkers and maritime workers regardless of race, like his comrades the seamen from Barbados, Chris Jones and Arnold Ward, could implement their own embargo against Italian trade and goods through direct action.

It would be a mistake to assume that “workers’ sanctions” uncritically borrowed from a narrow European Marxism. All over the African world, people of color volunteered, including James, to go to Ethiopia to fight the Italians, as a group of multi-racial volunteers did in the Spanish Civil War. However, Ethiopia was not for James a matter of a thin Black solidarity. James assessed Selassie and his foreign minister, Dr. Martin, as selling out the popular self-mobilization of the Black masses on a world scale for an alliance with the European and American imperialists. It is true the imperialists made a mockery of “collective security,” and degraded the Ethiopian regime as less than their peer, and made them wait to have their rights, as a manager of Black labor, restored.

James unlike most Black communists and Pan Africanists wished to expose and encourage not merely the overthrow of Italian colonizers, but as well Emperor Haile Selassie, who would later be viewed as omnipotent by the Rastafarian movement. James could not stay loyal to a Black-led state power, whatever the insults of white imperialism, where it was not perceived by him as consistently cultivating mass development and unleashing the popular will. James was so disappointed with the Pan African movement’s inability to look for the self-organization of the Ethiopian rank and file, in contrast to the personality of Selassie, he never directly addressed that solidarity movement in this narrative.

Ethiopian solidarity does shadow the conclusion to James’s The Black Jacobins, written the year before, and his sarcastic depiction of Dessalines being crowned emperor, a proxy for Selassie’s coming restoration, with the assistance of the forces of Anglo-American capital in Haiti. As a foreshadowing of a self-emancipating future for Africa in 1938–39, James looked to obscure Africans’ mutinies and general strikes, linking up with Black and white workers abroad, seemingly beyond nation-states and their aspiring rulers.

The Ethiopian context of A History of Pan African Revolt can only be easily incorporated into a unitary framework of “Black Marxism” by willfully ignoring, if documenting at times, James’s political differences with George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Ras Makonnen within the International African Service Bureau, but also Paul Robeson’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Council on African Affairs, on how to approach national liberation struggles in the 1930s through the 1950s. For example, Padmore’s advocacy of class struggle in Ethiopia against Selassie before the Popular Front era and James’s criticism of Padmore after the Popular Front, for changing his view, and looking for “progressive” opinion among the imperialist rulers is documented by Kelley. Yet, this for Kelley, does not make the paradigm of a Black radical tradition, which purportedly never minimized Black rank and file resistance in contrast to European Marxists, implode on itself. Revisionist accounts, while not always bad, can minimize important facts. Of course, James in his elder years was silent on these differences over Selassie’s Ethiopia, partially as a result of his strategy of triangulation between statesmen and radical activists to build the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania, and thus his experience of Ethiopian politics in the 1930s could not even be amplified even from the vantage of 1969 for this study.

At times, Kelley asks challenging questions that the reader should consider carefully. Indeed, James’s valorization of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere as making the greatest contributions to radical thought on peasants since Lenin is very peculiar on a number of levels. These include, as Kelley points out, ignoring labor revolt and radical dissent suppressed by Nyerere’s regime including the most autonomous Ujamaa village councils, such as the Ruvuma Development Association. But also Nyerere can truly be said to have an affinity for Lenin’s last writings on the peasantry, as James underscores validly. Yet James and Kelley overstate the value of Lenin’s writings and obscures how dictatorial the Russian leaders’ policies actually were toward workers and farmers.

James, as a writer of Caribbean short stories and his novel Minty Alley, published before the first edition of the classic under consideration, highlighted the self-activity of unemployed and low wage single mothers, their theologies and interaction with patriarchal forces. Between the two editions of Pan African Revolt, James did some interesting theorizing which began to see the power of Ghana’s market women and Kenya’s peasant women behind Nkrumah’s and Kenyatta’s shadows. He attempted to present their own terms of being and ways of knowing as self-emancipating processes that audiences of so-called modern politics, in their backwardness, still strain to comprehend. We must note that, except for brief mention of Harriet Tubman, Black women’s role in the process of Black self-emancipation was underrepresented in this particular volume.

James’s brief survey of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Little Rock school desegregation, Greensboro’s first lunch counter sit-ins, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, and the Black Panthers places their politics on the world stage of historical significance without offering the type of insight he more silently shared with younger colleagues in that generation. James is at his most bold and transparent when he looks at the meaning of the urban uprisings of 1964–68 culminating in the rebellion in Washington, DC.

After King was assassinated, the US military defended key government buildings but otherwise conceded the burning city to the insurgent Black masses. James concludes that, despite fear of a conservative white backlash against Black Power, the American rulers could not consistently mobilize white racism against the just demands of Black radicals and the white youth and students who were their allies. In 1969, in this text, he does not speak of white workers as allies—it was becoming increasingly unfashionable. James insisted to suppress the Black movement in its totality is to destroy the American nation root and branch. Of course Black freedom struggles were attacked, officially and unofficially, but James’s diagnostic analysis of the mode of rule in the United States of 1969 concluded correctly that soon a more ethnically plural and multi-cultural approach to managing the crisis of race and class struggles would emerge. In the meantime, he marveled at the advance in Black political thought among the masses which rising up against police brutality suggested, while most at the time could only see embarrassing “riots” and “racial disturbances.”

Kelley’s suggestion that James evolved from an emphasis on Black labor revolt in the 1930s to a more heterogeneous emphasis that included Black middle class forces and intellectuals in the Black Power era is prescient on one level. However, the publication date of the revised edition in 1969 by the Center for Black Education and Drum and Spear Collective in Washington, DC, led by Jimmy Garrett and Charlie Cobb, veterans of the Black Panthers and SNCC, predated the emergence of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in Detroit the same year.

We might conclude by placing this work in conversation with that movement and moment.
James was very influential on the LRBW but the terms of how he came to be are still obscure. James’s comrades George Rawick and Martin Glaberman, and his former comrades James Boggs and Grace Lee, did facilitate study groups and mentor the core of who became the leadership of the League. While his vision of workers’ self-management and rejection of vanguard parties are often seen as the basis of James’s influence, prominent LRBW leaders overwhelmingly did not share those politics, despite being against capitalism, managers in industrial workplaces, and white-led trade union hierarchy.

Instead, James influenced more marginal members and secondary leaders of the LRBW to approach his more advanced direct democratic perspectives through their Pan-African cultural nationalism, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s was perceived by many falsely as inherently in conflict with class struggle perspectives. Critiques of European arrogance or ignorance of African ontologies, philosophies, languages, and history need not be a façade of Black capitalist politics whose adherents masquerade as advocates for the welfare of the masses of the Black renters and wage earners. Not incompatible with a vision of workers control, reconfiguring one’s identity and psychology out from under white supremacist degradation is not a small matter for all human beings.

In fact, the LRBW members James influenced toward direct democracy, such as Modibo Kadalie and Kimathi Mohamed, saw in the earlier part of James’s Pan African Revolt a vision of independent labor which was “black enough” and spoke to their needs in a way that his uncritical valorization of Huey Newton in this same book did not. James once lectured an LRBW audience in 1971 where Kadalie and Mohamed were present. James was explaining his own unique understanding of dialectic, and how this was the method he used to come up with “the Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem” in 1948.

James pointed out in 1948 the instinctive proclivity of African Americans for independent politics inspired the most radical among the industrial working class. Black folks’ elemental political drive called into question capitalism, imperialism, and the neutrality of the state.

James said few back then saw the merit of the perspective he had worked out through proper observation and speculative method. One can say the same thing for this classic on Pan African Revolt under consideration.

James underscored, in his lecture to LRBW cadre, everyone was impressed with his analysis of 1948 in 1971—but this evaluation was a breakthrough decades ago. James told them, they would have to work out their own perspective for their own historical moment. This implied those old categories of thought, even James’s own, could not properly explain the post-civil rights, post-colonial moment which was emerging. If one desired to have dynamic and current political thought, James’s philosophical method for interpreting history, he emphasized, may be of value.

When the meaning of Kadalie’s purging from the staff of the LRBW, and Kimathi Mohamed’s writing in 1974 of the neglected classic Organization and Spontaneity: The Theory of the Vanguard Party and its Application to the Black Movement Today (which was dedicated to Mzee CLR James—Mzee is a Swahili title for revered elders) is properly considered, the intellectual legacies of A History of Pan African Revolt become larger.

This concise classic speculative philosophy and historical narrative placed in the service of Black revolution will charm scholars and activists, despite at times being inconsistent in its post-colonial criticism, and introduce new readers to a worldview that still can disturb authority and inform a new beginning.

Readers though must bring an outlook, which James strived to promote, that starts with the achievements of past freedom movements, the highest standards they set, and inquires about past mistakes made, to understand properly where to begin anew. A History of Pan African Revolt provides a foundation.

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Breaking Free: An Introduction to Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone: A Selection From London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction

Weird Fiction Review
June 12, 2012

Michael Moorcock is one of the most famed writers and editors in science fiction and fantasy history, a key figure in the British New Wave movement in the '60s and '70s, which itself held a strong influence on modern weird fiction.

Moorcock is famed for his stories detailing the adventures of Jerry Cornelius and Elric of Melnibone, among many other acclaimed and award-winning works, and also for his editorship of the British science fiction magazine New Worlds, which published the work of groundbreaking writers such as J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Harlan Ellison, and William Burroughs. In his writing and his editorial work, Moorcock has challenged preconceived notions of speculative literature and often pushed genre writing into fresher, more progressive territory.

In March of this year, PM Press published a collection of Moorcock’s nonfiction, London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction. Selected from over fifty years of his writing, this collection ranges from recent pieces for the Los Angeles Times and The Guardian to more obscure and – up until now – unattainable work. We’re delighted to reprint an essay from London Peculiar for our readers, courtesy of the author and PM Press: “Breaking Free,” which Moorcock wrote as an introduction to the Klett-Cotta (German) edition of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone. Those already familiar with the content of The Weird may recall that Peake’s short story “Same Time, Same Place” is included in that anthology. This essay serves as a sterling example of Moorcock’s nonfiction writing, offering a unique and sympathetic read of an under-appreciated work and a moving eulogy for a master of the Weird. - The Editors

______________________________________***________________________________

In many ways Titus Alone is for me the most interesting of the three books Mervyn Peake wrote concerning the young Lord of Gormenghast, even if it lacks the compelling plot of the first two. For a number of years Titus Alone was considered the weakest because an uncomprehending copy editor cut it to pieces while Peake was in the first stages of the Parkinsonism which would take his life. In its restored form the novel proved far better than critics originally supposed.

If Langdon Jones, the composer, then assistant editor of New Worlds, had not been leafing through Peake’s original manuscript and noticed serious discrepancies between it and the published version, we might never have had the far more complete version. It took Jones the best part of a year, making line by line, page by page examinations of text and manuscripts, to restore the novel as closely as possible to Peake’s original version. The editor had made a bewildering number of unnecessary changes and few would have been capable of the intellectual intensity and powers of concentration displayed by Jones in his great labour of love. Happily, he finished in time for his version to be published in the definitive Penguin ‘Modern Classics’ edition and it is the translation of that which you have here.

Titus Alone was Peake’s attempt to take his character and method out of the hermetic world he had created in Gormenghast and Titus Groan and make it confront not only issues of identity, time and human interaction but the problems of modernity and even post-modernity—the world as it emerged from terrible, unprecedented conflict, confronting the Cold War, nuclear weapons and new forms of authoritarian dictatorship springing up like weeds from the ruins of the old world. In following this path Peake recognized the limitations of the form he had developed with such genius and was consciously seeking a means by which he could expand it to expose his protagonist to the twentieth century in general and the second half in particular.
Peake’s instincts were, as always, towards actuality if not towards realism as it was then understood. In this, he was perhaps the very first English "magic realist" and an inspiration to the so-called New Worlds group which saw him, Vian, Kafka, Borges and William Burroughs as models to emulate in steering imaginative fiction away from nostalgic escapism and obsession with the supernatural towards examination of our common psyche and shared experience.
When I first met Peake he was in the last stages of completing Titus Alone. Both he and his wife Maeve were distracted by the mysterious symptoms which would be properly identified only after his death. He had already written his play The Cave, tackling the subject of nuclear war, and discovered that the majority of people at that time did not want to examine the issues, certainly in the form he chose. He was depressed and disappointed in a large public’s lack of interest in his work but at that point I had no idea what he was going through. On that afternoon and in the course of many others he gave me far too much of his time and I fully appreciated his charming generosity. That generosity was to be his most enduring characteristic. I think it was what also sustained him through the writing of his great Titus Groan sequence, that wish to give his readers everything he could imagine and describe.

As the earlier books were dominated by Steerpike, that embodiment of rage against the establishment who, even at his most wicked, still keeps our empathy if not our sympathy, so Titus Alone is dominated by Muzzlehatch, Titus’s mysterious half-mad mentor and guide to the world beyond Gormenghast’s walls. We don’t have quite the same range of comic and grotesque characters here but we do have another cast of gorgeously different women—Juno, who elects to become a kind of guardian, the Black Rose and Cheetah, femme fatale daughter of a wealthy industrialist. But Titus, who scarcely featured in the earlier plots, here begins to come into his own, an innocent, a naïf in comparison to Steerpike. This is far more Titus’s book.

Some readers were originally disappointed not to be given another Gormenghast in Titus Alone and missed the castle’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Muzzlehatch’s vibrant beast of a car, the references to helicopters and other modern inventions, the obvious images reminding us of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp which Peake observed at first hand when sent there as a war artist to record, were not at all what they were hoping for. Some of us welcomed these developments, however, as well as the continuation of the absurdism which is perhaps at its best in the court scene where Titus reveals his father’s fate. This shows Peake working in that great tradition of Sterne, Peacock, Carroll, Lear and Firbank, the same tradition which infuses his nonsense verse and informs so many of his drawings in his Grimm, for instance, and in the most recently published The Sunday Books.

Peake was incapable of resting on his laurels and it is a mark of his genius that he continued to expand his range as a poet, draughtsman and novelist even as that terrible illness, exacerbated by doctors ignorant of the advances we have since made in diseases affecting the brain and nervous system, consumed him.

I saw Peake regularly during those years and was astonished by how rarely his wit deserted him, even when his memory failed. I remember taking the cover proofs of this book to show him at the hospital, knowing that his understanding had almost entirely deserted him. He did not recognise his own work but he did sense that his wife Maeve was distressed. Obviously in an effort to cheer her up, he rose shakily and tried to embrace her. That was the clearest memory I have of his final days, reaching towards his beloved wife and attempting to comfort her, his own work ignored. It remains one of the most moving and significant moments of my life and was typical of his generous nature. His mind had almost completely deserted him, but his humane heart beat as steadily as always.

As it will beat forever, here and through the rest of his magnificently varied work.

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London Peculiar Reviewed in New City

by Paul Durica
New City
June 2012

Recommended: Michael Moorcock is a difficult fellow to pigeonhole. He’s won practically every award given to writers in the genres of fantasy and science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer), including the Nebula and Bram Stoker Award. As the editor of New Worlds, he helped shape the course of science fiction writing in the mid-twentieth century. Then there’s his career as a musician and as a historian of London. Recently, he wrote a “Doctor Who” novel. Who else could claim friendships with figures as divergent as Woody Guthrie, William S. Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke and Alan Moore? Who else would begin life in the East End of London during the Blitz, and end up spending his golden years in the hill country outside Austin, Texas?

London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction” does a good job of showcasing the artist’s far-ranging tastes and farther-afield experiences. Readers are given a mix of autobiographical essays, eulogies for departed friends, diary entries, cultural critiques, book introductions and reviews—lots and lots of reviews. If there’s a drawback to the collection, it’s the reliance upon introductions and reviews to plump up the volume. Putting Moorcock’s astute critical observations aside, one is left wondering how useful and interesting is a review for a book one hasn’t read? It’s to Moorcock’s credit that after reading his reviews one is tempted to pick up the book under critique, whether it’s Tony White’s “Foxy-T” (2003), Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (2007)—Moorcock places Chabon in the “top rank of living American writers”—or the novels of Jack Trevor Story (best remembered by Americans for having written “The Trouble With Harry,” upon which Hitchcock based his film). Moorcock clearly loves books and is amazingly eclectic in his tastes and egalitarian in his attitude toward literary genres. And he also loves people: the essays collected within the section “Absent Friends,” about Story, Clarke, JG Ballard, Andrea Dworkin and Angela Carter among others, are genuinely moving without being sentimental.

I particularly enjoyed the pieces in the section “Other Places.” Moorcock wrote a series of “diary entries” for the Spectator and the Financial Times from the early 2000s into the present, and they offer an outsider’s view of life in the United States, particularly Texas, during the Bush years. Moorcock isn’t de Tocqueville but nonetheless manages to make observations that, while kind in spirit, still remind Americans of how far we’ve fallen from the ideals of a common good and shared responsibilities. Writing about the tendency to turn one’s past to profit, Moorcock observes, “Every small town in the US nowadays has to have some ‘historic’ monument to attract tourist money, in order to support the kind of civic infrastructure people used to take pride in paying for.” Moorcock doesn’t tell us what became of this “pride,” but he doesn’t need to. After all, he’s living in Rick Perry’s Texas.

Moorcock’s critiques are often like the one above. He never bellows or rages; he simply points out sad realities of the contemporary moment and reminds readers of the alternatives offered by careful reflection upon the past or speculation about the future. He also sustains an outsider’s faith in the potential of the United States and for Americans to put some good into the world. His wife is from Mississippi, and they chose to settle in Texas in part because of Moorcock’s lifelong love of American music. My favorite essay in the collection is his tribute to the songwriter Phil Ochs. Ochs’ music helped Moorcock keep the faith back in the 1960s and sustains his generosity in the present. “Despite the conservatism of its rhetoric,” Moorcock writes, “the American public is at heart tolerant and wants a just society. That public finds a voice in the musicians and performers from folk to rap who provide real evidence to the international community that maybe one day America really will walk the democratic walk as well as talk the democratic talk. It is the voice I heard as a kid when we were worried that US belligerence would get us into World War Three, when John Wayne was fighting communism and black people were denied the vote. It is the voice of the best America can be. It can’t be silenced. It is the voice of Phil Ochs.” At a moment when so many of us have lost faith in our country and our ourselves, it’s nice to have a science fiction writer from the UK remind us that a better world is still possible and ours to make.

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The New Reformation Reviewed in The Fifth Estate

by Paul J. Comeau
The Fifth Estate

June 2012

Although Paul Goodman established himself as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, by the end of his life the anarchist philosopher felt dissatisfied with the direction of the political movements his writings had inspired.

In New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative, his last book of social criticism published two years before his death in 1972, Goodman attempted to resynthesize his theories with a wider scope, and address the problems he saw in the movements of his time. In many ways it was an update of his “May Pamphlet,” a manifesto written in 1945.

In New Reformation, Goodman makes the argument that for much of society, youth in particular, science has become the new religion. “It is evident that . . . we are not going to give up the mass faith in scientific technology that is the religion of modern times; and yet we cannot continue with it, as it has been perverted,” he writes in the Preface. What he proposes is a “New Reformation,” along the lines of the Protestant Reformation, to restore faith in the sciences.

Goodman begins his analysis from the perspective that much of this change must come from the sciences and professions themselves. If science is a religion for modern times, he argues, then “technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.” Technology’s current place in the realm of the sciences, both in “the universities, in funding, and in the public mind,” is a bastardized position, devoid of what it needs most: moral perspective.

Relying on technologists to enforce morality within their professional sphere makes sense not only from a utilitarian perspective, he asses. The more over-used a technology gets, the less productive it ends up being, and from an environmental perspective, as well. In order to ensure the survival of ourselves, and the planet, a more responsible and modest approach to technology is necessary.

Goodman is quick to dismiss the idea that science and technology are “value-neutral,” arguing that it is scientists and engineers, the creators of the technologies themselves, who are best equipped to judge the merits of what they create and the best ways to put them to use. While critics may claim that these ideas lead to non-egalitarian technocratic social structures, Goodman’s idea of a new branch of science, which would focus on the responsible application of technology, makes sense in the context of the future anarchist society that Goodman envisioned.

In his ideal society, as explicated here, our existing hierarchical social structures are replaced by egalitarian guilds based on people’s professions, and how they contribute best to society. Interestingly, he calls this sort of organizing, where professions are organized and make decisions about their work output, “guild socialism,” though it is on par with what anarcho-syndicalists have not only envisioned, but practiced.

The emphasis of much of Goodman’s writing is on youth and their social conditions, and in the second section of New Reformation he focuses on the problems of youth, exploring the causes of, and possible solutions to, the problems he perceives with the youth movement of the 1960s.

The problem, from his perspective, lies with the education system. Schools are less about education than they are about indoctrination; something youth of that era had come to realize, and ultimately reject. According to his critique, incidental learning offers better instruction than formal learning. “My bias,” he writes, “is that ‘teaching’ is largely a delusion. People do learn by practice, but not much by academic exercises in an academic setting.”

The solution, as Goodman saw it, was to put education back into real world settings, encouraging the natural inclination to learning through lived experience the way a formal education doesn’t. “Our aim should be to multiply the paths of growing up, instead of narrowing the one existing school path,” Goodman writes.

The education plan Goodman proposed involved, first shifting the purpose of elementary pedagogy, through age twelve, to “delay socialization, to protect children’s free growth,” to allow children to “learn to learn.”

“They must be encouraged to guess and brainstorm rather than be tested on the right answers,” he writes. Further, Goodman advocates the transforming of educators, away from enforcers of indoctrination, and towards enablers of education, as companions on the educational paths not as authoritarian rulers.

As children grew and could not only engage in enquiry and discussion, but contribute meaningfully to their society, the time was right for them to begin thinking about professions. Here, Goodman’s model for the ideal anarchist society, organized into professional guilds, meshes perfectly with his ideas of anarchist education.

Instead of plodding the existing path from middle, to high school, to university, a robust system of internships and apprenticeships would exist where children would have the opportunity to first discover, and then pursue their life’s calling.

One of Goodman’s most important points is his emphasis on the importance of reading and the value of literature, not merely  as a means of communication, but as one of the truly beautiful and valuable acts of human existence. For Goodman, there was a real fear that not just reading and literature were being co-opted, but that the whole of language itself was under threat.

“The most dangerous threat to humane letters,” he writes, “[is that] language is reduced to be a technology of social engineering, with a barren conception of science and technology, and a collectivist conception of community. This tendency has been reinforced by government grants and academic appointments, and it controls the pedagogy in primary schools.”

In order for language to be truly free, writing, and reading has to be brought out of the education system and into society where they can flourish naturally through active use.

In part three of New Reformation Goodman attempts to tie in all the theoretical ideas he has developed, with the realities of the present at the time in which he wrote. His examination focuses on the legitimacy of the state and society, but he also critiques the efforts of the student movement to rebel against both, and the legitimacy of those efforts.

Part of Goodman’s critique of the contemporary youth movement of the 60s is that many were losing political perspective, and most had no sense of economics. While this is a harsh view when we take into account The Port Huron Statement, On the Poverty of Student Life, and numerous other radical critiques coming out of the student movements themselves, there is a cold rationality to Goodman’s criticism.

What primarily discouraged him is that very few embraced anarchism, which Goodman saw as the only truly revolutionary path. “Of the political thought of the past century,” Goodman writes, “only anarchism . . . the philosophy of institutions without the State and centrally organized violence has consistently foreseen the big shapes and gross dangers of present advanced societies.”  Those that did call themselves anarchists had a “problematic character . . . [coming] from the fact that the young are alienated, have no world for them,” he writes.
This leads them into a confused state, expressed in “their self-contradictory amalgam of anarchist and Leninist thoughts and tactics, often within the same group and in the same action.” 

Where this takes them is not towards the building of a new anarchist alternative to society, as Goodman would have liked to see them go. Instead, while “their frank and clear insight and their spontaneous gut feelings are anarchist,” he writes, “their alienation is Leninist, bent on seizing Power.”

Goodman devotes the rest of this section to arguing for the anarchist alternative, specifically the anarchist-pacifist alternative, to Marxist-Leninist ideas generally, and to calls for armed struggle specifically.

In Goodman’s anarchism, revolution is not merely about seizing power, but about doing away with power completely. For him, revolution “means the process by which the grip of authority is loosed, so that the functions of life can go on freely, without direction or hindrance.”  It is towards that end that he seeks to inspire readers in the remainder of this section.

As a whole, New Reformation is in many ways the culmination of Goodman’s writing, a synthesis of his ideas, tempered by both age and experience. With the revival of popular interest in his writing, many of his ideas are slowly gaining traction with a new audience. 

As the Occupy movement ushers in the next upsurge of politically awakened youth, Goodman is well poised to take his place as one of the most important thinkers of the past century, and to influence yet another generation of radicals.

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Writing for the Beloved Community

By Carl Hoffman
The Jerusalem Post
May 31, 2012

A self-described literary activist, recent Bar-Ilan guest E. Ethelbert Miller hopes his poetry brings together members of diverse populations.

Let’s see a show of hands, okay? How many of you have ever had a day proclaimed in your honor by the mayor of Washington? Has anyone ever been invited to the White House and honored by America’s first lady? Have you ever had something you wrote inscribed at the entrance of the Dupont Circle station of the Washington Metro, along with a poem by Walt Whitman?

For E. (Eugene) Ethelbert Miller, these are but a few of the honors, accolades and awards he has managed to accumulate over the course of a long, illustrious career.

Born 62 years ago in New York’s South Bronx, E. Ethelbert Miller is an African-American poet and teacher. He graduated Howard University with a BA in African American studies in 1972, and has served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. His collections of poetry include Andromeda (1974), The Land of Smiles and the Land of No Smiles (1974), Season of Hunger / Cry of Rain (1982), Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? (1986), Whispers, Secrets and Promises (1998), and How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love (2004).

Miller is the editor of poetry anthologies Women Surviving Massacres and Men (1977), In Search of Color Everywhere (1994)—a Book of the Month Club selection—and Beyond the Frontier (2002). He is also the author of the memoir Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (2000). Miller has had days proclaimed in his honor by the mayor of Washington in 1979 and Jackson, Tennessee, in 2001; was made an “honorary citizen” by the mayor of Baltimore in 1994 and was honored at the White House by first lady Laura Bush in 2003. He was awarded a Fulbright grant in 2004, and again this year.

In addition to holding positions as scholar-in-residence at George Mason University and as the Jessie Ball DuPont Scholar at Emory and Henry College, Miller has conducted writing workshops for soldiers and the families of soldiers through Operation Homecoming. A self-described “literary activist,” Miller is on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a multi-issue “think tank.”

Miller recently spent two weeks in Israel as a guest of Bar-Ilan University, sponsored by the Fulbright Exchange Program. He spoke to Metro after a busy day of lectures and workshops.

You are often called a literary activist. What does this mean?

Well, first of all, I’m very active in terms of service to the field. I serve on a lot of literary boards. I work behind the scenes in terms of mentoring people. I serve on a lot of panels involved with getting people into residencies. I have been a judge for endowments and fellowships a number of times. I’m very much concerned with literary penetration, especially in Washington. I’m always encouraging writers to document what they do, to save their papers. I try to promote writers as much as possible. That’s what I do. If I were just concerned about my own career, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am. In Washington, DC, I’m very much concerned about cultural policy, looking at the impact that art can have on a community. You know, many people talk about simply economic development and the arts, but I feel that the quality of life—which is something you can’t simply measure—is also something that you have to consider.

Are you also a literary activist in your writing?

Very much so. I think I would probably be unique in terms of being a writer who for 19 years has served on the board of a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. I have one foot not only in the literary and cultural world, but also in the political world.

And I do have my beliefs that I try to live by. I’m a strong advocate in terms of what Martin Luther King was talking about in terms of the “beloved community,” about how you bring different groups of people together. So I’m a literary activist in trying to bring people together around issues of art, and around issues of culture.

And what brings you to Israel?

Well, this was my second Fulbright. I came here in 2004. This time I was a guest of Bar-Ilan University. I feel very blessed to work with their creative writing program. When I’m here, I try to make myself accessible to students as well as faculty members. There are a number of people here who I’m familiar with through their work, and there may be ways I can help them back in the US.

Are you able to mentor writers at Bar-Ilan while living in Washington?

I think so. For example, there are a couple of people here who I’ve published in my magazine. I’m one of the editors of Poet Lore, the oldest poetry magazine in the United States, established in 1889. It goes all the way back to Walt Whitman. This bears a tremendous responsibility, especially in terms of writers who want to be published in important journals. I feel that finding new voices and providing an outlet is something I very much want to do. And that’s what I did today at Bar-Ilan. My last class was a creative writing class, and I extended an invitation to the students there to submit work to my magazine. And if I can help them get published, I feel that I’ve had a good visit.

As a board member of the Institute for Policy Studies—a left-wing think tank not always in accord with the policies of the Israeli government—what is your take on the social and political situation here at present?

Well, I think that if you are concerned about peace in the world, you have to stay on top of what’s happening here in Israel. This is one of the major issues and challenges of our time. And we can’t shy away from the complexity of the problem. I think, for example, one of the things that I find here is that you have a lot of different voices within Israel. The country is extremely diverse. For example, I’ve been reading The Jerusalem Post during my visit and finding out more about the concerns and issues about the Ethiopians. It’s been interesting to read about some of the ways these issues are being addressed. I think that Israel is like the United States in that these are countries that to some extent are still experiments, still works in progress, in terms of how different kinds of people live together. In the United States, we’re still dealing with issues of equality for all citizens and how to deal with a multiracial society. So some of the things that you see happening in the United States are also happening here in Israel.

Do you have any advice or recommendations?

Well, as I say in one of my poems, whenever you wake up, you need to commit yourself to fixing something that’s broken. Even if it’s just an electric coffee pot. But you’ve got to live your life that way, even if it’s just small things you do. You have to believe that today is going to be better than yesterday. And always have hope for tomorrow. I did two classes at Bar-Ilan today. In one class, I was talking about the writer James Baldwin, who had visited Israel back in the early 1960s. And I was talking about some of the things he saw when he was here. The problem of having to bring people together does not disappear. We just have to be sure that we’re always up to discussing them and making things better. James Baldwin was here as a guest of the government. He not only visited Israel, but also spent a lot of time writing in Turkey.

Israel and Turkey are not often mentioned positively in the same sentence these days.

Well, you see, this is one of the challenges we face as writers. We have to change the narrative. We have to make sentences that contain words that maybe didn’t go together before. We maybe even have to create a new vocabulary.

Do you imagine Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” created here? Can often mutually hostile groups of people really be brought together?

The beloved community is something universal. The key thing here is that if you do not see the beloved community, then you must work to create it. I think it begins with the transformation of the individual. You have to be the change that you wish to see. It begins with the individual, and then comes the transformation of the community. But it’s hard work, and difficult. I think that the way to begin is for everyone who desires change to ask themselves at the end of the day, “Did I, in my small way, attempt to resolve a problem? What did I do today that made today better than yesterday?”

You are said to have found your poetic voice as a student at Howard University. What attracted you to poetry, as opposed to music, drama, or other forms of expression?

Well, I went to school and came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so I was listening to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. And they were turbulent times. The emphasis was on the social transformation of society. Poetry was for me the natural way to address those times and speak to some of those issues. And I think that even now, with the changes in our society today, and with technology influencing us in certain ways, poetry is even more important. I was talking to the students at Bar-Ilan’s creative writing program today that poetry slows you down. You can’t just read it like you read a Facebook page. You have to take time to read a poem. You have to read it several times, get meanings, look things up. Poetry will make you work. And if I read a poem in front of seven or eight people, some of them are going to say that “there are certain things here that I don’t understand.” Okay, that’s good. Now we have to work to make sure you understand. So it’s like lifting weights. The problem today is that people don’t want to lift the weights. I’ve got to tell them, “It’s okay. This is good for you. It will build your muscles up.”

You have written hundreds of poems. If only one of them survived into the distant future, which one would you want it to be?

I wrote a short poem that’s been translated into a number of languages.

It goes like this: “We are all Black poets at night.”

Initiated by United States Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946, the Fulbright Program is one of the world’s most prestigious and widely-known academic exchange programs. Its primary goal is to strengthen understanding between the American people and peoples of participating nations around the world through the exchange of students and lecturers at the highest academic level.

Here in Israel, Fulbright is managed by the United States-Israel Educational Foundation. Since the Foundation’s establishment by the US and Israeli governments in 1956, more than 1,200 Americans and 1,600 Israelis have participated in a variety of Fulbright student and academic staff exchanges.

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Interview with Stevie Chick, author of “Spray Paint the Walls: The Story Of Black Flag”

By Steward Dean Ebersole II
AMP Magazine
November 10, 2011

They were the pioneers of American hardcore, forming in California in 1978 and splitting up eight years later leaving behind them a trail of blood, carnage and brutal, brilliant music. Throughout the years they fought with the police, record industry and their own fans. This is the band’s story from the inside, drawing upon exclusive interviews with the group’s members, their contemporaries and the groups who were inspired by them. It’s also the story of American hardcore music, from the perspective of the group who did more to take the sound to the clubs, squats and community halls in American than any other. In this interview, Stewart Dean Ebersole II, author of Barred For Life (forthcoming) speaks with Stevie Chick about the book “Spray Paint The Walls: The Story of Black Flag.” Living through the early 1980s, for many young people, was a total downer. Kids growing up in almost any age may have made the same claim for “their” era, but the 1980s were troubling beyond most. The 1970s—remembered here in America mostly for a long-lasting economic recession, persistent troubles in the Middle East, oil shortages, cocaine abuse, disco music, leisure suits, and the like—gave way to a utopian conservative movement at the hands of one Ronald Wilson Reagan, America’s fortieth president, in 1980.

If it is possible to view the 1970s in any positive sort of light, the conservatism of the 1980s was just so damned oppressive. Under the divine guid- ance of President Reagan, America super-escalated the Cold War with Russia, shipped American jobs far offshore, cut taxes for the rich, and basically kept the citizens in fear by proclaiming that the rest of the known world was dead set on destroying America simply because they resented our freedoms. The rest of the world didn’t like the United States, they feared the United States; and there was a difference. Like back in high school, you might not have liked the bully but you were nice to him so that he would be less likely to kick your sorry little ass, right? Well, this was the same shit on but on a worldwide scale.

Punk rock arrived shortly before the Reagan presidency but gathered its swagger under it. If punk was a loosely affiliated music scene beforehand, Reagan’s ultraconservative machine gave punk rock bands a huge target at which to lob insults, threats, and liberal responses to conservative dog- matism. If things seemed to be picture perfect to those harvesting from the excesses of the fear brokered by the Reagan regime, it was anything but perfect to the rest of the America—the one that seemed to be getting dismantled by the hand that was so cleverly hidden behind the face of social conservatism. And to this condition I believe punk rock spoke with great force and with a truth-to-spare. If mainstream liberals were sent run- ning to hide from the light of a conservative change of tides, punks were the holdouts, the rebels, and the group whose spirit was ignited and not extinguished when Reagan’s saints came marching in.

Bands formed, if for no other reason, than to combat this rapidly changing tide. While the “entitled” worldwide launched criticism at punk rock for merely existing, punk rock was undaunted by anything but by its own lack of directional unity. Punk-rock fury took on everything from Reagan’s secret wars, to the unfortunate implementation of Reaganomics, to the throngs of Yuppies that now took up social residence where the drug- addled disco-phytes of the 1970s had vacated years earlier. Punk rock, then, represented a last stand of liberal ideals in a world that had suddenly decided that freedom to voice one’s opinion should be at the very least hindered, if not fully eliminated from the international forum.

Punk rock took on the entire world for a handful of crazy years in the early 1980s, and gave voice to a group of people who, for all intent, were being silenced by the tenets of worldwide conservatism. If the growing sector of poor and dis- possessed around the world were not going to be heard of their own will, well, punk rock would speak for them. Bands that formed in the mid-to-late 1970s, in response to the stale and overly indulgent rock of the era, found a new energy in the age of conservatism, and so when we culture-starved punk rockers collectively jumped on board, some bands—while already a few years old—seemed both brand new and totally original to us. In some respects the first wave of American hardcore bands were perfect, since they were essentially untainted by the music industry that one day would consume them.

Bands like the Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, Agnostic Front, Articles of Faith, and so many others became the instant voice of pissed-off punks.

These bands were on fire. Not since the first generation of hippies of the early 1960s had there been an amazing opportunity for music to take on the establishment, and it seemed like punk rock bands were going for broke and not looking back. Punk rock, at least in the early stages of its existence, was a hail of bullets fired directly at the establishment, and punk rockers were a grotesque and disfigured infantry with nothing at all to lose.

Formed in 1976 in the small surfing town of Hermosa Beach, California, the band Black Flag seemed to mature slowly (though surely) through the end of the 1970s mostly due to rapid membership changes. Led by an eccentric guitarist named Greg Ginn, Black Flag gelled around a caustic mixture of aggressive music and interactive stage presence that, to those listening back across their discography, had no precedent in the music world. Sure, there were hints of the Sex Pistol in the mix, but Black Flag’s early sound, like so many of the bands of that era of American hardcore, came out of the clear blue sky and ready to take on all comers. While most of the popular bands of the time took aim at specific historical targets, Black Flag confronted deeper, less immediately tangible targets.

Sure, there were songs about the police and the government, but Black Flag as a whole was serving up fodder for contemplation. It wasn’t solely about “the police” or “the gov- ernment,” but was about the abuse of power of the establishment and how it translates to individuals that stand in its way. It was just deeper, albeit not too much deeper, than random attacks at Reagan, Thatcher, or other easily identifiable human targets. And with the biting cynicism of its many venomous singers, the musical assault made Black Flag a band to take personally, because they, for all intent, were you. They weren’t singing to you, they were relating with you. “Depression,” “Rise Above,” “Police Story,” “American Waste,” and so many other memorable songs just completely captured the spirit of anger, if not hatred, for a system that was trying to silence dissenting opinions, and Black Flag entered into the spotlight for simply offering rational responses to a world gone totally mad, and not vice versa.

And then something very strange happened . . .

Ten years, four singers, three bass players, and drummers too numerous to count, later, Black Flag was gone. For quite a while after their epic My War release, it was hard to classify Black Flag as punk rock at all, and so for quite a while after their demise punk rockers turned their back on the band that best spoke to their generation just a few years earlier.

Many years later, however, after the smoke had cleared up just a little bit, Black Flag crept back into the ever-evolving punk rock dialogue. Slowly at first, after being mentioned by Kurt Cobain as a principal influence on his band, Nirvana, and then picking up masses of momentum in the early 2000’s. Black Flag eventually was given credit for all of their amazing talents, including even their ability to say “fuck you” to a fan base that had come to expect certain things from a band that was dead set on evolving away from “the old stuff,” and offering new musical ideas for a movement that had gone more than a bit stale.

Today, their logo, The Bars, is probably the most universally identifiable punk rock icon, while Black Flag (at least the idealized Black Flag) has become the band most associated with the crazy world of American hardcore music from the early 1980s. And while many of its members are still somewhat traumatized by their association with being part of this epic musical unit, some are talking. And while these voices are talking some outside ears are listening, taking notes, and trying to make sense of Black Flag’s tumultuous existence, curious evolutionary path, and contentious breakup. Among those early note-takers was Stevie Chick, a British music writer with a lust for American pop culture and a deep apprecia- tion for all things Black Flag.

I read Chick’s Spray Paint the Walls while doing research for my own Black Flag-related book entitled Barred for Life. Like me, Chick found the usual suspects ready to talk about their association with Black Flag, and a list of others fully unavailable for comment. Having disintegrated unceremoniously over twenty-five years ago, one might think that the individuals peopling the various Black Flag lineups, road crew, and friendship circle would have come to terms with their “punk rock legend” status, but many haven’t. As when the band was actively moving forward, the key players in Black Flag still fan flames and discontent, and that may be one of the things that keep us so interested in the band and its collective history.

An unlikely candidate to take on the twists and turns of America’s most leg- endary hardcore band, Chick covered the territory as only an investigative journalist could. Weaving fact, hearsay, pure fiction, and idealized instances, Spray Paint the Walls stands out as the definitive documentary on this groundbreaking band’s lifecycle and numerous manifestations.

Covering a wide spectrum of individuals who were either in Black Flag, supported Black Flag, or were close to Black Flag at any point along their ten-year timeline, many of the band’s seemingly random direc- tional changes become immediately understandable in a historical context to those who want to know more about the inner workings of this peerless musical unit.

Spray Paint the Walls
is an inspiring effort. Taking a mountain of complicated interviews with complex individuals and somehow turning them into readable narrative is one thing, but I was quite surprised just how easy Chick’s volume is to read and understand. Making the crazy story of Black Flag into an easy-to-read book, no matter how it is couched, is a monumental, and well-received (by me) success for better understanding this most important component of our generally underrepresented subcultural history.

After reading the book cover-to-cover, I am not all that sad that Ginn and Rollins declined interviews. In my opinion, their friends tell the story as it needs to be told, which is logical, straight-forward, slanted positively, and at times more than a bit idealistic. Plus, the read is anger and rivalry-free, which steers away from persisting inner-band dramas.

But like anything, after reading Spray Paint the Walls I had more questions than questions answered about this mysterious band and its mysterious cast, and so I decided to check in with Mr. Chick and score some needed clarity. Using the convenience of modern social networking channels, Chick graciously supplied answers to my questions concerning his experiences researching and writing his book.

Stewart Ebersole: Stevie, tell me a little bit about yourself, your pedigree as a journalist and documentary writer, and how you ended up dealing with aspects of American hardcore punk music.

Stevie Chick: I’ve been writing about music professionally for thirteen or so years now. I started out publishing my own zine before freelancing for Melody Maker, both of which led to stints writing for larger music and culture magazines. Now I mainly write for MOJO and The Guardian, along with TheQuietus.com.

In 2001 I helped Everett True and Steve Gullick start up Careless Talk Costs Lives, a high-quality zine covering underground music, following which Steve and I started up our own zine called Loose Lips Sink Ships. Spray Paint the Walls is the second of my three books to date; I also wrote 2007’s Psychic Confusion: The Sonic Youth Story and, in 2010, Ninja Tune: 20 Years Of Beats ’n’ Pieces.

Over those thirteen years, I’ve been lucky enough to interview godhead heroes like George Clinton, Ian MacKaye, and Sonic Youth, travel Brazil with the White Stripes and wander late night Amsterdam with The Mars Volta, hide out from angry Hard Rock Café bouncers in Austin with The Icarus Line after their guitarist Aaron North liberated and attempted to play Stevie Ray Vaughn’s framed guitar, and write about the music that I love, that I think is truly important, and life-changing.

It’s a blast, what can I tell you? I’m broke as fuck but my life is rich, or some shit like that.

SE: Okay, well do you at least find any irony in that fact that you, a British journalist, have just written the definitive biography on Black Flag, America’s most infamous hardcore punk rock band?

SC: Not massively . . . I’m such a dedicated Yankophile I don’t think my “Englishness” was really an issue. It’s not all tea and scones and the Kinks over here, you know, and I’ve always had an abiding fascination for American culture, and particularly American pop culture, and specifically American music. To be honest, it’s surprising to me that no American writers had really tried to tell the Black Flag story in such depth before, let alone me doing so from here in the UK. I did go to California for an early research trip where I visited a bunch of the locations that are mentioned in the book, and interviewed people like Keith Morris, Kira Roessler, Mike Watt, and Dave Markey on their home turf.

SE: So what specifically got you interested in Black Flag? They were only one great band among many in the American hardcore scene . . . no?

SC: I was sixteen when [Nirvana’s] Nevermind hit, and that record dragged me down a rabbit hole and introduced me to a world of underground American music that spoke so powerfully, so directly to me. It was shortly after that, that I discovered Black Flag, and again an album like Damaged is of a universal na- ture that transcends nationality: I am young, I am fucked up, I am upset about it, and I want to express this fucked-upness before it destroys me. That spoke to me, and the roar of Chuck Dukowski’s bass, the scree of Greg Ginn’s guitar, the bellicose bark of Rollins all spoke to me too.

SE: So what made you decide to attack a topic that no American journalist, or any writer for that matter, has ever really had the guts to do, and complete it without a seeming bump in the road?

SC: I was thinking about that today . . . Basically, the book began with a meeting with my editor. I’d just written a Sonic Youth biography for him the year before, and we were discussing possible subjects for my second book. He mentioned that there’d been interest in a book on Black Flag, and the moment he said it, it seemed like a great project to really sink my teeth into.

Like I said, I’d been hugely in- spired by hardcore as a kid, self-starters like Ian MacKaye and Greg Ginn, who went ahead and, when no one else would, built the touring network that underground bands still follow to this very day. I thought Black Flag were glo- rious, righteous, and that it would be an uplifting and inspiring tale. Again, I had no idea how complex the tale would prove to be, and to tell.

You know, even though I loved their music, I wasn’t aware when I took on the project how fractured the relationships were between some of the members of the group. I’d read Get in the Van as a teenager and, sure, I remembered the enmity between Rollins and his bandmates towards the end; but fuck it, Rollins expressed enmity towards everything and every- one at different points in that book. And sure, the way the group ended, as recounted in Get in the Van, seemed pretty bleak and odd.

I guess I just assumed that, over the years, the members had gotten over their old intra-band beefs enough to be able to celebrate their band without rancor. What I’m saying is, even though I was aware of the weirdness that surrounded the “reunion” in 2003, I had no idea how difficult this book would be to assemble. I just knew that it was a great story and, again, I didn’t understand why it hadn’t been told before.

SE: Tell me about your process, especially in how you got former Black Flag people (and their entourage) to talk so openly about the band?

SC: The internet was my friend, and I tracked down various interview subjects via their websites, their Facebook and MySpace pages, via other interviewees, and some I’d already interviewed previously and had an ongoing relationship with.

SE: Did you get any “no” answers? If you did, can you tell me who, and why they declined?

SC: I didn’t get any outright “no” answers, which wasn’t the case with my Sonic Youth book: on that project, one unnamed possible subject turned me down cold, saying they’d be interested in talking to me when I get around to writing a book about them. Mostly, those who didn’t want to be interviewed for the Flag book signaled it by either not replying to my initial email, or by simply dropping off the face of the Earth.

SE: Do you find it at all strange that the chief architect of the band, Greg Ginn, and the most infamous singer, Henry Rollins, are reticent to talk about their experiences some thirty years
after the band has been broken up?

SC: I completely understand Rollins’s decision not to talk. He said it all in Get in the Van, and every time he’s talked about Black Flag in the past—and in a manner that, without fail, glories the efforts of Greg and Chuck and every singer who came before him over his own contribution—it seems to have only provoked more enmity from Greg. I imagine it’s still a very painful subject for him, so while I’m disappointed, deeply so, that I couldn’t talk to him, I do understand why.

I wish Greg would talk more, because I think he’s a fascinating character, a pivotal figure in American rock music and DIY culture, and his perspective on the story would be invaluable. I think he’s quite misunderstood, and I think he achieved amazing things. But again, I understand . . . I think he’s so deep in the music that that’s how he can express and articulate himself. I do wish I could have spoken to him though, of course.

SE: Who were your most revealing interviews, and what things did you learn from these interviews that pushed you to keep on going?

SC: Well, I was especially interested in the roots of the group, and Keith in particular was a great fountain of information about those early days, giving a sense of Hermosa Beach’s vibe. [Hermosa Beach is] a mildly affluent suburb with all that entails, but the Hermosa Beach of the mid-to-late ’70s was a saltier, more bohemian place, with some interesting countercultural figures who helped pave what little ground there was for Black Flag to ferment upon. Learning about how the principals first met, before Greg Ginn was the guitar hero/label mogul we know him as now, back when Keith was just a party-loving ne’er-do-well, was illuminating, and the desire to recreate that scene in as great a detail as I could for the readers really kept me pumped.

The world Black Flag operated within throughout their career seems really unexplored, hermetically sealed off from us, so really being able to explore any of that was a thrill, both as a fan, and as a writer looking for an engrossing story to tell. Capturing the vibe of life within The Church, what it felt like to be caught up in (and accused of provoking) the violence that engulfed hardcore (and which the Flag never seemed able to shake), understanding the impulses that kept the musicians committed to such a painful and, in the short-term at least, unrewarding path, following the evolution of the group and their label and their ultimate dissolution . . . These were my goals, and I was thrilled by the challenge and, as I said, fascinated in the answers I found to my questions about Black Flag, because I was, and remain, a huge fan of the group.

Keith Morris, as I mentioned above, was a hilari- ous and impassioned and lucid interviewee, and seemed every bit as excited about the book as I was, and has remained an encouraging voice.

Chuck Dukowski spoke openly about a story that was still emotionally raw to him, and I appreciate that it wasn’t remotely easy. I hope he thinks his efforts were worth it, because I felt I learned a lot from him.

Ron Reyes was perhaps the biggest coup—he hadn’t spoken to anyone in years before I interviewed him for the book, and he was funny, sweet, honest, and a pleasure to interview. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak to him had Joe Nolte of the Last not put me in touch with him, and talking to Joe was like leafing through the pages of some unpublished encyclopedia of South Bay punk rock, a truly solid and awesome guy.

Joe Carducci was a mensch [a good person that helps others], his books were invaluable sources, and the five hours we spent on the phone were an electrifying way to see in the dawn.

Kira was sharp, forthright, and insightful, and a really awesome person. Mugger was honest to a degree that spared no prisoners. Dave Markey was a key and passionate voice. Mike Watt was, as he always is, just 110 percent punk rock, and I got to talk to him on his home turf, which made this Minutemen-obsessive’s year, let me tell you.

Mark Arm remains the coolest motherfucker in rock. Perhaps the most encouraging voice throughout the interview process was Brendan Mullen, whose contributions to the book were integral to sketching out the reality of the L.A. punk landscape of that era, and who, like Keith, seemed at least as excited as me that this book was going to get written. Brendan didn’t get a chance to read the finished book, but I’m not sure it would’ve gotten finished without his encouragement and his geeing up at key moments of my spirit-flagging exhaustion.
SE: While doing your research for Spray Paint the Walls, did you feel like your thoughts about Black Flag at the beginning were spot-on, or did you meet with more unexpected twists and turns than you could have imagined?

SC: I think that in my head I saw [Black Flag’s] independence, their struggle, in idealized terms; admiring what they achieved, and imagining it could only have been accomplished if all the members were selflessly dedicated to their cause and superhuman in their abilities. The truth is, the people in Black Flag were very human, very vulnerable, very complex.

I remember Joe Carducci talking to me about how they were all under pressure within Black Flag’s world, and that because of the dysfunction they’d all grown up with [as individuals], they probably weren’t best prepared to deal with the pressures in a positive way. So some terrible things happened between the people involved in this struggle. There were successes but there were also frus- trations, and the successes came at such amazing costs in terms of their health, their psyche, and their mental balance.

They were not superhuman dudes who went through all that and were still cozy bros, all laughin’ it off and hoisting frosty mugs to their shared cause. To me, that insight just makes [Black Flag] all the more heroic, makes what they achieved all the more remarkable. I came away with a deeper admiration for the people I interviewed, and also the people I didn’t get to interview, but who were remembered [by those interviewed] in such vivid terms.


SE: From your own standpoint, then, do you think that it is fair to treat the entire evolution of Black Flag as a single issue, or do you think that as a band they were far more complicated than that?

SC: Their evolution is very interesting and very complex, but there’s a strong arc in there.
I’ve spent countless hours pondering all the “what ifs?” Like if they’d recorded a follow-up to Damaged in 1982, if they’d stuck with any one of their singers pre-Henry, if they’d let someone else run SST and they focused on just the band, or if circumstances had been different and they’d been able to exist in a more comfortable manner. The truth is that the cards fell where they fell, and while I know some fans don’t feel the later Black Flag albums, I think they’re very strong [releases]. In tracing their path from brutally primal punk rock to sick, shredded jazz-sludge you get a sense of one of the greatest stories in rock ‘n’ roll. They’re a massively complicated, nuanced, and contradictory band, but that’s what makes them so fascinating.

Stevie Chick’s Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag is now available in a U.S. pressing through PM Press for $19.95 and can be ordered at www.pmpress.org.

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Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail! in Briarpatch Magazine

By Yutaka Dirks
Briarpatch Magazine
May 31, 2012

PM Press was founded in 2007 by former members of the anarchist publisher AK Press to “create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books.” Sends My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!, a collection of short stories released last year, provides ample evidence that they are meeting their mandate. Edited by Gary Phillips and Andrea Gibbons, two community and labour organizers turned crime-fiction authors, the book features eighteen stories of “crime, love and rebellion.” Science-fiction heavyweights Kim Stanley Robinson (The Red Mars Trilogy) and Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) are joined by bestselling mystery author Sara Paretsky (The V.I. Warshawski series) and many other lesser-known but no less talented contributors.

Rick Dakan is one such author. In “Berlin: Two Days in June,” Dakan introduces us to Martin, a junior sales agent working in Germany for a tourism promotion company based in the United States. The distance from his employer gives him little freedom; his sales device is a smart phone that functions as an electronic tether. Martin’s world turns upside down when he downloads an app that gives him a glimpse of a radical moment in 1940s Berlin and his own personal connection to a history of struggle that has been erased from the cityscape.

Dakan’s contribution is one of four stories that deal with workers or production; a far greater number of tales centre on acts of rebellion by those who are only marginally connected to, or completely outside, the process of production. In Marxist terms, Send My Love puts the lumpen proletariat centre-stage in the struggle.

Marx defined the lumpen proletariat as the layer of the working class that exists outside of the wage-labour system, the people who turn to charity or criminal activity to survive. The lumpen “may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”
More recently, the Black Panther Party believed that the lumpen were in fact the revolutionary class, and recruited members from the ranks of unemployed and street-involved black people in urban America. “The outlaw and the lumpen will make the revolution,” said George Jackson. “The people, the workers, will adopt it.”

Gary Phillips’ protagonist is one such outlaw. “Masai’s Back in Town” opens with a blazing gunfight between the title character—a former ’60s black revolutionary—and a gang of white supremacists. The abrasive, adrenaline-pumping plot involves right-wing talk show hosts, aging FBI agents and a mad search for a big score: hidden COINTELPRO* slush funds stolen decades earlier. Phillips, an accomplished novelist and comic book writer, offers an entertaining, rebellious twist on the hard-boiled crime genre; the cops are the bad guys, the criminals are radicals, and sometimes crime does pay.

Phillips and Gibbons clearly side with the outlaws, but they have also included stories that keep to more traditional mystery-tale territory. “Poster Child” is Sara Paretsky’s decidedly feminist take on the police procedural sub-genre. A female officer is assigned to investigate the murder of an anti-choice Christian-right radical, but she’s hiding her own personal connection to the case.

Benjamin Whitmer’s “Cincinatti Lou” features the collection’s most compelling character, and also its most despicable: the racist, sexist and brutally violent Officer Kreiger. Whitmer chronicles the downward spiral of Derrick Kreiger in tight, wicked prose as the cop hunts a black radical through burning Cincinatti streets, set alight by rioters. While Kreiger finally fails, it isn’t clear that the radicals have won.

Indeed, many of the stories fall within the noir tradition that noted crime author Dennis Lehane defines as working-class tragedy. “In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops,” he writes. “In noir, they fall from curbs.” Even when the characters successfully resist oppression, their victories are slight or fleeting.

The stories in Send My Love may riff on radical and revolutionary themes, but they are more entertaining than instructive; they don’t coalesce into a coherent politics. Entries like “A Good Start” by Barry Graham, which centres on the murder of a sexist office manager, seem to conflate revenge with revolutionary action, and suggest that catharsis, rather than justice, is what we should aim for. “I Love Paree” by Cory Doctorow and Michael Skeet plays with similar themes; during an anti-corporatist uprising in a near-future Paris, a young systems analyst and his cousin fall victim to revolutionary fervor gone off the rails. But unlike Graham, the authors seem to argue for moral and political consistency, even when caught in the whirlwind of radical upheaval.

Perhaps this diversity, when approached critically, is exactly how the fictional worlds of Send My Love can stimulate our work: To be motivated by the raging, loving heart of the rioter, but to guide our actions with the calm, calculating mind of the professional bank thief. To organize both workers and the lumpen, but constantly strive to be more strategic and impactful; to move beyond rebellion and build a movement of sufficient power to make revolutionary social change.

*COINTELPRO was a covert project conducted by the FBI throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s to infiltrate, discredit, and destroy black liberation movements and left-wing political organizations.

Yutaka Dirks is a tenant organizer and writer living in Toronto. His fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals and activist publications including the White Wall Review, Rhubarb Magazine and Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. He has a serious love for stories of all stripes.

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Don't Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Parents and Children

by Victoria Law and China Martens
HipMama Magazine
June 2012

Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind began as a workshop at the 2006 La Rivolta! anarcha-feminism conference in Boston. We were invited to give a presentation on why anarcha-feminists (and those interested in anarchism, feminism or both) should be concerned about mothers’ and children’s issues and how they can support the families in—or slowly being pushed out of—their movements. That one workshop led to many others.

In addition to the workshops and presentations, we created a zine series entitled Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, solicit- ing submissions from both parents and allies across the country as well as from the UK, Canada and even the Fiji Islands. While we gathered zine submissions, we planned to eventually create a radical par- ents’ allies handbook. Now, six years after we first presented our first Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind workshop, we are excited to announce that our book will be coming out this fall with PM Press!

The origins of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind go back to 2003 when we first met and co-facilitated a workshop (for parents) on creating a radical parents’ support network at Baltimore’s Anarchist Bookfair. We originally attempted to start our workshop inside the building where the bookfair took place. When we realized that parents were having problems keeping their small children occupied in that space, we moved the workshop onto the grass outside so that the children could play. One mother volunteered to do childcare, so that the other parents could talk and listen without missing the discus- sion to chase their children. However, this meant she missed the workshop entirely.

The radical mothers who attended all stat- ed that they had very little support from their radical communities; they felt forced to rely on mainstream resources that were neither meeting all of their needs nor reflecting their values. Our conversation with disheartened, burnt-out and tired parents was a stark contrast with the carefree-looking faces of attendees without children who were joyfully walking by, sometimes smiling at the children as they passed. They had the energy we needed! The radical parents needed the support of the predominantly childless crowd who were going and coming all around us.

After that experience we realized the need to give workshops for the whole community, especially those without children of their own. Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind evolved from this experience.

The more we continued to give talks and facilitate workshops, the more we heard from other caregivers who face different challenges and struggles. Race, gender, class, geography, custody agreements and health, among other factors, all impact families and children. How do we support the different needs of our children, their caretakers, and our communities in an environment where access to resources is so unequal? How do we create new, nonhierarchical structures of support and mutual aid, and include all ages in the struggle for social justice?

We need to refocus on community support. Nuclear families are a recent invention and have not historically been the way children have been raised. We recognize that two-parent families as well as those who do the support work for others also need support. Respecting, valuing, and sharing care-giving work helps diffuse the stress and builds a healthier community for all. We all need to learn how to take care of others as well as ourselves, how to nurture and how to share physical and emotional responsibilities.

There are many books on parenting, but few on being a good community member and a good ally to parents, care- givers, and children as we collectively build a strong all-ages culture of resistance. Any group of parents will tell you how hard their struggles are and how they are left out, but no book focuses on how allies can address issues of caretakers’ and children’s oppression. Isolated by age within an individualistic society, many well-intentioned childless activists don’t interact with young people on a regular basis and don’t know how. Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind provides them with the resources and support to get started.

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Vida in Bitch Magazine

By Nina Lary
Bitch Magazine
June 2012

When it was first released in 1979, the L.A. Times called Marge Piercy’s Vida the “Golden Notebook of the ’80s,” both a record of and reflection on the state of feminism at a historical turning point. In the 1960s American antiwar movement (the setting of half of Vida), feminist issues were considered second-tier, even by many of the women within the movement. Piercy embodies this contradiction in the stunning flesh and spirit of her title character, Vida Asch.

Unlike Piercy, who was deeply engaged with the student political movement of the ’60s but went on to dedicate herself to women’s issues in the following decades, Asch breaks from the mainstream movement to found a militant, anti-imperialist collective called Little Red Wagon (based on the true-life Weather Underground) that carries out dozens of corporate bombings and earns its members spots on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The narrative is less focused on these militant actions than on their aftermath in the 1970s, when the bomb smoke has settled and the collective’s remaining members are political fugitives, dependent on a web of sympathizers and comrades—dubbed “the Network”—to survive.

Through Asch, we see what it was to be a feminist in practice, as she fights to remain a leader in an environment of machismo and objectification. She embodies political and sexual vigor. She channels both masculine and feminine power when they suit her cause and uses her sexuality as a tool. Yet she still has to reconcile her desire to be loved by men (and women) and welcome intimacy in a landscape of political and personal upheaval.

As a portrait of political struggle, Vida translates easily to modern times. The current Occupy movement draws on an amalgam of issues that the antiwar movement began to crystallize way back in the ’70s. And while feminism has moved up the ranks since Asch’s time, we still battle many of the same sidelinings in progressive movements.

Given her background, Piercy might have contextualized this new edition of Vida within the current political landscape. Instead, she introduces it with an air of nostalgia, calling Vida, for better or worse, “a historical novel.” For those too young to have been there, she hopes that they will “learn from our successes and our failures and be inspired to imagine a movement that might again try to change the structure and direction of our country into a more humane, just, and equal society.” While her story still stands as politically and humanistically relevant, Piercy’s readers could have been better served if she’d used the rerelease to speak directly to the issues of our time.

Recommended If:
You want to learn more about the ’60s political underground, but your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of Marx.

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As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes: On Feminism

By Jenny Turner
The Guardian UK 33, no. 24
December 15,  2011

 

Young women, the state and public order in Britain, as seen in clippings from the newspapers, August 2011: Natasha Reid, 24, pleaded guilty to stealing a television from a Comet in North London during the riots of August 7. Her mother said she was "baffled" by her own behaviour—she had a much nicer TV set at home. Shonola Smith, 22, pleaded guilty, along with her sister and a friend, to "entering" Argos in Croydon: "The tragedy is that you are all of previous good character," the judge said, as he sentenced them to six months each. Chelsea Ives, the 18-year-old "shamed former Olympic youth ambassador" shopped by her mother, pleaded guilty to criminal damage and burglary on the Sunday, and to violent disorder (a Somerfield in Hackney) the following evening. "The public seem to automatically place me in an unnamed category for thick, low-life individuals, which is not me at all," Chelsea wrote "from behind bars" in a letter intended for the novelist Gillian Slovo, but which the Evening Standard used as an occasion to run her big-hair camera-phone-in-the-mirror Facebook picture yet again. She began a two-year jail sentence this month.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with feminism. Young women "of good character" losing their heads and wishing they hadn’t. You feel so sorry for them, but can’t you sense what they tasted in the air as they were doing it: freedom, fury, the power—for once—of being young and strong and agile and a homegirl, the flat-out joy of getting your hands on some free stuff. "This is the best day ever," Chelsea said, while looting the T-Mobile store. "Trainers, clothes, mobiles, iPods, Macs—possession of these things is tantamount to human rights," a writer called Charmaine Elliot posted on Blackfeminists.blog, remembering her own youth in London.

"I took a trip to Selfridges one afternoon to visit a friend and was struck by advertising slogans that said, à la Barbara Kruger, I shop, therefore I am. And I couldn’t help but wonder that as I couldn’t actually shop, ergo what?"


At the UK Feminista summer school in Birmingham meanwhile, Emily Birkenshaw, 24, a teaching assistant from York, was learning how to "go floppy" when arrested. "You’re heavier then, so you can’t be carried," she told the Observer. "It just felt really empowering." UK Feminista was launched last year by 29-year-old Kat Banyard, whose first book, The Equality Illusion, came out at much the same time. "The event is set to harness the recent upsurge in interest in this previously unfashionable social movement," a press release for the summer school said. In June UK Feminista had joined forces with Object (the stress goes on the second syllable, "I ob-ject"), another newish bright-young-feminists organisation, to campaign against the recent opening of a Playboy nightclub in London. "Eff off Heff, stop degrading women!" protesters chanted. "No more sexist men, Playboy empire has to end!"


Look at them on YouTube, having their genteel shout and waving their Ban the Bunny placards: "Ob-ject, women not sex objects." "That’s not what empowerment looks like/This is what empowerment looks like!" Idealistic, well organised, compassionate and let-them-eat-cakey, these young women have no place on their neat clipboards for disturbance, unintended consequences, humour or even humility when faced with the pressures and precariousness of most people’s lives.

More from YouTube, late September. Object and UK Feminista have been busy, dressing up in white overalls with red ink on their faces, waving cleavers outside the XBiz pornography trade show in Bloomsbury: "Just a bunch of pimps and butchers/ Who trade in women’s lives!" A small bearded man shouts at them bitterly, an XBiz ID card round his neck, a bottle of Stella in his hand. "You’re a bunch of whores!" he snarls. "I’m gonna fuck you all up the arse!"

"Pornography today is increasingly violent, body-punishing, degrading and woman-hating," it says on Object’s press release, which is both true and completely beside the point. It’s a free-market economy out there, so of course there’s going to be violent pornography as long as there are people fucked up enough to want it. And of course there are people prepared to make it for them. The American writer Laura Kipnis warns against getting "teary-eyed about exploited pornography workers" when you "haven’t thought much about international garment workers, or poultry workers—to name just two." Which is funny, because the girls from UK Feminista were wearing the hats you wear to gut chickens and pull their claws off. It’s even funnier if you remember that two of porn’s most successful crossover stars both front animal-rights projects that attack the poultry industry in particular: the Playboy model and actress Pamela Anderson (Baywatch, Borat) and the hardcore queen Jenna Jameson, for Peta’s Kentucky Fried Cruelty and McCruelty (I’m hatin’ it) campaigns.

Chicken pieces, iPods, A-level burb girls with jobs in Selfridges, unable to buy any of the stuff they sell: how often if ever are such things addressed by Object and UK Feminista? How important is being female to a young woman’s everyday life and future prospects, compared to being born in the 1990s, or being Somalian, or good-looking, or receiving EMA, or going to Oxbridge, or not getting a single GCSE? "To put it schematically: 'women' is historically, discursively constructed, and always relative to other categories which themselves change."

Thus the British poet-philosopher Denise Riley in Am I That Name? (1988), her short, playful, brilliant study of the many ways in which fixed identities never work. "That 'women' is indeterminate and impossible . . .  is what makes feminism," Riley concluded, so long as feminists are willing "to develop a speed, foxiness, versatility." Can the members of Object and UK Feminista welcome such transformations, or is this what they are afraid of: that if they let themselves really look at the world around them, feminism as they think they know and need it might completely disappear?

"Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism . . . perhaps we should say no more about it": Simone de Beauvoir, at the very beginning of The Second Sex (1949). "The subject is irritating, especially to women." Long before they were shouting "Ban the Bunny" and dressing up as butchers, feminists were annoying people, not just misogynists and sexists, but the very people you’d think would like them best. It was true in suffragette days, as it was during Women’s Liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s very much a problem for what boosters have been calling "the third wave" since the early 1990s. We know the angry squiggles that signify this irritation—the hairy-legged Millie Tant man-hater, Mrs. Banks in the Disney Mary Poppins, a suffragette too busy to care for her children. And it’s obvious how useful such stereotypes have been in neutralising the threat felt in the wider culture. But these caricatures obscure a real problem: a confusion between self and other, identity and difference, that you might charitably view as an unfortunate side-effect of being of and for and by women, all at once; or, less charitably, as narcissistic self-absorption.

It’s true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren’t the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters. And yet, the strange thing is how often they haven’t: Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed votes for freedmen; Betty Friedan made the epoch-defining suggestion that middle-class American women should dump the housework on "full-time help." There are so many examples of this sort that it would be funny if it weren’t such a waste.

Not that the white middle-class brigade like being on the same side as one another. There’s always a tension between all of us being sisterly, all equal under the sight of the patriarchal male oppressor, and the fact that we aren’t really sisters, or equal, or even friends. We despise one another for being posh and privileged, we loathe one another for being stupid oiks. We hate the tall poppies for being show-offs, we can’t bear the crabs in the bucket that pinch us back. All this produces the ineffable whiff so often sensed in feminist emanations, those anxious, jargon-filled, overpolite topnotes with their undertow of envy and rancour, that perpetual sharp-elbowed jostle for the moral high ground.

Looked at one way—in the manner of Joan Didion, for example, in her harsh, oddly clouded but startlingly acute essay of 1972 on the Women’s Movement—the idea of feminism is obviously Marxist, being about the "invention," as Didion put it, "of women as a 'class’," a total transformation of all relationships, led by the group most exploited by relations in their current form. So why did the libbers so seldom say so? Well, some came to the movement as Marxists, and did. Sheila Rowbotham wrote that "the so-called women’s question is a whole-people question" in Women’s Liberation and the New Politics (1969); then in 1976 Barbara Ehrenreich stressed that "there is no way to understand sexism as it acts on our lives without putting it in the historical context of capitalism." Others shoved the categories in great handfuls through the blender: "sex-class" must "in a temporary dictatorship" seize "control of reproduction" according to Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970).

More prevalent, however, was what Didion called a "studied resistance to the possibility of political ideas"—who, in any case, ever heard of a radical-feminist movement taking its understanding of historical change from a man? The entire Marxist tradition was repressed, leaving a weird sinkhole that quickly filled up with the most dreadful rubbish: wise wounds, herstory, nature goddesses, raped and defiled; sisters under the skin, flayed and joined, like the Human Centipede, in a single biomass; the fractal spread of male sexual violence, men fuck women replicated at every level of interaction, as through a stick of rock.

And so Women’s Liberation started trying to build a man-free, women-only tradition of its own. Thus consciousness-raising, or what was sometimes called the "rap group," groups of women sitting around, analysing the frustrations of their lives according to their new feminist principles, gradually systematising their discoveries. And thus that brilliant slogan, from the New York Radical Women in 1969, that the personal is political, an insight so caustic it burned through generations of mystical nonsense—a woman’s place is in the home, she was obviously asking for it dressed like that. But it also corroded lots of useful boundaries and distinctions, between public life and personal burble, real questions and pop-quiz trivia, political demands and problems and individual whims. "Psychic hardpan" was Didion’s name for this. A movement that started out wanting complete transformation of all relations was floundering, up against the banality of what so many women actually seemed to want.

Across the world, according to UK Feminista, women perform 66 percent of the work and earn 10 percent of the income. In the UK two-thirds of low-paid workers are women, and women working full-time earn 16 percent less than men. All of this is no doubt true, but such statistics hide as much as they show. One example. In a piece in Prospect in 2006, the British economist Alison Wolf showed that the 16 percent pay-gap masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women—around 13 percent of the workforce—who have "careers" and earn just as much as men, and the other 87 percent who just have "jobs," organised often around the needs of their families, and earn an awful lot less. Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 percent—mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble.

In Feminism Seduced, the American sociologist Hester Eisenstein, a self-confessed "professional feminist," writes that she is "unhappily" aware that feminist politics have become "all too compatible" with the globalised free market and the neoliberal thinking that promotes it. Feminists write books, teach classes, shout slogans, work for NGOs that tell all manner of "glossy tales" about how unambiguously "empowering" and "progressive" it is for women to become involved in mainstream economic life. She finds a real stinker in the UN Population Fund’s 2006 report, which blandly triangulates "the global care chain," which, it says, offers migrant workers "considerable benefits, albeit with some serious drawbacks;" on the upside, "gifts," extra cash to send back home, the chance to travel, and for Muslim domestics in the Emirates the opportunity, maybe, to do the Hajj.

The reality is very different for poor women in poor countries—that is, for most of the women in the world. What options really await them when they get a job? According to research cited by Eisenstein, there are basically four alternatives: factory work in export-zone sweatshops, migration, sex work or microcredit. In the old days, the libbers in their rap groups talked about Jane O’Reilly’s notion of the ‘click! of recognition’: the sudden realisation that some nagging problem too dull, too everyday, too basic even to mention was in fact urgent and shared and politically central. Reading Eisenstein’s book, the click! comes as a slap.

How has Western feminism drifted so far out of touch? By narrowing its focus, Eisenstein thinks, to culture and consciousness and personal testimony, neglecting what she calls "the political economy of feminism," and in particular the economic peculiarities that caused Women’s Liberation to happen where and when it did. Never mind the Pill, the miniskirt, the "problem with no name," Eisenstein says: all that is a sideshow. The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift, around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfilment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline. Women entered the workforce bigtime, in other words, just as the "long boom" of the postwar years was ending, and since most women get lower-paid jobs anyway—part-time and casual, unskilled, mommy-track—most of them went ‘straight up the down escalator’, the phrase coined by the economic historian Teresa Amott. This is the way it has been for most women ever since.

Feminism, according to the sociologist Angela McRobbie, has been "disarticulated" and "undone," bits pulled out, reworked and retwisted, and other bits dumped. At the moment, the popular elements include "empowerment," "choice," "freedom," and, above all, "economic capacity"—the basic no-frills neoliberal package. It’s fine for any ‘pleasingly lively, capable and becoming young woman’ to aspire to this. It doesn’t matter if she’s black or white or mixed race or Asian, gay or straight or basically anything, so long as she is hard-working, upbeat, dedicated to self-fashioning, and happy to be photographed clutching her A-level certificate in the Daily Mail. This young woman has been sold a deal, a "settlement." So long as she works hard and doesn’t throw bricks or ask awkward questions, she can have as many qualifications and abortions and pairs of shoes as she likes.

"Why a book?" Louis Menand asked recently in the New Yorker, in an article about how the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—about rich, educated suburban housewives suffering from "the problem with no name"—became "the catalyst for a social change." "But why a book? Why not a court case, or a boycott, as in the case of the civil rights movement—something that challenged existing law?" Perhaps, he speculates, it was "because the book was a medium that women had relatively unobstructed access to as authors and as readers." Never mind Emma Goldman and her dancing: for revolution to reach middle-class women in the early 1960s, it had to be something you could get on with in the home between the vacuuming and the cocktails. This "books as bombs" hypothesis only works for middle-class women, of course. Working-class women would not be lounging around of an afternoon, but out working, maybe cleaning or doing childcare for a richer woman who was busy reading or finding herself or getting herself a little job.

"People like to be able to point to a book as the cause for a new frame of mind," Menand argues, "possibly for the same reason that people prefer anecdotes to statistical evidence. A book personalises an issue. It has an Erin Brockovich effect." People don’t want especially true or new or risky ways of thinking about feminism, they just want one of Eisenstein’s "glossy tales" with a part for Julia Roberts. If feminism wants to make sense to the people of the reflecting bubble, it has to present itself as a traditionally feminine narrative genre, as sleek high-end infotainment, with showbiz gossip, glamour, stars.

It’s possible to disagree with this completely while also seeing that Menand is sort of right. Feminist ideas circulated in the 1960s and 1970s through books, magazine interviews and the new form of television chat shows. A montage in Women, a documentary series by Vanessa Engle broadcast by the BBC last year, showed the big bang underway. The former child actor Robin Morgan (Sisterhood Is Powerful, 1970), wry and ready for her interview in enormous tinted shades; Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will, 1975), calmly browbeating a smarmy male editor during the Ladies’ Home Journal sit-in of 1970. And Germaine Greer, of course, a feather-cut hipster dryad: "It’s a cinch to have an orgasm. I can give an orgasm to my cat!" And ever since, this book-as-bomb model has come to stand for the progress of feminism in general: Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth, 1990), Susan Faludi (Backlash, 1991), Ariel Levy (Female Chauvinist Pigs, 2005)—big-selling first books by American upper-journalists, young and clever and energetic, bright-eyed and bushy-haired.

Unexpectedly, though, Engle’s film also captured the shadow, a living ghost, of something else. In one especially mustardy-looking fragment, a young woman and a toddler in a crochet tabard are seen falling out with each other in a dingy kitchen, over the foaming horror of the twin-tub washing machine. It doesn’t say so, but this moment comes from a BBC film called People for Tomorrow, made by Selma James in 1971 and now available on open access on the BBC website. The film follows everyday women in Peckham, Belsize Park, Bristol, reflecting on what might change in their lives and how to go about making this happen, in a movement that is plain and concrete, but builds into an elegant dialectic. "It’s very bad for children to just see the woman doing all this mopping-up process all the time," the mother is saying in this fragment. "I’ve been fighting it all my life, my conditioning from my mother, and here I am      . . .  doing the very same thing to my two daughters."


James’s Wages for Housework movement is now remembered, if at all, as a frippery, a jokey badge pinned to a Wolfie Smith lapel. But actually it was an intellectually ambitious attempt to synthesise Marxism, feminism and postcolonialism, and not with the usual sellotaped hyphenations. Domestic work, while not recognised as work because not paid for, is as necessary to the economy as the waged sort. The workforce needs to be fed, clothed, cleaned for, comforted, as does its progeny, the workforce of the future. "We place foremost in these pages the housewife as the central figure," James wrote with her co-author, the Italian socialist-feminist writer Mariarosa Dalla Costa, in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972). "We assume that all women are housewives and even those who work outside the home continue to be housewives. That is, on a world level, it is precisely what is particular to domestic work . . . that determines a woman’s place wherever she is and to whichever class she belongs."

For many years, the only widely available piece of James’s writing has been this Power of Women booklet, generally a good sign when you saw it on a new friend’s bookshelf, small and shocking pink. The film, though, is a better introduction, and begins with James herself, earphones on and thumping away at her typewriter: "Like millions of women everywhere, I am a typist. I’m a housewife, a mother, and I’ve been a factory worker. For twenty-five years I’ve been involved in revolutionary politics." She was born in New York in 1930 and came to Britain in the 1950s as the wife of C.L.R. James, whom she had met when she was a teenage activist. Her writings, a selection of which will be published next year, present her politics as emerging directly from her daily experience. On how C.L.R. helped her to get started:

"The way to do it," he said, "is to take a shoebox and make a slit at the top; then whenever you have an idea jot it down and slip the piece of paper into the shoebox. After a while, you open the box, put all these sentences in order and you have a draft" . . . I knew that if I stayed home from work to put the draft together, I would end up cleaning the cooker or doing some other major piece of housework, so I arranged to spend the day at a friend’s house . . . I had no distractions or excuses. I opened the shoebox, and by six or seven that evening, just as he’d said, I had the draft of a pamphlet.

The point of Wages for Housework was not to reduce politics to dirty dishes, but the opposite: dirty dishes became one index of a job, a role, a domestic ballet that included "managing the tensions of and servicing in every other way those—women and men—who do waged work, school work, housework and those made distraught by unemployment;" absorbing "expressions of anger that are not allowed elsewhere;" doing the volunteer stuff no one else has time to bother with, "from church societies to library support groups, from food co-ops to disaster appeals" and all this going on constantly, ceaselessly, even more in peasant economies than in richer ones. "The major part of unseen and uncounted housework," she added, "is done in the non-industrial world." James also tried to uphold a clarity and honesty about race and class differences among her comrades, without brooding or sentimentality or presumptuousness or more-oppressed-than-thou guilt-tripping:

What we’ve been trying to do . . . is to develop a unified view of the world, that is, a holistic view of all the divisions among us and how they connect, in order to build the movement to undermine these divisions . . . We are divided in many, many ways. Naming and examining those divisions, we can come to a unified conception of the real relations among us, both subtle and stark.

James has never been a popular figure in the Western women’s movement, and is snubbed in most mainstream accounts. There are accusations of fanaticism, cultishness, sectarian behaviour. "Like Jehovah’s Witnesses," Jill Tweedie wrote in a 1976 piece reprinted in a collection of Guardian journalism, "Selma James and her sister enthusiasts . . . harangue conferences, shout from soapboxes, gesticulate on television, burn with a strange fever." Even Barbara Ehrenreich gets a little snitty: "Battles broke out between lovers and spouses over sticky countertops, piled-up laundry and whose turn it was to do the dishes," as though there can be no way of thinking about domestic labour except treating it like a sitcom, with all the sharpest lines reserved for you.

In People for Tomorrow there is a conversation, towards the end, between James and a young man, sweet face and ginger sideburns, out shopping with his permed-and-set young wife. "How much time do you spend with your children?" Selma asks, off camera.

"Oh, very little, just one day a week, which is Sunday."

"Don’t you think you’re missing something?"


The man agrees that he’s missing the children, but "can anyone suggest a better way?"

"Well, that’s what Women’s Liberation is trying to figure out," Selma says.

"Do you think it’s worthwhile?" she asks the wife, and the wife says "No," and giggles. "We asked her what she thought she might lose," Selma says, and the wife says that she just can’t see a man with the children all day. "I don’t think anybody should be with the children all day long," Selma says. "But why shouldn’t he be with the children some of the day and you some of the day too, and perhaps even together? And perhaps even in a neighbourhood, all the parents in the neighbourhood helping with the children?"

"That’s probably a good idea," the husband says. "But you’d have to alter the whole structure of work, for instance, wouldn’t you, to break days up into half-days, as far as work goes?"

"That’s what we want to do," Selma says. "That’s one of the ideas we want to explore."

Forty years on, and the changes are in some ways astonishing: where I live in South-East London—just up the road from where James filmed one of the rap groups—it’s quite common to see men caring for children, waged, in schools and nurseries, and, unwaged, in the home.

Part-time work is common, as is flexi-time, homeworking, freelancing, multi-tasking. Equality is regulated by statute. There’s a state-funded nursery and a Sure Start children’s centre in the primary school across the road; there are two libraries in easy walking distance, four playgrounds, two parks; and many other things that, when you look at them from a distance, make Camberwell look like the New Jerusalem, except that when you come up close, you see how crummy they are, and compromised, and half-baked.

Perhaps another reason James gets missed out so often is because for more than half a century, she has kept her attention patiently focused on such perpetually disappointing realities. Why keep having your nose rubbed in all this when you could be reading about something more amusing instead? And yet, if you stick with it, you’ll start to see why people like her care so much about public services, crappy and underfunded though they are, and likely to get so much worse. They give you a break, a safety net, a respite; and then, granted that extra brainspace, you can use it to get more. And then, you can work out how to get more. And more, and more, and more, and more and more.

"Women only," it says on the Yahoo page for the London Feminist Network, another circle on the young-British-feminist Venn diagram. "For all feminist women" willing to support the organisation in its aims: "to increase women’s resistance to male violence against women in all its forms, e.g., r*pe, sexual assault, domestic violence, p*rnography, pr*stitution, women’s poverty, war & militarism etc." The vowels were left out, presumably, in order to stop the page being picked up in searches for rape, pornography, prostitution—three of the most popular internet searches. Right from the start, then, the LFN cannot directly name three of its main critical categories—an act of violence, a mode of representation, a nasty job. All linked, in all sorts of ways, but linked just as much to all sorts of other things as well. Rpe, Prnography, Prstitution. Blanked out, beyond the pale, undiscussable.

The Rpe-Prn-Prst triangle first came to prominence with the New York radical feminists of the 1970s—pornography was the theory and rape the practice, as Robin Morgan said. In her memoir of the period, Susan Brownmiller writes that it was ‘a miserable coincidence of historic timing’ that ‘an above-ground billion-dollar industry of hard and softcore porn began to flourish  . . .  simultaneously with the rise of Women’s Liberation," but there was nothing coincidental about it: they were both aspects of sexual liberalisation in a market economy. And something similar is happening at the moment, with panics about "sexualisation," "pornification," and the "commercialisation of childhood." Of course businesses will try selling sexy stuff to children, if they think adult markets are saturated. Of course pornographers want to break into the mainstream. And of course the mainstream welcomes such initiatives, because sex is always sexy, and everybody’s always desperate for something new. And it only gets more sexy when you claim to be against it, which means you get to talk about it at length with the added pleasures of disapproval and self-righteousness. Something of this is surely going on even in Ariel Levy’s elegant critique of ‘raunch culture’, Female Chauvinist Pigs, and in Natasha Walter’s less judgmental Living Dolls (2010). Anti-porn porn, basically, with an interesting relationship to prole-baiting—the word "vulgar" needn’t refer only to a person’s state of undress.

From Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) to the ghastly New Statesman article of 2000, in which she wrote about her own drug-rape in a Paris hotel room, the exemplar of this stuff was Andrea Dworkin, who wrote again and again about sexual victimisation, her own and that of other women, in fiction and non-fiction, in journalism and memoir. I used to find it surprising that such a figure got written about so often, and with such affection, in the broadsheet newspapers, until I realised: brilliant copy. "Obsessive feminine masochism infused with the ecstasy of public self-exposure," in the words of the excellent Laura Kipnis. "A perfect storm of high-profile narcissism, wrapped in an invitation for social rebuke."

What Dworkin’s writing manifestly wasn’t, however, was any sort of thought-through anti-rape campaigning. In the memoir Heartbreak (2002), the last book Dworkin published before her death in 2005, she wrote: "I’ve spent the larger part of my adult life listening to stories of rape . . .  I couldn’t move, I could barely breathe—I was afraid of hurting her, the one woman, by a gesture that seemed dismissive or by a look on my face that might be mistaken for incredulity."

Suppose you are that "one woman." Would you turn for help to an egomaniacal victim-magnet barely able to stop herself dashing off to write about her pain at your story? Wouldn’t you prefer the company of somebody quiet, damped-down, unflappable, with that trained social-workerly restraint that can seem so bland and frustrating, but which comes into its own the minute someone is actually hurt. "How did I become who I am?" Dworkin’s memoir continues. "I was torn to pieces by segregation and Vietnam. Apartheid broke my heart. Apartheid in Saudi Arabia still breaks my heart  . . . I can’t be bought or intimidated because I’m already cut down the middle." Andrea Dworkin, a cosmos, multitudinous and all-suffering in her gigantic dungarees.

Members of the London Feminist Network featured centrally in the third "Activists" film in Vanessa Engle’s series Women. "I suppose it all comes down to male violence against women," one says. "Sexual violence," says another. "Sex trafficking and female genital mutilation."

"Sexual violence, in particular domestic violence." "Porn is like a huge issue for me." "It becomes impossible to leave your door without being mortally offended," says the beaming and vibrant Finn Mackay, a star activist in her early thirties. "That is a sick, sick society."

Mackay says she first wanted to be a feminist when she was six or seven and heard about Greenham Common. She left home as a teenager to join another women’s peace camp, then moved on to build the LFN, Object and the reborn Reclaim the Night. She’s now writing a PhD about her feminist activities, goes to a feminist meeting most nights and gets at least a hundred feminist-activist emails a day. "I have the feminist rage  . . . it’s a bit like taking the blue pill in The Matrix  . . . you understand, you look differently at the workings of society.’ It’s a language of religion, almost, complete with conversion and regeneration and separation from the surrounding world.

Denise Riley, as before:

Can anyone fully inhabit a gender without a degree of horror? How could someone "be a woman" through and through, make a final home in that classification without suffering claustrophobia? To lead a life soaked in the passionate consciousness of one’s gender at every single moment, to will to be a sex with a vengeance—these are impossibilities, and far from the aims of feminism.

Further problems with gender self-saturation were luridly on display in an essay called "American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide" by Susan Faludi, published in Harper’s last year. "American feminism . . . hasn’t figured out how to pass power down from woman to woman, to bequeath authority to its progeny," she argued, and her essay collects a hilarious list of indictments gathered from "activist gatherings and scholarly conclaves": "Mean Spirits: The Politics of Contempt between Feminist Generations;" "Are Younger Women Trying to Trash Feminism?", "The Mother-Daughter Wars;" "Am I My Mother’s Feminist?," "The movement," she claims, "never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent—to reproduce itself . . . What gets passed on is the predisposition to dispossess, a legacy of no legacy." If Faludi followed Eisenstein’s political-economy advice, I think she’d find that half these mumsy metaphors cancelled the other half out.

And yet, this "legacy of no legacy" became a story-arc in Vanessa Engle’s three films. The first film, the delightful Libbers, cut between archive and contemporary footage, the stars of then as they are now, hitting old age: Kate Millett, bent double in her Crocs, still smoking with gusto; Germaine Greer, clucking at her peafowl; Marilyn French, shortly before her death at seventy-nine, tiny, anguished, very ill. The figure, though, who spoke most clearly for history was Susan Brownmiller, watering the houseplants in her New York apartment, toprocking at her street-dancing class in her mid-seventies: "There’s so much more that needs to be changed, and the new generation is going to have to learn that you can only do it really by having a movement. But they’re also going to learn, and it’s a sad lesson, that you can’t jump-start a movement—suddenly there’s a critical mass of people wanting to do something with other people, and you can’t fake that."


The second film profiled a bunch of apparently uninteresting middle-class mothers, bickering about whether in their household the work gets done by the woman or the man. "In what way are you different from a housewife in the 1950s?" the voice off-camera asks. The last film was about the LFN and its sister organisations, and the feminist revival that’s said to be going on right now. Presumably, evidence of such a movement might include recent books such as Reclaiming the F-Word by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune, which is the book of the F-Word website, and Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion. "A new heyday for British feminism," Kira Cochrane claimed in the Guardian, a "sudden burst of British feminist publishing after an extensive drought," but surely that’s pushing it. So a handful of writers try their luck at the books-as-bombs business model, as others copy The Da Vinci Code. And as for feminist blogging, isn’t it just one of those back-bedroom hobbies, like home-made porn and crafting, that suddenly becomes visible because the technology allows it? (Zadie Smith on "the great tide of pornography" in 2001: "It’s not all bad news. We’re talking women whose sexual desires are no longer sublimated into the making of quilts.") Both Redfern/Aune and Banyard try hard to reach younger readers in need of a basic introduction, and seem to have decided that doing so necessitates missing out all the interesting stuff, politics and economics and feuds and splits. I suspect this view may be mistaken.

"Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers," Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: "Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community . . .  The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know." On "unwed teenage pregnancies": "Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after forty, when the income can . . . The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about." On how to break the "cycle of poverty," given that "you can’t just hand out money": "Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them . . . I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class."

What about education? If all these girls spend their teenage years having babies, they won’t be able to become teachers and brain surgeons, not to mention missing out on cheap beer, storecards, halls of residence. To which Morrison, with splendour, rejoins: "They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them in my arms and say: 'Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me—I will take care of your baby.' That’s the attitude you have to have about human life."

Power, who teaches philosophy at Roehampton University, comes to feminism from an unusual angle. As a scholar of Marxism and Continental philosophy she’s well read in the radical-modernist traditions— thus One Dimensional Woman, from the Marcuse book about how postwar "liberal democracy and consumerism" dulled and flattened Western "man." She’s also one of Britain’s foremost web diarists, with a superb blog at Infinite Thought since 2004. And she’s a relative youngster, which means that for her, all that 1960s-1980s stuff is not a story about herself. For her, the past of feminism is approached as history, with irony and detachment.

Two points about Power’s method, with regard to Toni Morrison and other exemplars from the past. Like her fellow Zer0 author Owen Hatherley, Power has a curatorial, almost antiquarian attitude to the relics of vintage radicalism she admires. She writes of ‘the sheer crystalline simplicity of Morrison’s insights into the relationship between class, race and gender’. How hospitable, how generous of Power to invite along a stranger, then sit back and let her take over. How strange and brave of her also to place such a long and striking quote from such an unfashionable writer so teeteringly close to standing as her own first book’s final word. And when you think about it, how explosive of her: "When you want to be a brain surgeon, call me." All our assumptions are flattened by this laconic little statement.

And this, surely, is only the start. It’s obvious—now Power-Morrison has said it—that any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency. Children are the messages a family, a society, a culture, a civilisation, sends into the future, and yet every day there comes more evidence that child-rearing as currently practised among the people with all the choices doesn’t seem to be working out. They overeat, our little messages, they starve themselves, they adore themselves when they’re not indulging in self-harm. They don’t want to study medicine or train as teachers when they can just be "in the media." And this obviousness starts little fires sparking backwards across the decades. There’s Selma James and the strange marginalisation of her ideas, not to mention the way the whole family-in-a-house imago goes unchallenged, even by feminists, lesbian and gay couples, and single-parent campaigners, let alone in government, advertising, the popular media etc.

This has not always been the case. A critique of the tight-knit nuclear family as a breeding-ground of consumerism, neurosis, misery in general, was central to feminism in the 1970s. This is Adrienne Rich on ‘the institution of motherhood’ in Of Woman Born (1976): "It creates the dangerous schism between 'public' and 'private' life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities. It has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them." "There is much to suggest," she wrote, "that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself, the son’s constant effort to assimilate, compensate for, or deny the fact."

Rich’s book was extremely influential in its time, and such arguments resulted in the growth of the nurseries and of shared parenting of 1970s North London, where attention was given to "children’s health requirements, play space, schooling, mothers’ housing needs, anything else we could think of," according to Lynne Segal. And yet, a few decades later, all this seems buried, Planet of the Apes style, under heaps of chicklit and Supernanny and I Don’t Know How She Does It, and the collected purées of Annabel Karmel. How has what went before been so thoroughly forgotten? The Power-Morrison double act does exactly what such interventions are meant to, flashing up at a moment of danger, laying bare the evidence of a crime.

Power makes no effort to explain how this happened. Instead of choking up on guilt, anger, scholastic hairballs, she just waves ‘the sheer crystalline simplicity of Morrison’s insights’ in front of her: water under the bridge, guys, no need to go on about it, so long as we all do our very best, from this moment on.

Except that suddenly, last spring or thereabouts, the emphasis of Power’s blog changed.

Overnight, almost, it turned itself over to the anti-cuts movement, with flyers, listings, e-petitions, links. And Power herself seemed to lose interest in vintage feminism, writing instead about kettling and hyperkettling and the brain injuries sustained—after last year’s anti-tuition-fees demo in London—by the philosophy student Alfie Meadows. "Lecturers, Defend Your Students!" she bolshily entitled her contribution to a collection called Springtime: The New Student Rebellions. It must be relevant that the first university department to close as a result of government cuts was philosophy at Middlesex, where both Power and Meadows studied.

And as if on cue, James and her comrades were out in force this June at the first London SlutWalk, given that name after a police officer in Toronto suggested that if girls didn’t want to be raped of an evening, they "should avoid dressing like sluts." So obviously lots of people— not just women—wanted to dress up as sluts to point out the absurdity of this position; and lots of people, like me, wanted to march in solidarity, wearing our usual boring clothes. A little girl marched in a fairy costume. A transgender couple marched in matching wigs, hiking sandals, gigantic inflatable penises. WHAT WERE WOMEN WEARING IN LIBYA, CONGO, DARFUR WHEN THEY WERE RAPED? read one placard; WE ARE ALL CHAMBERMAIDS, said another, with a little picture of Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Selma James had a home-made sign with PENSIONER SLUT on it, and a little heart.

A couple more items from the scrapbook. International Women’s Day this March was marked by the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup with a piece in the Observer about her new charity, the ingeniously acronymical Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust, aka Great. The Great website has a big picture of Mariella, wan and elegant in a row of smiling African women refugees: "From Mozambique to Chad, South Africa and Liberia, Sierra Leone to Burkina Faso, feminism is the buzzword for a generation of women." In May they had a big charity auction in a "new ultra-luxury hotel" with "the most exclusive guest list" and "an unforgettable performance from Mark Knopfler." No wonder those refugee ladies are grinning from ear to ear.

Also on International Women’s Day, Power wrote in the Guardian about "Rage of the Girl Rioters," the title of a Daily Mail piece about the anti-tuition-fees day of action last November. She saw the Mail’s treatment as ‘the latest in a long line of attacks on women who campaign directly against the state’, such as suffragettes and rent strikers and bra-burners, miners’ wives and 1990s ladettes. "What looks to be a moral criticism," she writes, "frequently masks a deeper political and economic fear—what shall we do when young women are academically successful, economically independent, socially confident and not afraid to enjoy themselves? Could there be anything more terrifying?"

Rage of the Girl Rioters! I thought as I was reading. This I have to see! So I looked at the Mail’s website, and found some interestingly dialectical comments under the piece. "I don’t appreciate my daughter’s picture being [in this section] . . . She was actually coming out from a crowd rush after nearly fainting!" writes a lady from West London. "In your typically misogynistic attempt at smearing these protesters," says a young man from Kuala Lumpur, "I have to hand it to you. This must be one of the coolest collections of photos I’ve seen from the day." Not so long ago, it was impossible to imagine young women, young people, or anyone really, protesting in numbers about anything; now, they’re on the streets and furious all the time. The Daily Mail, concluding its analysis: "Thus, for the first time in a protest filled with confrontation and hatred, young girls took centre stage. Now everything is up in the air and changing all the time."


Among the recent books consulted in the writing of this piece: The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men & Women Today by Kat Banyard (Faber, 2010) 
Dead End Feminism by Elizabeth Badinter (Polity, 2006)
 Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women's Labour and Ideas to Exploit the World by Hester Eisenstein (Paradigm, 2009) Sex, Race and Class: The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings, 1952-2011 by Selma James (PM Press, 2012)
 Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy (Free Press, 2005)
 How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (Ebury, 2011)
 Meat Market: Female Flesh under Capitalism by Laurie Penny (Zero, 2011)
 One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power (Zero, 2009)
 Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune (Zed, 2010)
 Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso, 2010)

Letters 34, no. 1

January 5, 2012


I think that Jenny Turner and I want the same thing: a revolutionary feminism committed to overcoming the family, transforming economic life and providing people with better choices than the ones currently offered them (LRB, December 15, 2011). It is rare to see someone want these things in writing, in public, in a mainstream publication. So why was her essay so hard for me to like? Mostly, it is that Turner wants to use historical analysis to figure out what the future will be like, and her history is garbled and wrong.

For example, she points out that Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed suffrage for freedmen in the years following the Civil War. Stanton, along with many other first-wave American feminists, was an abolitionist first. Abolitionism taught them organisation, political tactics and rhetorical fire, and they spent decades giving speeches, circulating pamphlets, and being called ‘nigger lovers’ as they walked down the street. It was only after the Civil War, with abolition completely achieved, that Stanton and other feminists lodged their opposition to the 14th and 15th Amendments. The reason is they expected a little reciprocity from the cause to which they had devoted so many years, and got none; those Amendments let male-only suffrage go unchallenged. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise Stanton’s decision to oppose these amendments, but it is contemptuous to imply that it was made on the basis of nothing more than self-absorption.

"Who . . . ever heard of a radical-feminist movement taking its understanding of historical change from a man?" Turner asks. Well, everybody, actually. Shulamith Firestone wrote that Freud ‘grasped the crucial problem of modern life’. There was also Marx, who radical feminists discussed (and still discuss) all the time. She claims that consciousness-raising was invented by lesbian separatists, women who wanted to ‘build a man-free, women-only tradition’ of their own. This is completely backwards. Radical feminists of all kinds invented consciousness-raising because they felt domestic life had isolated women from one another, and that it might be useful to have a little space to work out ideas together. The lesbian separatism came later.

These details matter, especially in an essay that gives the impression of a strange contempt for feminism in general. Whenever Turner finds an event, or a protest, or an idea that she likes, it is usually some exceptional individual woman who is behind it. Whenever she disapproves of something, then "feminism," or "Women’s Liberation," or "libbers," or the "radical-feminist movement" is to blame. I sympathise with almost everything that Turner wants for feminism’s future, and I agree with her that certain strains of feminist thought have been misguided and counterproductive. But she also seems to want to do without any kind of movement at all, or at least to forget about any movement that preceded her writing her essay.

Richard Beck
Brooklyn, New York

Jenny Turner is disappointed in Western feminism for too often wanting to have its cake (by adopting a critical stance towards whatever seems to hinder women from having the lives they want, or ought to want) and eat it (by declining to challenge the economic and familial structures within which these hindrances come about). But Turner’s own attempt at a radical challenge to the world as it is does not inspire confidence. She quotes with approval Toni Morrison’s claim that the nuclear family "just doesn’t work"—it causes narcissism, consumerism, overeating, undereating and self-harm, according to Turner—and applauds Morrison’s vision of a world in which a teenage single mother who aspires to train as a brain surgeon can readily do so, thanks to fellow community members’ willingness to take care of her baby for free. Turner assures us that the rightness of this line of thought is ‘obvious’ once you come to think about it; presumably this is why she presents no evidence to support the correctness of the diagnosis, much less the viability of the solution.

Michael Nabavian 
London N5


In her piece on feminism, Jenny Turner incidentally misrepresents the motives behind the closure of Middlesex University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, now transferred to Kingston University (LRB, 15 December 2011). Government cuts did not lie behind the decision. Rather, philosophy did not fit with Middlesex’s international strategy and the university knew that by closing the centre, it could keep the money awarded for its strong research performance in 2008 and use it for something else. The Higher Education Funding Council for England will continue to give Middlesex something in the region of £175,000 per year until the results of the next national assessment of university research are known—sometime around 2015-16—even though most of the staff who generated that income are now at Kingston. Middlesex closed its highest rated research unit in order to take a profit on it.
Andrew McGettigan
London N1

Letters 34, no. 2

January 26, 2012


Jenny Turner’s "scrapbook" on feminism begins and ends with girl rioters’ "flat-out joy" and what might be called shopping situationism (LRB, December 15, 2011). The young women who joined last summer’s riots are, she tells us, "the problem with feminism." But what is this problem? Young women "losing their heads" or feminists who didn’t?

Yes, the riots were a problem: the medium—collective larceny and incendiary violence— obscured the inaugural message, that a black man, Mark Duggan, had been shot to death by the Metropolitan Police. The riots exposed a crisis of politics: a cruel gap between the cause and consequences of Duggan’s death. That crisis is those girls’ tragedy; it is our tragedy. Why doesn’t Turner address this? What has feminism done to deserve her rant?

One soul is exempt from Jenny Turner’s splatter critique: Selma James. Those of us who belong to the Women’s Liberation generation remember well James’s Wages for Housework campaign. Jenny Turner is right about one thing: James was never popular. Her virtuoso sectarianism was not attractive, and her leftist populism named an important issue (unpaid domestic labour) without challenging the power structure that produced it.

The Women’s Liberation movement didn’t adopt Wages for Housework because it didn’t challenge the patriarchal political economy, or the domestic division of labour, or men. Far from being an "intellectually ambitious attempt to synthesise Marxism, feminism and postcolonialism," its theory was crude and its practice toxic.

However, a host of women certainly did undertake ‘intellectually ambitious’ work. Juliet Mitchell’s essay, ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’, published in 1966 in New Left Review, a pioneering analysis of the lacunae in Marxism (relations of social reproduction and the sexual division of labour), was a founding text of British feminism. Women’s Liberation was animated by a torrent of intellectual endeavour and awareness-raising (derided by Turner as sitting around but really another term for thinking). This didn’t impinge much on Wages for Housework, or on Turner either. She finds alluring a slogan most of us thought was bonkers.

Turner burdens feminism with both too little and too much power when she asks how it has ‘drifted so far out of touch’. After the 1970s Women’s Liberation lived on not as a thing, a place, an address – it had no institutional moorings – but as contingent politics: as ideas, as coalitions, as challenges in the professions, political parties and the academy, in women’s services, and in popular culture; it created new political terrain. All this is ignored by Turner, who relies on an American leftist critique that feminism has narrowed its focus from a politics of redistribution to recognition (identity) politics: recognition can be accommodated, redistribution cannot. It claims that feminism thrives in neo-liberalism. It does not thrive. Remarkably, however, it survives. There’s a difference.

The conditions for it to flourish were eroded by the rise and rise of what Stuart Hall calls Thatcherism’s ‘regressive modernisation’, the assault on state welfarism, the neoliberal sway of the global economy, and an ideological offensive in which it is right on to be right off.

Feminist activism in these islands exemplifies not the collapse of either recognition or redistribution but—in the most dispiriting conditions – their necessary synergy. Feminism is still breathing here, there and everywhere. It audits the cost/ value of the domestic division of labour as a form of redistribution from women to men, and its acute manifestation, for example, in the coalition’s budget strategy. The Women’s Budget Group last year amplified Yvette Cooper’s calculations on the coalition’s deficit reduction strategy: 72 percent of the cost of the budget was borne by women. This evidence ignited a legal challenge by the Fawcett Society on the grounds that the budget strategy transgressed statutory equality duties.

Turner is distracted, however, by ‘a harsher divide’ between the privileged 13 percent of women who earn "just as much as men" and the rest. "Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 percent"—the prissy, "let-them-eat-cakey" monstrous middle-class regiment of women. Class discombobulates Turner. Would anyone in their right mind malign Angela Davis or Stuart Hall because they’re black and middle-class? Middle and working cultures have always been mobile, moving in and out of each other. Politics is where we can in engage in "becoming" rather than "being," not as identity politics but as a way—and this is the point, after all—to overcome the subjective and social injuries of subordination.

Strange, says Turner, how often feminism hasn’t engaged with race and class. Strange, I say, that she hasn’t registered the intensity of these engagements. Cue her allusion to the white American abolitionist and suffrage campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Turner says she ‘opposed votes’ for black freedmen. No, not quite: she insisted on votes for black men, and women black and white, at the same time. It split the suffrage movement. The great Sojourner Truth, born into slavery, had sympathy for this argument. She told the American Equal Rights Convention in 1867 that ‘man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too . . . he keeps them all to himself.’ Multiple oppressions and modalities of power have always – inevitably—circulated in feminist politics.

This brings us to Turner’s larger problem: politics itself. She gets all roused up over the wrong question. Why did a book catalyse feminism, she asks. Being a book, it "only works for middle-class women." So, working-class women don’t read? Actually, Women’s Liberation bounced out of activism not texts: the detonator was black and white women’s humiliation within the liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s: the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. The American Women’s Liberation movement was born out of resistance to racism, war and male chauvinism, in that order. These histories are withheld from Jenny Turner’s undignified tantrum. We learn that she is angry—but she is angry with the wrong people.

Beatrix Campbell

London NW1

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