From the journal Working USA, Volume 12, Number 3, published in 2009.


Durruti in the Spanish Revolution
Paz, Abel (author) and Chuck Morse (translator).
AK Press, 2006

It is difficult to find a nonpartisan history of the Spanish Civil War. The 1930s was an ideological battleground in Spain in which fascists, communists, socialists, anarchists, and republicans struggled viciously for influence; each group tends to blame the outcome and atrocities of the war on the others. Most accounts of those turbulent years describe an embattled Republic under siege from right-wing fascists on one side and reckless anarcho-syndicalists on the other. In Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, Abel Paz tells the contentious story of the war from an often-marginalized perspective: that of the anarchists themselves.

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution is both a definitive biography of lifelong militant anarchist Buenaventura Durruti and an exhaustive history of Spanish anarchism during the years leading up to the war. Through letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and memoirs of participants on all sides of the conflict, Paz gives a blow-by-blow account of the intense and often bloody struggle to establish libertarian communism in Spain that is both personal and analytical. In order to further contextualize these events, he also outlines the complicated development of the major organizations, political parties, and figures as Spain moved from a monarchy to a liberal republic to an embattled state in total crisis.

Paz’s history is not non-partisan either. At the start of the war he was a young member of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacíon Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the largest and most militant union in Spain at the time. After the war ended, he fought against fascist Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s regime and spent many years in prison and in exile. Paz was clearly influenced by the powerful commit- ment to revolution that Durruti’s life exemplified; his adoration of his subject is palpable. The book blends the perspectives of the two men, which are at times indistinguishable.

Paz grew up in Barcelona, a stronghold of the CNT and the Spanish labor movement. When the revolution erupted on July 19, 1936, workers there erected barricades in the streets, put down the military rebellion, and effectively took control of the city of more than a million. The CNT and the closely related Federacíon Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) were the most powerful forces left standing.

In the wake of the bloody battles, new forms of social organization emerged in Barcelona and the surrounding areas. Workers took over their factories and formed assemblies to coordinate the production and distribution of essential goods. Popular kitchens gave away free food. Streetcars and buses were collectivized. In the countryside, peasants established collectives and expropriated land from the aristocracy.

In short, everything the militants had fought so long for was finally coming to fruition: a society without classes or private property. Durruti was emphatic about the necessity of not only fighting Franco’s army but of creating new, libratory social and economic systems. “We carry a new world here, in our hearts,” he famously told a reporter before leading his column of militiamen into battle after Barcelona was secured. “That world is growing in this minute” (478).

Durruti spent his entire life agitating for the liberation of the working class. In a letter to his family in 1931, he named the source of his tireless obsession with revolution:

From my earliest years, the first thing that I saw was suffering. . . . How many times did I see mother cry because she couldn’t give us the bread that we asked for! And yet our father worked without resting for a minute. Why couldn’t we eat the bread that we needed if our father worked so hard? That was the first questions whose answer I found in social injustice. And, since that same injustice exists today, thirty years later, I don’t see why, now that I’m conscious of this, that I should stop fighting to abolish it. (256)

Durruti’s fierce convictions and “revolutionary intransigence” (8) earned him a reputation as a fiery radical at a young age. He joined the Metalworkers’ Union and participated in his first strikes as a teenager, where he won the respect of older miners and militants for his bravery and commitment to worker solidarity. A strong sense of youthful urgency often put him at odds with union leadership, who saw him as impetuous; Durruti, for his part, rejected what he understood to be their claims that the actions of the working class should be constrained by bourgeois politics.

In laying out Durruti’s evolution from an eager young rebel to a revolutionary military strategist, Paz also depicts the blossoming of the workers’ movement in Spain in general. During his life, the CNT went through successive cycles of tremendous expansion and then savage repression that drove it underground and stifled its growth. As it struggled to establish itself as a revolutionary workers’ organization, the CNT participated in frequent general strikes that at times bordered on—or included—armed insurrections. In retaliation, threatened industrialists hired pistoleros who shot down many union leaders in the streets. Assassinations of church and government officials followed. Durruti and his friends began robbing banks to fund the purchase of arms in the 1920s.

In some regards, Durruti never changed. He held tightly to his anarchist ideals and, according to Paz, he “had an almost religious faith in the revolution” (360). He also developed a sensitivity to the shifting power structures in Spain during those tumultuous years that Paz describes. This meticulous reconstruction of the militant’s life allows us to witness the theoretical and strategic growth that followed. In the months leading up to the outbreak of war, he sensed what was coming and recognized the need to be organized and prepared. “Times have changed, due to the ascendant march of the CNT and FAI,” he said.

There’s no longer any place for individual actions. The only ones that matter are collective, mass actions. And tactics overcome by history must be left in the past, because now they’re counter-productive and outdated. Anyone who intends to remain outside the times must also place himself outside of our ranks and accept responsibility for the lifestyle he has chosen. (370)

Durruti’s unwavering confidence in his vision of liberation was not without its consequences. “I’m hardly concerned with what some comrades imprisoned with you [in Barcelona] think of me,” he wrote to a friend from prison. “I’m consistent with myself and follow the same path I set for myself many years ago” (381). He was far more determined to foment revolution than please other militants—or even his parents, wife, and young daughter, whom he often neglected. The intensity of his convictions led him to periodically alienate himself from even the CNT and FAI leadership, where he recognized a growing reformist tendency. Paz uncritically sides with Durruti, presenting him as a visionary whose ideas were often simply too advanced for those around him.

Unlike many of his close anarchist allies, however, Durruti never strayed far from his fellow workers. Very early in his life, he challenged the position that the anarchists should be the vanguard of the revolution. He believed that “what anarchists had to do was understand the natural process of rebellion and not separate themselves from the working class under the pretext of serving it better. That would only be a prelude to betrayal and bureaucratization, to a new form of domination” (32). All his life he was a card-carrying member of the CNT who valued hard work, sacrifice, and a strong sense of responsibility to his comrades. During the war, he ate, slept, and fought alongside the men in his column.

Paz paints a vibrant portrait of this complicated and fierce leader who never seemed to doubt the wisdom and power of the working class to create a better world for themselves. Yet this book is not just about Durruti. In the “Afterward,” historian José Luis Gutierréz Molina reminds us that this “biography is the biography of countless revolutionary Spaniards who gave everything to the struggle for a more just society. By remembering Durruti, we recall all the others who are no less significant, even if unknown. This anarchist from León is not important because he was exceptional, but because he was one among many” (710).

When he died on November 20, 1936, part of the spirit of the Spanish Revolution died with him. Three days later, half a million people marched with his body in Barcelona, helping lay to rest one of the most epic figures of that heroic and tragic struggle of the Spanish working class. Abel Paz has made clear Durruti’s unflinching commitment to the workers of Spain and his dedication to total revolution, which he saw as the only solution to the injustices he had witnessed in his life. “He had renounced everything except victory,” wrote a comrade after his death. “But for him victory was a matter of one’s daily conduct. That is the luminous wake that he left behind, the memory of a lifetime of daily struggle” (605).

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This review is published in the winter 2009 issue of Peace Studies Journal, volume 2, number 2.

In the wake of the mass mobilizations against the WTO in Seattle in 1999, there has been a resurgence in interest in anarchism as a theory and practice, in both academic study and activist circles. However, anarchism is still widely misunderstood and misrepresented in mainstream culture as purely violent and chaotic. To address some of these problematic conceptions, Randall Amster, Abraham DeLeon, Luis A. Fernandez, Anthony J. Nocella, II, and Deric Shannon have given us Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy.

This compilation focuses primarily on anarchism in academia, where it is increasingly present in research and classes ranging from philosophy and education to anthropology and political science. Despite its growing influence on students and professors, the editors claim “there has been no comprehensive anarchist reader for classes, community scholars, and activist collectives that reflects this emerging and growing trend” (p. 1). This collection is intended to fill this gap and “highlight the diversity of contemporary thought around anarchism, indicating the relationship between anarchist theory, critical pedagogy, and political praxis” (p. 2).

As anyone familiar with anarchist politics could imagine, compiling a book on Anarchist Studies could be a contentious undertaking. For one, defining anarchism, particularly in an introductory manner, can be quite complicated. Since the 1960s, anarchism has been greatly influenced by many other radical social and political perspectives, such as queer, critical race, feminist, radical environmental, and animal liberation theories. As a result, “there are as many varieties of anarchism as there are anarchists” (p. 2). Furthermore, a single, totalizing theory of anarchism would be counter to the very idea of anarchism and its fundamental criticism of coercion and the imposition of authority; in the words of contributor William T. Armaline, defining anarchism “would be a claim to power—the power to define the world and future of others without their participation and consent” (p. 137). As a starting point, the editors offer a basic sketch of anarchism as an anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist body of theory and practice based on 1) the rejection of hierarchy and vanguardism and 2) the promotion of decentralization, autonomy, and freedom (p. 3).

The book’s twenty-eight essays are divided into five sections: Theory, Methodologies, Pedagogy, Praxis, and The Future. Together, they present anarchism as a multiplicity of ever-evolving tendencies, ideas, and practices that are sometimes in conversation with one another and sometimes in conflict. From theoretical proposals and discussions of new research methodologies to personal reflections from activist-academics and examples of popular anarchist pedagogy, the book offers a sampling of some of the dominant theories and debates of 21st-century anarchism.

Another potential point of controversy derives from the strained relationship of anarchism to the academy. As an institution that is at its core hierarchical—and that actively creates and maintains hierarchy—academia is fundamentally at odds with anarchism. As David Graeber puts it, “to act like an anarchist would be academic suicide” (p. 107). Stevphen Shukaitis warns against the creation of a field of “anarchist studies” that constructs anarchism as a fixed, static object to observe from afar; the end result, he cautions, could be that the work done by anarchist academics is “turned against themselves and re-incorporated into the workings of state and capital…creating the image of subversion while raking in tuition fees” (p. 167). Instead, he understands anarchism as a process, as a means, and, thus, suggests that the role of anarchism in academia (or of academia in anarchism) is to provide space and resources for “the elaboration of ideas and knowledges useful to further developing anarchist politics…approached from a way that is deeply connected to questions posed by social movements and struggles” (p. 169).

This idea that anarchist studies should serve interests and communities outside of academia is clearly echoed throughout this collection, and many of the essays included communicate the authors’ broader social and political commitments. All share the desire to further anarchist theory and practices, which distinguishes Contemporary Anarchist Studies from other academic writing that attempts to maintain a professional distance from the subjects under consideration. Moreover, many contributors challenge the very idea of scientific objectivity, arguing that it is a foundational aspect of oppressive power structures that impose a false sense of absolutism and “Truth” (p. 162).

In addition to this shared desire, this book is full of proposals for how to strengthen anarchism as a viable and effective system of liberatory thought. Suggestions range from integrating more serious considerations of race (Olson), economics (Buck), or animal liberation (Best) into current theory and praxis to viewing anarchism in terms of recent French philosophy (May), post-structural thinking (Kuhn), and nature (jones). Others go beyond theoretical considerations and put forth concrete, prescriptive ways to create anarchist institutions and, ultimately, a more anarchist society, prescriptions based on the authors’ experiences as activists. In “Addressing Violence Against Women,” for example, Emily Gaarder uses her background in a community-based restorative justice group to explore ways to prevent—and respond to—violence against women without relying on the state, a pivotal challenge for anarchists. She briefly outlines practical steps anarchists can take to address gendered violence in a manner that “embraces both the call for women’s safety and the call for the dissolution of state-sanctioned systems of law and punishment” (p. 54).

For most contributors to the book—who all have a background in academia—the struggles from which they draw their lessons and suggestions are based in the classroom. Multiple essays characterize traditional schooling models in the United States—in both public schools and universities—as reproducing the oppressive, hierarchical social relationships necessary for the advancement of capitalism. It is, therefore, as William Armaline writes, “a matter of strategy for us to consider pedagogy in any attempt to remake our communities in a way that reflects our mutual desires and needs” (p. 140).

Armaline asserts that a pedagogy steeped in anarchism—one that consciously minimizes power imbalances between teachers and students—can have liberatory potential and allow for the “active deconstruction of oppressive elements of society and the creation of situated knowledge and grassroots community” (p. 137). Abraham DeLeon and Kurt Love similarly advocate a rethinking of social studies and “hard” science in secondary schools that questions the primacy of the state, objectivity, and historical discourses that naturalize capitalism, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, and other imposed systems of domination. Both essays suggest ways teachers can challenge these entrenched ideas in the classroom.

Others focus their attention on the university in particular, claiming that the creation of new methodologies infused with an anarchist perspective could lead to academic research that does not, as Luis Fernandez says, “reproduce colonizing effects or help reproduce state practices” (p. 95). Jeff Ferrell goes a step further in his unrepentant attack of the accepted research ethic in his fields, criminology and sociology, which he sees as “an intellectual side water with little hope of effectively confronting contemporary injustice” (p. 78). As an alternative, he cites philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, who wrote that “the only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes” (p. 73). Therefore, to Ferrell, the way to break out of this intellectually deadening quicksand is to challenge all methodological orthodoxies, to put down the data sets and go back out into the field where researchers are vulnerable and outcomes unpredictable. In the end, this could produce research with some relevance outside of the academy.

The question of relevance surfaces repeatedly throughout the book. Several contributors (in particular Paul Routledge, Stevphen Shukaitis, David Graeber, and Deric Shannon) discuss the role—if any—of radical academics in social movements. These essays are some of the most compelling, as they offer pointed critiques of the academy that are directed toward other academics, as well as suggestions for how to resist institutionalization and maintain political commitments. This group of essays makes clear that beyond incorporating anarchist thinking into the classroom, researchers are increasingly considering their role in the larger society and, in doing so, attempting to transform the very nature of academic work. On this Routledge is direct: “‘relevance’ entails making certain political commitments to a moral and political philosophy of social justice, and research is directed both toward conforming to that commitment and toward helping to realize the values that lie at its root” (p. 82). He offers very concrete suggestions—grounded in his own experience with the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA)—for how to make this a reality.

In focusing explicitly on the need to direct research toward the world outside the classroom, Routledge echoes many of the ideas found in Constituent Imaginations, a recent collection edited by Shukaitis and Graeber that explores “methods through which social research creates new possibilities for political action” and “methods and strategies of how to most effectively use the space we find ourselves in to find higher positions of subversiveness in struggle” (2007 p. 31). Despite the obvious similarities between the two books, there is a key difference: Constituent Imaginations is more concerned with drawing examples from diverse histories than with any one theoretical tradition (i.e., anarchism).

While seemingly benign, this difference is of great importance in the case of anarchism. As Graeber puts it, anarchism is not the invention of a group of nineteenth-century European theorists (eg, Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Prodhoun, all of whom are cited repeatedly throughout this book); neither did these theorists claim to invent anarchism, but rather to describe what they saw in people around them. To them, says Graeber, anarchism was “a kind of moral faith, a rejection of all forms of structural violence, inequality, or domination (anarchism literally means ‘without rulers’), and a belief that humans would be perfectly capable of getting on without them. In this sense, there have always been anarchists, and presumably, always will be” (p. 105).

A few authors in Contemporary Anarchist Studies do reaffirm this sentiment: in his admonition against the creation of “anarchist studies” departments, Shukaitis notes the tendency inherent in this line of thinking to understand anarchism as a word, a socio-political identity, rather than as an ethic or set of practices that could go by other names. The latter perspective, he claims, reveals “a much richer and more global tradition of social and political thought and organization that while not raising a black flag in the air is very useful for expanding the scope of human possibilities in a libratory direction” (p. 170). Conceiving of anarchism as a natural, rather than affected, tendency opens up the potential for much greater affinities across cultural, geographic, and historical lines.

Some scholars included in this book utilize the broader conception of anarchism described by Graeber and Shukaitis. During his time as a participant in the anti-corporate globalization movement in Barcelona, Jeffrey S. Juris observed a proliferation of anarchist ideas and practices; yet when he asked activists to describe their political identities, most avoided adopting a specific label and instead chose to borrow from various contemporary and historical perspectives, only one of which is anarchism. Juris sees this flexibility and inclusiveness as a major strength of these types of movements. In her section on combating gender violence (mentioned above), Emily Gaarder also points out that though restorative justice is in line with anarchist principles, the two are not explicitly associated and many of its practitioners would not identify as anarchists. Caroline K. Kaltefleiter inverts this process by reclaiming the Riot Grrl movement, arguing that what mainstream society came to represent as simply a music and fashion style was based on an anarchist politics. Through her discussion of girl zines and street activism, Kalrefleiter explains how Riot Grrl was—and still is—“a fluid sphere of resistance, source of empowerment, and viable agency for social change” (p. 226).

Still, these examples are all drawn from a relatively narrow range of cultures. Graeber, on the other hand, mentions his doctoral research in rural Madagascar where villages were largely self-governed and made decisions by consensus, two practices lauded by anarchist groups around the world. Nowhere else in the book are anarchism’s myriad debts to indigenous practices mentioned, which points to the more general issue of what perspectives are and are not included. Men’s voices dominate, both as authors and editors, a shortcoming all too common in anarchist groups and projects. The introduction does acknowledge this imbalance, but there is little discussion of why or how to address it.

Though the relationship between anarchism and the university can be tenuous, Contemporary Anarchist Studies makes compelling arguments—both theoretical and practical—for ways radical academics can use their privileged positions to further social movements without sacrificing their political ideals. This book itself is a compelling example: the editors worked as a collective and made decisions by consensus, a process that, in their words, “mirrors anarchism itself” (p. 6). That the end result was published by Routledge, a respected academic press, is proof that anarchism is alive and growing in the academy.

Another review of mine (though pretty heavily edited)  is up on Boldtype.

“The border runs down the middle of me,” Luis Alberto Urrea, the son of a Mexican cop and a New York socialite, once claimed. This physical and psychological “border” also divides Urrea’s newest novel, Into the Beautiful North, into two parts — Sur and Norte — turning a whimsical coming-of-age travel story into an exploration of transnational migration.

The story begins as a group of shady bandidos starts harassing people in the tiny Mexican village of Tres Camarones. With all the town’s men off working in the US — including the only cop — 19-year-old Nayeli is forced to come up with her own plan of defense. After seeing The Magnificent Seven at the local theater, she decides to go to the US to recruit seven Mexican men to come back and defend the town. The journey takes Nayeli, her two angsty girlfriends, and her gay boss out of their isolated village and into the swirling chaos of the US/Mexico border, where they encounter many of the characters from Urrea’s award-winning nonfiction — predatory Mexican police, US Border Patrol agents, glue-sniffing street kids, menacing coyotes. But amid these devilish sorts, there is also an element of absurdity, most notably in Atómiko, the staff-wielding, pole-vaulting superhero from the Tijuana trash dumps who joins their bumbling gang.

Despite the misogynistic overtones (i.e., the women in the village need their men to save them), Into the Beautiful North is a valuable addition to the growing body of border literature. Urrea touches on many tensions that affect people on both sides of the fence — from the effects of migration on families to the decidedly un-Hollywood reality of arriving in the US — while imbuing the story with a touch of the fantastical. The result is an exceptional tale that transposes the polarizing discourse of immigration politics with a rambunctious adventure that shows there is still some magic left in our troubled world.

More Jeff in Venice

April 22, 2009

This very brief adaptation of my much longer review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was just published on Bold Type.

Geoff Dyer’s work often grapples with two extremes: peak experience (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It) and total existential breakdown (Out of Sheer Rage). He and his characters — who are too easy to think of as Dyer himself — bounce around the globe in their explorations of the terrain between these two poles. At times they strike a balance, if only for a brief moment. Other times, they just keep moving, in search of better parties, more spectacular beaches, or more fulfilling relationships — as if they can outrun their demons.

Dyer brings this framework to his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a peculiar homage to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The book is actually two stories that are never explicitly connected, though plenty of details suggest the character in each is the same. Both are insecure, disillusioned British writers in their mid-40s who use their assignments as opportunities to reinvent themselves. One travels to Venice, ostensibly to review the flashy Biennale, but is really there for the parties; the other, while on assignment in Varanasi, India, (also known as Benares) loses himself in the swirling intensity of the holy city. The first meets a woman, does some coke, and ends up right where he started, just hungover and lonelier. The second undergoes a sort of spiritual rebirth and emerges seemingly blissful and content (though a little unhinged). Dyer does a characteristically masterful job of painting a magical picture of the two watery, dreamlike cities as a backdrop.

On the surface, this is a slight departure from the youthful romanticism of Dyer’s previous fiction. The travel and parties are still enjoyable, although this time, they’re competing with a nagging angst that rarely goes away. But at second glance, the old Dyer is still there, still waging a war against the tedium of modern life — he’s simply older, calmer, and less naïve. The two writers in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi are ultimately caricatures of two clichéd approaches to finding happiness, and the book ends so absurdly that it’s clear Dyer still finds humor in the drama of existence.

I was happy to hear that Geoff Dyer’s new book was going to take place in Varanasi, India, which is probably the most amazing city in the world. It is a profoundly chaotic place that mesmerizes pilgrims, tourists, and seekers from all across the globe. The entire city has the air of an ancient temple where the boundary between spiritual worship and daily life is imperceptible. Its sounds, smells, colors, and traffic are nearly impossible to describe or even understand. If anyone, I thought, Dyer could capture the magic and texture of Varanasi.

It turns out Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is only half about Varanasi (the rest, obviously, is set in Venice). He does do a characteristically good job of communicating the frenzied madness of the city. But what happens there, and in Venice too, is surprising. Or maybe disappointing. Instead of the romance, beauty, humor, and brilliant insight that I’ve come to expect in Dyer’s work, this book is—at first glance—bitter and cynical. Contagious, too. Instead of life and infinity it made me think about death and the limits of experience. It made me think about Paul Bowles. Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Wednesday March 28, 2007

Your average Bay Area liberal can tell you that globalization is ruining the world by enabling corporations to exploit developing countries. But it’s rare that anyone can actually explain how this works — or shed light on the impenetrable mystery of global economics generally. In 2004, John Perkins began to do so with Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, a scathing autobiographical exposé of the inner workings and inherent hypocrisy of international aid and development, as used by financiers and corporations to draw countries into debt and dependency. Now A Game as Old as Empire, an anthology of essays compiled by San Francisco editor and writer Steven Hiatt, with an introduction by Perkins, further illuminates the shady world he once inhabited.

In 12 chapters the book unspools a cycle that starts in the conference rooms of private banks and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and ends in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.

In between, billions of dollars flow through troubled, resource-rich nations with weak governments such as the Philippines, Iraq, and Nigeria, where they fund civil wars and destructive resource extraction. According to Game’s contributors — researchers, journalists, and former economic hit men — this so-called aid does little to address the grinding poverty in these countries, which end up more unstable and deeper in debt.

Though much of the material will be familiar to anyone with an interest in international development — and some of it is quite tediously recounted — the book does contain shocking examples of corporate avarice. The standout contributions are first-person accounts of the cinematic world of high finance, where 25-year-old rookie bankers are picked up at the Manila airport in shiny Jaguars with beautiful women in the backseat and World Bank officials shake hands with Liberian colonels whose first words are “Where is the money?” These scenarios are every globalization critic’s worst nightmare, in which fraud, graft, and embezzlement are the bottom line and the only change is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Game’s earnest call for reform of a clearly broken system is endearing, but it continually fails to question the roots of the problem. “We must begin today to re-create the world the corporatocracy has inflicted on us,” Perkins writes — as if the whole mess were all “their” fault. Financial mismanagement and corruption are placed at the foundation of the system; the bankers and elites who control it are deemed the culprits. Nowhere do the contributors question the lifestyles that necessitate and feed such behavior. Still, while its examination of the workings of global capitalism is incomplete, the book exposes many of the mechanisms enabling the concentration of so much money in so few hands.

A Game As Old As Empire: The Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption

Edited by Steven Hiatt
Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Review of Clandestines

January 11, 2009

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Tuesday June 20, 2006

“The rebel must return to their own past with a knife in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other,” writes Ramor Ryan in Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile. For nearly two decades, Ryan has been a political traveler, crossing the globe as both a keen observer and an earnest participant in many of the world’s resistance movements. From Turkish Kurdistan to Sandinistan Nicaragua to East Berlin, he has kept one eye on the lookout for the powers that be and the other on history, contextualizing the adventures of the present by examining the lessons of the past in a manner both critical and celebratory.

Ryan’s exhilarating and inspiring tales reveal the intersections of globalized politics’ grand narratives and everyday life.

The people he meets welcome him into their lives, into crowded Havana tenements and seedy Guatemalan port-town bars, as he searches for the spirit of struggle that underlies survival. “We look about us, our own lives, and we begin to resist where we are,” he writes.

Clandestines is a tribute to resistance, which in his view, in the 21st century, is best enacted not in the trenches but in carved-out autonomous spaces — spaces of clandestinity. After examining failed revolutionary struggles in a world with one superpower, Ryan concludes that rather than battling power on its own terms, we must create our own alternatives. “Clandestinity is about protecting ourselves, our rebel spaces, and allowing the seed to germinate underground,” he writes, taking us into German squats, Zapatista villages, and Sandinista coffee co-ops. But not just any autonomy will do — it must be engaged, not escapist, as is evident from his condemnation of a naively hedonistic Rainbow Gathering he attends in Croatia.

A rousing, insightful, humorous tapestry of cultural resistance, Clandestines impels us to fear inaction, not failure, for mistakes are made to be learned from, and our lives are our own.

Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile
By Ramor Ryan
AK Press