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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Verso Book of Dissent: From Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad » User review

"The barrel of the pen" vs. the barrel of a gun

  • Oct 30, 2010
Commemorating four decades of radical publishing at Verso, whose name comes from the "left" side of the page, Andrew Hsiao and Audrea Lim gather hundreds of contrarian voices "from Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad." The currency of their effort extends their coverage past these two markers. It begins with an anonymous "Tale of the Eloquent Peasant" ca. 1800 BCE. It ends with Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell's judgement on the flotilla he boarded that challenged Israeli forces to end the Gaza blockade this past May: "I believe so strongly in solidarity as an instrument to change the world, and I believe in dialogue, but it's the action that proves the word."

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

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

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

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

Brief notes by Hsiao and Lim accompany each entry. They inform the reader of the context in which each passage was produced, and give a sentence or two about what is known of the speaker or writer. One pleasure of perusing this collection is finding a familiar author in a surprising context. For example, Helen Keller explains "Why I Became a Socialist." She sided with the IWW, opposed WWI, and campaigned for birth control, women's suffrage, and workers' rights.

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

In 2008, "The Fear In" shows how the society of the spectacle which Debord predicted has indeed come to pass. Woeser tells what he sees in Lhasa: "Where the fear is now minutely scanned by the cameras that stud avenues and alleys and offices, and every monastery and temple hall;/ All those cameras,/ Taking it all in,/ Swiveling from the outer world to peer inside your mind." Is this the freer society imagined a half-century ago or a more Orwellian one? This decade's contents encompass our cyber-connected, digitally accessed, endlessly monitored present-day predicament.

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

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

Today's fear of speaking out contends with the necessity to speak out. Their archived dissent spans four thousand years. This edition provides a thoughtful compilation of the reactions to the privileges some possess today, alongside the injustice the dispossessed endure-- next to the pyramids of the powerful.

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October 30, 2010
I can't wait to get this book that I had never known existed before your review! I can't wait to read it and then, get a copy for my dad for a Christmas present (which probably is slightlly oxymoronic due to the nature of the book and commercialism of Christmas!). Thanks so much for sharing. Do you have a fave part? I was right on the same thought path as you when you mentioned Woeser's Lhasa observation- I thought just like 1984!
October 30, 2010
DJEvoke, the book's just out, so that's why you never heard of it! I liked the anarchists-IWW sections the best, perhaps due to my reading Pynchon's novel "Against the Day" (see my review) a few months ago. The anthology does not have any order except chronology, so it jumps about, but it's worthwhile. I note the press release trumpets Verso's sales as $4 million last year and aimed at $5 this one, so they too know commercialization!
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John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #51
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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The Verso Book of Dissentshows the many ways in which the constant struggle to create a better world has broken through the walls of apathy and acquiescence. (Noam Chomsky )
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ISBN-10: 1844674487
ISBN-13: 978-1844674480
Author: Andrew Hsiao
Publisher: Verso

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