Monday, October 30, 2017

The Russian Revolution, Africa and the Diaspora

The Russian Revolution, Africa and the Diaspora

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois viewing the May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square, May 1, 1959.

From the time of the Great October Revolution in 1917, Africans and those of African heritage around the world gravitated towards the revolutionary events in Russia and Communism, seeing in them a path to their own liberation. Perhaps not surprisingly then, many of the main black political figures of the twentieth century, in Africa and elsewhere, have been Communists, or at least inspired and influenced by the international communist movement. These include such diverse figures as André Aliker, Aimé Césaire, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, W.E.B Du Bois, Elma Francois, Hubert Harrison, Claudia Jones, Alex la Guma, Audley Moore, Josie Mpama, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, Paul Robeson, Jacques Romain, Thomas Sankara, Ousmane Sembène and Lamine Senghor.

African Americans and those in the African diaspora were impressed by the prospect that the Revolution might spread globally and signal the end of the capital-centered system and all that went with it including racist oppression. The Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay therefore referred to the October Revolution as “the greatest event in the history of humanity,” and Bolshevism as “the greatest and most scientific idea in the world today.”1 

Another Jamaican, Wilfred Domingo wondered, “will Bolshevism accomplish the full freedom of Africa, colonies in which Negroes are the majority, and promote human tolerance and happiness in the United States?”2 There was thus an early admiration for the Revolution from the perspective that it heralded the possibility of an alternative to the capital-centered system which would be to the advantage of those who were oppressed in the United States and the Caribbean, as well as in Africa. These were the perspectives of those early twentieth century organizations, which were inspired by the October Revolution such as the African Blood Brotherhood in the United States, which subsequently included many leading black communists such as Otto Huiswoud, Cyril Biggs, Harry Haywood and Grace Campbell.

Singer and actor Paul Robeson during his tour in Moscow in August 1958. 

Once the new Soviet Union was more firmly established in the 1920s, several prominent figures traveled to see at first hand the construction of socialism and remarked on the absence of racism and national oppression. Indeed, this was a common theme in the eye-witness accounts of visitors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. As early as 1926, on his return from the Soviet Union, the prominent African American scholar-activist Du Bois publicly acknowledged, “I stand in astonishment at the revelation of Russia that has come to me…If I what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” Even the famous Pan-Africanist George Padmore, a former communist from Trinidad who had parted company with the communist movement, wrote a major book in 1945, How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire, over a decade after his expulsion. Padmore still felt compelled to publish what was, in effect, a celebration of the revolutionary transformation of 1917 and the elimination of national oppression which in the author’s view was a consequence of it.

The significance of the October Revolution was not just in the event itself, but the fact that it gave rise to the construction of a new political and economic system in the Soviet Union and to a new international communist movement organized from 1919 in the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern. The aim of the Comintern was to create the conditions for revolutionary transformation outside the Soviet Union and from its inception it took a very keen interest in Africa and other colonies, as well as in what came to be called the ‘Negro Question’–the question of how Africans and those of African heritage could liberate themselves and put an end to all forms of racist oppression. In fact, there was no other international organization that took such a stand, that was openly opposed to both colonialism and racism and attempted to organize all people of African descent for their own liberation.

The fact that the Comintern grappled with the ‘Negro Question,’ included in its ranks Communists of all nationalities and took a strong stand in opposition to colonialism and racism endeared it to many in Africa and beyond, even when there was some dissatisfaction with the communist parties in Britain, France, the United States and South Africa. To some, these parties appeared to be dragging their feet over the important Negro Question. There was a widespread view that the Comintern was more revolutionary, the custodian of the legacy of the October Revolution and therefore more concerned about such matters than some of its constituent parties. This certainly seemed to be the case when the Comintern demanded that the Communist Party in South Africa should be a party of the masses of the people of that country, led by Africans, and that it should first champion the rule of the majority in what was considered a colony of a special type, even if many of the leaders of that party had a contrary view.

The decisions of the Comintern were similarly firm and controversial in relation to the orientation to be adopted for the African American struggle for self-determination in the so-called ‘Black Belt’ in the United States. Whatever may be said of the Comintern’s policy, it undoubtedly raised the profile, significance and centrality of that struggle and, as recent historical accounts have shown, laid many of the foundations for the later struggles for civil rights and Black Power. What is more, the Comintern’s position had an impact outside of the United States, influencing communist parties in Cuba and other Latin American countries. Eventually, Black Communists took a lead in demanding the creation of a specialized organization–the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW).

The importance of the ITUCNW, its organ Negro Worker, as well as other publications, was that the revolutionary politics and impact of the October Revolution and of the Comintern were spread throughout the world– particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s. As part of the work of the ITUCNW workers and others were recruited from the British colonies in West Africa, as well as from South Africa and in time, students were sent from many parts of Africa to the Soviet Union. Others traveled to see the consequences of the October Revolution from the Caribbean and from the United States. In the period between the wars, hundreds made this journey including leading anti-colonial figures such as Isaac Wallace-Johnson from Sierra Leone, Jomo Kenyatta, future prime minister of Kenya, and Albert Nzula, the first black general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Black Communists in the Soviet Union in the 1930s

Perhaps the most important legacy of the October Revolution was the theory that emerged from it and the experience of building a new social system while surrounded by a capital-centered world. What was demonstrated was that another world was possible and that those who were the producers of value could be their own liberators and could construct this new world themselves. This alternative and the prospect of liberation continued to inspire individuals and organizations in Africa and the diaspora throughout the inter-war period and particularly during the Second World War thereafter–when the Soviet Union led the defeat of fascism and created the possibility of national liberation and the restoration of sovereignty in those countries that languished under colonial rule.

For some, this theory was embodied in the personality and work of V.I Lenin, who continued to inspire many. In 1970, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Amilcar Cabral–the famous leader of the national liberation struggle in what was then Portuguese Guinea–is reported to have said, “How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” Cabral was far from alone in voicing his admiration from Lenin’s work and contribution. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso, not only expressed his admiration for Lenin’s writing, which he claimed to have read in its entirety, but was rather more specific in his praise of the ‘great revolution of October 1917 [that] transformed the world, brought victory to the proletariat, shook the foundations of capitalism and made possible the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice.”3 In 1984, he concluded, “the revolution of 1917 teaches us many things.”4

The world has changed considerably since 1917. The Soviet Union and the construction of socialism in some other countries have been terminated. Communism – the doctrine of the conditions for the liberation of the wealth producers has not and cannot be terminated, although clearly there is a need for a modern Communism providing solutions for modern problems. The October Revolution demonstrated that another world is possible, that this alternative is not a utopia, and that we can all be the agents of change and the makers of history.

  1.  Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2013), 12.
  2.  Ibid., 13.
  3.  Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987 (London: Pathfinder, 2015), 165.
  4.  Ibid., 135.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Racism, Climate Change, Pollution: Disaster Capitalism@Work

The Brutal Racial Politics of Climate Change and Pollution

As I watched coverage of Harvey’s flood damage in Houston, Irma’s wreckage in the Caribbean, the devastating record monsoons in South Asia, and the fresh nightmares of Hurricane Maria, I thought back to another place: Charlottesville, where racists openly rallied to their cause—and were later defended by the president.

To explain why, let me point back to one of the least known—yet most outrageous—of the Trump administration’s early policy proposals: the proposed elimination of the Environmental Justice program at the EPA. While the division still exists for now, it has no more grants available for the current fiscal year, and its future is in limbo.

Environmental justice is the principle that people of color and poor people have historically faced greater harm from environmental damage, so special efforts should be made to prioritize their access to clean air and water. The environmental justice program gave small grants to communities struggling with these disparate pollution impacts. Its budget was small—just $6.7 million out of the prior year’s EPA budget of $8 billion, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Clearly, the proposed cut wasn’t about saving money. Instead, it points to a more sinister agenda—especially when paired with other planks of the administration’s environmental platform.

Disproportionate Harm
 Take Trump’s proposal to deregulate power plant emissions.

Air pollution is bad for everyone with lungs, but it disproportionately harms people of color and poor people, who are much likelier to live near coal-burning power plants. People living within three miles of coal-fired power plants have a per capita income 15 percent lower than the national average, and African Americans die of asthma at a 172 percent higher rate than white people. Deregulating toxic polluters is only going to worsen such egregious disparities.

Meanwhile in Alaska, Native villages are literally sinking into the sea and facing the loss of their traditional lifestyle as polar ice melts. Yet the federal government proposes eliminating the already meager assistance they receive, and won’t even name the problem they’re confronting. Absurdly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now refers to Arctic climate change impacts as “Arctic Change.”
Similar inequalities show up in the places hardest hit during this catastrophic hurricane season.

Refineries and other petrochemical facilities in Houston have been shut down in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey. However, storm damage at the Exxon refinery in Baytown has led to leaks of toxic chemicals, while the Chevron Phillips refinery in Pasadena reported to regulators that it may release known carcinogens like benzene.

Who lives near these facilities? Of the two Census blocks immediately adjoining Exxon’s Baytown refinery, one is 87 percent non-white and 76 percent low-income, the other 59 percent non-white and 59 percent low-income.

Outside the Chevron Phillips facility, the same pattern plays out: Residents there are 83 percent non-white and 74 percent low-income.

Living near these facilities—and in the storm zone, generally—is dangerous. But for some people, even trying to get away was dangerous. In a horrifying move, the Border Patrol continued to operate checkpoints on highways being used by people evacuating from the hurricane-affected zone, so undocumented immigrants had to choose between risking their lives or getting deported.

While Texas was still reeling, the Caribbean, and then Florida, was struck by Hurricane Irma. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a sovereign state that’s over 90 percent black, says that 95 percent of the structures on the island of Barbuda have been destroyed.

Americans sometimes forget that the Caribbean includes the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Though “colonies” would be a more truthful word, since these largely nonwhite islands have no voting representation in Congress.)

More than half the residents of Puerto Rico lost power, and a top utility official has warned that many of them will remain without power for weeks to months. The delay is partly attributable to the poor state of the island’s infrastructure, which hasn’t been maintained over a decade-long recession—one worsened by Washington-imposed austerity policies that prioritize payments to lenders over the well being of Puerto Ricans.

People in the U.S. Virgin Islands, meanwhile—over three-quarters of whom are black—are struggling with major storm damage and power outages, with minimal federal assistance and little coverage from the U.S. media. While federal authorities aren’t providing meaningful assistance to USVI residents, they’ve nonetheless mustered the capacity to block desperate evacuees from other harder-hit islands in the region from reaching the islands.

And before Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders had a chance to recover, they’ve been hit by Maria, a second major hurricane, that’s knocked out power for the entire island of Puerto Rico and caused severe structural damage to buildings. The mayor of San Juan expects it will take 4 to 6 months to restore electricity.

An Unmistakable Pattern
Neighborhoods in Port Arthur, Texas, flooded quickly as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey dumped 26 inches of rain on the city in late August.

There’s a pattern here.

The proposed elimination of environmental justice funding, assistance for Native Alaskans, and the U.S. contribution to the Green Climate Fund (which assists poor countries with adapting to the effects of climate change and transitioning to clean energy) all appear calculated to pander to the most racist, nationalist elements of Trump’s base, who don’t want any assistance going to those they consider “undeserving.”

Yet who could be more deserving?

Black Americans are living with (and dying from) asthma caused by particulate pollution from profit-generating power plants. Native Alaskans are losing their homes and traditional lifestyles due to melting ice caused by climate change. Undocumented people had to risk deportation while fleeing a life-threatening disaster.

Globally, Bangladeshis, Indians, and Nepalis are suffering from catastrophic floods that are exacerbated by other people’s greenhouse gas emissions—not least our own, since the U.S. is the largest historical emitter of the carbon now warming the planet. And people in Antigua, Barbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico just got battered by a powerful hurricane intensified by a warming ocean.

All of these lives are systematically devalued by the powers that be precisely because of entrenched white supremacy—of the implicit kind (evidenced by the decades of foot-dragging by rich countries on the issue of climate change), as well as the brazen kind on display in Charlottesville.

We cannot truly confront the root causes and horrific impacts of climate change without challenging and undoing white supremacy.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s the author of the recent report “How States Can Boost Renewables, With Benefits for All.”

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Writing While Socialist

Vijay Prashad, Mark Nowak
Editor's Note: Over the past year, the scholar and activist Vijay Prashad taught a series of nonfiction writing workshops to students, activists, workers, and journalists across India. The workshops sought to develop an ethics and practice of socialist writing to foreground what Prashad calls “the small voices of history.” Here he talks to the poet Mark Nowak, founder of the Worker Writers School in New York City, about the political valence of socialist writing in a time of rampant populism, racism, and xenophobia. This is the second in a series of dialogues between Prashad and Nowak. Their first conversation, The Essentials in Socialist Writing, was published in Jacobin.

Mark Nowak: You have facilitated a new series of workshops around India since we last spoke. How has this project evolved over time? What new ideas, techniques, or insights did you bring to the second round?

Vijay Prashad: With each workshop the broad outlines of socialist writing become clear to me. I am now able to better distinguish between capitalist writing—which typically emerges from the liberal, mainstream media and is intended to produce commodities—and socialist writing—which is intended to produce a confident community of struggle. The time in our workshop is spent digging deep to understand how to create these communities.

As socialist writers, we take our lead from the people struggling to improve their worlds.

This leads us to the question of style. It is a myth that style is a bourgeois concern. There is an assumption that socialists are interested in content, not style—in getting the point across in as transparent a manner as possible and not worrying about how a story is framed or what kind of mood it evokes. But the socialist writer is not merely a conduit from the picket line to the reader. The writer must shape the story. It is to encourage discussions of socialist style that I do these workshops in the first place.

Let us consider the Indian state of West Bengal, where the right is currently engaged in a concerted attack on the left. Every day there are new incidents of violence visited upon the working class and peasantry, particularly those amongst them who are communists. Recently the police attacked a demonstration by tea plantation workers, and some of the workers were injured. A writer reporting on the protest has a choice: should one write in the mode of grief, representing the workers as victims, or should one write in the mode of anticipation, conveying the intensity of struggle?

Tea plantation workers on strike in northern West Bengal, 2017. Image courtesy the Communist Part of India (Marxist).
The women protesting in the photograph above should not be taken for victims of a ruthless state. They are not mere spectators to history, they are the ones pushing history forward. The mainstream media does not take them seriously. It avoids telling their stories. It does not question the conditions of their lives and work. It does not ask how they have built up the courage to take to the streets against the more organized and powerful state. As socialist writers, we take our lead from the people struggling to improve their worlds. If we can narrate their struggles with honesty, then we can perhaps bolster their confidence. It is this confidence, and not commodities, that we seek to produce.
It is a myth that style is a bourgeois concern.

MN: I like what you say about the tea plantation workers in West Bengal. This is a discussion we have often had at the Worker Writers School in New York, led by long-time collaborators from Domestic Workers United. The students, who work as nannies, street venders, cab drivers, and retail workers, have seen journalists come in, listen to their stories, learn about their struggle for a domestic workers’ bill of rights, and then disappear. They ask, “Where did my story go?” How do you think workers can maintain some control over their own stories?

VP: Stories travel. That is always a risk. I like Eduardo Galeano’s great line that people are not made of atoms, they are made of stories.

Imagine a journalist at a protest, watching people march and chant but unable to comprehend them as anything but quaint or anachronistic. This is a journalist who sees the event—the meeting or the protest—but cannot see the process, cannot see the history of struggle. What use is this journalist’s story to the workers? Will there be anything but condescension in the prose? The workers won’t recognize themselves in the story. There are the liberal writers who approach workers with sympathy. They see them as victims, as people to be pitied for the terrible conditions of their life and work. Such writers want their readers to recognize the existence of injustice, but again only as an event—something to look at and bemoan. The intention behind such writing is to provoke the readers to act on behalf of the workers. In this setup, the workers are to be pitied, they are not seen as drivers of human history. Others have to act for them. No wonder there is little in their texts that workers can recognize. These victims are alien to them.

One of the ways in which workers are written out of the news and out of history books is that their lives are not seen as producing history. The mundane nature of working-class and peasant life is seen as reproductive, not generative—merely reproducing the world but not making new worlds. But history is produced by the sentiments of the workers and by their struggles. Attention to their everyday lives allows us to better understand extraordinary developments, which build off millions of small gestures made by ordinary people.
Socialist writing is intended to produce a confident community of struggle.

I recommend that people visit the People’s Archive of Rural India, a website that documents the lives of rural Indians, driven by the ferociously energetic and brilliant journalist P. Sainath. Nilanjana Nandy’s story about women who fought to sit on chairs in Rajasthan and Parth M.N.’s story about borewells in Maharashtra are good examples of socialist writing. Sitting on a chair is not only about sitting on a chair. It is about the increased confidence of women in rural India. Where this confidence goes is the next chapter in the story.

Left: Babli Devi, Kharveda village; Right: Sangeeta Bunkar, Kharveda village. Image courtesy the People's Archive of Rural India.
These small voices of history are the pebbles thrown into a pond that set in motion the cascading waves of history. Such stories are not taken seriously by mainstream writers, but a socialist writer must make them central. They are, after all, signs of confidence that lead from everyday life to extraordinary events. They are what workers, as readers, can recognize as real stories of their lives and struggles.

MN: So the liberal writer hopes to engage the reader to act on behalf of the struggling, downtrodden subject while the socialist writer hopes to document their subjects engaged in acts, minute and major, of resistance? How would you relate this in one of your workshops? Could you walk readers through one of your recent workshops to help us understand how you practice this in your pedagogy?

VP: There is a major political distinction between the liberal writer and the socialist writer. The socialist writer, to my mind, must believe that change is possible. This does not mean that such change is inevitable, merely that it is possible. Cynicism and pessimism are not the mood of the socialist. This means that when injustice is uncovered, the writer assumes that justice is possible. Perhaps the antidote to cynicism is to retain faith in the capacity of human beings to overcome the present. For this it is important to treat the people that one interviews not merely as repositories of information, but also as reservoirs of hope and anticipation.

Workers are not mere spectators to history, they are the ones pushing it forward.
What kind of hopefulness do people exude not only in their words, but also in their practice? PARI published a story about a man, Karimul Haque, who works in the hills of West Bengal. His mother died because there was no ambulance available to her when she needed one. Subsequently this man has turned his motorcycle into a kind of ambulance.

He now ferries people across the hills to local hospitals. In another story, Srilal Sahani, who lives just down these same hills and is in terrible debt, spends his mornings selling fish in the local market. In the afternoons, he rides his bicycle up and down the main street, beating on a small drum and singing songs. Both men are gesturing to life beyond the misery of the present. They have taken history into their own hands by attempting to improve the lives of the people around them. These may seem like small gestures, but they are significant to those whose lives have been impacted. Karimul Haque is saying to his neighbors that they need not to wait for an NGO to come to their aid, that they can make their own history.

Srilal Sahani won't allow debt to define him. In both these stories hope is not a theoretical concept, it is real and palpable. A writer who abandons hope is abandoning the stories of these people. These may be stories of survival and not of political transformation. But stories of survival are the first drafts of revolutionary action. In our time, we must write stories that are both about incubated revolutionary sentiment—such as those of Karimul Haque and Srilal Sahani—and stories of protest.

In a recent piece, Viet Thanh Nguyen points out that writing workshops are often hostile to politics. Aside from the art of writing, he notes, these workshops “did not have anything to say about the matters that concerned me: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology.” This was not a problem in our workshops across India, where we took art and politics as equally important and indeed intertwined.

One example is our emphasis on “smashing language.” We drew up lists of hollow or dead words: development, freedom, growth, and sustainability. Having made this list, we then “smashed” the words, broke them up in order to awaken the meaning within them. The example I give my students is from the first few months after the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik leader Krupskaya recounts the “altered language” she heard from women workers and peasants in a meeting. The speakers, she recounted, “spoke boldly and frankly about everything.” Their language had changed. Communist futurist writers, such as Mayakovsky, drew from what they saw in these meetings. They had to “smash” their language to bring it back to life. The assumption was that the old Russian language was saturated with feudal implications. It could not be inherited without first being “smashed.” So in the workshop we do what Mayakovsky did to language, we plunder and pulverize it, playing games with the words.

You can well imagine what people do with words like development and freedom—how they play around with them until the words become meaningless and perhaps even imbued with new meaning. The emergence of new words shows how hope is embedded in our own fierce desire for a better world. It reaffirms the belief that we are not trapped as long as we are able to conjure, if only in language, an alternative world. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell reflects on the changes he witnesses in Barcelona. He writes: “There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” It is this attitude that our workshops hope to cultivate.

Change is possible. We are not trapped as long as we can conjure, if only in language, an alternative world.

MN: You mention Eduardo Galeano above. He is perhaps my favorite writer. In the past you have also talked about James Baldwin. Galeano and Baldwin are two writers who try to construct a bridge between socialist writing and literature, who borrow from both traditions to sketch extraordinary exposés of struggle and resistance. Are there other writers that clarify your conception of socialist writing?

VP: Baldwin is so important. Make language “clean as a bone,” he advised. I take that advice fully. There are many writers I admire for what they do with the stories around us. I have already mentioned the journalist P. Sainath, with whom I co-taught a workshop. He is really one of the finest socialist writers today. I would also like to encourage people to read the work of Brinda Karat, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). She spends a great deal of time traveling around India, interacting with workers and peasants who suffer and struggle. What I find most interesting in her writing is that she conveys the hardships that people face as well as the determination to overcome their conditions in equal part. In a recent column, she documented the assault and murder of a young Muslim boy, Junaid Khan, on a train in northern India. The story begins with a portrait of Junaid’s mother, Sayara, mourning her son, then documents the murder and the underlying Hindutva politics that caused it, and concludes with a call to arms against the suffocation of public space. Karat's writing evokes pathos and rage, but also complicity. It reminds us that nobody helped Junaid, and that our collective silence is what killed the boy.

Ryszard Kapuściński's ability to write about politics is almost magical. There are stories that he fabricated some of his experiences in Africa, and that is unforgivable. But there is an object lesson in the way he was able to bring his readers from Poland into worlds that they knew little about, to teach them about power and culture and to encourage them to puncture their parochial visions and take in the world. We forget that he was writing in Polish and was telling the stories of Iran and Ethiopia to people in Warsaw and Szczecin.

There are many heirs to Kapuściński: such as the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa and the Lebanese writer Sahar Mandour. They are novelists and journalists of the left, writing in Spanish and Arabic respectively, and telling stories of intimate worlds that have the capacity to explode into something dynamic and deliberate. You cannot have socialist writing today that does not engage with private, domestic worlds alongside the world of the streets. The latter is not enough.

MN: Speaking of hope, in recent years we have seen the rise of so many new social movements and so many energized, young activists participating in Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, #NoDAPL, protests against the “Muslim Ban,” and other anti-Trump protests. What writing advice would you give to people becoming politically active, some of the first time, in this moment? There seems to be an imbalance between the speed needed by today's technologies, such as Twitter, Facebook, and live-streaming, and the necessity of pausing and thinking about how to tell the story. How do we, as emerging writers in social movements, achieve any balance between the two completely different paces of our writing practice?
Stories of survival are the first drafts of revolutionary action.

VP: The difference between Twitter and long-form writing is in the length of the text, not in the thinking that goes to produce it. One could produce a thoughtless long-form essay as easily as a thoughtless tweet. To me the length or the speed of production is not the issue.

What is at stake is the understanding behind what one is writing. If one does not have a good way to explain these protests, one will struggle to report them either in a tweet or in a book. A socialist writer who wants to track these movements needs to take a step back and look at the historical dynamic of these struggles, where they come from and where they could potentially go, what stands in opposition to them, the closeness or distance of these movements from the people, and the question of whether the demands being articulated can speak to the lived anxieties of people. These elements—if answered with care and close study—will help the writer understand how to write about something, whether in 140 characters or in 500 pages.

Both those on the inside and those on the outside of movements would be well-served not only by accounts of what is happening, but also by accounts that provide the broader context. Our movements are born out of older movements, older uprisings that produce our confidence, and our movements in turn birth new and, we hope, broader revolts against the present order. That is the kind of historical sweep that socialist writers need to create. Their job is not simply to define the terms of an event, thereby rendering it mythical and impossible to replicate. The reader must not think, “I wish I was there.” The reader should think, “I was not there, but I’ll be there tomorrow.” The story has not ended, it is ongoing. Engels wrote that history moves “often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line.” It does not necessarily move in a progressive direction, and can just as often fall backwards. A story needs to represent that: the journey from and the journey towards.

Arthur Rimbaud called a good poet a “thief of fire.” That is a lovely phrase. There is despair for humanity right now, but there is also optimism. That’s what our socialist writers must strive for—to be thieves of fire.