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Todd Gitlin on The Verso Book of Dissent for Chronicle of Higher Education

Audrea Lim 9 February 2011

Todd Gitlin's critical review of The Verso Book of Dissent, printed last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, hinges on a fairy tale:

Once upon a time, in a century far, far away, there was an idea of a single, interconnected left in a single, interconnected world ... whose mission was to lead the way toward the realization of a collective and universal ideal.

The Book of Dissent, argues Gitlin, represents an "incoherent Left" that, paradoxically, includes both Lenin and the Kronstadt rebels; both the anti-imperialistic Mao of the late-20s, and a satire of authoritarian Mao that dates to 1961. "Lacking coherence," he writes,

The Verso Book of Dissent heads smack into an intellectual dead end ... In a time of ideological decomposition, it would be good to see people so sure of themselves come down from their high horse.

The Verso Book of Dissent is indeed populated with contradictory messages and figures who opposed one another, even fought one another bitterly. Gitlin's observation is correct. But just as he concedes that "history is too messy to fit a grand story of Establishment vs. Dissent" and that the project ultimately cannot cohere (thereby muddling his own argument), the book was never meant to present a coherent representation of dissent. Though a disparate array of movements throughout history have adopted a common set of slogans and analyses to describe their own situations, internationalism and solidarity do not collapse all the struggles they touch into some singular, coherent thing. Imposing a false coherence onto the hundreds of voices in the book, spanning continents and centuries, would have been antithetical to our project, creating something more like a counter-mainstream, or a party propagandist's revision of history.

For this reason, one of our guiding principles was to include a diverse set of voices. Gitlin asks: "Why honor the black nationalist Robert F. Williams but not the organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?"—and to be sure, we did not include any SNCC statements in the book. But we did include a broad spectrum of Civil Rights Movement figures, including one-time leader of SNCC and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael; SNCC activist and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party co-chair Fannie Lou Hamer; one-time SNCC chairman and Black Panther H. Rap Brown; SNCC volunteers and feminists Casey Hayden and Mary King; and SNCC, Communist Party and Black Panther Party member Angela Davis.

So if not coherence, what then is the common thread? Or, in Gitlin's words:

Tariq Ali writes in the preface that the figures who appear in the book are the "dissenters and rebels who have attempted to move mountains, to improve, change, transform the world since the earliest times." But if the category of world-changer is to be so all-welcoming, why not Mussolini, who in his own way "attempted to move mountains, to improve, change, transform the world"?

The answer to this question immediately follows the sentence Gitlin quotes above:

There are, of course, forms of dissent within established structures whose aim is to strengthen the existing order by preventing obvious errors that might lead to the most extreme form of dissent: revolutions ... from below.

Not only is the common thread between these figures "less what they believed than what was done to them," to use Gitlin's words—that is, if "what was done to them" is orthodoxy and repression—but that they then spoke up or fought back, thereby transforming the world.

Still, revolutionary saints do sometimes go on to become sinners, as Gitlin charges in reference to Mao—writing for the New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra provides an interesting account of how this occurred. For the same reason that we quoted Mao at his best, we chose to include "the Sartre who declined the Nobel but not the Sartre who for decades defended the State of Israel's right to exist," as well as the socialist, humanist and anti-Cold War Einstein but not Einstein the Zionist. Only in fairy tales is evil opposed by a banal, unwavering force of good. The most that can be done is to represent dissent in its most powerful moments, before its principles were betrayed.

Visit the Chronicle of Higher Education to read Gitlin's review in full—sadly, it is only available to subscribers.

Other coverage of The Verso Book of Dissent includes reviews in the Guardian, Austin Chronicle, Time Out Chicago, PopMattersIndependent and Scotland on Sunday.

Filed under: reviews