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Works of Radical Imagination

To celebrate our publication of Victor Serge's 1925 classic manual, What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression, we are proud to share Dalia Hashad's introduction to the 2005 edition, in which Hashad connects the lessons of Serge's work with the socio-political crises within the United States in the early 2000s. Although written nearly 20 years ago, Hashad's introduction, like the 100 year-old text that follows it, is remarkably relevant in both its assessment of the era's political struggles and its analysis of the lessons one can take from past political movements. As you read it, consider the recent state and university crackdowns against student protestors and other pro-Palestine and anti-Zionist activists. The specter of fear as a tool of political repression is chillingly familiar to us in world increasingly threatened by totalitarianism.

“Repression can really only live off fear. But is fear enough to remove need, thirst for justice, intelligence, reason, idealism…? Relying on intimidation, the reactionaries forget that they will cause more indignation, more hatred, more thirst for martyrdom, than real fear. They only intimidate the weak; they exasperate the best forces and temper the resolution of the strongest.” —Victor Serge




Last year, a friend and I were lamenting the lack of popular revolt at the current political situation in the United States. Government policies and practices changed drastically, significantly curtailing individual rights, but our citizenry remained largely complacent. As an example of how bad things have become, the government has asserted the power to hold any person, citizen or not, in indefinite detention, without access to the courts, without ever seeing a lawyer, their families, their friends or the press. For a so-called “enemy combatant” there is no trial, no hearing and no chance to challenge the charges or to even hear the charges at all, if they in fact exist. The president just has to point his finger at any person and they disappear, perhaps forever, into a legal black hole. He was holding hundreds of people in Guantánamo Bay and three on US soil in this manner. This is a “democratic” government, gone wild with power.

What is more surprising than the fact that the government had assumed the authority to jail anyone, indefinitely, without any semblance of due process, is the conspicuous absence of popular revolt at this shocking usurpation of power. While some organizations publicly register their dismay and people grumble about the unfairness at dinner parties, where is the mass outrage? Any one of us could now disappear, without a reason, without recourse, at the hands of our government. My friend shook his head, noting, “If all the McDonalds were shut down for one week, people would be in the streets in five minutes screaming about freedom. So few people actually get what’s happening. The rest are just sleeping. We have got to wake some folks up!” I realized that current events were retracing familiar patterns. Historically, fundamental change often begins with people on the margins shaking the heart of society into wakeful consciousness. There is a way.

People have been here before.

Victor Serge saw a central role for those who lived and thought on the margins. Giving me something to think about, he rejected the idea of a separateness of individuals, arguing “society has no fringe . . . no one is ever outside it, even in the depth of dungeons.”[1] In his lifetime, Serge saw his share of dungeons—figurative and literal. From birth, his radical parents and humble surroundings conspired to create in him an indefatigable revolutionary for whom it was self-evident that his life’s duty was “to ally [himself] with the exploited, and to work for the destruction of an intolerable system.”[2] His parents escaped czarist dictatorship and oppression in Russia and settled in Brussels, where Serge was born in 1890. He grew up in abject poverty, losing a brother to malnutrition.

His father, himself a scholar, detested the school system but encouraged learning. Serge became a student without a school, pursuing education in his father’s many books and with friends with whom he would digest and dissect ideas and theories. Seeking political reform, he immersed himself in diverse philosophies and carefully developed his own inspired ideas to which he devoted his life and which are woven throughout What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression. He learned early on that life “means, ‘Thou shalt think, thou shalt struggle, thou shalt be hungry’.” And perhaps more importantly, seemingly from the beginning, Serge was born with an irrepressible compulsion to obey an inner voice that instructed him: “Thou shalt fight back.”3 “In setting ‘the course on hope’,” writes Serge’s biographer Susan Weissman, “he pursued truth, struggled against privilege, and sought social justice and dignity. He chose to participate in the making of history by involving himself in the daily struggles of ordinary people. In Serge’s time, these struggles were heroic.”[4]

At great personal cost, Serge devoted his life to fighting back. Openly critical of authoritarianism and any manner of fascism, he spent more than a decade in various prisons, persecuted for his thoughts. As a man who translated his words into direct action, Serge’s activism for political reform was his single, lifetime career that took many forms: he was an editor, activist, poet, prisoner, machine gunner, commissar, historian, pamphleteer, novelist, writer, political commentator, translator and always, always a revolutionary. In his own words, Serge “sought to harness together personal transformation and revolutionary action, in accordance with the motto of Elisée Reclus: ‘As long as social injustice lasts we shall remain in a state of permanent revolution’.”[5] And for his lifetime, he did.

I have always been particularly moved by stories of marginalized individuals seeking political reform. Zapatistas fighting for dignity in the mountains of Chiapas, Palestinians refusing to surrender dignity to colonial occupation, and the muted, lesser-known struggles of people quietly plugging away for political change, all capture my attention. They are emblematic of a process whose foundation is often slowly constructed over the course of patient years. They are people who want what every human being wants: freedom and fairness, however they perceive it.

Recently, I’ve been consumed by the struggle in my own country. In the United States, the past few years mark a historic period that few people anticipated. It is no longer safe to express your political opinion. Just last month, I provided legal services to a man visited at his home by the FBI who demanded an interview because he was critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Justified by the events of September 11, 2001, it was one of hundreds of cases I deal with in the widespread disintegration of civil liberties.

Historical perspective is often lost under the weight of the current resistance. Reading Serge is a comforting reminder that the struggle against various forms of repression is an ongoing one, fought over the entire course of history. Realizing that the search for a better political system is timeless, we can draw on the past, to fight our way through this dark period to something better. It is, at the same time, chilling and reassuring to read What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression. Written almost eighty years ago, it mirrors our present situation.

Using the threat of “terrorism” as cover, the US government assumed unchecked powers and adopted draconian policy emblematic of totalitarian governments. The rapid crumbling of laws that took place over months and short years was accompanied by the erection of a new “evil.” US government policy, simplistically painting Muslims and Arabs as inherently wicked, paved the way for a strong resurgence of secret arrests and detentions, the use of torture as a tool of interrogation, the creation of a spy network, unchecked government surveillance and the widespread suppression of dissent—all discussed at length in Serge’s text.

Serge’s broad discussion on oft-recycled tools of state repression is as relevant today as it was yesterday. Upon reading Serge’s section on police used to infiltrate and disrupt resistance groups, I immediately recalled the California policeman, Aaron Kilner, who took a false name to infiltrate a peace group two years ago. His identity was revealed only after he died in a motorcycle accident and members of the peace group read his obituary, accompanied with photograph, in the newspaper.

When I finished reading Serge’s examination of government external surveillance of “suspicious” individuals, I reread a recent newspaper article about the US administration’s latest initiative to conduct “external—even obvious” surveillance of individuals suspected of being “sympathetic to terrorists.” Accordingly, the FBI has been chasing Muslims, Arabs and environmentalists. The placement of informers among prisoners reminds me of reports I’ve had from individuals in the criminal justice system who have been blackmailed into spying for law enforcement. The government’s plan to use average citizens as agents to spy on people, the use of torture and the collection of information on private individuals are all discussed in Serge’s text. The table of contents reads like a list of present-day offenses committed by the US administration. The current administration has, no doubt, learned a thing or two from other repressive governments. They are recycling, not inventing, many of these techniques. Things have happened here that US citizens only believe occur in other countries. After 9/11, the United States has violated both the law and the fundamental moral responsibility of any state by rounding up, detaining and deporting Muslim and Arab men, not because they had any connection to terrorist activity, but because they had the wrong religion or came from the wrong country. Even when there was no evidence that people had engaged in criminal activity, the government that held itself out as an international beacon of democratic due process secretly detained and summarily deported men because of their religion. In the middle of the night, FBI and immigration agents burst through doors and dragged people from their beds, terrifying families, neighborhoods and communities. No one could understand why and how people were being targeted or who might be the next to disappear into federal custody. At a recent public hearing, some victims of government repression told their stories. One young Syrian-American woman told of her family’s experience with an early-morning raid in Seattle, Washington:

At 6 o’clock in the morning about 15 police banged on our door. I was in my bedroom, asleep. I got up, and I’m standing in the hallway with the lights off. I keep hearing yelling. Two officers came downstairs with the lights in the hallway still off. When one of the officers and I were face to face, I scared him. So he pulls his gun, and all I know it’s in the middle of my forehead. I threw my hands up. He asked me whom I was with, and I told him my little sister, please don’t hurt her. He orders me to go upstairs and sit with my family. I see my father’s frightened face and my little brother sitting on the couch. My dad tells me that they won’t let my mom cover up. I knew I had been hearing an argument. I looked in my parents’ room, and one of the agents was yelling at her. Asking her if she had a gun under her pillow, is that why she wasn’t getting up? Or if she was naked, then she needs to get up right now and get dressed and he’s not leaving her side. He was pointing his gun and flashlight at her face. She kept arguing with him. All she wanted to do was cover herself. My father was handcuffed like a criminal.[6]

Curiously, this young woman’s story sounded almost identical to that of another woman testifying, at the same forum, of a similar raid that took place in the same city, fifty years earlier. A Japanese-American woman, a former prisoner of war interned by the US government during World War II, told her harrowing account with fresh emotion:

My father was picked up by FBI agents and four Seattle policemen. It was the same day as my eldest sister’s 11th birthday. In the early morning hours, the men pounded on the door, pushed aside my mother and invaded the house. They woke my father from his sleep, ordered him to dress and take care of his morning toiletries, all under strict observation by one of the officers. Meanwhile, agents searched throughout the house, ransacking closets, going through drawers and cupboards, only once giving an indication of what they were looking for. They did ask my sister if father owned “one of these” showing her his gun. To this day, she recalls her emphatic response of “No” as she watched in repulsed silence as one of the men sifted his hands through the sugar canister and rice container. When they left, taking my father with them, the house was in chaos. It was one of two times I ever saw my mother cry.[7]

The presentations were disturbing not just for the individual and collective experiences that they reflect, but because they had happened almost exactly fifty years apart and yet the stories were practically identical. Like many activists, I functioned under the assumption that as a collective human society, we were always, almost inevitably, improving. Progress was synonymous with the passage of time and those working for social change would have increased measures of success. But the stories of current victims of government repression, sounding almost identical to victims from decades past belied the idea that trajectory of change forever leaned towards progress and enlightenment.

“Repression,” Serge comments, “can really only live off fear.” But that is not the end of the matter as he goes on to ask: “But is fear enough to remove need, thirst for justice, intelligence, reason, idealism—all those revolutionary forces that express the formidable, profound impulse of the economic factors of a revolution? Relying on intimidation, the reactionaries forget that they will cause more indignation, more hatred, more thirst for martyrdom, than real fear. They only intimidate the weak; they exasperate the best forces and temper the resolution of the strongest.”

After recent political setbacks, many people, hoping and working for serious change, had a “wake-up” call. Instead of decreasing, one after another, new tools of repression made their way into our daily lives. Activists began to look at the struggle with new appreciation for its length and breadth. The realization is dawning on many that this is not short-term resistance. In the words of a colleague, this is a marathon, not a sprint and we need to prepare for it. Serge was in it for the long haul, understanding the enduring demands of serious political reform. As many activists change their tactics and views of their work, Serge becomes ever more relevant. An intellectual and activist, he lived and thought optimistically. His friend Julian Gorkín called him an “eternal vagabond in search of the ideal.” And in these days, as we are bound to suffer losses and falter, Serge has something timeless to teach and inspire us:

Our mistakes were honorable. And even from a point of view less absurdly exalted, we were not so wrong. There is more falsification of ideas now than real confusion, and it is our own discoveries that are falsified. I feel humiliated only for the people who despair because we have been defeated. What is more natural and inevitable than to be beaten, to fail a hundred times, a thousand times, before succeeding? How many times does a child fall before he learns to walk? . . . The main thing is to have strong nerves, everything depends on that. And lucidity . . . Human destiny will brighten.[8]

Dalia Hashad
York, 2005

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