Undercover: Behind the Barricades (08/25/77)

Urizen issued its first books less than a year ago, but already it seems the most adventurous publisher in the country. Be they fiction, poetry, economics or psy­chology, Urizen’s books are linked by a sensibility that is highly intellectual, left wing but not sectarian, and internationalist; and while much of what Urizen publishes comes out of Germany, there is something of the spirit of Paris in May ’68 reflected in its catalog. It is there in Urizen’s critical reliance on Marx, its lack of patience with bourgeois convention or Communist wisdom, its attention to working-class experience, and its embrace of writing characterized by invention, risk and a sense of open possibility.

As a spontaneous, workers-­and-students assault both on the capitalist nation-state (as represented by De Gaulle) and on official, statist postwar Communism (as represented by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the French CP), the Paris uprising revealed the need for a “new” political history that focused on events through which the nature of revolution in industrial society could be understood. Two of Urizen’s recent books, published in association with England’s Pluto Press, address this need directly. Both Paolo Spriano‘s The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920 (translated by Gwyn A. Williams, 212 pp., $4.95 paper­back) and Larissa Reissner‘s Hamburg at the Barricades and Other Writings on Weimar Germany (translated and edited by Richard Chappell, 209 pp., $8.95) are part of the reconstruction of the revolutionary tradition of the 20th century, as that tradition was shaped in events–ike Paris in 1968 or Hungary in 1956–wherein political power was not seized but, in moments, created.

Such moments are crucial because, unlike almost all other forms of politics, they provide some idea not only of how revolutions are fought but what, in the most ideal terms, they are for. The militant rising of workers (or students, or others identifying themselves with the oppressed and dispossessed) exposes the virtually complete absence of real, legitimate authority behind the exercise of normal political power, be it Communist or capitalist. Suddenly, only revolutionary actions seem authentic. As people rush to fill the vacuum left by the moral (if not military) collapse of the state, they form ad hoc councils in factories, schools, farms and public buildings, taking over the day-to-day management of political and economic affairs as if such direct democracy were the most natural thing in the world. They discover in themselves (and in those around them) intellectual and political abilities, and reserves of energy, imagination and courage undreamt of only days before (and hard for outsiders to credit, days or years after). They feel like, and in many ways have become, new people. What they fight for thus becomes what they have discovered–in themselves and in politics–and are no longer willing to live without. Spriano, in his study of the Italian workers’ takeover of their factories shortly before Mussolini came to power, and Reissner, in her account of a short-lived Bol­shevik uprising in Hamburg in 1923, catch this extraordinary process with a full understanding of its promise and its fragility.

Reissner in particular–a Rus­sian and a Bolshevik journalist who died in 1926 in her early 30s–immediately attaches a reader to events he or she may not have even heard of. The vitality, fervor and bitterness of her writing about working-class people in pre-Nazi Germany reminds one that the Russian revolution at first produced great Communist artists–Reissner shares much with the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov–as well as bureaucrats. And Reissner was an artist: her eye for hidden emotional detail and her respect for those she wrote about can be compared to James Agee’s in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and her style can be compared to that of Walker Evans. So while her account of the effect of Weimar inflation on a working-class father is a case study in revolutionary conditions, and her re-creation of the Hamburg rising a case study in revolutionary action, both are also studies of people, which is why they work as case studies of revolution. We get to know the combatants in Hamburg (their neighborhoods, their factories, their streets, how they swear, how they laugh, what they fought for, what they gave up when they lost): those who risked their lives in the fight, and those who were afraid to. The unity between Reissner’s attention to individuals, and her derivation of larger political meanings from the actions individuals took, is remarkable: describing a marksman picking off police, Reissner might be writing political theory.

In Reissner’s hands, an obscure revolutionary event–and a failed one–becomes real, not only as an event, but as a form of politics: a very intense form of what politics should be all about. With the revolt over, the state is still in place, but in Reissner’s picture, everything has changed: the workers who made the fight, who are now on the run from the police, disappearing into a working-class underground, no longer find any legitimacy in anything, save that which derives from their own actions.

This is the kind of revolutionary tradition that must be documented in a hundred or a thousand new or rediscovered monographs about Chile, Spain, Hungary and even the United States–that has to be put back together before events like May ’68 make more than a romantic kind of sense. Few will be able to do it as well as Larissa Reissner did; she is one of the great lost writers of the last 50 years. That Urizen has brought her back into print means that her writing need no longer be lost–with more optimism than one can really credit, it might also mean that some will begin to rediscover the kind of politics she wrote about.

Rolling Stone, August 25, 1977

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