On Friday, May 22, just after dinner, my father lay down for a nap and peacefully died.
He died at a rather inopportune time, in the midst of a pandemic, one that had already taken more than 300,000 lives around the world. These circumstances prevented me from going to see him in his final days, and have delayed his funeral indefinitely. But he was not a victim of the coronavirus. He was, instead, the latest but by no means the last casualty of the Vietnam War—or what the Vietnamese, more precisely, call the American War. He died after years of illness related to his exposure to Agent Orange, a kind of friendly fire that took half a century to have its final effect. His name will not appear, I don’t think, on that smooth black wall that runs like a scar across the National Mall. It will be just one of thousands of names that are missing, along with those veterans who have died from suicide, heroin, or the effects of chronic homelessness.
About a month before my father finally left this world—he was already in the process of dying, though how slowly or suddenly we could not be sure—journalists struggling to convey the scale of the current pandemic noted that more Americans had died from Covid-19 than had died in the Vietnam War: 58,220 in Vietnam; 58,365 from the pandemic (though the number has far exceeded that by now). The comparison was intended, and in fact did, evoke a kind of emotional response and it attached to the epidemic a sense of moral weight. But it was, for all that, peculiarly inapt. It is notable mostly for what it omits. It gives all of its attention to the number of Americans who have succumbed to the disease, when a pandemic is by definition a global phenomenon. It likewise forgets the vastly larger number of Vietnamese who died as a result of our country’s military action: approximately 3.1 million, according to The Encyclopedia Britannica. By comparison, the number of American causalities looks like a rounding error.
Both Vietnam and Covid-19 exposed our leaders as intellectually as well as morally bankrupt, employing one failed strategy after another, while continuously assuring the public that the worst was behind us and victory certain.
A more complicated question is that of whether disease and war are comparable phenomena at all. From one angle, by relating the two we extend the myth of American innocence. War, like disease, is something that simply happens to us. It is not something for which we are responsible. Such a view is of course self-serving and dangerous, though it is also extremely common. It is possible, however, to look at the issue from the other direction, and recognize that the body count—in the U.S. today, as in Vietnam fifty years ago—is what it is because of specific policy choices and, moreover, because of the nature and the structure of our society. The Vietnam War both reflected and revealed deep inequalities—between the imperialist First World and the colonized Third, and within the U.S., between those young men who got drafted and those who got deferments. The coronavirus crisis has hit poor, Black, and Latino communities hardest, and has proven what those at the bottom of the class system have always known, that the most essential jobs often receive the least pay. Both Vietnam and Covid-19 exposed our leaders as intellectually as well as morally bankrupt, employing one failed strategy after another, while continuously assuring the public that the worst was behind us and victory certain.
These crises have also revealed our country’s hubris and the real limits on our power. The war saw the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country on earth defeated by poorly armed peasants. The pandemic saw the United States responding uncertainly while its infection rate skyrocketed. In contrast, Vietnam— to cite just one particularly pointed example—has a population of 95 million people and borders China, where the coronavirus originated, but at the time of my father’s death, Vietnam had logged a total of 268 Covid-19 cases and zero deaths. It accomplished this epidemiological miracle through a combination of focused testing, contact tracing, rigid quarantining, travel restrictions, pubic education, and services to those self-isolating. And so, while local governments in the U.S. were competing in a vicious biding war for scarce medical supplies, Vietnam was exporting 450,000 hazmat suits to the United States, 550,000 surgical masks to Europe, and 730,000 masks to nearby Laos and Cambodia.
I should say that even with the American health care industry under severe strain, with shortages of medical masks and critical equipment, and health care workers suffering much higher rates of infection, my father was well taken care of. He had been disabled, practically and legally, for most of the last ten years, and he required several surgeries, frequent less-invasive interventions, regular monitoring, and a veritable pharmacopeia of pills. All of that—plus the tireless care provided by my mother, and his own formidable reserve of will-power—was enough to keep him going long after any bookmaker would have stopped offering odds. Given the nature of his ailment and its cause, those crucial, life-preserving medical services came courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a sad irony that, after being wounded in a war against communism, the thing that kept my father alive, for as long as it did, was in effect a minor version of socialism.
My father was proud of his military service, though he almost never spoke of it. I do not know how he felt about the war in political terms, whether he thought it a good policy or a terrible mistake. I only know that he enlisted for idealistic and ultimately admirable reasons, and that decision shaped the rest of his life. The Air Force trained him in computer programming at a time when even the word “computer” was a novelty; with that training he built a good middle-class career. But the experience also took its toll, psychologically as well as physically. I was never able to wake him without having him bolt upright, alarmed but not quite panicked. (My mother told me simply that he had been shelled, though as a child I was not able to attach any meaning to the word.) And of course the U.S. military inadvertently—or carelessly—poisoned him, eventually leading to his death. That death was not merely sad, as the death of a loved one is always sad, but actually tragic in the technical and literary sense. For he enlisted in the Air Force out of a sense of duty, and from that duty he became implicated in a colossal criminal enterprise; it would, finally, be his undoing. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story, and maybe the best thing I can say about my father, is that he never gave in to self-pity, even at the end, and that his sense of decency and integrity never wavered.
That death was not merely sad, as the death of a loved one is always sad, but actually tragic in the technical and literary sense. For he enlisted in the Air Force out of a sense of duty, and from that duty he became implicated in a colossal criminal enterprise; it would, finally, be his undoing.
In the last few days of his life, my mother told me, my father was thinking often of Vietnam. As part of his duties there, he loaded the bodies of dead servicemen onto airplanes to be shipped back stateside. He told her that during the Tet Offensive, he and one other airman spent all day — twelve hours, maybe more—every day, loading bodies onto planes, filling them up, one plane after another, seemingly without end. At the close of the day, when their shift was over, they had to burn their clothing. He would have been—what? twenty years old? twenty-one? And fifty years later, that is the thing that occupied his thoughts as he lay dying.
I cannot help but wonder how his experience might compare with that of the prisoners, working in New York City in the early weeks of the outbreak there, filling mass graves with unclaimed bodies.
Now, my father is dead, and life goes on without him. Ordinarily one of the cruelties of grief is that it is so isolating. It is a profound dislocation, as a friend wrote to me in a letter. It seems to disrupt the very flow of time. A precious, irreplaceable individual is suddenly absent from the world, and the world keeps turning without notice of the fact. Friends and family suddenly feel alone, alien, disconnected. For them, everything feels wrong, distorted. Reality feels unreal. How can everyone else go on as though nothing had changed?
In a pandemic, however, all of that is different. The entire world is grieving —if not precisely this person, then someone; if not someone in particular, than the anonymous mass of tens of thousands of lives too abruptly ended; if not the loss of life, then the way of life which has been suspended, and whose return seems uncertain and indefinitely deferred. Everything is altered. And even when society returns to normal—when the quarantine is lifted and businesses open, children return to school, and oil prices start to rise—we may find that somehow none of it is the same. The institutions of society may manage to reestablish themselves, to good and to bad effect. But having passed through this period of uncertainty and grief, we may come to discover that it is not the world that has changed, but us—all of us.
We’ve just released Kristian Williams’s newest book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. It’s an incredibly fulfilling read about a fascinating writer, in which Wilde’s wit, aesthetics, and politics come to life in ways we’ve never seen in a work of literary criticism. Below is a short glimpse that should give you an idea of how Kristian approaches his subject.
If you’re tempted, you can get the book here at 25% off for it’s first few weeks of existence. Enjoy!
In his most famous political tract, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde advocates for an anti-authoritarian socialism, which would serve the cause of individualism and bring about a cultural rebirth.
The society Wilde imagines is one in which the arts, the sciences, and the whole of intellectual life prospers; a society without property, prisons, or crime—in which no one is hungry and machines do all the dirty, distasteful, tedious work. It is a society in which everyone is free to choose his own path and flourish in her own way, to prosper not in petty financial terms but in terms of character and personality. “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is,” Wilde wrote. This socialism, which will produce “true, beautiful, healthy Individualism,” will free us, not only from the dangers of poverty but from the demands of wealth as well: “Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live.” In this essay Oscar Wilde makes many striking pronouncements, among them: “the form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all”; “there is no necessity to separate the monarch from the mob; all authority is equally bad”; and “all modes of government are failures.”
Wilde’s is a socialism in the service of individualism. It is a socialism based more in aesthetic ideals than in economic theories. It takes as its model the artist rather than the proletarian and is as much concerned to free the repressed bourgeois as the oppressed worker. Its tastes are aristocratic; its ethics, bohemian. It is at once deeply spiritual and thoroughly heretical, ethical and antinomian, rebellious and harmonious, egoistic and universally compassionate, urgent and utopian. It is, in a word, anarchism. Yet the word does not appear anywhere in Wilde’s essay. Instead Wilde expressed indifference, almost disdain, for ideological labels. (“Socialism, communism, or whatever one chooses to call it,” he begins one paragraph.) Does Wilde deliberately avoid the word anarchism because of its sectarian connotations? Or is he issuing a subtle snub, siding with William Morris against David Nicoll in the dispute that had recently divided the Socialist League? Or is it perhaps something greater—that no label is needed or that none will suffice?
“The Soul of Man under Socialism” has long been accepted into the anarchist canon. In the first decades of the twentieth century, millions of copies sold in Europe, and revolutionary groups distributed it in the United States. Emma Goldman advertised it in the back pages of her magazine Mother Earth, along with works by Peter Kropotkin, Edward Carpenter, William Morris, Thomas Paine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Leo Tolstoy. George Woodcock considered Wilde’s essay the “most ambitious contribution to literary anarchism during the 1890s,” and his Porcupine Press released a pamphlet version in 1948. Robert Graham includes it in his expansive collection Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.
But “The Soul” has largely been set apart from Wilde’s other work, treated as a single, inexplicable foray into the serious, unironic, political world, having no bearing on and no relationship to his poetry, plays, and fiction. It has thus occupied a somewhat marginal position in the overall body of Wilde studies. And the rest of Wilde’s writing has for the most part escaped the attention of anarchist readers. It is thought to be a trivial curiosity that the author of “The Soul of Man under Socialism” and the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray happen to be the same person. In fact, for all the attention given this connection, they might as well have not been the same man but instead two men with the same name. This division, I believe, is a mistake, whichever way one looks at it. If we take Wilde’s politics seriously, if we put “The Soul of Man” first, so to speak, and refuse to sever it from the rest of Wilde’s work, then certain important connections inevitably become apparent. The political implications of his drama, verse, fiction, and especially his essays, criticism, and lectures suddenly stand out sharply. And the aesthetic, Hellenic, spiritual, and queer elements of “The Soul of Man” simultaneously take on a new import.
In this volume, I seek to identify the values Wilde advanced in his works, the ideals often implicit in his literary writing and sometimes explicit in his essays. By putting the politics first, it is possible to find a kind of unifying outline for Wilde’s thought as a whole. His politics connect to his aestheticism, to his sexuality and nationality, to his humor and irony, and to his deeply tragic view of life. Wilde’s political commitments were subtly but centrally present in even his purely aesthetic works; and conversely, his aesthetics, his critical perspective, and even his keen wit and sense of irony had their role in shaping his politics. At the root of Wilde’s thought was a deep belief that individual freedom is desirable both for its results and for its own sake, that such freedom requires creativity and pleasure, and that it can only be achieved when our basic needs are met, ideally through an economic socialism that unites a diverse community on terms of fraternal equality.
The following chapters are arranged, broadly speaking, chrono-thematically, grouping Wilde’s ideas by subject but ordering them to trace the development of his thought. Put in very simple terms, they cover violence, aesthetics and labor, women, homosexuality, prison, and Wilde’s legacy. These subjects are related, in turn, to Wilde’s first play, Vera, or the Nihilists, and his collection of stories, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime; his American lectures and his fairy tales; the society plays; The Portrait of Mr. W. H. and the trials; his prison letters and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”; and, finally, Salomé and Wilde’s grave.
Wilde’s work, it turns out, is dense with politics. If we fail to perceive its political aspects, we misunderstand much of the rest of it. But if we try to isolate the “political”—his views about government policy or economic arrangements—we fail, rather sadly, to comprehend his vision at all. For philosophy, politics, and art—these were not, to Wilde, separate concerns or distinct pursuits. They could not be divided without harm. The principle of their unity is what he would call beauty; the expression of this unity is what might be called art—or life.
 Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003), 1178.
 Ibid, 1175. Walter Crane, who illustrated Wilde’s book The Happy Prince, later recalled: “The essential difference between anarchist and socialist ideas and aims was not then very well understood or generally recognized, especially as both schools could join in their protests and denunciations of the existing economic order.” Walter Crane, An Artist’s Reminiscences (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 259. I have written elsewhere about Crane’s likely influence on Wilde’s essay. See Kristian Williams, “The Roots of Wilde’s Socialist Soul: Ibsen and Shaw, or Morris and Crane,” Oscholars, Spring 2010, oscholars.com.
 See E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Oakland: PM Press, 2011), 564–72.
 George Woodcock, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 160.
 “Books to Be Had through Mother Earth,” advertisement, Mother Earth, June 1906, 62–64, reprinted in Mother Earth Bulletin, series 1, vol. 1, 1906–7 (New York: Greenwich Reprint Corporation, 1968).
 George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962),448; Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism (London: Porcupine Press, 1948).
 Robert Graham, ed., Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, vol. 1, From Anarchy to Anarchism (300 CE to 1939) (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2017), 212–15.
I do not want to hear another politician, entertainer, athlete or anyone else of any race/ethnicity, use the media or other platforms to lecture to Black people about how we should respond to the virulent and relentless violence happening.
I ain’t heard nary an auntie, uncle, mother, or father patronizing tone (or word) spoken to white folx when visible ARMED white people marched to state capitols to demand their right to endanger ALL of our lives to work in a global health pandemic.
Do not talk about forgiveness in the absence of accountability and justice.
If you are white, please start looking to the examples of radical, anti-racist white people who put their literal lives on the line to challenge systemic and individual white supremacy and racism. Ask yourselves, “What would John Brown do? What would Anne Braden do?” If you do not know who they are, investigate.
I wholeheartedly believe in non-violence and yet, I am enraged, distraught, and bereft. I am TERRIFIED of the ravages of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, the police state, as I am TERRIFIED of other forms of death-dealing oppression destroying #ameriKKKa from within. They include but are not limited to patriarchy, misogynoir, rape culture, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, audism, classism, anti (Brown and Black)-immigrant sentiment and more. Too many of us are not safe anywhere — in white supremacist society or in our homes.
I don’t have answers or solutions. All I know is that we must eradicate all of it. Our lives depend on it. No one is free while others are oppressed.
Modibo Kadalie: For me, direct democracy is an evolving social vision. My ideas, just like anyone else’s, are always developing. In the 1960s and early 1970s, I saw myself as someone who understood race and class, and the dynamics of each, and I was toying with the question of labor and its role in society. The most perplexing question for me, however, was the role of the state. My only political vision at that point in my life was that of a socialist nation-state ruled by the working class, which is what most Marxists desired at that time. This state socialism was supposed to represent the next stage of human social and economic development. Of course, this nation-state was supposed to be large and highly centralized, like the kind we saw in the USSR or China then. And part of that vision was a conception of nationalism that coincided with the emergence of the postcolonial, third world states.
Obviously I no longer hold many of the views that I held then because eventually I began to see that these big, massive, bulky nation-states were contributing to the problem of social oppression, and the emerging postcolonial nation-states of Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the third world were not solving any problems for their own people. So I started to look at more localized and directly democratic conceptions of socialism, and more intimate forms of democracy, where people could look at themselves and each other, face-to-face, and solve their problems collectively. That’s direct democracy to me. I began to see how that tradition was long established in many places around the world, but it was not being recorded.
Direct democracy is also meaningless, though, without a clear understanding of social ecology. We must take to heart all the implications of the assertion articulated by [social anarchist and theorist] Murray Bookchin that, to paraphrase, “there is a social crisis at the basis of every ecological crisis” or “every ecological crisis is in reality a social crisis.” Consequently, ecological crises expose social crises. It follows that societies that are organized hierarchically and based on for-profit markets cannot solve or even adequately address any ecological crisis. What is more intimate and integral to our lives and future, after all, than the directly democratic control over our immediate environment and living space? That’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat!
We must learn to democratically control the spaces that we inhabit, to expand and take responsibility for them. We can no longer afford to allow others to do this for us. We must learn to do this for ourselves in concert with our neighbors and other communities, which can happen through directly democratic town hall meetings, assemblies, and other popular forums that are empowered to make decisions.
Andrew Zonneveld: Would you say this was a gradual or dramatic shift in thinking for you?
Modibo: It was dramatic because I also started to see that the people who were articulating the postcolonial vision really did not understand the future of the world. Their ideals were driven more by political expediency than by real critical analysis of the situation. I began to see that the politics they were articulating was also self-perpetuating, since everyone was a part of various Marxist parties and other organizations, none of which seemed to be contributing much insight to the new problems and contradictions that were emerging.
There were two important questions that were not dealt with by these institutions. First was the question of gender and women’s liberation. Second was the ecological question, which was largely ignored by many people in these movements. There were struggles against nuclear proliferation at the time, however; for me, that’s where I saw the modern ecological movement begin. But ecology did not come into play in most people’s analysis of capitalism, racism, or colonialism back then. There were no debates or conversations about it at the time, as far as I could see….
[T]hat’s where I began to see the relationship between direct democracy and social ecology. I saw direct democracy as the way toward a decentralized, localized, federated type of socialism, and came to the conclusion that in order to understand democracy in its fullest dimension, we also have to understand social ecology. When Bookchin advanced the idea that human society was a part of the natural world, since it was created by human beings as they evolved, that was helpful for me. That is to say, the question of how humans relate to the rest of the natural world must be incorporated into how we understand the future of labor, race, sex, and class. So my vision of direct democracy and social ecology evolved in a symbiotic relationship with one another. A directly democratic vision of social prog ress involves a social ecology and direct democracy where people are engaged in a process of healing with the earth, as both have been scarred by capitalism. Of course, there was certainly ecological destruction prior to capitalism, but there’s really nothing like capitalism when it comes to ecological degradation and catastrophe. The scale is so massive that it’s almost hard to comprehend.
As its subtitle implies, Eclipse of Dreams: The Undocumented-Led Struggle for Freedom, which we published earlier this month, is about the experiences of undocumented immigrants as well as what those experiences have to teach us about all struggles for liberation and justice. The following excerpt from the book’s “Prelude” section shares a central epiphany that informs the book: the realization that legislative battles—in this case the fight for the DREAM Act—can derail social movements, to the extent that they wind-up advocating for things that undermine families, communities, and the movements themselves.
The morning for the important vote on the DREAM finally came. By 9:00 a.m. the Senate gallery was largely full. The Senate was called to order and then a prayer was offered for wisdom for our legislators, that they would be “turned away from false solutions.” Two hours passed as senators took turns speaking to either the DREAM Act or the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act. We listened to people with fears of illegals crossing our borders, calling this bill “amnesty” and a reward for criminal behavior. Others pleaded on behalf of the DREAMers, explaining that it was through “no fault of their own” that they were in the U.S. without papers. As we heard the voices of supposed support some of us cringed in our seats. If the DREAMers were not at fault, then who is to blame? Our parents? The case for the DREAM Act was made by painting a picture of DREAMers as model citizens deserving of a path toward legalization. Supporters described DREAMers’ potential to add to the U.S. economy through their hard work. They said that DREAMers “played by the rules and only want to achieve the American Dream.” Senator Durbin pointed to the Senate gallery and made a case for the DREAM Act by telling those present, look, “they are valedictorians, captains of teams, leaders of their communities … possessing high GPAs, sciences degrees … why would you deny them a chance to make America a better place?”
Two and a half hours after the Senate was called to order, at 11:31 a.m., the chair reminded the gallery that “expressions of approval or disapproval are not permitted.” Around the gallery we all held each other’s hands. The fate of the DREAM Act, our fate, was clear as we watched each Senator come forward to cast their vote, some very visibly with their thumbs down. “The motion is not agreed to.” The DREAM Act died, just five votes short of the sixty needed to advance the bill.
It was so close. There was a visible numbness among us, a shock that immediately gave way to tears and strong embraces across the gallery. What now—now that we witnessed this eclipse of dreams?
Some of us were physically present at the senate gallery other of us watched from afar. Together we experienced the euphoria of possibilities and the despair of disappointment.
Fighting with Our Own Shadows: Journeys of Faith
In other places and times, an eclipse warned of imminent danger, disaster, even the end of the world. The failure of the DREAM Act felt like this. Yet in the darkness of this moment, it did not take long to see a glimpse of light. Maybe, just maybe, the eclipse was a warning to us. What if our dreams, the very scope of our horizons, what we hoped for ourselves and others, was limited by the framework in which we expressed them, the American Dream itself? What if, out of our real pain and desire for freedom, we had become pawns in a system where freedom is an illusion? Did we lose track of our ends and compromise our means because of this dream framework? What if United We Dream and the political-economic power behind those that claimed to represent us under a united dream were never united and confused dreams with lies? What if, from the outset, our framing of the issue, our struggle for freedom was itself problematic? In the darkness, we began to realize that the search for a solution to the immigration problem, when mired in the rationale of the American Dream, was part of the problem.
As we asked ourselves these questions and contemplated the end of our world, the end of the dream, we began to follow the light that we had found in our own lives and the love within our community and shared struggle for freedom. We began to understand the lives and choices of our parents as filled with dignity and courage. Instead of blaming them, we praised them for their faith to risk everything for their children. And now that darkness eclipsed our personal dreams, we saw the absurdity of what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “strong man,” the DREAMer, “fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free.” We were beginning to see that the dream for collective freedom and the dignity of all humanity was not only a greater dream but one in conflict with the American Dream.
What passed as an eclipse was possibly a reminder that what was lost, had it been won, might have truly destroyed us. We might have won our access to the American Dream, at the expense of the greater struggle for our freedom. “Uncle” Vincent Harding would later tell us that it was lazy journalists and historians who had framed what was a Black-led struggle for freedom as a “civil rights” movement, attempting to squeeze something vast into a legislative straitjacket. Similarly, Michelle Alexander challenged us to consider what was lost, when we celebrated the granting of certain civil rights by embracing a politics of respectability.
We were reminded of what we were learning in the dark when President Barack Obama spoke to the nation just a month after the DREAM Act’s defeat, saying, “Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents … as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense … let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.”
For the “strong man,” the perfect Dreamer, to gain rights meant that the bad Dreamer was deportable and, further, that the “illegal” dreams of the perfect Dreamer’s parents were worthless. We began to see that the criteria for the DREAM Act re-inscribed and re-enforced race and class barriers to inclusion in this society. The DREAM Act would bar the rest of the undocumented community from becoming free. The American Dream came with great costs.
We continue to search for light and discover hope in the darkness. James Baldwin may best describe what we learned: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” This greater privilege is the struggle for our collective freedom, for our collective humanity, for our collective dignity. Du Bois warned us that the great tragedy of our time for undocumented families, for this nation and the world, is not poverty, wickedness, or ignorance, but that humans know so little of humanity.
In the next pages, we invite you to learn about our journeys through the darkness as we search for light after the eclipse of dreams; to learn, through our stories of struggle and fear, of living “illegal,” a little more about what it means to be human, to discover dignity, and what it might mean to shed light on our global humanity.
—Claudia Muñoz, Fidel Castro Rodriguez, Marco Saavedra, Mariela Nuñez-Janes, Pedro Santiago Martinez, Stephen Pavey
You can purchase a copy of Eclipse of Dreams: The Undocumented-Led Struggle for Freedomhere.
In this time of pandemic and quarantine, there is power in exploring the ways that past generations have confronted rising tides of fascism and crisis. For 100 years, communists, socialists, anarchists, anti-colonialists, and other revolutionaries have made films that attempt to intervene in their moment, to not just tell stories, but lift up silenced voices and imagine better futures. Together, they form an underground history of the 20th and 21st centuries. The films in this list were made by radical and visionary artists; many of them wanted to both overthrow capitalism and transform cinema.
Many on this list ride the border between documentary and fiction, lifting up real people and stories. Often these films cast activists instead of professional actors, with people engaged in social movements playing some version of themselves — even in the science fiction films. These filmmakers also avoid traditional storytelling cliches. Instead of a single protagonists’ “hero’s journey”, they focus on mass movements, showing history shaped by collective effort. In this way, their structure challenges the so-called “Great Man Theory of History”, showing that change is made by community, and all of our stories and fates are interconnected. Seeking a revolutionary process, some of the films are made collectively as well, avoiding a single auteur.
If you see any of these and want more, I’ve also included “further viewing,” additional films by the same filmmaker, or along similar themes.
Together this list spans nearly a hundred years of filmmaking, from 1925 to 2019, on six continents. Even so, this is far from an exhaustive list of every radical film ever made. But it does include films that changed my life. Please add your favorites that I missed in the comments.
Many of these films are accessible for free online, through the Kanopy streaming platform (which offers an incredible line-up of free movies for many library card holders), as well as on youtube, archive.org, vimeo, and other free or mostly free sites. You can also find many of these films, and other brilliant work, on the Criterion streaming site.
1. Battle of Algiers — A favorite film of revolutionaries from Black Panthers to Irish Republican Army members to Palestinian freedom fighters, The Battle of Algiers is a classic of anti-colonialist cinema. Filmed in a style that deliberately blurs the boundaries of fiction and documentary, the film was written by Saadi Yacef, a leader of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), and shows that a colonial occupation cannot last, and repression breeds resistance. Yacef and at least one other former FLN member also act in the film. In addition, Jean Martin, who plays a French counterinsurgency officer, was a military veteran who had been outspoken in support of the Algierian freedom struggle. A member of the antifascist resistance in Italy during World War 2, Marxist director Gillo Pontecorvo made several other anti-colonialist films.
Further Viewing: Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a revolutionary teenager, imprisoned under the Shah for stabbing a police officer. The Islamic revolution released him from prison and made him a filmmaker. He later became critical of the Iranian clerics leading the country, defining himself as an existentialist and a feminist, and his 1996 film A Moment of Innocence is a critical reconstruction of his own youth, looking back at his own actions with the perspective of twenty years later, and in cooperation with the policeman he stabbed.
2. Born in Flames — Lizzie Borden’s first film, released in 1983, takes place in a near future under a democratic socialist government in the United States. The film follows militant cells of women, mostly lesbians and women of color, who find that the new socialist government has not addressed the problems of patriarchy and racism, and decide to form a women’s army to struggle for an intersectional revolution within the socialist revolution. Nearly forty years later, Born in Flames still feels bold and visionary. The characters in the film embrace a class and race-conscious revolutionary feminism inspired by the Combahee River Collective.
Further Viewing: Borden’s second film, 1986’s Working Girls, is a vérité–style fictional look inside the life of women working in a Manhattan brothel. It still stands today as one of the most non-sensational filmed depictions of sex work.
3. Land and Freedom — The Spanish Civil War is a key moment in revolutionary history. Idealistic revolutionaries from around the world risked their lives to travel to Spain to join with anarchist, socialist and communist militias to fight fascism. British socialist director Ken Loach’s 1995 film, loosely inspired by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, is the best film about this period, a moving portrayal of liberatory spirit, based in the form and ideas of social realist cinema. A central scene in the film features villagers and militia members discussing whether or not collectivise their land. Land and Freedom immerses the viewer in a discussion that most films would avoid, showing how political differences can have deep implications. As an example of the films’ realist style, the scene features local residents of the village playing themselves, speaking their own beliefs.
Further Viewing: Loach has directed 24 features about the lives and struggles of the working class, including last year’s powerful Sorry We Missed You, about the lives of gig economy workers.
4. Punishment Park — Peter Watkins’ dystopian science fiction film was made in 1971, but still feels fresh and relevant today. In a near future, dissidents and activists are rounded up, imprisoned and sentenced to a mysterious “punishment park.” The prisoners trying to survive divide into groups along the political spectrum from militant to pacifist, and their differing politics lead them to different strategies for survival. The cast is made up of actual anti-war protestors, activists, and former prisoners, who draw upon their own views, experiences and ideas to create the mostly-improvised dialogue.
Further Viewing: Filmmaker Peter Watkins continued to experiment and explore revolution throughout his career. His 2000 film La Commune (Paris 1871) is anarchist, experimental and totally unique.
Political prisoners have a lot of experience with forms of social isolation much worse than most people will experience—it’s how the state tries to break them. Here’s a piece by anarchist prisoner Sean Swain talking about how he stays whole. It originally appeared on Sean’s website and you can hear him deliver it aloud on his regular segment on The Final Straw Radio.
The latest concern that folks are expressing during this zombie apocalypse is their inability to cope with isolation and quarantine. We’re just a few weeks into this thing and already folks are going a little bonkers. This is strange to me, given that I’ve spent years at a time in total and complete isolation. It’s almost hard for me to fathom that someone wouldn’t know how to cope in such an environment. So, this week is going to be something of an instructional video – only, without the video, and maybe not very instructive.
OK, first things first. You gotta stay mentally organized, and staying mentally organized means living in a way that’s organized. You need a routine. Routine is key to long-term segregation. You want to get up in the morning at the same time. Set an alarm. Get up, get out of bed, make the bed. It doesn’t matter that you have nowhere to go. It doesn’t matter that you’re not leaving that living space. You get up at the same time and you make the bed, because the sleeping period is over. Create for yourself set times for eating your meals, or a small range of times for those meals to happen in. Set a time for showering or bathing and personal grooming. It doesn’t matter that you’re not going anywhere.
Laying in bed all day in the same sweater and underwear from last Tuesday is not mental organization. It’s surrender. Yes, I’m talking to you. No, you, there. Yes, the one in the sweater and the underwear. Right.
Break up your day into chunks. Fill those chunks with activity. Maybe you like to read. Designate a period of your day for reading. Designate another part of your day for writing, another part for skyping and twitter and social interaction. Doing this gives you routine, but it also gives you benchmarks as you travel through your day. You can say to yourself “I’ve gotten this done, at such-and-such a time, it’s time to do X.” You are now doing your time, your time is not doing you.
Your time will move faster, you’ll get more accomplished. Which brings me to my next point: accomplishing. Each day will bring you multiple opportunities to fulfill goals. Get something written. Get something read. Go a certain time on your stationary bike. Dispose of the body of that annoying next-door neighbor… former neighbor. Just kidding. Don’t kill your neighbor. There are security cameras everywhere. I digress.
The thing is: each day you meet some small goal, then another, then another. You take in calories, you move from activity to activity. Most importantly: you survive. Each day you end still breathing is a mission accomplished. You’re not just writing emails or riding your stationary bike, you’re fighting for your very survival, albeit in a mundane kind of way.
Physical exercise. The human body is a machine made for motion. So move. My captivity workout, I do sets of push-ups, crunches and squats, one set after another. It works major muscle groups, gets my heart pumping, gets me sucking oxygen, and helps me to think more clearly. It allows me to release tension. Now more than ever, that’s important, not just for your survival, but for the survival of your annoying neighbor. So get exercise and whenever possible, in a way that’s safe, try to get an hour of direct sunlight outdoors. Go outside and breathe deeply and feel sunlight on your face. It matters.
Now, if you’re all alone, you can organize your day any way that you want. You can modify your routine at will until it works for you. But if you’re not alone, you have to synthesize your routine with the lives of those around you. Urge them to adopt a routine. Socially, it helps keep the peace. You know what other people are doing at given chunks of the day, and they know what you’re doing. You want periods of solitude and periods of social interaction, time set aside for your own projects and time for collective and communal activities.
Through the course of this, you’re going to experience heightened anxiety. It’s easy to dwell on your own situation and let the worry spiral out of control. It’s easy. We all do it. So what you do, to get out of that spiral, you focus on the struggle of someone else. Get out of your own head. Contribute to someone else’s plight. This isn’t just some Mother Theresa kumbaya crap. It’s not just some virtuous selflessness. It’s a selfish act. It’s motivated by your desire to further your own survival. If you get out of your own head and help someone, you’re exiting that spiral of anxiety.
Some other tips: While it’s good to do some planning for the future, force yourself to stay grounded in the now. Daydreaming about when this is over just makes the now suck worse. A little of that can go a long way. Also, be realistic about how long this is. Don’t wake up every day thinking that we’re all going to pour out into the streets like some flashmob dance routine. It ain’t happening, probably for months. So get yourself into a comfortable routine, for months. This is your reality. It is what it is. Also, when that reality feels overwhelming, remind yourself that this is just temporary. It will pass. Even if it takes months, it doesn’t take forever. Nothing is forever.
Don’t forget, however bad you’ve got it, others less capable than you have gotten through longer chunks of time in far worse conditions. I did a year with virtually nothing, on starvation rations, with very little soap, locked in a space the size of a bathroom with another poor bastard. We were both idiots, and yet we both survived. You will too.
Resolve to survive this. Walk around your living space. Tell the walls: “You won’t defeat me.” Tell your couch: “You won’t defeat me.” Tell all your furnishings: “You won’t defeat me.” Then look in the mirror and tell yourself: “This won’t defeat me.” And mean it.
You have two choices, flat-out. You can survive this, or you can sit down on the curb, and sooner or later the dogs and the birds will eat you. It’s your choice. I’ve made my choice. Hope I see you on the other side of this shit.
This is anarchist prisoner Sean Swain in exile from Ohio at Buckingham Correctional in Dillwyn, Virginia. If you’re surviving, you are the resistance.
“There are times of struggle, times of war and peace, and then there are times of pandemics,” writes Dilei over Whatsapp. She’s a member of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) from the Paraiba State, in the Northeast of Brazil, and explains how the organization is facing the current context. Within MST camps and settlements it was decided no one will go in or out to visit the city: everyone needs to focus on health care and the production of food within the community.
“The broader population will need a lot of food in the coming period,” writes Dilei. The MST is proposing that state governments buy part of their production to supply hospitals and other critical operations. In Pernambuco and Maranhão, the MST is distributing food to people who live in the streets, and in several states it has offered its infrastructure as first aid hospitals.
In order to stop contagion and isolate, rural Indigenous and peasant movements around Latin America have blocked access to outsiders.
The organizations that make up the CONAIE (Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nations) decided to close the entrances to their communities, activate their Indigenous guards, suspend markets, and elaborate and implement other protocols to stop the pandemic. Isolation is a constitutional right of the 14 Indigenous nations and 18 indigenous groups in Ecuador.
In the south of Colombia, the local councils that integrate the Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca (CRIC) implemented similar plans. On March 27th, the Indigenous council of the Totoroez people decided to restrict access to the outside population, to “maintain physical, mental and spiritual harmony, and prevent the arrival and propagation of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Generally, Indigenous peoples do not require the police to maintain public order, as they have their own communitarian guards.
A similar path was taken by the Zapatistas: they announced on March 16th that their communities (called “caracoles”) would be closing. In a public statement, the Zapatistas declared a “red alert,” called for collective healthcare, and said it was important “not to lose human contact,” but rather to adapt its methods and forms.
In rural areas of our Latin America, peasants, Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants with control over their livelihoods have decided to close their territories, as they know they can sustain their lives during some time based on autonomous food production, which in some cases, like that of the Zapatistas, is organic.
The biggest challenge for the movements, however, are urban areas, where both class differences and the state are far more present than in the countryside. Isolation is not the same for middle class families, in their comfortable homes that are prepared to deal with all four seasons, as it is in popular neighborhoods, where families live packed together, and have to deal with extreme cold or heat, a lack of proper sanitation and little food. Middle class families have one computer per person, whilst the poorest people might have one or none.
In Montevideo, Uruguay, between 70 and 100 neighborhood meals (ollas populares) have been organized by trade unions and local organizations. Some unions take prepared food and provisions to poor and working class areas of the city, while others carry out self-organized community dinners, of which there are now quite a few.
Pablo Elizalde, a member of the lawyer’s workers union, shared an interesting thought, which stemmed from his interactions with folks in different neighborhoods over the past days: “The social policies [over 15 years of progressive governments] provoked the loss of neighborhood leaders as authorities, and what’s left is state institutions,” he said. But the state is cold and distant, it only understands numbers and data, and is therefore unable to care and fraternize.
From the favela Maré in Rio de Janeiro, Timo explains how difficult it is to wash your hands regularly in areas where no water is available, and where there are few who consume organic products from small farms. His small organization is called Roça, they brew artisanal beer and distribute packages of organic products to various families.
“The Favela dynamics are not so different in dealing with military occupation or with a virus,” said Timo in a phone interview. The farmer’s markets of the peasants have been suspended, which complicates many things. We agreed that one of the main difficulties are the men, who believe themselves to be immune. We concluded that in every man lives a little Bolsonaro: violent and authoritarian, looking at the world from above.
The Mujeres Creando collective in La Paz, offered their house, which is called “Virgen de los Deseos” to 12 Bolivian women, boys and girls stranded at the border so that they could self isolate, according to a letter from María Galindo.
In Argentine cities, communal cafeterias (of which there are tens of thousands created by a diversity of groups, varying from religious groups to popular movements) are overwhelmed. We know that autonomous spaces tend to be small. In the 12th of July neighborhood in the periphery of the city of Cordoba, Yaya installed a diner “where 33 kids get a meal thanks to the collaboration of the local priest and the ‘transhumanists’ [members of the popular education collective Transhumanist University], who give out 50 portions twice a week.”
But the “carreros” who collect cardboard, the recyclers, and the massive groups of people who live from what they find in the trash, need to be attended as well. Who can tell them to stay at home during the pandemic?
In the urban peripheries of Latin America the word “teletrabajo,” which refers to working online, doesn’t exist. The state only considers poor and working people as a problem of public order. The only thing that really exists here is solidarity among the poor. Therefore the “popular priests” opened their parishes, converting them into food storage areas and community cafeterias. The Pelote de Trapo collective, which lives with street children, provides meals for 200 children every two days, with their own resources.
I end this short tour of the continent with the Popular Organization of the Independent Left – Francisco Villa in Mexico City. The organization is made up of nine settlements, the largest of which are in Iztapalapa, La Polvorilla and Comunidad Acapatzingo, which are made up of 600 families; as well as eight more settlements in other districts of the city, with at least 50 families in each.
They have closed down their neighborhoods, they work in commissions and brigades to produce face masks and disinfectant gels, and they use the radio and newspapers to communicate and give instructions on self-care and health. The most important thing is their decision to continue to organize under these conditions: they know that without organization, they will be on their own.
They collect medicine and food, and host community dinners for the most vulnerable people. They maintain urban gardens, create quarantine spaces, promote child care groups, and propose that they will also “work through our emotions.” They know that water is the most basic and scarce necessity, in Acapatzingo they have a pond to collect rainwater.
I have read little about these activities on the internet. My knowledge of the experiences I document above is the fruit of conversations and exchanges, which I will continue to describe in future articles. In sum: we need each other and we need to organize to keep our communities alive, as this is the best way to sustain and reproduce life. The tenderness of the people comes out through community and fraternity.
Raúl Zibechi is a journalist and popular educator who accompanies grassroots processes in Latin America. Click below for his books:
Robert Graham is one of the best anarchist historians out there. He wrote We Do Not Fear Anarchy—We Invoke It, which we published a few years ago. He edited a sweeping three-volume documentary history of anarchism for Black Rose Books, and maintains a truly fascinating blog of primary-source material about anarchism. He is also working on a new book for us, The Anarchist Current, which takes a look at the long history of anarchism, from “anarchistic” precursors of the distant past, through anarchism’s consolidation as an explicit social movement in the 19th century, up to the present day. He has shared a draft excerpt with us for your pandemic reading pleasure. Hopefully it won’t be too long till you can read the entire book!
Anarchistic elements can be found in the teachings of Diogenes the Cynic (412/404–323 BCE), and Zeno of Citium (333–262 BCE), the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy who was influenced by Diogenes. Only stories about Diogenes’ sometimes outrageous conduct and fragments of Zeno’s writings have survived, making it difficult to determine what they really advocated.
When assessing the possibility of “anarchist” ideas emerging among the ancient Greeks, it is useful to consider the attitudes that Diogenes, Zeno, and other possible precursors of anarchism, held regarding slavery, one of the most extreme examples of hierarchy and domination to which any anarchist worthy of the name must be inalterably opposed.
Diogenes is the most interesting example, because at one point he had his own slave, and at other points in his life he was a slave himself. There is a story that when Diogenes’ personal slave escaped, Diogenes did not try to bring him back, reasoning that if his slave could live without him, then he could live without a slave. [Doyne Dawson, Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought, Oxford U Press, 1992, p. 136] But this tells us more about Diogenes’ views regarding living a self-reliant life with few, if any, possessions, than it demonstrates any kind of political opposition to slavery, or to hierarchy and domination more generally. Doyne Dawson suggests that the “story that Diogenes himself was sold as a slave […] was so popular” not only “because it furnished the most dramatic demonstration possible of Cynic indifference to fortune; but also perhaps because it implicitly assured everyone that there was nothing socially subversive about Cynicism.” [p. 136]
But despite his indifference toward slavery (and much else), Diogenes acted in ways that were very subversive of ancient Greek morality and conventions. The other stories about him could not have assured anyone that his ideas were harmless. Diogenes was called a “Cynic,” meaning “dog-like,” because he lived much like a dog would, on the streets, with no possessions, and without shame. He purportedly masturbated and had sex in public. His rejection of conventional morality could make him seem like a kind of philosophical anarchist, but he also expressed opinions of a more directly political kind, famously declaring himself a citizen of the “cosmos” or world, rejecting affiliation with any particular Greek city and related notions regarding loyalty to one’s homeland. Diogenes and other Cynics did not believe in sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s city or state, and they opposed war and the use of weapons, a very contrarian view in ancient Greece where military service was expected of all able-bodied men and war was ubiquitous. [Malcolm Schofield, The Stoic Idea of the City, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 51-52]
Nevertheless, Diogenes’ political views remain unclear, as none of his writings, if there were any, have survived. Later writers claimed he wrote a Republic; if so it sounds more like a parody of Plato’s hierarchical and authoritarian Republic than a conventional political treatise. Among other things, Diogenes advocated replacing coinage with dice. However, through parody and satire, Cynics like Diogenes would attempt to convey more serious ideas, such as abolishing currency because people should be able to satisfy their needs directly without having to use an artificial medium of exchange. Opponents claimed that this “communism” included women as common property, but that was a misrepresentation (one that was repeated in the 19th century by the much later opponents of socialist and communist doctrines).
The Cynics rejected conventional notions regarding property, and therefore would never have advocated that women should be held in common. Rather, they advocated that women were just as capable as men of living a natural life, without being bound by conventional norms, traditions or customs. Both women and men were therefore free to choose when, where and with whom to have sex, or any kind of relationship. Given the decidedly patriarchal structure of ancient Greek societies, such views could only have been regarded as “scandalous.” [Dawson, p. 137] Diogenes’ pupil, Crates, and his partner, Hipparchia, would allegedly have sex whenever it struck their fancy, including in public.
Not only was sex supposed to be entirely consensual, the Cynics rejected ideas regarding social modesty and decorum. Women therefore were not required to hide their bodies, but could wear the same simple garb as Cynic men, or exercise with them with little or no clothing at all.
The rejection of social conventions included disrespect for the law and authority, because laws are artificial human constructs. The Cynics were beholden to no one, including people who claimed to be superior to them, whether their owners (if they were slaves) or their rulers. One of the stories about Diogenes is that he told the man who bought him at the slave market that it was his new owner who would have to obey Diogenes. [Luis E. Navia, Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 105] Another story is that Diogenes liked to sun himself, and that when Alexander the Great went to meet him, he told Alexander to get out of his light. [Classical Cynicism, p. 81]
Cynic doctrines focused on the individual, with no aspirations to become a social movement. While the Cynics had nothing but contempt for property rights and traditional mores, they did not suggest that the lower classes and slaves rise up and overthrow their masters. Cynicism was a means to individual liberation from conventional morality, viewing political institutions as having no claim to legitimacy or obedience.
In this sense, Cynicism was similar to 20th century conceptions of “philosophical anarchism.” As with the “philosophical anarchists,” the Cynics had no expectation or confidence that enough people would come to share their views to pose a threat to the status quo, nor was it their mission to incite them to do so. On the other hand, living a self-reliant life simply and independently, like an animal, with few possessions and no allegiance to any god or master, finds some distant echoes in the ideas of the anarcho-primitivists of the late 20th century, with the major point of difference being that the Cynics were urban outliers. They may have lived like dogs, but as dogs in the streets, not as hunter-gatherers in a world without cities.
The Cynics’ jaundiced view of people, still reflected today in the modern meaning of the word “cynical,” can also be compared to the views of those 19th century philosophers who rejected conventional morality, like Friedrich Nietzsche, but who had nothing but contempt for “the masses.” After all, it was Diogenes who was famous for walking city streets with a lantern in broad daylight looking for an “honest man.” One aphorism attributed to him is “reason or the rope,” which meant that if you cannot think for yourself, you might as well commit suicide.
Yet despite the sometimes misanthropic tone, Cynicism became popular among the lower classes during the first two centuries of the Roman empire, in contrast to its successor, Stoicism, which became allied with that empire, denuded of its radical content. Respectable philosophers denounced the Cynic “street philosophers” for inciting disrespect for authority and undermining social hierarchy, with their rejection of conventional notions of property and propriety. [Dawson, pp. 244-245]
The Cynics did not expect, but they argued, that anyone, including women and slaves, could, if they had enough independence of mind, embrace the Cynic lifestyle. Unlike the earlier Cynics in Greece, the Cynic street philosophers of the Roman empire “intended,” through their actions, “to set a model for people to imitate.” [Dawson, p. 246] In a way they practiced a kind of “propaganda by the deed”: through their actions and lifestyle they showed people how to live honestly, naturally and freely. But even these Cynics did not aspire to create a mass movement. As we shall see in the next chapter, it was only with the rise of Christianity that heretical movements arose that rejected the hierarchies of the Roman empire and the early Christian Church that later became allied with it.
Cynicism, by its very nature, could never serve as an ideological support for the Roman empire, which helps explain why so few Cynic writings have survived. Dawson has compared Cynicism to philosophical Daoism, in that it acted as a “counterpoint” to the philosophical and religious doctrines that provided justifications for the social hierarchies of ancient Rome, much like Daoism acted as a counterpoint to Confucianism in China. [Dawson, p. 250] Diogenes’ pupil, Crates, imagined a polis, Pera, “where no one owns anything, and war and conflict do not exist, because no one cares for money, glory, or lust.” [Dawson, p. 149] The connections between private property, status, ambition, greed and war were also emphasized by the philosophical Daoists, and by 19th century anarchists. The Roman emperor, Julian (331–363 CE), was sufficiently concerned about the subversive nature of Cynic teachings to denounce them for promoting communism, and the scorn “of all laws human and divine.” He compared Cynics to bandits, because they “went about everywhere confounding the common laws.” [Dawson, p. 249]
Kristian Williams, author or editor of several AK Press books, including the forthcoming Resist Everything Except Temptation (pre-orderable now at 25% off), recently wrote this short essay on Albert Camus’ The Plague—and its relevance to our current plagued reality. It originally appeared on the Three Way Fight website (which we always recommend checking out).
Albert Camus’ novel The Plague offers a portrait of a town under quarantine, ravaged by an epidemic. It tells us of life arbitrarily constrained and unjustly shortened, of human beings isolated by law and by disease, of panics and shortages, of despair and heroic sacrifice. It presents a grim picture of human life, but an affirming picture of human beings. It ends with a clear moral, that “what we learn in time of pestilence” is that “there is more to admire in humanity than to despise.”*
The book follows the lives of several men—most notably Rieux, a doctor; Rambert, a Spanish Civil War veteran now working as a journalist; and Tarrou, a Communist turned pacifist—as they do what little they can, risking their lives and suffering separation from their loved ones, in order to try to fight the contagion and attend to the public health. That it falls to such people to take the initiative says much about the failures of the authorities, and reflects Camus’ attitude about authority overall.
The official response to the outbreak is belated, dithering, confused, and inadequate. The inaction of the authorities forces ordinary people to take extraordinary measures. The turning point comes when Tarrou, the former Communist, approaches the doctor, Rieux. “The sanitary department is inefficient — understaffed, for one thing,” Tarrou remarks. “I’ve heard the authorities are thinking of a sort of conscription. . . .” Rieux admits that this is true, though the Prefect remains paralyzed by indecision.
Tarrou then asks,
If he daren’t risk compulsion, why not call for voluntary help?
It’s been done, [Rieux replies]. The response was poor.
It was done through official channels, and half-heartedly, [Tarrou points out]. What they’re short on is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we.
He then proposes:
I’ve drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers. Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let’s sidetrack officialdom. In any case the authorities have their hands more than full already. I have friends in many walks of life; they’ll form a nucleus to start from. And of course, I’ll take part myself.
The network Tarrou set up took on a range of responsibilities: They “accompanied doctors on their house-to-house visits, saw to the evacuation of infected persons, and subsequently, owing to the shortage of drivers, even drove the vehicles conveying sick persons and dead bodies.” They did their work diligently. But to what degree these measures contributed to the ultimate waning of the epidemic, or whether the plague just ran its course, we naturally cannot know. Nevertheless, the sanitary squads may have served a more important purpose:
These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that the plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men’s duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.
The plague, of course, is not simply the plague. It also serves as a metaphor for the French experience under Nazi occupation, when the official response — surrender and collaboration — forced ordinary people, Camus among them, to take action themselves and form a Resistance movement.
This analogy is striking, and has deep implications. Camus saw fascism — and indeed any belief system that justifies murder — as a threat to all humanity which, nevertheless, human beings spread and to which anyone may succumb. His thinking on this point was almost mystical in its severity: To affirm life meant that one must resist death. To accept even the fact of death was equivalent to suicide, and akin to murder; it was in fact to become complicit with death in all of its forms. The challenge, always, was to affirm the value of humanity against the tyranny of death, knowing that such a struggle would ultimately end in defeat. This required a spirit of rebellion, and thus Camus placed his hopes not in authorities or institutions, but in the hearts of ordinary people.
Rereading The Plague now, in the midst of a pandemic, one finds that it suddenly has a new relevance. It is no longer merely metaphor. Our hopes for surviving the scourge of Covid-19 cannot rely on the actions of those at the top of the social hierarchies, whose decisions so often manage to be at once draconian and inadequate. Politicians, bureaucrats, and police are not to be trusted and, in any case, will pursue solutions dependent on laws, bureaucracies, and police. They are, to Camus’ way of thinking, simply another set of symptoms of the plague itself, which is a spiritual and political, as well as a medical, condition.
The cure, if one is to be found, relies not merely on medical science, but on social solidarity. Our survival may depend on the actions of our coworkers and our neighbors — people with no official position and no authority, but with enough courage and common sense to act in the public interest even against the orders of the authorities and the instructions of their own purported leaders. In a growing wave of wildcat strikes, auto workers, librarians, electricians, sewer maintenance workers, garbage collectors, fast food workers, bus drivers, warehouse workers, and workers at slaughterhouses have shut down facilities to prevent the spread of contagion when their bosses refused to. People around the country are forming mutual aid networks to share resources, check in on neighbors, and provide for those who are under quarantine. Such actions need not, and should not, wait for official decisions. And these moments carry in them also the promise of a different kind of society, where the bureaucrats are sidelined, where everyday people suddenly discover their own power, and where we look to each other, instead of the authorities, to meet our basic needs.
Perhaps, then, Camus’ analogy may be borne out by reality: Perhaps the means of fighting pestilence will prove to be the same as those for fighting fascism.
* The edition quoted is The Plague, by Albert Camus. Translation by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1991.