Tag Archives: revolutionary ethics

None So Blind: José Ángel González Sainz

The protagonist of José Ángel González Sainz’s quiet, introspective novel None So Blind is peasant/factory worker, Felipe Díaz Carrión, who has recently retired and moved back to a village, and the plot of land with its crude house that has been in his family for generations. The novel opens with Felipe, carrying an old satchel, walking along an old familiar road. It’s been twenty years since he walked along the road, but it hasn’t changed.

He was relieved when he realized that the road was the same as it had always been. They hadn’t redone anything yet or built anything in the area, and when he walked along that road, walking as if it were in fact the road that were walking through him, he was infused with a strange sense of calm and strange feeling of liberation. It must be that what’s permanent, he said to himself, that what will always be the same no matter how many things change, as his father used to say, or as people said his father used to say, is what actually frees you the most. Things that remain the same speak to you, sustain you, and they do it without ego. Although knowing how to listen to them is something else entirely.

As the story unfolds, we read that Felipe was forced by circumstance to uproot his family twenty years earlier and leave his family home in order to earn a living in a city located in the province of Guipúzcoa, the Basque area of Spain. Felipe had to trade a job in a print shop for chemical factory work, but while he has to make readjustments, he never complains. Yet in spite of the fact Felipe never complains, we feel the culture shock, the unpleasantness of trading the quiet countryside for the urban hell of a tiny flat in a “giant apartment building.”

He would slowly leave behind, one by one, an old, dismal metalworks from which, even in the early morning hours, there issued an incomprehensible screeching; a tire retread shop whose premises he felt from the very beginning were completely disproportionate, with an attached lot, beyond a blackened stucco wall, where he could see loads of large truck tires and little car tires all piled up, and which sometimes emitted a stench of burning rubber–it stank to high heaven, he would say, even though what he breathed inside the factory most days was no better

Felipe’s life is the life of an ordinary man. Twenty years of work with a relentless pattern to life, and not a great deal of thanks for being a good employee, a good husband, a good father. Twenty years in the city have served to alienate Felipe from his eldest son and his wife–both are now radicalized and refer to Felipe as a fascist. When Felipe returns alone to his home village and embraces the fact that nothing has changed, there’s also the silent admission that both his wife, now a publically elected official, and eldest son, now accused of violent politically motivated crimes, have altered beyond recognition.

none so blind

Immutability, political violence and the central question: do the ends justify the means are at the heart of None So Blind, and while this is a simple, rather sad story of a man whose experiences his own family fail to acknowledge, this is also the story of how history repeats itself.  Even though this a quiet, introspective story, there’s an underlying rage and violence here simmering under the surface. While the novel examines, philosophically,  the morality of using violence to further political goals, the author also emphasizes the physical world and the senses, so the sounds and smells of Felipe’s environment are juxtaposed with people’s inability to ‘see’ another opinion.

There’s one scene in which Felipe’s son is screaming in his father’s face. It’s a wonderful scene with Felipe’s unspoken thoughts racing through his head as he realizes that his son sees people not as human beings but as “burdens, obstacles, abstractions.” While I always have difficulty reading about passive characters, here, the author argues that Felipe’s very passivity is born from early exposure to inexplicable, meaningless violence.  Felipe avoids direct confrontation with his wife and his son, and while he’s been ‘too blind’ to see the evidence of his son’s political beliefs, his wife and son are also completely blind to Felipe’s humanity and the reason for his established belief system. While many people tell Felipe that politically, he’s a simpleton and “you just don’t get it,”  in reality, Felipe understands all too well how a family can never recover from violence whether it is introduced by some homicidal maniac or conducted to fit someone else’s political agenda.

It’s the life of human beings, which is sacred, even though you might laugh when I use the word, just as you might laugh if I mentioned honor, other people’s honor and your own honor, and scruples, too, scruples about hurting others, and the humiliation of being hurt, but it doesn’t matter–other people’s honor and scruples about hurting them, as my father, may he rest in peace, used to say, those are the fine lines that give worth to your own freedom and the freedom of others.

Review copy

Translated by Harold Augenbraum and Cecilia Ross

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A View from the Tower by Charles Lambert

“No one’s immune, he said, as though the spores of violence were in the air and could settle on anyone.”

With The View from the Tower, Charles Lambert has written an intelligent, page-turner set in Rome–part mystery, part dissection of marriage and friendship, but underlying the story of a life in crisis, the novel examines revolutionary ethics and questions the moral justification of the use of violence. The book’s title, The View from the Tower, is literal and refers to a scene towards the end of the book, but it’s a phrase that also refers to the argument for revolutionary violence and how individuals swayed by the idea of ‘the greater good,’ place themselves on a higher moral ground, above the crowd and there, in isolation decide on that irrevocable step to take human life.

The view from the towerAs with Charles Lambert’s novel, Any Human Face, The View From the Tower is a page-turner, and the story begins powerfully with a long-married couple, now in their 50s saying a casual goodbye as they part for the day, and with neither of them aware that this is the “last morning of their marriage.” British ex-pat Helen and high-powered government official, Frederico, leave their flat and part with plans for a dinner that night–an event, of course, that will never take place:

So she and Frederico have these final moments together, down the dark stairs and across the square, barely time to exchange a dozen words and say goodbye before their separate days begin.

There’s a poignancy here–the illusion of permanence, the fragility of our mortality and a sense of impending loss–a loss that Helen has yet to endure as we read about an evening that exists only in the imagination:

This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Frederico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work. Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day’s events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Frederico’s world and a less intimate part of hers.

This cleverly constructed introduction sets the scene for the idea that everything we hold dear, everything we assume will happen, all our expectations, can be wiped out in a single moment. Along with that idea, the story describes the spaces Helen and Frederico share, and the way in which their lives separate. These two elements: loss and  the knowledge we think we have of the people in our lives are two of the major themes of the novel.

Within a few minutes, Frederico and his bodyguard are dead–the apparent victims of political assassination, at the very moment that Helen is keeping an assignation with her long-time lover, and Fredrico’s best friend, aging rockstar revolutionary, Giacomo….

Author Charles Lambert takes some terrific risks with his characters by making them all flawed and, at times, unpleasant and unlikable. Frederico, Helen, and Giacomo are not perfect people–and certainly their relationships with one another are complex and intertwined with some sort of latent competitiveness lurking between the 2 men who see themselves reflected through the prism of politics. The novel goes back and forth in time, exploring these relationships–from Rome in 2004, back to Turin in the 70s and Giacomo and Frederico’s involvement in the war against the State.

What’s so interesting about the novel is the way the three characters appear to need each other; when Helen first meets Frederico in the 70s, she hears all these stories about Giacomo, his best friend, and it’s clear that Frederico has no small amount of admiration for Giacomo,–a man he sees as the ‘real thing,’ not just a theorist. If Giacomo appears to be the one who physically embodies the nomadic life of the untamed revolutionary, then Frederico is the intellectual arm of the revolution, and where does that leave Helen? How about smack in the middle? Even before meeting Giacomo, Helen feels that she will instinctively dislike him:

You’ll love him, Frederic said whenever he mentioned him. I know you will. Everybody does. Helen examined the small creased strips of photographs and other photographs of him Frederico showed her, always surrounded by people, and wondered if she would like him as much as Frederico expected her to. She didn’t like doing what everyone else did, or feeling what they felt. Besides, there was something over-masculine and swaggering about him she didn’t take to. Always standing in the centre, the largest smile, the others more often looking at him than at the camera, to see what he wanted, from them. She wouldn’t give him what he wanted, she decided, whatever that might be.

As the main female protagonist of the novel, Helen goes through various stages of grief when her husband is murdered: denial, shock, anger and acceptance, but whereas in a simpler novel, the character of Helen would be a vehicle for our sympathy, here she’s difficult to like. As the days pass after Frederico’s death, she turns to Giacomo for support, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Frederico, who seemed distracted and troubled weeks before his death, was keeping some very big secrets from his wife. As she uncovers layers of lies, her anger and feelings of betrayal, while very real, fail to garner much sympathy due to the fact that her relationship with Frederico has been tainted by duplicity for decades. In a lesser novel, this could be a plot flaw, but here the result is a pervasive sadness that these three people who profess to feel more for each other than anyone else on the planet, lived lives of tangled deceit and half-truths which all come spilling out only after Frederico’s death.

Underneath this drama involving murder, betrayal and infidelity, The View from the Tower tackles the question of revolutionary violence. Part of this comes through from the 70s backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro–an event that Helen notes mainly as white noise, but an event, as it turns out, that may involve Frederico and Giacomo. Several decades later, Giacomo has morphed from the dashing, charismatic radical and is now a middle-aged man who has turned author, tending to the heaviness of his sedentary lifestyle. He makes the lecture circuit on the merit of his past exploits, and his current rockstar status is thanks to his past which includes a jail sentence. Now he’s wealthy, jets around the world and has an anorexic, high-maintenance Parisian trophy wife. These days, Giacomo is about as revolutionary as a Che Guevara T-shirt. The fact that he arrives in Rome on the very day of Frederico’s murder is enough for those investigating the assassination to be suspicious of his involvement. Meanwhile, Frederico’s death suddenly becomes a matter of State, and Helen finds herself fighting over his corpse with her mother-in-law. The real fight, of course, goes much deeper than this.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters in this tale of tangled loyalties twisted with bitter betrayals,  I wanted to see what happened to them as Helen and a friend dig around looking for answers to Frederic’s murder. I should interject that I really liked the adulterous twist that removed Helen from the devastated widow figure. This throws a wrench in her role as a tragic wife, and since I don’t like books that milk my emotions, ‘nice’ people who do bad things always add to the interest of any story.

Politics is a dirty game, and here we see those layers at all levels: world, state and personal. Just who comes out as a winner in this well-written, engaging story isn’t who you’d expect. While the very-human drama plays out against the underbelly of Rome’s political structure, ultimately, the biggest question is: who has the moral right to decide to end of the life of another in order to secure political goals?  

Review copy & purchased copy.

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German Guerilla: Terror, Reaction and Resistance by Jean-Marcel Bougereau

“The relation between the ends and the means employed becomes insane.”

The book, The German Guerrilla: Terror, Reaction and Resistance written by Jean-Marcel Bougereau and translated by Peter Silcock is a compilation and essays and interviews on the subject of German guerrillas. The book is for anyone interested in the Red Army Faction, urban guerrillas, and/or revolutionary ethics. Contents include:
Preface
Introduction
An Interview with Hans Joachim Klein
Postscript: Political Violence and Liberty
The Moabit Gang of Four
The Berlin Indomitables
Background to the Left German Guerrilla
RAF Philosophy

The story of Hans-Joachim Klein is fascinating. In 1975, Klein was one of a group of Guerrillas who stormed the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. The aim of the commando was to force the OPEC ministers to make declarations of support for the Palestinian cause, and as part of this raid, two ministers–Amouzegar from Iran, and Yamini from Saudi Arabia were targeted for death. The mission resulted in three murders, and Klein was seriously wounded. The hostages–along with Klein were flown to Algeria. Here, Klein recuperated and began to have serious misgivings about his actions.

In the interview Klein admits it was no simple matter to break from his undergound life and his relationship with ‘Carlos.’ According to Klein, he and some of his comrades were pawns of much larger, darker forces, and he came to realize this following Entebbe and after discovering that the guerrilla group received 5 million for placing a suitcase of explosives on a plane. He eventually managed to break free and then began an underground life on the run hiding from both the police and his former comrades. Klein explains why he wrote a letter to Spiegel in which he blew several upcoming commandos that targeted individuals for assassination. He acknowledges that “if you stay with the guerrillas for a long time, then sooner or later, you throw things overboard….from your humanity to your political ideals.”

In the interview Klein also offers contrasts between the three major German revolutionary groups: RAF (Red Army Faction), the June 2nd Movement, and the Revolutionary Cells (Revolutionare Zellen) and explains his evolution from a dissident to a gun-wielding guerrilla. The author includes a good analysis of a “clandestine existence” and concludes that such an existence has an “appalling effect.” He argues in a life cut off from reality, and with a loss of personal identity, the armed revolutionary is caught in an “incestuous circuit of ideas” and that such a dangerous existence inevitably alters “values and moral judgements.”

The book also includes a 27-item questionnaire titled “The Berlin Indomitables” written by the Moabit Gang of Four (Ralf Reinders, Gerald Klopper, Ronald Fritzch, and Fritz Teufel)–members of the June 2nd Movement. Stern, who intended to publish an interview with the Moabit Gang of Four, originally sent this questionnaire, but when the questionnaire was seized as evidence in court, the interview was never published.

Other sections of the book include the “Background to the Left German Guerrilla” and a statement taken from an RAF pamphlet. The latter includes details that question the alleged suicides of Andreas Baader, Jan Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin that occurred on October 18, 1977 in Stammheim Prison. The authors argue that these members of the RAF were, in fact, murdered by the state.

The book’s fascinating postscript “Political Violence and Liberty” offers a discussion analyzing political violence and its “three main areas of motive or source”: state terrorism, revolutionary terrorism, and violent political reaction. The author, arguing “actions and morality are indivisible,” advocates establishing the groundwork for a “viable alternative society” before attempting to dismantle the old, established order.

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The Urban Guerilla Concept

“Legality is about Power.”

Red Army Faction: The Urban Guerilla Concept is not an A-Z of the Red Army Faction, and the reader is best served approaching this pamphlet with some prior reading on the subject. Divided into three sections, the pamphlet contains: historical background, an introduction, and The Urban Guerilla Concept–the RAF’s first “ideological text” (apart from a short letter shortly after Andreas Baader was sprung from jail). Anthony Murphy writes both the historical background and the introduction. The document, The Urban Guerilla Concept–while ostensibly the collective product of the RAF was most likely written by former journalist Ulrike Meinhof. It’s the most famous document ever produced by the RAF, and so for anyone interested in the RAF–the “most influential and longest surviving” guerilla group that sprung from the German Student movement of the 1960s, then this pamphlet is invaluable. If however, you’re new to the Red Army Faction, then I recommend Stefan Aust’s book Das Baader-Meinhof Komplex (if you can find a copy in English), Televisionaries by Tom Vague (flawed, but still interesting.) or the marvelous memoir How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Terrorist by Bommi Baumann.

The pamphlet’s historical background is extremely valuable in its explanation of how the West German government perceived the Red Army Faction (the RAF never referred to themselves as the Baader-Meinhof Gang). The West German government had shown a tendency to “resort to authoritarian methods to solve political problems, particularly political dissent from the Left.” Identified as the “biggest threat to democracy” the members of the Red Army faction were classified as “enemies of the state.” Under West Germany’s Basic Law, they effectively “lost their rights”, and the “protection of the state” became an overpowering priority. This explains why the West German government responded so quickly to the RAF with such extreme, overwhelming violence (the police were issued with machine guns and grenades in June 1970).

The document The Urban Guerilla Concept basically lays out the RAF’s ideological argument for the armed struggle against the state. The document rife with Marxist-Leninist-Maoist rhetoric references the Springer press, the Vietnam War and the destruction of the Black Panthers. Now, years after the official demise of the RAF in 1998, this document shows the RAF’s determination and oddly enough there’s a thread of naivete that runs throughout the text that predicts its inevitable destruction. Yet, at the same time, some of the document is strangely prophetic–more than 3 decades later:
“No publications escape the control of vested financial interest-through advertising;…and through the concentration of media ownership. In the public domain a powerful elite has the dominant role….The media’s message in a nutshell is…Sell….News and information become commodities for consumption.”

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Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich

“The question of revolutionary ethics.”

The slim volume Bakunin & Nechaev by Paul Avrich focuses on a fascinating, and almost forgotten, slice of Russian anarchist history. Although only just over 30 pages long, this well-written little book presents a gripping truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale.

Author Avrich does not attempt to present full-scale biographies of either of his two subjects–Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev–instead he traces the bizarre revolutionary beginnings of Nechaev, and the ultimately difficult relationship the two men shared. After escaping from a sentence of life imprisonment in Siberia, Bakunin was living as an exile in Switzerland when Nechaev showed up. 22-year-old Nechaev arrived with a self-created cloak of mythological revolutionary activities. By creating “an aura of mystery” which involved a fabricated escape from the Peter and Paul fortress, he “cast himself into the role of the revolutionary prototype.” Once he arrived in Geneva, Nechaev visited Bakunin “claiming to represent a powerful revolutionary organization.”

In 1869, Bakunin and Nechaev collaborated on the production of a number of political pamphlets and manifestos. The most infamous of the documents was The Catechism of the Revolutionary. It was divided into two parts–the first section contained rules and regulations for revolutionary organizations. The second part discussed The Rules of Conduct of Revolutionaries. This second section basically presented an ends justifies the means approach to revolutionary ethics. According to The Catechism, nothing was unacceptable as long as the revolutionary furthered his goal.

Exactly who authored The Catechism became the “subject of prolonged and bitter dispute.” And this dispute became particularly relevant after Nechaev returned to Russia. Nechaev deliberately set out on a campaign to incriminate friends and then used blackmail to rope them into his organization. His manipulations ended in the murder of one of his followers. Avrich argues that the relationship between Bakunin and Nechaev “illuminates the question of revolutionary ethics–of the relationship between means and ends–which revolutionists everywhere have continued to face.”

Arvich covers early Russian revolutionary activity, including the Ishutin Circle and its beliefs. He also explores the authorship of The Catechism, and Nechaev’s final fate. The book’s conclusion includes a nice analysis of revolutionary ethics,  the role of a revolutionary organization, and how The Catechism influenced later groups. The author also notes that Nechaev proved to be the inspiration for the character of Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s novel The Demons.

Finally, the author wisely includes a bibliography for further reading. Bakunin and Nechaev is a well-crafted small package that packs a powerful philosophical punch, and Avrich’s style makes this a pleasure to read.

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