Letters of Insurgents : internet and reading discussion groups

Anonyme, Lunes, Junio 14, 2010 - 16:25

Letters of Insurgents is an historical novel by Fredy Perlman. It's exciting that many different reading groups are forming to go through it together this summer, in person &/or online.

The book combines rare intelligence with great passion. It poses questions of social transformation that are crucial, but nearly never aired. It is filled with fictional versions of real historical upheavals in the middle third of the 20th century, depicting them in vivid and personal ways that grow out of the characters' lives.

As DeAnna Tibbs put it, the book consists of "fictional letters between two Eastern European workers, Yarostan Vochek and Sophia Nachalo, separated by twenty-five years and two continents. As they reconnect through an exchange of letters, we learn about the battles they have fought – physical, political, emotional, and moral – and eventually the ones they have left to fight."

What Wilhelm Reich called the emotional plague – the constellation of sexual repression and misery, patriotism, conformity, and authoritarian character armor – is thoroughly studied, in its Bolshevik as well as Western forms. Also studied is how the emotional plague can lose its grip on us, how rebellion and liberation can become contagious and spread in a wildfire of subversion; and likewise how the dynamics of this plague reconstituting itself is crucial in the death of these liberated situations.

The author was a participant in the May '68 uprising in France, was involved with an early radical student newspaper in the height of McCarthy-era Los Angeles, was associated with the Living Theater in New York in the early '60s, lived for three years in Belgrade from '63-'66, and later formed the Black and Red publishing cooperative in Detroit. He was an erudite student of radical history (as well as psychological and political theory) and had personal contacts with people who had helped make that history, including anarchists in the Spanish revolution and civil war, and people involved with social struggles within the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.1

All of this informs Letters. When Perlman wrote its 830 pages in the early 1970s, he felt the arena for meaningful radical activity was shrinking, and saw himself as a "rememberer" of rebellion. As his wife, Lorraine Perlman, wrote in a biography of him, "In Letters of Insurgents, his contribution to a history of the period in which he lived, he recorded various forms of rebellion; he was acquainted with many of them first hand. He also recorded the dead ends, the co-optation and the thwarting of rebellious projects. [The book was] a synthesis of most of Fredy's 42 years; it follows fairly closely Fredy's physical and intellectual journeys, reporting the upheavals which affected him, his family and his comrades..."

The book is hard to find but is available at the Anarchist Bookstore, L'Insoumise (2033, rue St-Laurent, 514-313-3489) or from Black and Red.

A big effort has been made to bring Letters out of its undeserved obscurity, so there are now fully search-able and nicely formatted versions of it online:

And an audio version of it has also been made, available here:

There will be networks of people all over the place reading it at the same time this summer, starting this week. There is also an online facilitated discussion here:

1. Perlman was the first to translate Guy Debord's classic of the Situationist movement, Society of the Spectacle into English. Perlman recasts much of Debord's abstractions brilliantly and in a down-to-earth way in Letters. For my friends who are interested in Soma, the Reichian-anarchist “therapy” created by Roberto Freire in Brazil (which I still aspire to pursue, by the way), you might like to know that Freire was first exposed to Wilhelm Reich through Julian Beck of the Living Theater, in Paris 1968. It is clear from Letters that Perlman, who was associated with Beck almost 10 years before that, also fully absorbed Reich. Yet further adding to its richness, Letters includes a kind of reading of Lewis Mumford through a Situationist lens. This kicked off the “anti-tech” tendency in anarchist theory, although in my opinion, the treatment of these topics in Letters is more nuanced and superior.

Some of his other books, essays and pamphlets have long been underground classics, like Against History, Against Leviathan and the first-hand account of May '68, Worker-Student Action Committees. Letters lags behind in how widely it is known, probably because its 830-page length has intimidated readers. It's rewarding though! Many people, including Lorraine Perlman, have told me they agree it is Fredy's best and most important book. Even though the book has been out of print for many years, I've never doubted that it will one day be considered a first-rate classic.

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