Acts of Dissent Through History
The Verso Book of Dissent: Revolutionary Words from Three Millennia of Rebellion and Resistance is a compendium of revolt and resistance throughout the ages, updated to include resistance to war and economic oppression from Beijing and Cairo to Moscow and New York City.
To celebrate the release of the new edition - 50% off at the moment as part of our end-of-year sale - we've present a selection of key moments of dissent from the book.
1647: The Levellers: Agreement of the People
Having by our late labours and hazards made it appear to the world at how high a rate we value our just freedom, and God having so far owned our cause as to deliver the enemies thereof into our hands, we do now hold ourselves bound in mutual duty to each other to take the best care we can for the future to avoid both the danger of returning into a slavish condition and the chargeable remedy of another war; for, as it cannot be imagined that so many of our countrymen would have opposed us in this quarrel if they had understood their own good, so may we safely promise to ourselves that, when our common rights and liberties shall be cleared, their endeavours will be disappointed that seek to make themselves our masters.
Emerging during the English Civil War (1642–51), the Levellers called for the expansion of suffrage, religious toleration, and sweeping political reforms. The Agreement of the People was discussed in the Putney Debates in 1647.
John Rees gives us the gripping story of the Levellers in The Leveller Revolution, and as a part of our Revolutions series Geoffrey Robertson presents The Putney Debates by the Levellers.
Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, 1848. Illustration from The Life and The Print Collector/Heritage-Images
1838: The Chartists: “The People’s Charter and Petition”
The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement.
The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon . . .
Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty, which has aggravated the painful feeling of our social degradation, by adding to it the sickening of still deferred hope . . .
When the State calls for defenders, when it calls for money, no consideration of poverty or ignorance can be pleaded, in refusal or delay of the call. Required, as we are universally, to support and obey the laws, nature and reason entitle us to demand that in the making of the laws, the universal voice shall be implicitly listened to. We perform the duties of freemen; we must have the privileges of freemen. There- fore, we demand universal suffrage. The suffrage, to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy and the violence of the powerful, must be secret.
The Chartists were the first mass working-class movement in Europe: subse- quent petitions were signed by millions and presented to the British parliament. Although the Chartists later split over whether to stage an uprising, all but their demand for annual parliaments would eventually become law.
Dorothy Thompson provides the groundbreaking study of Britain’s first major working-class movement in The Dignity of Chartism.
1871: Paris Communards: Speech in a Women’s Club
Marriage, citoyennes, is the greatest error of ancient humanity. To be married is to be a slave . . . Marriage, therefore, cannot be tolerated any longer in a free city. It ought to be considered a crime, and suppressed by the most severe measures. Nobody has the right to sell his liberty, and thereby set a bad example to his fellow citizens . . . Therefore, I propose to this assembly, that it should get the Paris Commune to modify the decree which assures pensions to the legitimate or illegitimate compan- ions of the National Guards, killed in the defense of our municipal rights. No half measures. We, the illegitimate companions, will no longer suffer the legitimate wives to usurp rights they no longer possess, and which they ought never to have had at all. Let the decree be modi- fied. All for the free women, none for the slaves!
This speech was made in the Church of Saint-Eustache by a now unknown woman, and according to a contemporary report was greeted by “thunders of applause.” A Women’s Union was active in the Commune, and included figures like Nathalie Lemel, a socialist bookbinder who created a cooperative restaurant that served free food to the poor, and who later fought on the barricades during the Bloody Week.
Kristin Ross takes us on a thrilling ride through the literature of Rimbaud in 1870s France in The Emergence of Social Space and gives a more detailed history of the Paris Commune in Communal Luxury. Gavin Bowd’s The Last Communard offers a brilliant, striking portrait of revolutionary Europe through a remarkable personal story. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray also offers a classic history in The History of the Paris Commune of 1871, part of the Verso World History series. And David Harvey draws on the history of the commune in his Rebel Cities, a rousing manifesto on the city and the commons.
1894: Edward Carpenter: Homogenic Love
It has become clear that the number of individuals affected with “sexual inversion” in some degree or other is very great—much greater than is generally supposed to be the case. It is however very difficult or perhaps impossible to arrive at satisfactory figures on the subject, for the simple reasons that the proportions vary so greatly among different peoples and even in different sections of society and in different localities, and because of course there are all possible grades of sexual inversion to deal with, from that in which the instinct is quite exclusively directed towards the same sex, to the other extreme in which it is normally towards the opposite sex but capable occasionally and under exceptional attractions, of inversions towards its own—this last condition being probably among some peoples very widespread, if not universal.
Although known primarily for his pioneering views on homosexuality, the English poet and philosopher Carpenter rethought almost every aspect of Victorian life: from literature and politics to food production and animal welfare. The first to propose in a pamphlet—Homogenic Love—that human sexuality lies on a spectrum between heterosexuality and homosexuality, Carpenter also pioneered early ideas of prison reform and sustainable living.
Sheila Rowbotham’s Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love is the acclaimed biography of the pioneering advocate of free love, gay rights and women’s suffrage.
1915: Rosa Luxemburg: “Junius Pamphlet”
Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth—there stands bourgeois society. This is it. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law—but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. In the midst of this witches’ Sabbath a catastrophe of world- historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated. To deceive ourselves about it, to cover it up, would be the most foolish, the most fatal thing the proletariat could do. . . .
Imperialism and all its political brutality, the chain of incessant social catastrophes that it has let loose, is undoubtedly a historical necessity for the ruling classes of the contemporary capitalist world. Nothing would be more fatal for the proletariat than to delude itself into believing that it were possible after this war to rescue the idyllic and peaceful continuation of capitalism. However, the conclusion to be drawn by proletarian policy from the historical necessity of imperialism is that surrender to imperialism will mean living forever in its victorious shadow and eating from its leftovers. . . .
It is our strength, our hope, that is mown down day after day like grass under the sickle. The best, most intelligent, most educated forces of international socialism, the bearers of the holiest traditions and the boldest heroes of the modern workers’ movement, the vanguard of the entire world proletariat, the workers of England, France, Belgium, Germany, Russia—these are the ones now being hamstrung and led to the slaughter.
The blood-letting of the June days  paralyzed the French workers’ movement for a decade and a half. Then the blood-letting of the Commune massacres again retarded it for more than a decade. What is now occurring is an unprecedented mass slaughter that is reducing the adult working population of all the leading civilized countries to women, old people, and cripples. This blood-letting threatens to bleed the European workers’ movement to death . . . This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society. Here capitalism lays bare its death’s head; here it betrays the fact that its historical rationale is used up; its continued domination is no longer reconcilable to the progress of humanity.
The madness will cease and the bloody demons of hell will vanish only when workers in Germany and France, England and Russia finally awake from their stupor, extend to each other a brotherly hand, and drown out the bestial chorus of imperialist war-mongers and the shrill cry of capitalist hyenas with labor’s old and mighty battle cry:
Proletarians of all lands, unite!
Written in prison to oppose the German Social-Democratic Party’s (SDP) support for World War I, this pamphlet quickly became a rallying point for anti-war socialists, contributing to the split of the SPD in 1916, and the formation of the Spartacus League and later the Communist Party of Germany. Much of Luxemburg’s argument about the development of capitalism and spread of imperialism builds on her most well-known treatise Accumulation of Capital. She was murdered, along with her Spartacus league co-founder Karl Liebknecht, by right-wing paramilitaries during the Spartacist Uprising of 1919.
Newly brought together are The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volumes 1 and 2. Also available are Luxemburg’s letters to her comrades, friends and lovers in this comprehensive collection, The Letters of Rosa Luxeumburg. Norman Geras provides an important contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century Marxism in The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, and Kate Evans gives the illustrated biography of the giant of the political left in Red Rosa.
1930s: Anonymous: “Poem in Blood”
A rosy-cheeked woman here I am fighting side-by-side with you men! On my shoulders weighs the hatred which is common to us.
The prison is my school, its inmates my friends. The sword is my child, the gun my husband!
The Indochinese Communist Party included a women’s organization; its members worked alongside men to resist the French and then the Americans, and many were killed. This poem was written by a female guerrilla on the walls of her prison cell, in her own blood, before she died. She had been tortured.
You can read more on transnational feminist action in the classic study by Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World.
1935: WEB Du Bois: “Black Reconstruction”
This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man or he will not enter at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This the last great battle of the West.
Du Bois, herald of Pan-Africanism, co-founder of the NAACP, and critic of the Cold War, began the 1900s by positing the Color Line as the problem of the century, and ended by joining the Communist Party. In between, he attempted, as his biographer David Levering Lewis put it, “virtually every possible solution to the problem of 1900s racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.”
Part essay, part autobiography, Du Bois’s Darkwater is essential reading on African-American history, and one of our new Radical Thinkers titles.
Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, inspiration for Benjamin's Theses
1940: Walter Benjamin: “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
Blending Marxist and Jewish thought, lyrically and across many disciplines, Benjamin was a friend and interlocutor of Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács. Fleeing Vichy France across the French-Spanish border, his groupwas detained by Spanish troops. Benjamin took his own life that night. The “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is his last surviving work.
Verso has in recent years published in English much from Benjamin’s archive. The Storyteller is a beautiful collection of the legendary thinker’s short stories and poetry. Esther Leslie has translated an absorbing selection of his manuscripts, images, and documents in Walter Benjamin’s Archive. The surviving transcripts from his radio broadcasts between 1927 and 1933 are brought together in Radio Benjamin, and classics such as Understanding Brecht and The Origin of German Tragic Drama are also available.
1961: Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth
History teaches us that the battle against colonialism does not run straight along the lines of nationalism. For a long time the native devotes his energies to ending definite abuses: forced labor, corporal punishment, inequality of salaries, limitations of political rights, etc. This fight for democracy against the oppression of mankind will slowly leave the confusion of neo-liberal universalism to emerge, sometimes laboriously, as a claim to nationhood. It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.
National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystal- lization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, will be in any case an empty shell, a cruel and fragile travesty of what it might have been. The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which, when dealing with young and independent nations, the nation is passed over, for the race and the tribe is preferred to the state. These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful to national effort and national unity. We shall see that such retrograde steps, with the weaknesses and serious dangers they entail, are the historic result of the incapacity of the national middle class to national- ize popular action, that is to say their incapacity to see into the reasons for that action . . .
The works of Fanon—psychiatrist, writer and revolutionary—have inspired anticolonial movements throughout the world, and The Wretched of the Earth is his most well known. Born in Martinique, Fanon studied with Aimé Césaire, fought in the French Army, became a psychiatrist, joined Algeria’s National Liberation Front and dictated Wretched on his deathbed.
David Macey’s comprehensive and eloquent work Frantz Fanon: A Biography remains the definitive account of a truly revolutionary thinker.
1978: Michele Wallace: Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman
The white man had offered white women privilege and prestige as accompaniments to his power. Black women were offered no such deal, just the same old hard labor, a new silence, and more loneli- ness. The patriarchal black macho of Malcolm X might have proven functional—black women might have suffered their oppression for years in comparative bliss—but black men were blinded by their resentment of black women, their envy of white men, and their irresistible urge to bring white women down a peg. With patriar- chal macho it would have taken black men years to avenge themselves. With the narcissistic macho of the Black Movement, the results were immediate.
And when the black man went as far as the adoration of his own genitals could carry him, his revolution stopped. A big Afro, a rifle, and a penis in good working order were not enough to lick the white man’s world after all.
Published when Wallace was only twenty-seven, Black Macho quickly found a wide audience—and much controversy—for its argument that black male revolutionaries asserted their manhood by pushing black women into domestic and submissive roles, and for its skewering of the US Labor Department Moynihan Report, which blamed “aggressive” black women for the disintegra- tion of black families and communities.
Black Macho is published in the Verso Feminist Classics series, and Wallace’s Invisibility Blues is one of our Radical Thinkers titles out this month.
1993: General Union of Palestinian Women: “Palestinian Declaration of Women’s Rights”
We, the women of Palestine, from all social categories and various faiths, including workers, farmers, housewives, students, profession- als and politicians, promulgate our determination to proceed with our struggle to abolish all forms of discrimination and inequality against women, which were propagated by the different forms of colonialism on our land, ending with the Israeli occupation, and which were reinforced by the conglomeration of customs and tradi- tions prejudiced against women, embodied in a number of existing laws and legislation.
Released by a coalition of women’s organizations just as the Palestine Liberation Organization was drafting its constitution, this declaration wasmeant to highlight the importance of including provisions guaranteeing women’s rights.
Again, women’s rights movements across the globe are chronicled in Jayawardena’s classic work Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, and we have compiled a Middle East reading list of titles relating to conflicts in the region on the blog (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2586-crisis-and-conflict-in-the-middle-east-a-reading-list)
1998: Angela Davis: “Masked Racism”
Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immi- grant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big busineDavis—former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Communist Party, and the Black Panthers—was also the third woman to make it onto the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List for the kidnapping, conspiracy and murder of a judge (charges of which she was later acquitted). She was a founder of Critical Resistance, the grassroots organization aimed at dismantling the prison-industrial complex; and twice ran as a vice-presidential candidate for the Communist Party.
If They Come in the Morning… is a scathing analysis of the role of prison and the policing of black populations, edited by Angela Davis. This too is one of our brand new Radical Thinkers titles.
Photo by Igor Mukhin/Wikipedia
2012: Pussy Riot: “Punk Prayer”
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes
Freedom's phantom's gone to heaven
Gay Pride's chained and in detention
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans
Don't upset His Saintship, ladies
Stick to making love and babies
Russian performance artists and feminist activists Pussy Riot were charged with “hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred” and imprisoned for two years after performing their “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral. The song critiques President Vladimir Putin for repressing LGBTQ rights, his ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, and his dictatorial practices.
Founding member of Pussy Riot Nadya Tolokonnikova and philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s extraordinary exchange of letters are brought together in Comradely Greetings, discussing artistic subversion, political activism and the future of democracy.
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