May 24, 2021
Organizing in the pandemic has been incredibly hard, but, hey, organizing is always hard. We adapt. We do the best we can. Timelines change. Plans and programs are delayed. A sprint becomes a marathon, over and over. This is just the way the work is.
Whoever might be complaining needs to read the more than 550-page new book by historian Tim Parker, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire. Every page is an education in commitment, politics, and discipline, although some of the lessons are contradictory. I have been reading this book off-and-on over the last six months. I was ahead of the curve. I stumbled on the title and grabbed the book in hardback, rather than my usual e-book predilection. I felt like I had made a wonderful, secret discovery of a rare vein of gold, hidden in the mountains of books, and even better, just as I finish the book, finally, there’s a lead review in the New Yorker, of all places, hardly a bastion of revolution and social change.
Of course, the book is not about revolution or change now, although I read it that way, but about the first decades of the 20th century, mostly before the end of WWII. This a detailed history of organizers and activists whose names we hardly know and can’t pronounce, who were “internationalists” in the heady period when the Russian Revolution became the Mecca for what might somehow be possible in almost feudal societies. Harper often refers to them as a “village” or “community” because of their linkages from country to country trying to foment change, organize parties, and bring down governments. They knew each other, but they didn’t know each other. They were rivals but allies. They spent more time before air travel, the internet, and mobile phones trying to connect, seeking to share papers, strategies, and ideas, trying to raise money, often from Moscow, and running from interlocked police forces of imperial powers in France, Britain, and the Netherlands, when they weren’t themselves in jail.
And, those were the lucky ones, sort of the leaders of the pack and organizers of mass actions and movements who survived. The death count of union leaders and strikers, protestors and demonstrators are only exceed by thousands upon thousands welded to the same causes who wasted away in prison or were regularly expelled, becoming men – and women – without a country and often with so many aliases that they no longer even owned their own names. The fight against imperialism had to be global by definition in Asia, because whether India, China, Indonesia, Thailand, or Malaysia, these were not countries, but colonies under external control enforced by foreign armies and bureaucrats. They were anarchists or communists or opportunists with shifting political and ideological alliances trying to put together whatever it might take to dump the imperial power.
The subthemes still resonate. The efforts to raise money, and hopes that Lenin or Stalin would loosen the purse strings when needed. The incessant efforts to communicate with each other, with workers, with allies, however and with whomever might be willing to stand together against the power. The shift to nationalism as WWII and its legacy tightened down borders and destroyed internationalism. Respect their lives and work — what a book!
I can remember being hardly twenty years old, having dropped out of college to organize, unsure how and where then, but impatient and full of rage for change. In California’s Big Sur in the winter of 1968, in my ignorance and idealism, warning my partner then that depending on how my work was received, we might have to go underground, as others had done, and could we make it.
These people lived and died in reality, what was only our fever dream of imagination. They still teach us lessons thanks to Professor Harper, and we still owe huge debts that can never be repaid.