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Throughout History, the Powerless Have Fought With Words for Liberation

The “Verso Book of Dissent” offers a mosaic of dissenting voices through four millennia of world history in one volume.

"Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This the last great battle of the West." - W.E.B. Du Bois. (Photo: CM Battey / Library of Congress)

Throughout the ages, whenever there has been oppression, there have been those who raised their voices in dissent. The new Book of Dissent from Verso collects speeches and essays, poems and songs, plays and manifestos composed by the resisters who came before us — philosophers, prisoners, bishops, abolitionists and more. Order the book today by making a donation to Truthout!

Audrea Lim is coeditor with Andrew Hsiao of The Verso Book of Dissent. In this interview, she provides some insight into how quotations of dissent were picked from more than three millennia. She also discusses her own favorite passages.

Mark Karlin: As a coeditor with Andrew Hsiao of The Verso Book of Dissent, how did you choose quotations of dissent stretching back to 1800 BCE?

Audrea Lim: It was a long, collective process. We sought suggestions from Verso comrades, collaborators and friends; we asked scholars of different eras and regions about dissenting voices that history has overlooked; and we combed through archives, histories and reference books for interesting, rousing quotes. From this massive trove, we chose a mix of historically significant, eloquent and unusual expressions of dissent. The book is far from comprehensive, but I’d like to think that it’s a broad, varied mosaic of how the powerless have fought for liberation through history and all around the world.

Why is it of importance that in 2017, we view the perspective of dissenters dating back so long ago?

I think if we care about history (or watch movies set in ancient Egypt, China or Greece), it’s important to remember that many voices and experiences have been erased from the standard narratives. Incredibly, many of these people were fighting similar enemies as we are today (patriarchy, dictators, corrupt politicians). I also think there’s value in seeing dissent across such a long time-scale, because the rights and liberties we have today (however hollow they may seem) weren’t just won in the 60s, as we may like to think. People struggled for millennia to get us to where we are today, and we should never take progress for granted.

Do you have five or so favorite quotations and why?

Because it’s beautiful:

“My grieved country,

In a flash

You changed me from a poet who wrote love poems

To a poet who writes with a knife.”

(Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, 1967)

Because we need vision, not just a desire to tear it all down: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.” (Leader of Burkinabe Revolution [Burkina Faso] Thomas Sankara, 1985)

Because they’re defiant: Puerto Rican nationalist (and former political prisoner) Lolita Lebron when she was arrested in 1954 (“I did not come here to kill. I came here to die.”); and IWW founder Lucy Parsons, who the Chicago police described as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” (“Of you hungry tramps who read these lines….”).

W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935), because, “are we back there again?” “Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This the last great battle of the West.”

Because [we should] never forget those who are still behind bars: “I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive — nor will we deserve to.” (AIM activist Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings, 2000)

Because it’s clever:

“Because communists’ headaches

are historical, that is

they won’t go away with painkillers

only with the realization of Paradise on Earth.”

(Salvadoran poet and revolutionary Roque Dalton, 1969)

Because Carlos Bulosan, who immigrated from the Philippines to the US, was fighting racialized deportations back in 1935:

“These were the longest years of their lives;

These were the years when the whistle at four o’clock

Drove them to the yard, then they scurried

Home heavy with fatigue and hunger and love.”

(From “Factory Town”)

Because it’s one thing to recognize injustice, and another to be willing to give up something to change it: “Some have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our Blacks, or those in dozens of other countries. People can cry much easier than they can change.” (James Baldwin, 1977)

Because pain can push us to fight:

“This instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive.”

(Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” 1954)

Just watch the speech on YouTube: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

(Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall, UC Berkeley, 1964)

Truthout Progressive Pick

The Verso Book of Dissent

This globe-spanning anthology collects dissident voices from over the course of three millennia, in the form of speeches, poems, songs, plays and more.

Click here now to get the book!

Why are poetry and songs so important to the library of dissent?

I think if manifestos and political programs are like a movement’s skeleton or brain, then poetry and songs (and images, literature, narratives, art) are like its heart. At the end of the day, it’s the basic human experiences they convey — love, pain, empathy, sorrow, fear — that compel us to act. Also, I don’t think movements can win without promising a future that includes beauty, joy or fun. The Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (executed for his activism against Shell) instructed his indigenous brothers and sisters to “dance the military guns to silence.”

Is there something to be said after reading a 340-page compilation of dissent that readers who seek justice are inspired that they are not alone and have never been alone?

I think it’s easy right now to feel like we are facing something unprecedented and unbeatable, but many of the people and movements in the book were fighting much harsher regimes, and still kept fighting for justice and liberation anyways. Some of them won incredible victories. I think it’s important to remember that power is never really absolute until no one’s willing to push back or speak out.

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