Waltzing to revolution

Eugène Varlin, chronique d'un espoir assassinéEugène Varlin, chronique d'un espoir assassiné by Michel Cordillot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clearly written, extensively documented intimate biography of one of the most impressive leaders of the Paris Commune. We learn not only of the very serious side of Varlin, a country boy eager to learn, who became a master bookbinder (very proud of his trade), organizer first of the bookbinders union then of other unions, and a leader of the International Workingmen's Association (the "First International"). He also learned to sing in choral groups and to dance, becoming a tall, handsome idol to thousands of the low-paid women brocheuses, assigned to the menial folding and assembling of "brochures" (paper-covered books) in the book binderies. In London at the farewell party of a meeting of the International, he preferred to waltz with Marx's daughters to spending the evening debating economics with their father. A firm and fierce feminist (opposed to his Proudhonnien comrades' view that a woman's place was in the home and she therefore should not hold union office), he worked with Nathalie Le Mel, already a leader of women bookbinders, in numerous projects. Reading his story helps us understand how such a momentous upheaval as the Paris Commune could occur and why at that moment, and also how and why it collapsed before the massacre of the "week of blood" by troops from the extremely conservative government in Versailles. It will also help answering the third question, how it has shaped revolutionary movements up to our day, as the song says: "She [the Commune] is not dead" (Elle n'est pas morte).

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If War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-reading this book today, as so many people are doing, reminds us of how gloomy the world looked in 1949. And especially how gloomy it looked to Orwell, who had spent his entire life and lost his health in struggles for what he imagined as a more decent society — one where people care about and care for one another. The book is a biting satire of what he thought of as the muddle-headed reformism of the British Labour Party, heading toward a totally controlled society called "Ingsoc", Newspeak for "English Socialism", but the permanent anxiety-inducement, psychological manipulation through the distortion of language, and crude but effective torture were inspired more by Nazi Germany and, especially, Stalin's Soviet Union. The technology of surveillance by "Big Brother" seems laughably primitive today, in the face of Edward Snowden's revelations about the working of the NSA, but Orwell's vision of pseudo-friendships among individuals too frightened to really connect seems almost to foreshadow those on Facebook and Twitter.

Orwell's great strength was as a moral essayist, a writer with a very definite view of how things ought to be and a critique of all that fell short of that. And it is as a moral essay that this book continues to matter, not as an effort of belles lettres. It is not pleasing to read, the flow of the language is jarring, the characters unlovable and barely understandable as people — and that is surely just what Orwell intended. But those unlikeable characters all serve his two purposes: to point out the dangers of an all-controlling state and to remind us once again of how language can be corrupted in ways not to advance and express thought, but to impede it. And also perhaps to express one faint hope: Winston Smith, by resisting as long as he does, even though he finally succumbs, demonstrates that the system's control can never be absolutely complete.

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