Writing While Socialist

Source: Boston Review

Editor’s Note: Over the past year, the scholar and activist Vijay Prashad taught a series of nonfiction writing workshops to students, activists, workers, and journalists across India. The workshops sought to develop an ethics and practice of socialist writing to foreground what Prashad calls “the small voices of history.” Here he talks to the poet Mark Nowak, founder of the Worker Writers School in New York City, about the political valence of socialist writing in a time of rampant populism, racism, and xenophobia. This is the second in a series of dialogues between Prashad and Nowak. Their first conversation, The Essentials in Socialist Writing, was published in Jacobin.

Mark Nowak: You have facilitated a new series of workshops around India since we last spoke. How has this project evolved over time? What new ideas, techniques, or insights did you bring to the second round?

Vijay Prashad: With each workshop the broad outlines of socialist writing become clear to me. I am now able to better distinguish between capitalist writing—which typically emerges from the liberal, mainstream media and is intended to produce commodities—and socialist writing—which is intended to produce a confident community of struggle. The time in our workshop is spent digging deep to understand how to create these communities.

This leads us to the question of style. It is a myth that style is a bourgeois concern. There is an assumption that socialists are interested in content, not style—in getting the point across in as transparent a manner as possible and not worrying about how a story is framed or what kind of mood it evokes. But the socialist writer is not merely a conduit from the picket line to the reader. The writer must shape the story. It is to encourage discussions of socialist style that I do these workshops in the first place.

Let us consider the Indian state of West Bengal, where the right is currently engaged in a concerted attack on the left. Every day there are new incidents of violence visited upon the working class and peasantry, particularly those amongst them who are communists. Recently the police attacked a demonstration by tea plantation workers, and some of the workers were injured. A writer reporting on the protest has a choice: should one write in the mode of grief, representing the workers as victims, or should one write in the mode of anticipation, conveying the intensity of struggle?

The women protesting in the photograph above should not be taken for victims of a ruthless state. They are not mere spectators to history, they are the ones pushing history forward. The mainstream media does not take them seriously. It avoids telling their stories. It does not question the conditions of their lives and work. It does not ask how they have built up the courage to take to the streets against the more organized and powerful state. As socialist writers, we take our lead from the people struggling to improve their worlds. If we can narrate their struggles with honesty, then we can perhaps bolster their confidence. It is this confidence, and not commodities, that we seek to produce.

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