I was confronted with this curious social construction while reuniting with family in southern Maine a month into my travels. When it comes to summertime literature preferences, I am hands-down the black sheep of my extended family. Amongst mystery novels and other benign selections from the seasonal beachside library, my book of choice this year risked threatening the familial harmony of our collective week of escape from the daily grind.
With one chapter to go, I brought along Su Negrin’s obscure manifesto Begin at Start: Some Thoughts on Personal Liberation and World Change (Times Change Press) with me the first day we were at the beach. Written in 1972, Negrin explores her experiences in the feminist and gay liberation movements of the period along with her radical views on child rearing, schooling and post-scarcity survival. Although some of the language is dated, I found much of her analysis to be extremely relevant and even timeless. Her nuanced understanding of oppression and uncompromising desire for authentic freedom really inspired me. In the book, Negrin (somewhat) famously proclaimed: "No political umbrella can meet all of my needs." As I was finishing the book, my mother looked at the titled and said, "Oh, I see that you have your usual light, summer reading." It was clearly time to start a new book, something more appropriate for the beach and carefree summer leisure.
Enter: Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press), by Ramor Ryan. This is not to suggest that Clandestines conforms in any way to the traditional notion of summer reading. I can almost picture the author cringing from the words "nice and light" uttered in his presence. It was just a slight step up from Begin at Start. And besides, the only other book I brought on vacation with me was American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press), by Kristian Williams which probably would’ve ruined everyone’s week, including mine. So on the second full day in Maine I began reading Clandestines with a combined sense of satisfaction, prudence and growing anticipation. What could possibly provide more summertime literary fun than the political travel stories of a modern pirate? Sure enough, the book did not disappoint.
Ramor Ryan’s chronicles of nearly 20 years of involvement in global movements serves as a new grassroots history of contemporary social change struggles. His personal accounts from the front lines on both sides of the Atlantic are infused with an anti-authoritarian analysis that avoids dogmatism and simplicity. But above all, the book is a well-written and engaging narrative of adventure and resistance. As Eddie Yuen writes in his introduction, "[E]nough with extraneous interpretations. Ramor is, in the best Irish tradition, a storyteller."
The book is arranged in a clever, non-linear fashion. The stories are organized geographically rather than chronologically, featuring two sections: "Old World" (Europe) and "New World" (the Americas), with an "Intermezzine" (the Atlantic Ocean) connecting them. In the Old World Ryan takes us for wild and unpredictable ride beginning in West Berlin just months before the fall of the Soviet Union with a short vignette about two friends of his that climbed over the Berlin Wall into the East, unnoticed by officials on either side, only to get arrested by a cop for having sex on a park bench.
From there he describes his life in a Berlin squat against the backdrop of May Day riots provoked by a violent and repressive police force. The strong character development of his friends and comrades is supplemented with an excellent historical overview along with a confident understanding of the political situation of the time. This synthesis of storytelling, history and critical analysis is a common thread throughout Clandestines.
While in Berlin, Ryan learned about the brutal repression of the Kurds by the government of Turkey. This knowledge and outrage would eventually bring him to Kurdistan and Turkey, taking part in an international solidarity delegation to witness the human rights abuses of the Kurdish people. What ensues could be taken straight out of a James Bond movie, with government spies, translators, and the potential for violence lurking around every corner.
The Old World adventures continue, from a Rainbow Gathering in Croatia following the protests against the G8 meetings in Genoa, Italy to a funeral of an IRA rebel in Belfast that was attacked by British military, radicalizing the Irish youth. In all of these encounters with other militants and activists Ryan often expresses his ideological critiques of their strategies. As an anarchist he is always suspicious of the centralized and authoritarian tendencies of many revolutionary groups such as the IRA and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), along with the escapism or reformism of others such as the hippies at the Rainbow Gathering:
"This is the crux. The illusion of peace and love, of intentional communities, of utopian spaces created outside of society-it can only end in a Jim Jones-style massacre or dissolution. And it’s not enough, it’s never enough. Rainbow Gatherings are all right for your holidays, but one more push, idealists, if you want to be revolutionaries." (p. 97)
Although I found all of his criticisms of these groups and individuals to be valid he does occasionally fall into the holier-than-thou territory that tends to alienate people from anarchism and suggests that there is only one recipe for radical change. I was also curious about his uncritical employment of neo-primitivist John Zerzan’s philosophy. However, Ryan does, for the most part, avoid this sectarian anarchist trap and effectively balances his uncompromising values with a deep awareness of the everyday realities of life under global capitalism.
In the Intermezzo entitled, "High Sea Adventures: Ocean Crossings in Search of the Revolutionary Atlantic" Ryan shares his experience working on a cargo boat servicing the trans-Atlantic banana trade among authoritarian German captains and a predominantly Filipino crew who are thoroughly disinterested in his "fantastical notions of violent mutiny." While his days on the boat were mostly spent painting the deck and chipping away at rust and nightly shifts of being on watch, he was simultaneously chronicling the exploitation of the global banana trade. His dreams of revolutionary piracy were never realized though, despite learning a lot from the experience and gaining some hope toward the end when one of his Filipino mates replied to Ryan’s inquiry about why they don’t rebel against the captain: "I will tell you why we smile each time he orders us around. We smile because behind that bravado we know he is scared." (p. 139)
From this point, Ryan proceeds to describe the struggles of the New World. His first hand accounts of the realities and failures of the Sandinista revolution, the overall nightmare of post-war Central America and the complexities of Cuba are complimented with his more hopeful experiences in the Zapatista Autonomous Zone of Chiapas and the "Passion of the Brazilian Left." Again, all of these chapters combine engaging stories, a well-versed history and knowledge of contemporary politics. His invaluable perspectives and contributions to the new social movements of Latin America are one of Clandestines‘ greatest virtues as a political text. "He writes with an intimacy and close-to-bone-rawness that is reminiscent of Eduardo Galeano, and he never short-changes the lyric or his attention to craft," writes Holly Wren Spaulding, a Sweetwater Alliance activist, of Ramor Ryan. Every step of the way, he expresses his solidarity with marginalized populations seeking self-determination and true democracy from Kurdistan to Managua.
Overall, I found this book to be inspiring and if nothing else an entertaining read, regardless of what season you are experiencing it in. His personal narratives fill in the gaps of the professional analysts on the Left, revealing the authentic lives of people affected by the same unjust system all over the world. It also proves that people will always be fighting for change. As he writes in the epilogue, "Consequences:"
"These are the stories that need to be told too. How do we live, side-by-side, how do we treat each other? From where springs solidarity and mutual aid? Where is freedom and how best to overcome our despair? I’m not sure, but I think I know where to look for the answers." (p. 277)
Buy Clandestines from AK Press: http://akpress.org/2006/items/clandestines
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist living in Northampton, MA. His Passions and Survival [link] project explores the collective dilemma of following our passions while surviving under capitalism. Contact him at email@example.com