The Anti-Canon: Peter Gelderloos' To Get To The Other Side - by Gyorgy Furiosa

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

To_Get_to_the_Other_Side_print_version_front-cover-HR
To_Get_to_the_Other_Side_print_version_front-cover-HR

American anarchist, poet and author Peter Gelderloos’ most significant contributions to the anti-canon of radical critique and journalism have come in the form of two books exploring and exploding the false dichotomy of ‘violence versus non-violence’ in terms of enacting political and social transformation. His 2005 essays How Nonviolence Protects The State and The Failure Of Non-Violence: From The Arab Spring to Occupy (2013) both set out to '[debunk] the notion that non-violent activism is the only acceptable and effective method of struggle' and to 'defenestrate the stranglehold that [pacifism has on movements]', yet it is his 2010 work To Get To The Other Side that more fully explores and examines the human aspects of a life anarchic. Engaged in the life of action, as well as literature, Gelderloos has also been incarcerated for his political actions, once in 2001 for attending a protest at the School For The Americas, and again in 2007 for public disorder offences during a squatter’s protest in Barcelona.

It is the second of these that forms the transformative centerpiece of his narrative through Europe and its anarchist milieus, To Get To The Other Side (2010). A satori road trip mixing historical journalism, personal portraits, poetry and translations of radical propaganda from across Europe, it is not so much an anarchist Lonely Planet as a literary photojournal capturing snapshots with a fluid and dynamic perspective of politics made manifest - like going intra-country squat-hopping with Durruti and other comrades.

Rather than solely a political or academic analysis, Gelderloos weaves through his collection a number of images of the importance of more universal human concerns, that anarchist texts too often exclude in favour of dry polemic: namely love, family and solidarity – and significantly with the consequences of always siding with the wretched and oppressed. The love story bursts into frame like a classic travel romance – a brief meeting in Amsterdam casts a long shadow over his subsequent adventures as he falls in love with the mysterious ‘L.’, with all the urgency and suffering of separation that Sal Paradise felt for Neal Cassady’s cipher in On The Road. The Kerouac reference extends to Gelderloos’ near-embarrassed admittance on his dependency on his family during his stay in Russia, something his obvious inspiration used to do when he retreated to his mother’s house in Maine to write and recuperate from the excesses of living the beatnik lifestyle. In terms of solidarity, a simple habit of ‘cop-watching’ leads him into unpredicted consequences that transform the next years of his life. The scope takes in a rainbow of different squatting scenes, from the legalized occupied houses of Berlin, to the libertarian-communist farms of Cataluyna, to the besieged houses and radical ferment of Athen’s Exarchia (literally, ‘out of authority’) neighbourhood. The story takes in frontline action from riots, the hills and troughs of cross-country cycling, and the strain of living the half-life of libertad provisional.

failurefrontcover

Yet overall, the image that best encapsulates Gelderloos’ perspective is the recurrent references to blue skies – whether seen blazing across the rooftops of a European metropolis or longingly viewed between prison cell bars. This image alone represents his deep faith and commitment to the ideals of anarchy, liberty and freedom being made manifest as the vision of a sky untainted by clouds. The story contains moments of genuine uplifting delight, such as when the author is subjected to ‘kettling’ by police for many hours. Anyone who has been repressed by such a tactic can tell you of the discomfort and tedium of being trapped together among a herd of protesters while the police wait for your energy to grind down. Yet the scene is transformed when someone tosses a banner to the gathering crowds outside the kettle, and he begins the chant: ‘Give up, we have you surrounded!’. This moment beautifully illustrates the fallacy of the ‘us and them’, protesters and public split, for in these terms it is always ‘the people’ versus the authority that would oppress them.

The writing is intimate, subjective, with the author involved and influencing the actions and outcomes rather than taking a passive, purely journalistic standpoint. He interweaves poetry written during the time, and shares how during a particularly lively gathering at one squat, he launches into one of his own performance pieces, tantalizingly but tellingly opening with, ‘We are sorry to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming . . .’ Gelderloos’ poems, like his literary style, have the punchy, iconoclastic romanticism capable of moving the reader that one would expect from a social revolutionary:

Politics pollute poetry

set the stanzas marching side by side

in adjacent party lines

thus it is impossible to write a poem

demonstrating that solidarity is a beautiful thing

But the day my visitor

held letters from friends and strangers up to the glass

for me to read

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

was so beautiful

the prison walls melted

words failed me for hours

and no poem ever written

was any more

than decorated paper.

Recurrent throughout the narrative are portraits of anarchists and radicals both greater and lesser known from across Europe and the preceding century of activism. Cogently and coherently, the author paints wonderful descriptions of essential revolutionaries such as Buenaventura Durruti, rails against Berlusconi’s rape of Italian culture, and builds, with his heart upon his sleeve, on the work of Orwell in Homage To Catalonia. Contemporary reports detail the life and actions of urban guerillas from the 70s released during his travels, the adventures of bands of Greek anti-capitalist arsonists and underhand ambushes launched by the police against squatters. Writing from Barcelona he develops a succinct summary of the history of the CNT (Confederacion de Nacional Trabajo) by chronicling what happened to that movement after the original International Brigade member was shot in the throat and sent home. Without spoiling too much, it is not a happy tale.

Gelderloos is also in a position to comment upon what Orwell was also aware of – how the insidious lure of gentrification is destroying the community of cities. In Barcelona and Berlin, he writes of how the empty streets of city centres must be filled with tourists to mask the fact that people no longer live there, of how the movement is being squeezed and the locals are being squeezed out. Repeatedly, Gelderloos makes references to how people travel to other places to find the things that are ‘happening’, probably because they weren’t able to make them happen back home. As an American abroad in Europe, he is undoubtedly self-conscious of how this viewpoint could be applied to him.

Gelderloos’ reports and communiqués translated from the front line portray an active and defiant movement across Europe, yet everywhere the shadow of repression falls and the outcome seems inevitable. Repeatedly he references the oppression of anti-authoritarian movements, how they are being squashed across Europe, yet as with his frequent references to blue skies and the ongoing struggle, he never loses hope that people can persevere against domination. His travels notably miss out a visit to London, where arguably one of the largest squatting movements in Europe is still ongoing and growing, with a reported 20, 000 plus squatters in the capital alone. This is perhaps because he is obviously in love with foreign languages and a practicing polyglot, and a suspected intention of this book seems to be to report back what is happening in the non-English speaking world to the notoriously travel-shy American scene. Gelderloos is an obvious internationalist – as all good anarchists should be.

Uncompromising in his analysis, wicked sharp in his criticism, dreamy in his youthful romances (he was 25 at the time of writing), Gelderloos acquits himself as a narrative author on par with Kerouac, which isn’t saying much, but also by weaving in the actual actions and struggles of the people he meets, he grounds his perspective in the struggles of humanity in a way that Kerouac could only hint at. Whereas Kerouac might admire and mythologize the oppressed blacks of 1950s America, Gelderloos is right there alongside them, more likely to be throwing a brick at riot police than wigging out to far-out exciting jazz. This is where he surpasses his obvious inspiration. Although prone to slight repetition and occasionally threadbare and patchy narrative jumps, the story hangs together and you are swept along, right beside him, like hitch-hiking with an enthusiastic history student with a healthy disregard for conformity.

Overall, the optimism and idealism of this youthful author blazes through his words, leaving the reader uplifted, invigorated, and informed. Perhaps best capturing this style, let me end as Peter does:

‘Because whatever the outcome of these trials, the repression will never end, not in any timeline that can fit into a single book, and the travels will go on forever, into still unexplored corners of a world that is seismically reinventing itself, tumbling down our prisons and our utopias alike.’

To Get To The Other Side, by Peter Gelderloos is available for free download here http://togettotheotherside.org and www.theanarchistlibrary.org

Total Shambles by Gyorgy Furiosa, an account of squatting, eviction and riots in London, will be published by Influx Press in November. He blogs at the http://www.thelifeanarchic.com