A Braided History of Socialism, Literacy, and Education

protest-155927_1280Since the beginning, the minnesota review has supported and published progressive essays, criticism, and creative literature in an ongoing effort to provide “lively and sophisticated signposts to navigating current critical discourse” (via Duke University Press). Also published in the minnesota review are interviews with contemporary intellectuals and radical thinkers, who contribute context and a higher level of engagement with critical questions that affect our global relationships. We believe that publishing cultural criticism alongside creative writing creates and sustains an exchange that has roots in global history, going all the way back to the 16th century Europe, and extending up to current culture. What follows is a brief and sporadic history of literature, progressive thinking, and small-press publishing that traces the ways in which progressivism, academic discourse, and small journals develop in tandem to influence culture and critical thinking.

Socialism, literacy activism, and academic journals have a long history together. In fact, many scholars believe Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres  to be the first literary magazine in existence. Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres was published in the sixteenth century in Amsterdam by a French expat named Henri Desbordes. The magazine moved to Amsterdam to escape French censorship after Desbordes was exiled from his homeland after authorities threw him in prison on the suspicion he was publishing anti-catholic material, under the auspicious title Preservatif contre le changement de religion (A Preservation against the Change of Religion), written by the French protestant leader, Pierre Jurieu. After his release from prison, Desbordes relocated himself and his publishing operation to Amsterdam, where he became successful as a refugee publisher. From 1684 to 1710, Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres was published on a monthly basis, making the switch to bi-monthly afterwards. Today, most academic and literary publications publish in small runs at a similar rate, rarely coming out with new material more than once a month, if that frequently.

Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres  is perhaps not one single monolithic object, but a nebulous swirl of ideas shared by students of Italian and European universities and notable artists, writers, and philosophers of the time. The inception of the collective might be attributed to Erasmus, a Dutch theologian born in 1466 whose correspondence with hundreds of scholars launched the first network of idea exchanges in the region. Erasmus contributed to the Renaissance revival and the study of languages and humanities, staying careful not to associate too closely with any scholarly institution, so as to remain autonomous in his scholarship. In other parts of Europe, scholars like Voltaire, Locke, and Galileo began writing critical philosophical and scientific documents that would change the course of history, science, and politics. An extensive map of critical thinkers, developed and maintained by Stanford University, illustrates the various scholars contributing to the Republic of Letters up until the year 2013.

Contemporary examples of this Republic can be seen quite clearly in issue 75 of the minnesota review. In an interview between Timothy Campbell, Federico Luisetti, and author Roberto Esposito, Esposito asserts Italian philosophy “has always looked outside itself: to political city (Machiavelli), to the infinite life of the universe (Bruno), to nature (Leonardo and Galileo or even, and differently from the others, Leopardi), to the world of history (Vico). Italian philosophy was never a philosophy of the person, of the subject, of consciousness, but rather was [sic] a world or worldly philosophy, outside even the confines of the nation-state. It is no accident that Italian Humanism extended to all of Western civilization in a continuous exchange between internal and external, inside and outside.”

Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres was radical in its early humanist standpoint, outside the confines of religious publications and materials. The journal established a space for critical thinkers who shared values not entirely accepted or represented by the Catholic church at the time. Even though these early transgressions would pale in comparison to some of the radical leftist literature we can see today, the intellectuals brought together by Desbored’s operation were far outside the acceptable norm of their time. The philosophies of the publishing movement are in line with the Enlightenment period in Europe, when widely-held values promoted by the church were being challenged with creativity and individualism.

Until about the 17th century, writing and idea exchange was relegated to students and the upper class. Sometime before the Enlightenment, scholars began to challenge the notion that reading should be kept to a certain class. The act of bringing literature and ideas to the general public was another radical step toward social justice, following the vein of thinking that knowledge belongs to everyone. As one may guess, those in the upper class, (read: those in power) weren’t so keen on the free distribution of radical ideas and literacy to the disenfranchised population. A capitalist education relies on class division, something we see the world over as the privatization of education bloats to create exorbitant sums of student debt, creating deeper exclusions as wealth accumulates in a small percentage of the population. But overpowering this system has always occurred outside traditional education systems. In Russia, literacy and political campaigns became inextricably tied in 1917, as literate soldiers taught their fellow troops to read newspapers while waiting for the end of war and famine.

The connection between democracy and literacy is outlined by the authors of The ABC of Communism: “Despite these conditions, however, the Russian Revolution led not only to a radical transformation of school itself but also of the way people conceived of learning and the relationship between cognition and language. Indeed, the early years of the Russian Revolution offer stunning examples of what education looked like in a society in which working-class people democratically made decisions and organized society in their own interest.” (From the ISR citation: “See chapter 10, “Communism and Education,” in N. I. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism. London: Penguin Books, 1969.”) We get a memorable quote from Lenin from the same article: “Developing mass literacy was seen as crucial to the success of the revolution. Lenin argued: ‘As long as there is such a thing in the country as illiteracy it is hard to talk about political education.’ (Cited in Eklof, “Russian Literacy Campaigns,” 134.)

One can imagine the easy transition for intellectuals from the page and out into cafes and salons, discussing progressive social and political matters with French philosophers, artists, and writers. But in America, as recently as the 1960s, the Black Panther Party had numerous local organization branches dedicated to improving the lives and education rights for children. Schools in Oakland, California, where the party was born, were some of the first to initiate a free breakfast program for school children. Denouncement of the program came from J. Edgar Hoover in a brutal political campaign to discredit and demonize the movement. The breakfast program implemented by the Black Panther Party was represented as a tactic to indoctrinate young children into a Socialist party, regardless of the inarguable good that comes from ensuring kids have meals. Once Truman became president, it became clear the breakfast program was beneficial to schools and education, so Truman initiated the government-led NSLP to serve school breakfast, erasing the influence of the Black Panther Party and claiming the initiative for the presidency. Most civil rights scholars and zine enthusiasts are familiar with The Black Panther, the Party’s newspaper founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. What began as a local newsletter went on to gain international readership, influencing Party decisions and social movements around America. The Socialist ideology in The Black Panther reached the widest readership in the late 60s and early 70s, printing about 500 issues altogether for readers all over the world.

During the Red Scare era in America, many radical magazines found unlikely funding in one of the government’s highest organizations a branch of the CIA, called the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). Then headquartered in Paris, the branch attempted to sway European intellectuals to embrace the cultural variety within what was perceived as a culture-less America. The CCF also advocated for the de-establishment of totalitarianism by allowing the left-leaning publications of the time to publish anti-Communist content. The reason behind this: readers would expect anti-communist voices to come from the reactionary right, so by demonstrating and distributing these ideas from left-voices, the CIA attempted to establish unity against Russia, credibility in the American political system, and make a persuasive cultural comparison between the social striations in America and Europe. There is speculation that the CIA’s secret involvement in the arts may have kept artists from becoming more revolutionary, but who’s to know. Out of this odd political and creative partnership, magazines such as the Kenyon Review, Encounter, the Latin American Mundo Nuevo, the Paris Review, and the once progressive avant-garde arts and literature intersection, Partisan Review.

The scope and range of Socialist literature, newspapers, and zines cross our cultural and national borders. Today, we have magazines with origins in academic and progressive circles that publish left-leaning literature and criticism. We have N+1, Tin House, online publications like Bitch Media and The Toast. While some publications can be rather cosmopolitan in their selection of critical and literary works, political Socialist magazines like Jacobin strive to keep the issues from becoming too obscured by trendy headings and fashionable issues.

Here’s our dangerous idea: reading, exchanging ideas, and communicating through barriers is as radical as any political idea that has emerged out of these magazines. We at the minnesota review strive to publish ideas that are accessible, challenging, and flexible in our ever-changing understanding of the world. As one of the only journals in America that publishes academic writing alongside theory and creative work, we like to see the developing relationships between poets, writers, and contemporary philosophers unfold within the space of a single issue. You can certainly see this in the critical work we publish, and we hope in our fiction and poetry too. Even beauty and joy, two things we love to see in literature, can communicate a powerful message to our diverse and knowledgeable readers.

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