Clifton Ross, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia: A Journey though American Revolutions
Oakland, CA/Edinburgh: AK Press, 2016; 180pp; ISBN 9781849352505
As a teenager coming of age in the rural south-eastern United States during the early 1970s, Clifton Ross imbibed LSD and evangelical Christianity with equal enthusiasm. By the time he made it to the countercultural mecca of Berkeley in 1976, the mass movements of the previous decade had dissipated, but remnants of the Christian new left welcomed him into their network of 'house churches', small magazines, and weed-scented late night theological rap sessions. For a time, Ross drew inspiration from Nicolas Berdyaev, an Eastern Orthodox philosopher influential to the Catholic Worker movement and the 1940s generation of spiritually-minded West Coast anarchists such as William Everson. But when news of the Sandinista revolution hit in the early 1980s, he 'put aside Berdyaev's mystical anarchism, his religion of creativity, his theosophical conception of unconditional freedom and the ultimate value of personality', in favour of Latin American liberation theologists who downplayed 'orthodoxy in favor of orthopraxy', the fight for freedom and dignity in the material world (p70). Travelling to Nicaragua to learn from and support this emerging socialist society, Ross began a practice of dialoguing with Latin American revolutionaries of many stripes--sharing poetry, interviewing them, translating their communiques--that has continued up to the present.
Ross recounts experiences both promising and troubling from visits to Nicaragua, Cuba, and Mexico; good fortune placed him in the latter at the very moment of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. These chapters are too brief to fully immerse readers in these varied political orders, and serve mainly as a prologue to the heart of the book, a 200-page chronicle of Ross's engagement with the 'Bolivarian process' in Venezuela. The author is at first cautiously optimistic about the changes he sees underway during visits to that country following Hugo Chavez's electoral victory in 1998, including the state's support for worker cooperatives, neighbourhood councils, and other vehicles to promote a 'protagonistic, participatory democracy' (p142). This position of critical support shines through in Ross's 2008 documentary Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out. But as the author hears tales of endemic corruption, visits nationalized factories that have gone to rust...