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ZALENSKI, John William. "The Practice of Resistance: Eugene V. Debs, Alexander Berkman, and the Cultural Psychology of the Prisoner of Conscience".
Article published on 12 April 2007

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Ph. D. Diss., University of Iowa, 1992. 530 p.

A critical analysis of the autobiographical writings of 20th century American prisoners of conscience.

Prisoners of conscience have engaged consistently in the "practice of resistance": a strategic intervention at sights of social injustice, intended to foster ethical renewal. In this study, the practice of resistance – the public articulation of the cultural psychology of the prisoner of conscience – becomes a key critical concept, the nexus of a multi-disciplinary argument synthesizing ethical philosohy, cultural history, social theory and autobiographical literature.

The ethical context of the practice of reistance emerges from an analysis of American national character study. This "critical public argument" over the nature and goals of American life depends upon the use of "practical reason," a form of judgement yielding a characteristic social ethic at different points within American history. Internal constraints upon national character discourse, however, reveal limited resources for a substantive transformation of American life. This fact introduces the significance of the prisoner of conscience.

Prisoners of conscience take history personally, creating "public memory" from acts of witness to critical historical events. Crises initiating these practices of resistance include the Haymarket riot, the great strikes at Pullman and Homestead, the world wars, the Vietnam war and the threat of nuclear war, the Civil Rights movement and others. Such practices of resistance result in imprisonment, an experience creating allegiance to those dispossessed by American culture, fostering a belief in ethical community, and motivating the development of a radical social critique.

Delineating this complex of themes within the documentary evidence proceeds in two ways. The first is individual case studies of Alexander Berkman, Russian immigrant and proponent of philosophical anarchism, and Eugene V. Debs, the most popular and successful socialist in American history.

The second approach occurs through the critical analysis of key elements of the cultural psychology of the prisoner of conscience. This provides the structure for an assessment of major prisoners of conscience from across the twentieth century. This assessment includes Mother Johnes, Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Barbara Deming.

Source: DAI-A 583/07, p. 2427, Jan. 1993.


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