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3 July 2024

‘Periodicals Were the Beating Hearts of Global Movements’: An Interview with Revolutionary Papers

In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 118: Abolitions - Writing Against Abandonment, Marral Shamshiri interviews Dr Mahvish Ahmad, Dr Koni Benson, and Dr Hana Morgenstern of the Revolutionary Papers, who discuss the importance of mobilising communities and connecting historical and contemporary radical archives to ongoing liberation struggles, all whilst looking at them through an anti-colonical lens.

You can read and download the full interview for free until the end of July, or read it in the print issue of Wasafiri 118, which is available to purchase.

In April 2022, I took part in the Revolutionary Papers conference held at Community House in Cape Town, South Africa. The conference was part of the larger Revolutionary Papers project, a transnational research collaboration on twentieth-century periodicals of anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and left movements in the Global South, which explores how ‘periodicals – including newspapers, magazines, cultural journals, and newsletters – played a key role in establishing new counter publics, social and cultural movements, institutions, political vocabularies, and art practices’. While the project recovers and analyses revolutionary periodicals in hidden and neglected archives, it also emphasises the organising around these publications, showing us how social histories remain relevant for present-day liberation movements. For the project, the social and political contexts in which the revolutionary periodicals were produced matter as much as the written word.

Revolutionary Papers bridges the often decoupled political and intellectual spheres, bringing together scholars, activists, artists, students, editors, organisers, and archivists who work on, and/or are part of, periodicals from across the world. The research on these periodicals can be found on the Revolutionary Papers website in the form of Teaching Tools — free, digital resources that present periodicals in context and are designed for educators and organisers to read and teach with. This pedagogic form reflects the political commitments of the project’s co-founders, Dr Mahvish Ahmad, Dr Koni Benson, and Dr Hana Morgenstern, who are driven by a desire to place radical public history in the service of contemporary movement-building.

In September 2023, I interviewed Mahvish, Koni, and Hana. The text below is an edited version of our conversation.

Marral Shamshiri for Wasafiri: Hello, everyone. Can you introduce yourselves and Revolutionary Papers — where did the idea for this project come from?

Mahvish Ahmad: The project historically emerged from a conversation between Hana and I when I was a PhD student and Hana was a newly arrived lecturer of postcolonial literature at the University of Cambridge. We both shared a frustration with the abstraction of postcolonial theory and other critiques of colonialism from the actual materials produced by political movements in the heat of struggle against empire. I had come to the PhD from organising on the left in Pakistan. I found a real gap between what passed as critical discourse within the academy in the Global North, even by people studying Pakistan and South Asia, and what political organisers and workers in Pakistan experienced as the important intellectual and political questions while organising to rebuild the Pakistani left in the aftermath of its destruction during the Cold War. A wealth of materials and people, especially our wonderful old comrade uncles and aunties, are rarely included in the narration of history from Pakistan.

I began a postdoc at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where Koni Benson works, in a project called Other Universals at the Centre for Humanities Research. An aim of the project was to explore universalist political claims that emerged in anti-colonial struggle through a network of universities in South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Barbados, and Lebanon. While I was there, Hana and I got a small pot of money for a workshop on revolutionary papers. We needed to find somebody rooted in the political and intellectual milieu of Cape Town. Everyone I spoke to pointed me towards Koni. So, I found Koni in her office, and the rest is history. I’m speaking on behalf of you, Koni — Koni is a self-described radical archives nerd, but also a political organiser linked to current movements in Cape Town. It is through Koni’s deep links – as you experienced, Marral – that the conference in Cape Town took the shape that it did. The project was initially planned as a small workshop, which we postponed because of Covid-19. That was a blessing in disguise, as it led the three of us to talk in more detail about revolutionary papers — and the project grew.

Hana Morgenstern: I actually got into periodicals because I used to be a creative writer and community-based artist. I worked in prisons, juvenile detention, and inner-city schools. I made journals with kids, sometimes with people in prison. We occasionally hosted community nights to publicise the journals. I knew that all marginal, experimental, or political literary scenes had publications attached to them in some way — today they’re usually online. When I started my PhD, I came across al-Jadid, a journal which contained records of Palestinian relations with anti-colonial movements during the 1950s. The journal’s content challenges assumptions that there was a disconnect between these movements and Palestinians living in Israel in the 1950s. Al-Jadid showed that ‘48-Palestinians were connected to the Arab world, to other anti-colonial movements, and to communist Jews from the Arab world. I was blown away. The journals were available in academic libraries at universities like Harvard and Brown and they were also held in the Israeli national library. They were not accessible to everyone, but they were not hidden.

As I did more research, I realised that almost all cultural resistance projects, mostly Palestinian, but also oppositional collaborations between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, were recorded in these journal-like publications. I didn’t know the global context yet, but I understood that marginal radical work happened and could be found. Later, the literary historian Refqa Abu-Remaileh introduced me to the specific Palestinian term for journal literature, adab maqalat, as opposed to literature published in books. If you only look at Palestinian literature through books, you miss a massive amount of work, especially pre-1948, when Palestinian literary scenes were almost entirely published in journals. As you can imagine, when you have few resources and are dealing with people across multiple spaces, journals are an efficient organising tool. I began to recognise the significance of journals in the Arab world, in Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America. That’s when I got the idea, originally, for a project on anti-colonial journals and started talking to Mahvish and then Koni.

Koni Benson: I didn’t know that you made journals with students and people in prison — my first job was as a community-based librarian! I never thought I’d end up in academia. My PhD research was on women’s organised resistance to forced removals and housing struggles from the peak of apartheid to the present. But I ran out of time and money and got into political education work at an organisation called the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) at Community House, where we also held the Revolutionary Papers conference. This work involved using histories of organised resistance for ongoing community and worker mobilisation. I created history education materials, but I also recorded ongoing struggles within movements as a way of supporting them. For example, I documented 254 days of a land occupation in Mitchell’s Plain on the outskirts of Cape Town in collaboration with the leading activists. Self-publication within movements, as a means of self-organisation, was so different to the academic journals that I had, in a way, run away from. It was much easier to write; it felt like you were in conversation with people for a shared political project. It opened up a world of what solidarity writing could look like today. If you removed the academic context, the judging, grading, assessment, and long process of publication, what could writing do within movements?

I eventually took up a postdoc to turn my PhD thesis into a graphic novel so that it could be used in organising. I got involved with the student movement at the time, Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall, which demanded more politicised history teaching. I revamped history courses and linked students with movements across Cape Town, and I have stayed within the university since. Because of the student movement, there has been a renewed sense of urgency in research, writing, and teaching for movement-building. From the time when Mahvish first approached me, what made us kindred was how we both came to academia through organising work. We shared a commitment to writing and research in the service of radical movements. I was excited by the prospect that, across the world, people refused to concede the end of anti-colonial struggle, or to be put off by the slow pace of academic research, or to capitulate to the usual refrains that the current crises are impossible to overcome. I saw a shared understanding that deep diving into archives wasn’t just about excavating neglected movement materials, but instead that they were a worthy site to frame questions around political organising today. What kind of communications vehicle were these publications for movement-building? How could we connect to other people and projects linking radical archives to ongoing struggles for liberation? For me, these questions and an orientation of accountability towards past and current movements were a starting point for the project, and that was quite magical ... 

Continue reading the full piece online, free to download for the month of July, or in Wasafiri 118.

Image credit: Revolutionary Papers Teaching Tools


Marral Shamshiri is a PhD candidate in international history at LSE. She is a co-editor of the book She Who Struggles: Revolutionary Women Who Shaped the World (Pluto, 2023).
Koni Benson
Koni Benson is a historian, organiser, and educator at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She is a co-convener of the Revolutionary Papers project and author of Crossroads: I Live Where I Like.
Hana Morgenstern is Associate Professor in Postcolonial and Middle Eastern Literature at Cambridge University and a Fellow at Newnham College.
Mahvish Ahmad works on political organising and documentary practices in sites of disappearance, tracing circulating techniques of imperial and sovereign violence, as well as the material legacies of anti-colonial and left movements.
Latest Issue - Summer 2024
Wasafiri 118: Abolitions - Writing Against Abandonment

Our summer special issue, Wasafiri 118 — Abolitions: Writing Against Abandonment, guest-edited by Farhaana Arefin and Dr Abeera Khan, explores the work of those organising against the degradation of life under racial capitalism from India to Lebanon, Palestine to France. In this issue, writing is offered as a tool for liberation, with language as resistance to enforced isolation for incarcerated people, and translation as a tool for building solidarity across borders.

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