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Alternative Media Spotlight on PM Press

Autonomy Alliance
Interview with Ramsey Kanaan
March 20, 2011
Founded in 2007, PM Press has been churning out radical titles at a fairly remarkable rate the past few years. PM Press was started by a small group of experienced individuals who, according to their website, claim that they're "old enough to know what we’re doing and young enough to know what’s at stake." Autonomy and Solidarity Quarterly corresponded with one collective member, Ramsey Kanaan, about the origins and direction of the business, as well as the changing nature of media consumption.

How and why did PM Press form? More specifically, why did you and your cohorts leave AK Press to start a new publishing house?

Ramsey: The briefest of answers would be both that it was time, and that the more folks engaged in radical publishing endeavors, the better. We could, and we did. Three of us left AK Press (which I founded - named after my mother's initials - three decades or so ago as a young kid) to form the initial nucleus of PM Press. Not for political/ideological reasons, but more because of the mundanities of both how we internally organize/make decisions/are accountable to each other, and because of differences of opinion on how to rise to the challenges (as publishers, and disseminators of ideas) of the changing media landscape/world that we live in. And with the one person, one vote structure at AK, there's only so long one can remain the outvoted minority before it's time to move on. Not a matter of right, or wrong, necessarily. But definitely time...

Is PM Press organized as a workers' cooperative?

Ramsey: No, formally, we are a California corporation (as is AK Press). Partly, of course, it depends on the definitions of a workers cooperative. In terms of ownership structure, PM is co-owned by Craig and myself. In terms of pay, we are all paid the same, dependent on hours worked, and time served. There is a great deal of autonomy for folks involved in PM, in terms of the decisions that need to be taken - for example with the different editorial decisions associated with each imprint.  
From the start, PM Press has placed a particular emphasis on non-theoretical titles (i.e. radical fiction, music, etc.). Is this avenue of propaganda something you felt was underutilized at AK Press?
Ramsey: My philosophy, and interest, as a propagandist has always been to get useful ideas, of whatever nature, out there, in as many different ways/formats as might connect with the widest number of folks. Whether that be non-book formats (such as CDs, DVDs, pamphlets and the like), different genres of book (fiction, art et al), or dealing with the effects of new technology on the book. For what it's worth, all of our books (and DVDs and CDs) have been available in all of the different digital formats,from the get go. Questions of formats/genres and different avenues of distribution and institution building were all definitely thorny issues at AK Press. I'm also really into theory, and the theoretical. They are all pieces of the bigger picture, and all equally vital. Fortunately, some of the diverse group of paid and volunteer staff at PM Press emphasize the fiction, or gender issues, or food issues, while others are stuck deep in the past uncovering hidden histories of radical art, music, and movements...

Talk about some of the more recent PM titles. I'm personally very excited about the new Jerry Cornelius novel, Modern Times 2.0, incidentally.

Ramsey: Putting out four to five titles a month, it's difficult even for us to keep up at times! Certainly, the new Michael Moorcock book is exciting. Anything by this literary genius is cause for celebration - and over the next year, we'll be reissuing unexpurgated editions of his Pyat Quartet, and a weighty collection of his non-fiction titles. In the same "Outspoken Author" series as Modem Times, we'll have a new Ursula K Le Guin novella in a couple of months, and new books by Cory Doctorow and and Rudy Rucker later this year. The political economy imprint Spectre I think is doing fantastic work in actually providing theoretical work which can help us understand the world we live in, and then, y'know, change it! David McNally's Global Slump is probably the finest exposition of what neoliberalism actually is (and hence how to understand it, and dismantle it), ever! And Sasha Lilley's Capital & Its Discontents serves as a wonderful introduction to understanding capitalism in crisis, how we got into this mess, and how we might get out. The Liberty Tree double CD is both a wonderful exposition of the life and times (and relevance today) of Thomas Paine, all in the words of the man himself (and his contemporaries and detractors), along with twenty-one songs of social significance from the two greatest living singer/songwriters - Leon Rosselson and Robb Johnson...  

Overall, would you say the shift from non-digital formats (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) to Internet based formats (blogs, podcasts, downloads, etc.) has negatively affected the ability of the general public to gain knowledge and insight into important issues? How has this change in media consumption affected the ability of AK/PM Press to stay afloat financially?

: A many layered question! But ultimately, the problem isn't a shift in format(s). The problem is the lack of a "movement" that can sustain, and nurture, and promulgate, and enact upon ideas, and secondly, that folks are not reading. Arguably, the way we interact with ideas affect our abilities to both understand, and act upon them. Reading a blog (or a magazine article) is
very different from reading a book. Doing either in a distracted fashion won't help. And a culture which pushes atomized isolation and consumption (internet commerce, social networking) over community and folks coming together (bookstores, libraries, meetings) is going to produce very different social movements, in both form and content. Financially, the "new media" has pretty miserable for the producers -whether that is writers or publishers - and the disseminators. Nothing in this world is free, or is free to produce. But the internet currently has that 'race to the bottom' mentality, where folks expect it to be cheap, or free. Allied to the fact that modern technology means that stuff can be produced even easier/cheaper (on many levels), the end result is that there is more crap out there than ever before, and even less intellectual ability to wade through it all. Increasingly, the job of us propagandists is both a quality issue, and a curatorial one. How can we produce well edited, good looking, accessible material, and how can we get that stuff out there, amidst the ocean of garbage fighting for folks' attention. Definitely tricky times ahead!  

Thanks so much for your time. Any final remarks? 

: Always a pleasure, and thanks for your support, interest and good works. Folks can always check out our website ( for the latest, request paper catalogs, sign up for our email list, join the Friends of PM subscription scheme (get everything we publish, mailed straight to your door, for as little as $25.00 a month), contact us and read a good blog or two by our authors. And then of course, there's that perennial problem of overthrowing Capital and the State...

Vegetarian Myth on Peak Moment

Peak Moment
March 14, 2011

What we eat is destroying both our bodies and the planet, according to author Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability), a recovering twenty-year vegan. While she passionately opposes factory farming of animals, she maintains that humans require nutrient-dense animal foods for good health. A grain-based diet is the basis for degenerative diseases we take for granted (diabetes, cancer, heart disease) - diseases of civilization. Annual grain production is destroying topsoil and creating deserts on a planetary scale.  Lierre urges the restoration of perennial polycultures for longterm sustainability.

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Toranto Book launch of Global Slump

On January 20, 2011 about 200 people gathered in Toronto’s Lula Lounge for the launch of Global Slump: the Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. Emcees Liam McNally Faria Kamal (No One Is Illegal, Toronto) and Syed Hussan (No One Is Illegal, Toronto) introduced the event.

Jesook Song (Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto and New Socialist Group) and John Clarke (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) offered appreciations of the book. After brief opening remarks, David McNally did a short reading from the text. Music at the opening and conclusion is “Revolution” by Nina Simone.

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In and Out of Crisis Reviewed on MRR

By Stuart Schrader
August 2010
As Oi Polloi once asked, are we punx or mice? Is the economic crisis the result of stupidity, greed, deregulation, and derivatives—poxy pustules on an otherwise sound system? Or is it the result of structural contradictions of capitalism, contradictions whose management frequently takes the form of stupidity and greed, recently abetted by deregulation and derivatives? If you chose answer #2, collect a gluebag and proceed.

Around the time punk rockers first gobbed on the world, great changes in the capitalist world system were afoot. Punk rock was symptom, signal, and even accelerant of many of these changes. Today, the degree to which the economic crisis is engendering systemic changes remains unclear. Punk rock—ever persistent in its Weltzschmerz, bristles, studs and acne—need not be unprepared either to face a changing world or to aid in its change. Whether three chords, tartan trousers, and shoplifted malt liquor signal preparedness if up to you, but one essential addition to our arsenal is surely In and Out of Crisis by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin, and Leo Panitch.

After reading many accounts of the crisis, including some that are quite compelling page-turners (the best are Meltdown by Paul Mason and The Big Short by Michael Lewis), In and Out of Crisis is bracing. It dispenses with the moralistic platitudes and tendentiousness one finds in the mainstream and on the left, without giving the false impression that the system can be patched like a pair of crust pants and sent back out into the pit. It is rather a jargon-free, easy-to-read account that focuses neither too closely on the day-to-day details of what has been called “the great unraveling” from summer 2007 to fall 2008, nor gives such a long-distance view that the incompetence, cravenness, guile, and greed of the financiers and the Bush administration lose pertinence. Importantly, however, in these writers’ view, the groundwork for the crisis stretches back further than for most others’, to the turbulent late 60s/early 70s, when capitalists found their profit margins imperiled by working-class militancy and began to implement the changes that would be called “neoliberalism,” a set of policies and practices intended to restore lost capitalist class power and redirect wealth upwards. (Punk rock, I contend, was the knell whose tolling indicated the end and transformation of the militancies that were growing increasingly obsolescent as the object of their abhorrence—capitalist classes together with capitalist states—was evolving.)
The writers describe their framework as “radical political economy, and in particular its lineages in Marx and state theory,” which is accurate but somewhat coded, as many writers on the crisis whose books are much less useful will claim a similar mantle. Moreover, although aimed at a lay audience, this book is engaged in a debate with several strains of present-day Marxist thought. Nevertheless, following the critique of political economy launched by Marx, from my perspective, the most important aspect of Albo, Gindin, and Panitch’s book is its explosion of the usual dichotomous categories through which most understand the crisis: Wall St./Main St., public/private, state/market. Instead, the dichotomy—or, better put, dialectic—they use, both as a tool of analysis and as a call to political action, is capital/labor. In mainstream accounts of the crisis, an excessively permissive regulatory climate allowed financial firms to take great risks, including lending money to borrowers who would not be able to repay the loans.

Housing prices were increasing and thought to be a fool-proof investment, and as they increased, more and more people who were less and less qualified received first, second, and third mortgages. Like a bolt from the blue, borrowers started to be unable to repay their loans, which set off a cascade of delinquencies. In the days before this permissive regulatory climate, mortgages were held by local institutions mostly. Now, they were “sliced and diced,” packaged together as bonds that were bought and sold around the globe, with insurance taken out against these bonds—bonds which rating agencies gave perfect grades. The insurance was more lucrative than the rate of returns on the bonds themselves because it seemed so impossible that they would be worthless. Once individual mortgages within the bonds defaulted, the bonds themselves, due to the complex way they were constructed, began to lose value precipitously. Financial firms were exposed to great losses because they were over-leveraged due to regulatory changes, meaning that, for example, for every buck Bear Stearns had in its pocket, it owed $33 in debt. When the debt-collectors came calling—the other big financial firms—because they rightly feared their own mortality, Bear Stearns could not meet its debt obligations. And within several months, due to the highly interconnected world of finance, and despite rescue efforts by the US government, everything came crashing down.

Nothing in this account is untrue. But for Albo, Gindin, and Panitch, the order of causes, the time period in which the causes developed, and most importantly, the relationship between the players are flawed. For them, it is fallacious to construe the relationship between the state and the financial firms as one whereby the former protects the latter from their own avarice. Rather, the state and finance are interrelated pieces of a unitary system that is crisscrossed with contradictions but that ultimately uses each to the benefit of the expansion of global capitalism under the hegemonic aegis of the United States. Whereas some consider the state and its regulatory capacities to be akin to a traffic cop in the global financial architecture, a better analogy, in my view, would be to call the state the builder of the road on which the cop is perched, a road built in the most direct possible way between two ziggurats owned by hedge-fund managers. Oh yeah, the financing for the road’s construction? Provided by investors whose names appear in rolodexes on the top floors of those ziggurats. Workers? If they can avoid getting run over and catch a ride on that road, they’re lucky—and there’s no shortage of obstacles in the way, including all manner of security technologies and prisons to keep them from slowing down traffic. 
Back in the days just after the second world war, the state conceived its role as building a road that would enable workers to get to and from work, to the mutual benefit of labor and capital (of course there were huge gaps here for everyone who wasn’t a straight white male). The relationship between finance and the state was less chummy back then but it was still indispensable. What happened is that by the late 60s, just as women and nonwhites were achieving some measure of equality, the mutual benefit thing became a little too mutual in the eyes of capital, for a variety of reasons explained in this book. Two primary results were: first, repression of wages. Since the late 1960s, as you surely perceive, as the rich grew exponentially richer, wages have been essentially stagnant for the working class. The cost of living continually increases, but the size of your paycheck hasn’t kept pace. Second, as wages dropped and employment became more precarious (part-time, without benefits, non-union, etc.), capital had a problem generating demand for all the crap it was producing. A seemingly easy fix emerged (through a great deal of political struggle and legal reforms): give those who can’t afford to buy the crap ostensibly cheap and easy credit so they can afford it. The distance from here to derivatives, mortgage-backed securities, and credit-default swaps was not great. Albo, Gindin, and Panitch do not delve into great detail regarding the world-scale machinations that underwrote this system, with changes in interest rates, balance of payments, trade surpluses, etc., but they give you enough to make clear that these arcane processes, which occasionally leave the business pages and seem to enter everyday life, actually are deeply related to the tangible realities of our labor and our political landscape.

As this book is meant to be an introduction to the crisis, I cannot criticize it for oversimplifying, but I am uncomfortable with two aspects. First, there is too much focus on traditional, Rust Belt industry, like auto manufacturing. Given Albo’s former position in the Canadian Autoworkers’ Union, this emphasis is expected, but whereas the authors are actually quite admiring of the technological dynamism of capitalism (as was Marx), their focus on the auto industry, which in the US is so dreadfully stodgy, conservative, and cynical, gives them little space to analyze how this dynamism in other spheres of industry nevertheless relates to the overall crisis of capitalism. After all, less than 13% of the US populace is unionized today, and among those who are, government employment predominates. Books like Nice Work If You Can Get It by Andrew Ross focus on the ways technological dynamism is no solution to workers’ problems: similarly precarious labor conditions are shared by manual laborers and well-trained internet/information workers—some of whom are surely globe-trotting friends of yours.

Second, although the book is careful to mention that extending credit to the poor is not a new phenomenon and has always been conceived as a way to keep the poor in line, tacitly supporting capital’s needs as they struggle to make their monthly payments, a more acute analysis of the racialized and gendered dynamics of the lead-up to the crisis and its fallout is absolutely necessary if we are to organize against its recurrence. Nonetheless, this book is a start in diagnosing the problem, which to punx should be clear—capitalism!—and in explicating exactly what that vexed term has come to mean in our lifetimes.

What is to be done? This question is not so easily answered, but the book offers some guidance. One of the book’s answers, though still requiring more specifics, will be easily recognizable to readers of this magazine: do it ourselves, outside the logics of capital accumulation. True then, true now. Are we punx or mice?

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War and Civil Disobedience on PMR

disobedienceBy John Duerk
Political Media Review

November 4, 2010

For many, the work of academics like Howard Zinn is an invaluable resource because he manages to inform and inspire in a way that is accessible to anyone with a sympathetic ear. On this audio recording of a lecture from 2008, he explores the complex phenomena of war and how it relates to United States foreign policy. As one might expect, there are a handful of very important themes that he touches upon that do not receive adequate attention or analysis by everyday people or pundits in the mainstream media.

Referring to the conflict in Vietnam, Zinn explains how our political leaders often justify the necessity of fighting our adversaries. Using our fear as leverage, they convince us that if we do not take military action and maintain our resolve regardless of how bleak the situation might appear, then we risk a much worse outcome.

Next, Zinn points out that we should question the motivations of public officials and what they tell us is important to them. Not surprisingly, it is always possible that they will lie to the citizenry in pursuit of their agenda. He argues that this happens even in a democratic nation because political leaders do not want to lose their power and control.

Lastly, Zinn discusses the importance of understanding history. Why? Historical knowledge empowers people to recognize patterns of military aggression. Just consider the wars we have fought against other countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as our occupation of Cuba after the Spanish-American War – all of which he contends are evidence of a misdirected desire to expand. At different points in his lecture he also mentions both Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond all of these notable examples, he personalizes this matter by sharing his own experience as a bombardier in World War II and explains how technology separates a person from the indiscriminate killing that occurs.

While there is great value in Zinn’s lecture, it has some serious flaws. First, in his pursuit of breadth he sacrifices depth, in that, he mentions a number of countries we have fought, but does not talk about any of the wars in detail. Highlighting a pattern in US foreign policy to make one’s argument is important, but sometimes it is better to do more with less during a short talk like this and elaborate on a couple of specific cases.

A second flaw is Zinn’s discussion of civil disobedience. Yes, he mentions some historical examples of protest, but this is not enough if he truly wants to stop war altogether. Here there needs to be more discussion as to what has worked in the past so people walk away with concrete ideas about how they can organize and resist. Both of these issues aside, the major themes in this lecture are definitely worth thinking about because they represent an important contribution to the discourse on war that you are not likely to get from many other sources.

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Demanding the Impossible on Powell's Books Review-a-Day

demandingAnarchy through the Ages

by Chris Faatz
March 12, 2011

Anarchism is usually belittled as hopelessly utopian or mindlessly violent, but, in reality, it's neither. Rather, it's a rich cauldron of social thought from which we've gleaned a lot historically and will likely continue to do so in the decades to come. Peter Marshall has written a tome worthy of this varied history. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism gives activists and scholars (as well as the merely curious) plenty to chew on.

There's no way to escape the obvious: Demanding the Impossible is a huge book (818 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index); the text is tiny, and the gist is serious, hard-hitting, and often dense. But one of the enjoyments of this book is that you don't have to sit down and read the whole thing cover to cover. It's easier to browse; read what intrigues, what interests you, in no particular order. Pick away at it.

It begins with anarchism in theory, and moves rapidly into chapters that argue that such worldviews as Buddhism and Taoism have their anarchist components. Marshall follows this train of thought through Christianity into the English Revolution and the Enlightenment. He then highlights individuals who, he asserts, include aspects of anarchist thinking in their approach. Among these are Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, and Henry David Thoreau ("The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right"). The author then moves on to biographies of major anarchist thinkers and theorists: Emma Goldman, "the most dangerous woman"; William Godwin; Max Stirner, the apostle of radical egoism; Proudhon; the Russians Bakunin, Tolstoy, and Kropotkin and many more.

There are a number of lesser lights represented, as well, in chapters on the American individualist anarchist tradition, typified by Benjamin Tucker ("The Anarchists are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats"), or in the chapter on German anarchists. A favorite of mine is the immensely cultured and principled Rudolf Rocker, who spent a great part of his life organizing Yiddish-speaking workers in London and whose works on anarcho-syndicalism are read to great benefit to this day.

In one section, Marshall calls Mohandas Gandhi an anarchist. He writes that "On several occasions he called himself a kind of anarchist and always opposed the centralized State and the violence it engendered." Take this as you will. I'm still not convinced, yet somehow that doesn't seem to be the point. This book is written to stimulate and arouse discussion, not necessarily solely to convince. It fulfills that task brilliantly.

The next section of the book is geographical. The fields of bygone glory are here, as in Spain and Russia where the black banner flew high -- but there's also fascinating reading on Asia, Latin America, and Northern Europe. Much of this information will prove new to even the most seasoned anarcho reader. Marshall's done a real service here, unearthing material that is germane and does so in gritty detail.

The last section of the book deals with contemporary anarchism. Noam Chomsky makes an unsurprising appearance. The anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard and friends is included, as is Murray Bookchin, the founder of Social Ecology, the point at which anarchism and the environmental movement meet at their most constructive. Neolithic anarchy makes an appearance, as do the post-modern anarchos of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and other such radical breaks from anarchist tradition. The anti-globalization movement is here in all its splendor, as well as the Zapatistas and other indigenous movements for liberation.

Interestingly enough, it's with the Neolithic anarchists that Marshall apparently stands. He writes:

I would argue that in Europe, at least the initial stage of settled agriculture -- the first 3,000 years or so before the Bronze Age -- was not a decline but an actual improvement in the well-being of human beings. It was a creative period during which society was co-operative, egalitarian, creative and comparatively free.
Peter Marshall paints the reality of a global movement for radical, fundamental social change. It's not always a pretty picture -- sometimes anarchists seem to spend more time fighting among themselves then they do with their enemies -- but it's both exhilarating and, yes, inspiring. Thanks to Marshall for giving us a book as tool, as weapon, as spur to more deeply engage in the struggle for the maximum possible freedom and as reference to learn from the experiences of our forebears.

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Filmmaker David Sheen speaks at TEDxJohannesburg

In addition to authoring the scratch video The Red Pill (2003), David Sheen has been documenting, studying, designing, and building ecological housing since 2001. He apprenticed with Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley at the North American School of Natural Building, and at Michael Smith's Emerald Earth. He also learned biomimicry, the study of nature's design principles and its application to human habitats, with architect Eugene Tsui.

First Earth features curving art-poem dwellings in the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US; thousand-year-old apartment-and-ladder architecture of Taos Pueblo; centuries-old and contemporary cob homes in England; classic round thatched huts in West Africa; bamboo-and-cob structures now on the rise in Thailand; and soaring Moorish-style earthen skyscrapers in Yemen. Featuring appearances by renowned cultural observers and activists Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, Starhawk, Chellis Glendinning, and Mark Lakeman as well as  major natural building teachers Michael G. Smith, Becky Bee, Joseph Kennedy, Sunray Kelly, Janell Kapoor, Elke Cole, Ianto Evans, Bob Theis, and Stuart Cowan.


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The Nature of Human Brain Work on the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
By Bruce Robison
February 27, 2011

In September 1868 Joseph Dietzgen, a self-educated master tanner from the Rhineland, sent Karl Marx a manuscript on the 'faculty of thought' asking for advice on whether to publish it. The following year there appeared The Nature of Human Brain Work – A Renewed Critique of Pure and Practical Reason (NHBW), now made available again in the original 1906 English translation by Ernst Untermann with a biographical sketch by Larry Garbone.

Dietzgen, who had long considered himself a follower of Marx, had been inspired to write a work on the basis of human thought and knowledge by both his 'longing for a consistent and systematic conception of the world' and by the political belief that only the working class could potentially understand the world independently of narrow class interests.

Today Dietzgen is generally a forgotten figure in Marxism. Having been described as everything from a positivist and empiricist to a forerunner of Western Marxism, an inconsistent materialist and a necessary supplement to Marx, one might conclude that Dietzgen was a hopelessly inconsistent philosopher. In fact, reading Dietzgen as a whole, a coherent, if not always consistently expressed, set of ideas emerges. NHBW is their first formulation.

Dietzgen begins by discussing the nature of philosophy and contrasting it to science. Speculative philosophy develops reason out of thought itself without reference to the material, sensuously experienced world. As science has advanced, the realm of speculation has diminished and, if philosophy is to be the most general of sciences, it has to concern itself not with idle speculation but with 'explain[ing] the general nature of the thought process' (16). At the same time, Dietzgen rejects one contemporary alternative to idealism in Germany, the reductionist materialism of Büchner, Vogt and Moleschott. He acknowledges that`thinking is a function of the brain and nerve centre just as writing is a function of the hand. But the study of the anatomy of the hand can no more solve the question: What is writing? than the physiological study of the brain can bring us nearer to the solution of the question: What is thought?' (17)Thought has to be explained in terms of the faculties of mind rather than brain function (thus 'brain work' in the title might be better translated as 'mental labour').

Dietzgen bases his analysis on a monist ontology in which the world is one interconnected whole, which is merely the most abstract and general form of existence. All our thoughts only deal with parts of this whole and are defined in a particular context: 'Perfectly true, perfectly universal is only the general existence, the universe... But the real world is absolutely relative, absolutely perishable. All truths are simply parts of this world, partial truths.' (42)

There is nothing else, no unknowable 'thing in itself' hiding behind the manifestations of general existence which we experience through our senses. 'Phenomena appear, that is all.' (36) Knowledge is never complete, yet has no a priori limits.

From this, Dietzgen derives a dialectic in which 'opposites are mutually relative' (43), that is, interdependent and contextually fluid, and investigates pairs such as truth and error, matter and mind, cause and effect, part and whole and means and ends. However on occasion, Dietzgen blurs important distinctions by asserting the identity of two concepts when they have a more complex relationship.

Thought has then for its object, without which it could not exist, the sense impressions given to the mind by 'the passing and manifold manifestations of nature and life'. (43) However they do not simply define the content of thought – as claimed by those who accuse Dietzgen of having a 'reflection theory' of consciousness. Rather they are 'raw material for our brain activity'. (36) Thought has an active role in forming the material supplied to the senses into forms of thought. Specifically, thought abstracts from the infinite interconnections of its object and generalises from the immediate and individual perceptions of the senses ('the concrete') into categories it uses for the purpose of understanding ('the general').

Different abstractions and generalisations are possible from a particular set of sense impressions. Dietzgen does not directly address the issue of how then shared and scientific concepts arise but points to the role of scientific method in distinguishing truth from error and notes in passing that 'science is as much as social matter as material production' (5-6) and that the 'truth of theory is manifested in practice' (36,5).

For Dietzgen, sense impressions are not merely that which is physically tangible, audible etc. Imperceptible forces such as gravity, magnetism and electricity are just as material. But Dietzgen more controversially claims that 'the intangible idea is also material and real. I perceive my idea of a desk just as plainly as the desk itself...' If there are objections to the word 'material', he continues, we can call mind real, 'as real as the tangible table, the visible light, as the audible sound.' (18-19)

Thought can thus take itself as its own object and this creates the possibility of speculative philosophy that cuts itself off from sense impressions. This move led Lenin (1972) to accuse Dietzgen of making concessions to idealism but he is rather seeking to explain how idealism can come about. Seeing thought as real also provides an important corrective to the vulgar materialists and empiricists. ‘The idealist regards reason alone as the source of all understanding, while the materialist looks upon the world of sense impressions in the same way. Nothing is required for a solution of this contradiction but the comprehension of the relative interdependence of these two sources of understanding.’ (69)

The transformation of sense impressions into forms of thought enables Dietzgen to arrive at a unity in which thought is both active in ordering the world and creating our ideas while being based in a material reality. This would later lead to Dietzgen coining the term `dialectical materialism’ to describe his philosophy.

In the last two chapters of NHBW Dietzgen uses this worldview as a basis for critique in the fields of natural science and of ethics and morality. He criticises scientists who, once they stray outside their own field of science fall prey to all sorts of philosophical errors. He does this by examining dialectically the three relationships between matter and mind, cause and effect and force and matter.

Dietzgen then seeks to contextualise those ideas presented as eternal moral truths. He here uses a historical materialist method, tying morality to human needs expressed differently in different times and contexts and thus arrives at a class definition of morality : 'the Russian noble considers serfdom a rational institution and the English bourgeois the so-called liberty of his wage worker, both of these institutions are not absolutely rational, but only relatively in a more or less limited circle.' (84) The basis of a false eternal morality lies in taking these historic forms as absolute. Dietzgen similarly derives a dialectical understanding of ends and means, asserting here what Ollman (2003) attributes to Dietzgen as a philosophy of internal relations: 'Things are what they are only within and by their interrelations. Circumstances alter cases.' (97)

NHBW is the first work in what can be broadly called Marxist philosophy not written by Marx and Engels. Engels (1990) later famously cited it as showing Dietzgen to have discovered 'materialist dialectic... independently of us' (not wholly accurately – Dietzgen had been familiar with several of Marx's writings and had discerned a philosophical element in Capital). Marx (1988) noted the strong influence of Feuerbach, with whom Dietzgen corresponded, in NHBW, while Dietzgen had stated that he had not read Hegel, which Marx saw as a weakness among 'much that was excellent' in NHBW. His account of the processes of conceptualisation is, from this viewpoint, incomplete. While his starting point is similar to Hegel’s, his dialectic does not form a system and skips some dialectical categories of importance to Marx.
NHBW thus perhaps indicates the possibilities and limits of a Marxist philosophy based on Feuerbach
rather than Hegel.

Dietzgen's ideas are sometimes expressed in somewhat clunky prose and he sometimes repeats himself. However NHBW should be read, firstly for its significance as the thought of an early Marxist, the first to develop philosophical ideas and to reach an independent understanding that was both dialectical and materialist. But it is of more than purely historic interest. There are several ideas in NHBW that are important in their own right. Firstly, Dietzgen's dialectical monism enables him to develop a theory of knowledge which he uses to attack the idea that there are aspects of the world that are unknowable. He later used this to critique the emerging neo-Kantian school in Germany. Secondly, his insistence on the need for a theory of mind as well as of brain activity points towards the need for a critical psychology at a time when that discipline did not even exist. His statement of the materiality of thought underpins this and enables him to give a materialist explanation of speculative thought. Finally, Dietzgen's account of the processes of abstraction and generalisation in the formation of concepts remains of wide application.

It finds echoes 60 years later in Vygotsky’s (1986) account of conceptualisation and has been applied today in fields as different as Marxology (Ollman, 2003) and information systems (Robinson, 1997).

The republication of NHBW is welcome and will hopefully lead to a revival of interest in Dietzgen's writings, few of which are readily available today.


    •    Engels, F. 1990. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. In: Marx and Engels: Collected Works, Vol. 26. (London: Lawrence and Wishart)
    •    Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1988. Letters 1868-70. Marx and Engels: Collected Works, Vol. 43. (London: Lawrence and Wishart)
    •    Lenin, V.I. 1972. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, In: Collected Works, Vol. 14. (Moscow: Progress Publishers)
    •    Ollman, B. 2003. Dance of the Dialectic (Urbana: University of Illinois Press)
    •    Robinson, B. 1998. Dialectics and Modelling in Information Systems. Systemist, 20, 208-220.
    •    Vygotsky, L.S. 1986. Thought and Language (Cambridge: MIT Press)

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Don't Mourn, Balkanize! in the New York Journal of Books

New York Journal of Books
by Andrew Rosenbaum

When this writer worked in Kosovo, attempts to interview people from the small community of Serbs that remained there after the European Union took over the city almost invariably failed. The Serbs were afraid to talk. Even a well-known journalist just clammed up when asked about the future of the Serb community in an independent Kosovo.

So it is good, almost exactly three years after Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, to see this publication by a Serbian intellectual with very outspoken views on Serbia, Kosovo, and the Balkans in general. The book provides a vivid inside view of Balkan politics, and is clearly required reading for anyone interested in the region. The 35-year-old author, Andrej Grubačić, is a leftist social activist, and a founder of the World Social Forum, a kind of annual anti-globalization fest.

Mr. Grubačić is really interesting when he describes local politics, Belgrade intrigues, deals, corruption—all of the insider info that completes our understanding of Serbia and its neighbors. Mr. Grubačić is unbearably dull when he gets into macroeconomics, anti-globalization, and idealism. Whatever one’s position may be on issues like globalization, one has heard all that the author has to say on this subject before—been there, done that. . . .

Mr. Grubačić also proposes what he calls a “balkanization from below, a pluricultural concept in which, however, rejects that of the European Union.” In this idea, Balkan people need to “find the strength and orientation for a new politics for another Balkans. It should be a politics of a Balkan Federation. A participatory society, built from the bottom up, through struggles for the creation of an inclusive democratic awareness, participatory social experiments, and an emancipatory practice that would win the political imagination of all people in the region.”

If that kind of thing grabs your imagination, then you will find a wealth of it in this book. Perhaps the reader should consider, however, that until a few years ago, these people at the “bottom up” from which Grubačić’s new society would be built, had to be forcibly prevented from slaughtering each other.

NATO’s intervention in Kosovo—where it still maintains about 8,000 troops—is viewed by Mr. Grubačić as an aggression against Serbia (the incredibly silly preface to the book talks about “American colonialism,” apparently forgetting that Kosovo is administered by the European Union, although such commentators think the E.U. is just an extension of the U.S. . . .). In Kosovo alone, 6,000 ethnic Albanians were murdered by Serb forces. After the E.U. took over Kosovo, the Albanians “ethnically cleansed” about 1,000 Serbs. The Serbs also suffered in Croatia’s war of independence, in which vast numbers of Serbs were brutally executed. The atrocities of Serbs in the Bosnian war are well known.

This does not sound like the basis on which to form a new community based on social experiments in popular cooperation. The trendy citations included from the fascinating French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas are nice, but do nothing to advance Mr. Grubačić’s cause. Why drag him into this mess?

Fortunately, there is a lot more in the book than this idealistic blather. Where Mr. Grubačić is really good is when he is giving us the goods on the people and events that have shaped the Balkans.

The assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić is described as “a victim of his own alliances with organized crime.” When the vice president of the government declares, “Being a democracy, Serbia requires no opposition party,” Mr. Grubačić has a good laugh at him, and at the government’s shameful use of emergency powers. There is an extremely clear and detailed exposition of how former President Slobodan Milošević, who died in prison at the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia Hague while being tried for crimes against humanity, consolidated his power in the country.

Here is Mr. Grubačić at his best: “The Serbian pharmaceutical factory Jugoremedija, from the town of Zrenjanin, was privatized in 2000, in such a way that 58% of the shares were given to the workers, and the state took 42%. In 2002, the state sold its shares to Jovica Stefanovic, an infamous local capitalist, who made his fortune smuggling cigarettes, and who was wanted by Interpol at the time he bought the shares of Jugoremedija. As with all the other buyers in Serbian privatization, Stefanovic was not even investigated for money laundering, because the Serbian government’s position at that time was (and still is), that it’s better to have dirty money in privatization, than to let workers manage the company, because that would ‘bring us back to the dark days of self-management.’”

You can learn a lot about the Balkans from this book, so it’s worth the slog through the banal anti-Americanism and knee-jerk leftist politics to get at it.

Incidentally, the word “Balkan,” according to the OED, started out by referring to the mountain range of that name, and later to the region defined by that mountain range. Only later did it begin to refer to the countries in that region, i.e. the “Balkan States” (Fortnightly Review, 1891). It has never been used to define a people; there are “Albanians” and “Slovenes,” but there are no “Balkanites.” Since everything in the region seems to be pulling in the direction of ethnic self-determination, the proposal to create a kind of spiritual Balkan union seems to us, in all humility, to be pure fantasy. But readers can surmise what they will.

Reviewer Andrew Rosenbaum has been a journalist for twenty years at Euromoney, TIME, and MSN Money, covering politics, business, and finance. He currently resides in France.

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Robert King in London, October 2011

Robert Hillary King, aka Robert King Wilkerson, is part of a trio of American political prisoners collectively known as The Angola Three.

King’s membership in the only prison-recognized chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his work organizing against prison injustices, resulted in his being targeted for retaliation by prison officials. Despite overwhelming evidence exonerating him, prison-snitch testimony alone convicted him and he received a life sentence for the death of a fellow inmate. King’s tenacity in proving his innocence came to fruition when a Federal Appeals Court finally adjured him “probably innocent.” In February 2001, after thirty-one years of imprisonment and twenty-nine continuous years of solitary confinement, King walked out of the gates of Angola a free man.

Upon his release King was quoted as saying, “I may be free from Angola, but Angola will never be free of me!”

by Marion Brown, former Black Panther and prison activist

You can also check out Robert King's website at

UK Tour Dates

Tuesday 4th - 7 pm: Frontline Club
Robert King in conversation with Clive Stafford Smith

Wednesday 12th - 4 pm: John Moores University Liverpool
Screening followed by a discussion with Robert King

Thursday 13th - 6 pm: Grenadian Overseas Association
Screening followed by Q & A with Robert King

Friday 14th - 6 pm: International Slavery Museum
Screening followed by Q & A with Robert King & Vadim Jean

Monday 17th - 6 pm: King's College London
Screening followed by Q & A with Robert King and Vadim Jean

Tuesday 18th - 630 pm: Oxford University
Screening followed by Q & A with Robert King & Vadim Jean

Wednesday 19th - 6 30 pm: University of London Union
Screening followed by Q & A with Robert King & Vadim Jean

The Film

In the Land of the Free... is a documentary feature narrated by Samuel L Jackson that examines the story of 3 extraordinary men known as the "Angola 3" who were targeted by the prison authorities for being members of the Black Panther party because they fought against the terrible conditions that were rife in the prison.

The "Angola 3": Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, have spent almost a century between them in solitary confinement in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Herman and Albert are still held in solitary confinement today after thirty eight years. How could this be? In America... In Obama's America...

The Book

From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King
by Robert Hillary King
Published: October 2008
ISBN: 978-1-60486-039-9
Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 224
Dimensions: 6 by 9
Subjects: Biography, Politics, Prison Abolition


In 1970, a jury convicted Robert Hillary King of a crime he did not commit and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. He became a member of the Black Panther Party while in Angola State Penitentiary, successfully organizing prisoners to improve conditions. In return, prison authorities beat him, starved him, and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a six by nine foot cell for 29 years as one of the Angola 3. In 2001, the state grudgingly acknowledged his innocence and set him free. This is his story.

It begins at the beginning: born black, born poor, born in Louisiana in1942, King journeyed to Chicago as a hobo at the age of 15. He married and had a child, and briefly pursued a semi-pro boxing career to help provide for his family. Just a teenager when he entered the Louisiana penal system for the first time, King tells of his attempts to break out of this system, and his persistent pursuit of justice where there is none.

Yet this remains a story of inspiration and courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. The conditions in Angola almost defy description, yet King never gave up his humanity, or the work towards justice for all prisoners that he continues to do today. From the Bottom of the Heap, so simply and humbly told, strips bare the economic and social injustices inherent in our society, while continuing to be a powerful literary testimony to our own strength and capacity to overcome.

The Buzz:

"For a person to go through 29 years in one of the most brutal prisons in America and still maintain his sanity and humanity, that's what makes people want to listen to Robert."
—Malik Rahim, Co-Founder of Common Ground Collective

"Friendships are forged in strange places. My friendship with Robert King and the other two  Angola 3 men Herman Wallace and  Albert Woodfox is based on respect. These men, as Robert reveals in this stunning account of his life, have fought tirelessly to redress injustice, not only for themselves, but for others. This is a battle Robert is determined to win and we are  determined to help him."
—Gordon Roddick,  Co-founder of The Body Shop and activist

"When there is a train wreck, there is a public inquiry, to try to avoid it recurring. Robert King's conviction was a train wreck, and this book is perhaps the only way the world will get to understand why. There are more than 3,000 people serving life without the possibility of parole in Angola today, some as young as 14 when they were sent there, and many of them innocent but without the lawyer to prove it. We owe it to them, and others in a similar plight around the world, to read this book."
—Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve

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