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Interview with John Curl


John Curl, author of For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (PM Press, 2009) interviewed by Gabriel Kuhn. (September 2009)

Internationally, US society is often associated with rampant individualism. Your book portrays an impressive number of cooperative and communal projects throughout the country's history. Can you sum up the most important chapters of this legacy?

The collectivity of North American Indians remains our deepest legacy, followed by the cooperative settlements and structures of the early colonists, and of every wave of immigrants to America from around the world. Communalism played an important role in the movement for social equity that arose in response to the industrial revolution, and also in the Abolitionist movement that ended slavery. Worker cooperatives were a key element in early labor unions, and grew into a national movement in the later 19th century. Between 1865 and 1888, there were at least 529 worker cooperatives in the US, in almost every region coast to coast. The Knights of Labor, the greatest American worker organization of the time, organized a chain of approximately 200 worker cooperatives that they planned to form the structure of an alternative economic system they called the Cooperative Commonwealth, based on workplace democracy, where they would abolish what they called "wage slavery." The Knights at their peak approached a million members, making them the largest worker organization in the world. At the same time, small farmers were organizing an infrastructure of cooperatives through the Grange and later the Farmers Alliance. An historian called the Farmers Alliance cooperatives "the most ambitious counter-institutions ever undertaken by an American protest movement." The Farmers Alliance had over 5 million members, including one and a quarter million African Americans. The Knights and the Farmers Alliance worked together. Decades later in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Self-Help movement organized mutual aid and barter outside the failed financial system, involving over half a million people in different parts of the country. In the 1960s and '70s a new generation reinvented collectivity, communalism, and worker cooperatives and called them the counterculture, which was a spontaneous grassroots movement involving millions of people. The current revival forms the latest and hopefully the most important chapter.

How do these experiments relate to US individualism? Are we looking at two distinct historical trajectories here, or is there less of a contradiction than many might think?

When you join a cooperative or an intentional community you don't surrender your individuality. On the contrary, cooperatives by their democratic nature empower individuals and strengthen their ability to pursue individual creativity. American small farmers have always been highly individualistic, yet in many parts of the US typically also belong to several cooperatives. Worker cooperative members are their own boss, and the economic independence this brings is the staff of individualism. Cooperatives are based on people power, which empowers each member individually. As the old Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) anthem said, "the union makes us strong." Capitalist propaganda tries to link that economic system with the concepts of freedom, democracy, and individualism, but in truth capitalism is about funnelling wealth and power into the hands of a small elite, and disempowering everyone else. The official historians of capitalism glorify the entrepreneur-the businessman-and claim that the greatest community benefits derive from this. But the wage system is actually geared to making the community weak, and thereby less individualistic. The personification of the myth of the rugged American individual is the ruthless "robber baron" of the 19th century, who amasses his wealth from the blood of factory workers and later poses as a philanthropist dispensing gifts and largesse to charities and cultural institutions. In contrast, the historical trajectory of the American working people is paved with cooperation and collectivity, which for generations formed the material base for movements opposing the domination of capital and increasing freedom and democracy. It is through this activist opposition and their cooperative institutions that working peoples' individualism expressed itself.

How do you distinguish cooperation from communalism? From a radical perspective, is one more important than the other?

Cooperatives are integrally intertwined in their larger communities. Communalism is the form of cooperation that includes residence, and therefore often involves an element of separation. Cooperatives are everywhere in civil society, which has its base in free association. Cooperatives are democratic associations organized to manage particular jobs or functions. Their ubiquity gives cooperatives greater power than intentional communities in terms of their potential as levers for broad radical social change. It is primarily worker cooperatives and related social enterprises that are at the core of this radical potential. They challenge the wage system, since cooperative members own and manage their businesses. People are integral to the cooperative, and not just labor that can be replaced by a machine or a different employee.

Another factor is that cooperatives are easier to join than intentional communities, since to become a member a person does not have to change residence, habits or behavior  beyond the limited parameters of the cooperative. Mass society today is of course based on the single-family unit. If mass society were tribal, then intentional communities would be indistinguishable from the dominant social fabric. A cooperative on the other hand can be almost any association, business, organization providing goods or services, a music group, a neighborhood watch, a preschool play group, or any of millions of other possibilities. Many cooperatives have a low public profile, which can be seen as a weakness, but which also gives them power in that they are often flying entirely below the radar and wearing a cloak of invisibility.

Communalism and cooperation both offer microcosmic utopian visions that demonstrate the viability of the concepts. They embody critiques of society. Yet as a strategy of social transformation, communalism has demonstrated more fatal flaws than cooperatives. Back in the 1820s, 1840s, and 1960s, communal movements tried to transform society by attempting to organize networks of intentional cooperative communities. The idea that mass society could be transformed by everybody dropping out of it and into the new world quickly revealed its limitations. Only a comparatively small number ever joined an intentional community, while in some periods almost the entire population of a region belonged to cooperatives.

Have the cooperative and communal traditions in the US ever posed a serious threat to the dominant political order and to capitalism? Were they met with strong political repression?

That happened several times.

The first time was in the late 19th century, and it changed the course of American history. The counter-institutions of the Knights of Labor and Farmers Alliance, which I already mentioned, were destroyed by the reaction of the old system. The Knights cooperatives were put out of business during the nationwide crackdown in the wake of the organization's involvement in the May Day national strike for the 8-hour day in 1886 that ended in the Haymarket police riot. The destruction of the Knights and their cooperatives marked the triumph of industrial capitalism in the US. As an historian wrote, "American industrial relations and labor politics are exceptional because in 1886 and 1887 employers won the class struggle." The Farmers Alliance cooperatives were destroyed economically a few years later by a combination of bankers and financiers, and that pushed the FA into organizing the Populist Party, which staged the most serious assault on the two-party electoral system in American history. The Populist Party was violently attacked by racists and vigilantes in many parts of the South.

In the early 20th century the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) took up the cause to create a new cooperative economic system, but instead of organizing worker cooperatives like the fallen Knights, they planned to take over the existing industries through industrial unionism. The IWW was destroyed by police repression focused around their opposition to World War I.

The Self-Help Movement of the 1930s was destroyed by the government but not by government repression. It was undercut by New Deal work programs like the WPA, which offered a cash income to almost anybody at a time when the money system was stopped, while the co-ops offered only barter. The Roosevelt administration starved the Self-Help co-ops to death by refusing to qualify work in them as WPA work, and refusing any financial help to co-ops which sold the products they produced rather than barter them or make them for self use. The New Deal helped numerous rural cooperatives of different types, but few urban co-ops, and drew the line at worker cooperatives, which threatened the wage system.

The Peoples Food Systems of San Francisco and Minneapolis of the 1970s were victims of the last chapter of government repression-or I should say probably victims, because government guilt has never been definitively proven. In those cities and in others around the country, food-related cooperatives and collectives came together to try to set up an alternative system. The Food Systems could be seen as the culmination of the spontaneous movement known as the '60s counterculture. As they became larger and more successful, they met the fate of many progressive groups in that period: they were disrupted and destabilized by individuals and small groups within their system. Although it has never been proven that the Food Systems were victims of government agents such as the Nixon administration's Cointelpro which destroyed numerous progressive groups, many participants, particularly in San Francisco, were convinced that was the case.

What is the situation today? Your book mentions how many cooperatives have entered the mainstream. Do radical cooperative and communal potentials remain?

The world is entering into a visionary period. People all over the planet are creatively reinvisioning the world economic system. The potential of radical cooperative and communal movements is greater now than at any time in history. Because the world economic system needs cooperatives to fill in the gaps, the movement is starting to become mainstream in some places; but that also embodies a new threat to the movement's integrity and ability to fulfil its mission. Economic collapse, climate change, and population explosion have jolted many people into the realization that the current economic system is not geared to handle the upcoming crises of the 21st century. Unless we change, by all predictions the near future will include vast unemployment and marginalization, huge population movements, and devastation of numerous local economies. Unless we reinvent the world system, we will suffer catastrophes of a global magnitude. That has already been recognized by the United Nations, which in 2002 called on governments to form an alliance with the cooperative movement to grow the worker cooperative sector in every country to a magnitude where it can become a key mechanism in solving the worldwide problems of unemployment and poverty. The cooperative movement (which includes communalism) needs to cautiously welcome that alliance with government. Welcome because government is a counterweight to the private and corporate sector's ability to generate resources, which the movement sorely needs. Most of the world's wealth and resources, which embody the ability to shape the world, have been privatized. The movement needs to accept access to resources from government cautiously, without being dominated by it. The movement must retain its independence to really affect social change, because government will not do it. Government support involves paternalism, and paternalism strangles and destroys mutual aid. The movement must deal with governments from a position of strength. Fortunately there is another counterbalance in civil society: nonprofits, NGOs, community groups, spiritually-based organizations, and similar institutions. There already is a growing alliance between the cooperative movement and many of these organizations, and they are increasingly including support of social enterprises in their missions.  The International Labour Organization (ILO), representing the labor movements of the world, has joined the coalition. While much of the labor movement in the last century was hostile to worker cooperatives because they blur the line between employer and employee, now the ILO is promoting worker cooperatives, because labor unions as we have known them have been marginalized. The overarching goal of the labor movement has always been to improve the lives of the community of working people, but that has been limited by a narrow focus on increasing their members' salaries and benefits. By supporting worker cooperatives and other social enterprises, labor unions are returning to their original mission of struggling for broad social equity. As unions increasingly support the larger working population, the community should in turn increasingly support labor struggles, as they did in the 1930s. Worker cooperatives are strong in small industries and businesses, but organizing larger firms is out of reach of the meagre resources that the movement can gather, so the union movement is integral to the larger struggle for workplace democracy.

What is the future role of cooperative and communal projects in radical politics? What are the prospects?

Radical politics is not defined by elections or demonstrations. It involves innumerable everyday interactions. Governments and elections make up only a small fraction of politics, which are part of all human group activities. Politics are the processes by which groups make decisions. The dominant political form of today's society is hierarchy: authoritarian command structures of power elites. Cooperation, collectivity, and communalism in contrast are based on free association of equals in unhierarchical democratic structures. They embody the opposition to the dominant paradigm, and mirror the ends they're working toward. The internal structures and methods of all truly radical organizations need to reflect their ends if they ever really want to reach them. The idea that radical organizations must take on hierarchical structures in order to effectively oppose the hierarchy of society, is a sham and a delusion. Any apparent success of such an organization is hollow and sets the real movement back. The counter-institutions built through radical politics always have to reflect the goals of social justice and equity. Cooperatives, collectives, and intentional communities do this by extending democracy to the economic sphere. They are a conscience to radical politics, and help to keep it focused on its long-term mission instead of getting sidetracked by short-term apparent gains. Radical groups organized according to the structures of collective democracy are cooperatives themselves. Radical politics by its very nature is a cooperative project.

Buy For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 2nd Edition | Download For All the People eBook now | Back to John Curl's Page


Peter Kuper's Diario de Oaxaca

By Peggy Roalf
DART: Design Arts Online

When Peter Kuper, the cartoonist widely known for his Spy Vs. Spy strip in MAD magazine, told me that he was moving his family to Oaxaca City, Mexico three years ago, I asked if he would be interested in posting stories for DART. Without hesitation, he agreed, and his first article appeared on November 10, 2006. The last story, Oaxaca Journal V. 14, was published in June 2008.


Cover and inside pages from Peter Kuper’s Diario de Oaxaca.

Next week, Peter will celebrate the publication of Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico. Here’s a report on the chat we had by email this week about his experience.

Peggy Roalf: Why did you move to Mexico?

Peter Kuper: The main reason was for our daughter, Emily. We wanted her to get a second language and be in a place with fewer iPods and cell phones. She was nine when we made the move in 2006, a time when her young mind was able to easily pick up a new language. My parents had done something similar when I was ten and we lived in Israel for a year. It had a huge impact on my world view. Being a stranger in a strange land (I got beat up a lot) and having to decipher the complex symbols of a new language, helped me grow up to be a freelance cartoonist!

PR: As a political junkie, your timing couldn’t have been better, or worse as it happened - all of which is covered in Diario De Oaxaca. After the teachers’ strike and subsequent violence ebbed, did you have to decompress before getting into the natural features and the archeological and historic wonders of Mexico - and something like a daily routine?

PK: Of course we had no idea we’d be stumbling into an exploding political situation when we picked Oaxaca. To recap: a few weeks before we arrived, Oaxaca’s new governor attacked a small teachers’ strike causing a coalition of  other unions to join them in solidarity. It expanded into an international event when an American journalist was killed and federal troops were brought in by the thousands. I thought our time in Mexico would be a break from the barrage of depressing news we’d been getting since George W. Bush took office. Yet after months of living in Oaxaca, in the center of a political maelstrom, I was reminded of how important news events are to inspiring my art. In the aftermath I was in fact less motivated to draw. After sketching soldiers and tanks juxtaposed in front of ancient architecture, normal life seemed visually trivial by comparison. I eventually rediscovered the million details of daily life well worth drawing, but it took me months after the strike ended to appreciate this and get rolling.

PR: Diario includes a couple of wordless strips, including one about going for a walk that is almost a mini-epic. Is this something new for you? And are you planning anything as a stand alone publication along this vein?

PK: Wordless comics are an area of great interest to me since they transcend language barriers and are the roots of the form. Cave paintings, the Mayan codices and Egyptian hieroglyphics are a few examples of human’s earliest visual storytelling. I’ve done a couple of long form wordless graphic novels (The System and Sticks and Stones), and there are many examples of longer works by other artists in this form like Lynd Ward, Franz Masereel and Eric Drooker. The last issue of World War 3 lllustrated (which I co-edited) is all wordless comics; this was a result of my time in Mexico, and wanting to produce an issue that could be read everywhere, without translation. In fact I’m not even writing this answer–it is a wordless mind transmission.

PR: Would you consider doing a graphic novel about how the people of Teotihuacan vanished, which you mention in Diario?

PK: I’m developing a new fictional graphic novel based on my experiences in Mexico and I’m weaving history into the story so I can go beyond constraints of reality. But I’d consider do any number of things that would allow me to sit at my drawing table in New York and mentally travel in Mexico!

PR: You speak of the Mexican world of simultaneity on page 180, in which people celebrate their ancient heritage as they go about their daily routine. Have you brought any of that lifestyle back home?

PK: I’ve tried to bring aspects of that into my drawings. I’m trying to keep up with my daily sketchbook drawing as I did in Mexico, only here in New York, I’m mixing subway riders with floating skyscrapers, poor people on cell phones next to rich people on Blackberries. Still, somehow it doesn’t feel the same; we’re missing the truly ancient.

PR: After living there for so long, was drifting into the tourist mode hard to do?

PK: Not really. I still feel like a tourist here in New York after 32 years. What was difficult was going from feeling like part of the town during the strike, (since so few foreigners stuck around during the troubles) to feeling like another gringo when the strike ended and the town was flooded with tourists again.

PR: The drawings toward the end of the book are more highly finished than your early sketches. Did you create these after returning to New York? Or did your sketchbook style evolve through daily practice?

PK: It was an evolution. I did everything but the last few pages of the book while I was in Mexico and as often as possible drew on the spot. By drawing in my sketchbook so much I learned how to turn “mistakes” into part of the page. Some of the pages took weeks to complete since I’d hop to a new page, then return to the older drawings, and continue building them over time. I tried to avoid the tendency to get precious with any single page, but occasionally I’d have to set my coffee cup on the art and let it leave a stain - as a reminder that this was still a sketchbook.

PR: Please tell DART readers about the hearts on the end pages, which are also scattered throughout the book.

PK: The owner of the house we rented collected painted tin hearts, created by artisans for various holidays. They were stuck in nooks around the house so they became one more thing for me to draw. When I looked at my sketches later the hearts seemed emblematic of Mexico - hand-made, colorful, sometimes garish, religious overtones bent to form something personal that felt ancient, symbolic and beautiful - so I used them as endpapers in my book.

PR: Like a Mexican version of mezuzahs?

PK: They are called “Milagros,” which translates into charms; some of them reference Jesus by surrounding the heart with a crown of thorns and He was jewish so….

PR: What are your plans for this year’s Day of the Dead, a festival that features so vividly in the book?

PK: Since both my parents died during the last year, I will have a full schedule of celebrating their lives and welcoming their spirits back for a visit over a mezcal, which is an extremely potent liquor made from the agave cactus.

PR: How would you characterize the effects of spending two years away from your New York life?

PK: It’s hard for me to determine given how many other forces have been at work since our return. The economic crash, my parents dying, the changing political climate and my own artistic metamorphosis, which is still taking place, has made it difficult to separate the impact of our time in Mexico from the seismic world shift that everyone is experiencing. It has been over a year since we returned and I am only just feeling my feet settling back on the city pavement.

PR: What advice would you give to others who want to re-root for an extended period of time?

PK: Get as much language under your belt as possible to help you get your footing. Through the internet find out as much as you can about the place and make connections with locals and other travelers before you go. Also, bring plenty of quality sketchbooks!

PR: I didn’t see a book design credit - did I overlook something?

PK: I did the design, with a bit of help on typography from a Mexican designer. The Mexican publisher let me have all the bells and whistles I wanted and I ran with it. The U.S. publisher came on the scene later. They were both so hands off  that I ended up dealing with every aspect of the book from finding the printer to negotiating the shipping!

PR: Well congratulations again, Peter, and I’d like to tell DART readers what a remarkable book this is - certainly one that I’ll treasure.

Editor’s note: Peter Kuper will be doing a series of events around Diario de Oaxaca including an exhibition of original art that will open at MOCCA (The Musum of Comic and Cartoon Art) next Thursday, September 17th at 7:00 pm, with a talk and book signing. For complete details, click here.

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Prison Comix

By Jim Ridgeway
Unsilent Generation

With more and more older people going to prison there is a growing demand for educational materials to keep their minds alive and well amid the deadening atmosphere of the American correctional system—created in large part by government and supervised and informed by the judiciary. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of young and middle-aged people whose “rehabilitation” has been cut short by the cruel sentencing laws. There are all sorts of projects afoot in this area, but one is of special interest. It is called the Real Cost of Prisons, and is run by Lois Ahrens of Northampton, Mass., on a shoestring. You can get a feel for her work by obtaining the Real Cost of Prisons Comix book which includes three comics: Prison Town about the financing and placement of prisons and their effect on rural communities; Prisoners of the war on Drugs, a history of the war on drugs; and Prisoners of a hard Life,which includes stories of women trapped by mandatory sentencing. To me, this last book is the most telling. PM Press publishes the book at $12.95 a copy.

Ahrens got the idea of doing comic books,partly because she wanted to find a way of communicating with prisoners in a simple,direct way providing them especially up to date information and new research. She hit on the idea,in part from years of going to Mexico, and watching women engrossed in photo novellas while tending market stalls or sitting on park benches. Then trade unionists from South Africa gave her publications chock full of graphics, pictures and text that they were using to educate people in their campaign to stop privatization and in the fight against globalization. She also got ideas from “A Field Guide to the US Economy” by James Heintz and Nancy Foibre which also uses graphs, cartoons and ordinary language to explain the economy.

Because prisoners can’t ordinarily take advantage of the information that currently proliferates on the internet, comic books which speak to their lives and needs, are available and free, she says.

Comic books have been received by prisoners in every state prison system,every federal prison and numerous jails. Thousands more have been sent to prisoners through 13 Books through Bars organizations. We know that comic books are passed hand to hand by prisoners,since as soon as a set is sent to one prisoner,not a week passes before we begin receiving requests from other prisoners at that prison..One prisoner wrotethat he found one on a pew in the prison

Ahrens web site is an up to date resource on prison news.

Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Author Page

CliffsNotes to the food revolution

The co-founder of Bitch magazine talks about living the Michael Pollan way and the gender politics of the kitchen
By Jaclyn Friedman

Aug. 31, 2009 | Mention the name Lisa Jervis in certain feminist circles, and you'll be met with the kind of breathlessness and swooning more often lavished on the Jonas Brothers. Jervis is the co-founder and former editor of Bitch magazine, for many the defining publication of a new generation of feminist critique.

Since leaving Bitch in March 2006, Jervis has stayed largely out of the public eye. But now she's returned to publishing with a different and somewhat unexpected project -- a cookbook.

"Cook Food" is what you would get if you combined CliffsNotes of Michael Pollan's foodie insta-classic "The Omnivore's Dilemma" with the vegan parts of Mark Bittman's "The Minimalist" cooking column in the New York Times, added a healthy pour of DIY attitude and ran it all through a blender. The book's subtitle calls it a "manualfesto," and that's just about right -- it's a nitty-gritty how-to with a political agenda: to give those of us with good intentions but limited budgets, skills, confidence or time a chance to participate in the burgeoning local food revolution.

Jervis' approach to what she calls "healthy, light-footprint eating" is refreshingly non-doctrinaire. She confesses her own food sins up front ("I indulge my junk food cravings when I really want to, and I end up eating cheese of unknown provenance much more often than I'd like to admit") and takes an informal, let's-just-do-our-best tone throughout. She's still a food geek -- from her detailed shop talk about kitchen equipment to her "novellini on the art of roasting vegetables," you can tell she's clocked plenty of hours thinking about, cooking and eating food -- and loving every minute of it. But she doesn't expect you to share her obsession. She just wants you to put aside your resistance long enough to share her technique for sautéeing dried herbs in oil, and her recipes for "chili-style beans 'n' greens" and "spicy brownies."

So how does a gal go from feminist icon to food writer? I caught up with her (disclosure: I've worked with Jervis on several projects) recently to ask -- appropriately enough, right around dinnertime, when she was snacking on almonds and preparing a hasty, nonfoodie meal: whole wheat pasta with sauce from a jar.

 So how does a feminist pop culture critic become a locavore cookbook writer?

 First, she likes to eat a lot. And likes to cook.

I've always been extremely skeptical of mainstream messages about what's healthy and acceptable and also very skeptical about the profit messages behind those messages. I mean, the diet industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry that tells people that having a larger body makes them automatically unhealthy, that they have the capacity to change their large body through different food choices and that if they just follow the "right" plan, they will be successful in that. And all of those things are basically lies, and all of them are things that ultimately result in profit for pharmaceutical companies and diet food companies.

The sensibility I bring to food and cooking and thinking about what's healthy is very feminist, in that it's all about: How does this make my body feel? I really don't care about how it makes my body look. I'm interested in giving people the tools they need to eat what makes their bodies feel good and function better.

How is "Cook Food" different from all the other locavore/food ethics books out there right now?

 I think the main thing is that it actually has instructions. You can't read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and then go cook dinner unless you already know how to cook dinner. It's really hard to make better choices if you don't have basic cooking skills.

It seems like the stereotype of the person who cares about these issues is a white, upper-middle-class liberal NPR listener with two small children who eat nothing but organic. Why does the pro-food movement come off as precious and smug so much of the time?

 Farmers' markets do tend to spring up in places where middle-class and upper-middle-class people live. There's some truth to that. Organic food is obviously just more expensive than conventionally grown food.

As far as smug goes, one element of the current pro-food culture is that there's this focus on fancy ingredients and celebrity chefs and complicated preparations, and it makes people feel like cooking is this really specialized skill set. So I think people are intimidated by the idea that, if I'm going to cook, it has to be something special, and I have to have an excellent palate to see what's good. And you know what? You've been eating all your life. You know what's going to taste good to you. That is good food. It doesn't have to be what Alice Waters thinks is good food. What I really set out to do is to show people that it's in fact incredibly easy to put together a simple meal with fresh ingredients.

But it's not always that easy. Tonight I had to choose between going to the gym and cooking myself a healthy meal, even with all your handy easy recipes. Should I have planned better? What is going on there?

What's going on there is that you're a busy person, and a lot of people are busy, and we do have to make choices. I told you what I'm going to make for dinner, and that's because I had long day at work, and then I had a meeting, and now I'm having another meeting. We can't do everything every single day. And I'm all about accepting that, and being like, OK, this is how it is today, but tomorrow I can make beans and greens and have it for the rest of the week. Lightening your footprint and feeding yourself more healthy, whole foods is something that you have the opportunity to do three times a day, every day. That doesn't mean that you've failed if you aren't able to take that opportunity three times a day, every day.

For me, the concept of harm reduction is key. There's no way to feed, house or clothe yourself without doing some level of damage to the environment or other beings -- but reducing that harm in whatever way you can is still meaningful. I'm a fan of "aspiring," as in "aspiring locavore" or "aspiring vegan."

When Michael Pollan recently called for Americans to get back into the kitchen, a lot of feminists pointed out that, given the division of labor in American households, that would likely mean women getting back into the kitchen. Are you at all worried about the gendered implications of your work?

I love Michael Pollan, but the way that he talked about American feminists' attitude toward cooking was incredibly reductive and, frankly, pretty ahistorical. Articles like Pollan's (and anything that makes people feel like they are failing their obligations to themselves and their families by not cooking) produce a lot of guilt, and that guilt is gendered. That is a problem.

But I don't think the solution to that is to stop trying to get people to cook. The solution is to make sure that the household work is distributed more equitably. And I say that with full understanding of how little things have changed since the '70s, in terms of getting men to fucking do their share around the house. And I also think that it's no accident that the kind of rarefied, chef-dominated cooking discourse that I was talking about earlier, that often makes people feel like they can't cook rather than helping them feel that they can, is very male-dominated. Whereas the quotidian meal prep in this country is still mostly female-dominated. The feminist movement has generated a lot of good analysis around that. However, we have not moved the needle very much. I don't have an answer for that.

I also have a lot of frustrations with the way Pollan talks about "obesity." He talks about how obesity rates rise as rates of cooking fall. And I'm sure that's true, but it doesn't actually matter. Because obesity is not a good measure of health.

What really saddens me about the state of the pro-food discourse about obesity right now is that when Monsanto says genetically modified soybeans are not an environmental problem or a health problem, the pro-food movement is extremely skeptical, and they call that out as total bullshit. Whereas when the medical industry says "fat kills," they're not like: Actually, no, diabetes may kill, but the cause and effect relationship between the two is not as uncomplicated as you'd have us believe.

Speaking of Monsanto, doesn't all of the talk about individual meal choices distract us from focusing on the big-picture problems with our food supply, at the industry and policy level?

 I see this cookbook as an organizing tool. People get very overwhelmed when they start talking about food politics and they feel like, well, I don't know what to do about this. It goes back to -- this is something that people do three times a day every single day. That adds up to a lot of actions. I am no fan of market solutions as a rule, but we're still living under capitalism. There has to be a market component to any support for local farmers. So encouraging people, and giving them the concrete tools they need in order to purchase fresh food locally and use it well -- that adds up to a lot as far as concrete support for local food economies. Ditto giving people the tools they need if they want to cook animal-free meals. Movements are made up of individual actions.

Let's talk about the kinds of people who may be resistant to your message. What would you say to someone who hates to cook?

I would want to know what they don't like about it. Do they feel like they're going to produce something that's not good? Are they nervous about the result? Does their hand cramp when they hold the knife? Are they afraid they're going to cut themselves? Are they too tired at the end of the day? Maybe it's lonely in the kitchen. There are solutions to a lot of those problems.

What about someone who doesn't live near a grocery store?

That is a really tough one. I was in Detroit recently, and there are no big grocery stores in the entire city of Detroit. But there are also 600 community gardens in Detroit right now. That's one solution -- start a garden. Another one is: Get to know your neighbors, find out who has a car, try to figure out ways to band together with other people to source some better food for your neighborhood. These answers are not going to be realistic for everybody. But as awareness is raised about these issues, there are more and more places to turn to get help with this stuff. I'd recommend and to start.

And someone with a severely limited food budget?

A lot of farmers' markets take food stamps -- that's really important to know. Also, dried beans are your friend. They're incredibly cheap, and they're actually better for you than canned. If you can go to a market where stuff is available in bulk, you'll pay a lot less. Again, team up with your friends. Have a potluck cooking fest where everyone just brings one ingredient. You get together and you can make a really hearty meal and you may even have leftovers.

People do talk a lot about how expensive fresh food is, but packaged food is really expensive, too. A box of cereal is like five or six dollars, and that's crazy when you think about what you're paying for. You could get several times more breakfast for that money with just a bag of rolled oats, some nuts and some dried fruit.

Where did you learn how to cook?

I spent a lot of time as a kid and even as a teenager hanging out in the kitchen with my mom, watching her cook, talking to her about it, learning stuff about how food works. (And I have to point out here that my father always cleaned up after dinner, because my mother always says when you talk about it like that, you make it sound like we had this totally gender-normative household. And we didn't. My father is an ace kitchen cleaner.) And my mom's pretty improvisational, too; she'll turn leftovers into several different meals just by adding things. So I really learned to trust my instincts in that way. From so much observation and helping.

But a lot of it was also trial and error. I did not emerge from my parents' household knowing how to cook. I spent a lot of time making bad stir-frys in my early 20s.

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For All The People Reviewed in The Berkeley Daily Planet

By Richard Brenneman
The Berkeley Daily Planet
Thursday August 27, 2009

Though his hair has turned white, John Curl’s passion burns undiminished by the passage of nearly seven decades.

“We can’t create a utopia,” he says. “But we can restructure the world so that competition and repression aren’t the bases on which we build our society.”

While he’s well-known as a master woodworker, Curl’s also a wordsmith, and in his latest book, For All the People, he offers his vision of the tools for building a better world.

The answers are spelled out in the subtitle: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America.

Just published by Oakland’s PM Press, his work has been hailed in a jacket note by noted alternative historian Howard Zinn, who writes, “It is indeed inspiring, in the face of all the misguided praise of ‘the market,’ to be reminded by John Curl’s new book of the noble history of cooperative work in the United States.”

Curl, a 30-year member of Heartwood Cooperative Workshop—located in West Berkeley’s landmark Sawtooth Building—has devoted his life to exploring the world outside the boss–employee paradigm.

And in that world, he says, lies hope for a world now ravaged by economic crisis, exploding population and the perils of global warming.

“In the globalized corporate world, either you’re an employee or you’re marginalized, a ‘useless person,’ ” he said, and one of the consequences is perennial unemployment. “Capitalism can’t live without unemployment,” he said. “It needs enough to get people to compete ferociously for shitty jobs, but not so much that it provokes a dangerous response.”

The vision that he wasn’t cut out for the role of the salaried worker came early, during his youth in New York in the 1950s and ’60s.

“When I was young, people had started getting together to form group houses,” he said. “That’s when I first learned about cooperatives, about young people getting together. It’s a natural function of human beings, but our society leaves that just for people’s personal lives and organizes the economy around a command structure.”

For most of his life—except for brief spells as a public-sector worker and as a fledging worker in a New Mexico sweatshop—Curl has worked in the cooperative sector.

He was also a member of what was perhaps the first widely publicized commune of the 1960s, Drop City, an artists’ commune near Trinidad, Colorado.

“In 1966 I headed west. I realized there was no life for me in New York that I wanted to be part of, and I was looking for a home, for a place where there was more community. I really wanted community,” he recalled. “I had heard about this commune in Colorado, and about the communal homes in San Francisco.”

After a stop in Drop City, he headed for the City by the Bay, spending the summer in San Francisco before heading back to Colorado.

While he still treasures his time in Colorado, “the main thing I got out of Drop City was that, in working with other people in an intentional community, people don’t leave their baggage at the door.”

Though the commune ultimately suffered the schisms that wracked most of the 1,500 or more communes that started in the ’60s and early ’70s, he learned that “the intentionality of trying to create a social structure was wonderful. The one rule we had was that nobody was boss.” Evolving simultaneously with the communal movement were the first of the latter-day cooperatives.

“The first ones I heard about were co-ops for books, and then food stores. By the time I got to the Bay Area in 1971, there were quite a few worker co-op groups.”

Curl’s knowledge of woodworking drew him to one of Berkeley’s more eclectic cooperatives, the Bay Warehouse Collective, a large building on the north side of Gilman Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.

John became a member of Bay Woodshop, while other participants created a print shop, an auto shop, a photo studio, a pottery studio and a theatrical troupe. “All the money went into a central kitty, and salaries were paid out of that. Unfortunately, we didn’t make very much money,” he said.

Unable to meet the costs, the groups split up, and the warehouse closed in 1974. But the woodshop group remained intact, forming Heartwood, and the printers formed another lasting Berkeley institution, Inkworks. The car mechanics moved to Oakland.

“Quite a few of us are still around,” Curl said.

His book traces the history of the cooperative and communal movements in America, a social current that reaches back to the nation’s original inhabitants, and that accompanied the Pilgrims in the earliest years. Berkeley readers will find detailed histories of the much beloved and long lost Berkeley Co-op, of Pipe City in Oakland, and a surprising number of other ventures now mostly forgotten.

Curl sees co-ops and communes as counterinstitutions to the corporations empowered by the Industrial Revolution.

“The promise of machines and technology was the ability to create a good life for everyone. But the combination of technology and capitalism created something very different, where all the wealth created by industry is funneled into the hands of a very small elite.”

Curl said the first cooperatives were part of a wave of social movements that emerged in the nation’s earliest years, with journeymen workers who were also visionaries calling for different ways to organize communities and the workplace.

His book traces the colorful and fascinating history of American counterinstitutions, including phenomena such as Abolitionist communes, union cooperatives, and the brief period during the New Deal when the government aided the desperately unemployed who were in search of new ways to bring sustenance to their families.

Does the current economic crisis also pose a new opportunity for cooperation?

“It’s the only way to create more options for living at a time when people are unemployed and helpless or working at jobs they detest,” he said.

The same vision that inspired Curl’s exploration of the world of the cooperative and the communal is now driving his fight to preserve the West Berkeley Plan.

“Property owners have been keeping the land off the market to provoke a zoning crisis,” he said.

“During the 1980s, when we wrote the West Berkeley Plan, we had an excellent local government led by a populist mayor, Loni Hancock. The city staff had been given the direction, ‘Let’s see if a community can plan itself.’ ”

Now, he said, under Hancock’s spouse, Mayor Tom Bates, city government has sided with developers to break the consensus so carefully constructed two decades before.

One of the central concerns of the earlier plan “had been the recognition that there were very vulnerable parts of the community, with the arts and crafts especially vulnerable. But the profit motive is the only force for economic development that excludes the community. Viewed through the profit motive, you’re not an individual; you’re labor.”

As a leader of WEBAIC—West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies— Curl has been fighting to preserve the sense of community protected in the existing plan. And if history is any judge, the development community has roused a formidable foe.

Buy For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 2nd Edition | Download For All the People eBook now | Back to John Curl's Page

Real Cost of Prisons in Colorlines Magazine

Vivid comics show the impacts of mass incarceration on communities of color
By Jenna M. Lloyd

Locking 2.3 million people behind bars is a vast social project. It takes work to hide the equivalent of a large US city in plain sight. The explanations served up on the nightly news and by tough-on-crime politicians graphically focus on violent crime, despite its decline. More prisons, they say, will create safe and drug free communities.  The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press), winner of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s PASS Award, asks whether the billions of dollars invested annually in mass incarceration delivers on these promises.  Hidden behind these fear-provoking images, the book documents the steep human costs exacted on individual health and freedom, family unity, and community well being. What else could be done with the social wealth and creativity now trapped into cycles of cage-building and neighborhood abandonment?  Through powerful graphics and a wealth of grim statistics The Real Cost of Prisons Comix depicts how the past 30 years of unprecedented prison growth have reshaped the landscape of our urban and rural communities. By showing the concrete work that goes into building and maintaining the prison-industrial complex—from the peddlers of fear to the parole officer—the book serves as a smart, accessible primer on the politics and economics driving prison expansion. Prisons are filled with people who have dreams, raise children, and belong to communities most will rejoin.  

shows visceral narratives of their lives and the collision of racism, poverty, sexism to trace the systematic ways in which mass incarceration builds on and exacerbates these powerful inequities. Most importantly, it suggests concrete alternatives that can help rebuild safe, healthy communities.  Shrinking the system becomes as important a harm reduction strategy as needle exchange and drug treatment.Three accomplished comic artists collaborate with long time activists and draw on the work of dozens of researchers imprisoned people, and advocates, to examine one dimension of mass incarceration.  Kevin Pyle’s "Prison Town: Paying the Price" shows how millions of dollars poured into moving people hours away from their homes fails to generate promised economic growth for struggling rural communities.  In "Prisoners and the War on Drugs," Sabrina Jones takes on racial disparities in drug laws and policing practices that result in African American and Latino people comprising 93% of those incarcerated in New York, and that lock up more drug users than dealers.  Susan Willmarth’s "Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children" examines how women are the fastest growing group of people being imprisoned.  Most women are imprisoned for non-violent crimes, half of them drug offenses.  But lifetime bans on welfare, public housing, and student loans for felony drug convictions only exacerbate already serious problems of poverty, racism, abuse, and drugs women face in their daily lives.  The Real Cost of Prisons Comix grew out of a popular education project Lois Ahrens began in 2000. Since the first printing in 2005, over 115,000 copies have been distributed free of charge, and project’s website receives over 30,000 page views each month. One of the great things about this book as an organizing tool is that it includes letters from readers of the comic books—imprisoned people, political organizers, policy makers, teachers, social service providers—which give us a sense of how resonant these comics have been, and all of the ways they have been put to work on the ground.  

The economic depression and fiscal crises facing so many states make the alternatives to mass incarceration the book outlines all the more timely. But it’s also a time when the government is pouring even more money into locking up immigrants. Doing away with prisons isn’t just an issue of pure economics, but will also require confronting the racism, economic inequalities, and sexism that work to fuel the futureless future that they represent. 

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The Prison Industrial Complex and Political Prisoners

By Hans Bennett
Z Magazine,
February, 2009

2008 marked the ten-year anniversaries of both the prison abolitionist Critical Resistance (CR) conference in Oakland, CA that coined the phrase “prison industrial complex” (PIC) and the National Jericho Movement’s march in Washington DC that demanded the release of all US political prisoners and prisoners of war. To commemorate the 1998 events, the CR10 conference was held in Oakland in September, and Jericho organized a march to the United Nations in October.

These two important events in 1998 successfully re-energized the prison-activist and political prisoner support movements rooted in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while recognizing this accomplishment, three new books document how the prison industrial complex has actually grown bigger and stronger since 1998, while the post-911 climate has further escalated political repression. While recognizing this frustrating reality, these new books look honestly at both the accomplishments and shortcomings of the last ten years.

Let Freedom Ring

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free US Political Prisoners, is an epic 877-page compilation of both pre-existing documents and original articles. Explaining the context of its release, editor Matt Meyer cites the recent persecution of the San Francisco Eight, who are former Black Panther Party (BPP) members being charged with a 30-year old crime. Beginning with the 2006 grand jury, “the state threw down a gauntlet. When it became clear that the investigations were reopening cases based on evidence obtained primarily through torture, the message was unmistakable: Be afraid, be very afraid, and don’t even think of fighting back. When these same men stood strong, firm on the principle that they would not take part in a new, government sponsored witch-hunt, they sent a counter-message on behalf of us all: we will not allow our communities, our struggles, our communities, our very lives to be criminalized by a corrupt and racist criminal justice system.” This spirit of resistance to state repression flows throughout Let Freedom Ring.

The book’s many sections focus on a wide range of US political prisoners, featuring both facts about their case, and actual writing from the prisoners themselves. One particularly interesting section is titled Resisting Repression: Out and Proud, which includes the classic 1991 interview “Dykes and Fags Want to Know: Interview with Lesbian Political Prisoners,” featuring Laura Whitehorn (released in 1999), a well as Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg, who were both pardoned by President Clinton in 2001. Also notable is a 1991 speech given by former BPP political prisoner Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, who was released after 19 years. Considered a groundbreaking speech from a Black Muslim revolutionary, Bin-Wahad declared that “we can not build a new society if we premise that society on the oppression of other people.” Continuing the legacy of BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton, he argued that fighting the oppression of women and GLBTs is inseparable from the fight against capitalism, racism, and all oppression. Also featured is a tribute to the late Kuwasi Balagoon, who died in prison of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1986. In the words of poet Walidah Imarisha, Balagoon “was an anarchist in a Black nationalist movement, he was queer in a straight dominated movement, he was a guerrilla fighter after it was ‘chic,’ and he…demanded to be seen not as a revolutionary icon, but as a person, beautiful and flawed.”

An entire section focuses on death-row journalist, MOVE supporter, and former BPP member Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently asking the US Supreme Court to consider his case for a new guilt-phase trial. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was somewhat overturned in 2001 when the US District Court ruled that he needs a new sentencing-phase trial if the DA still wants to execute. The US Third Circuit Court affirmed this 2001 ruling in March, 2008, but Abu-Jamal has still never left his death-row cell, and the Philadelphia DA is appealing this 2001/2008 ruling to US Supreme Court. If the DA wins their appeal, Abu-Jamal could then be executed without a new sentencing-phase trial. A decision from the Court on whether it will consider these two appeals is expected in early 2009.

Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Matt Meyer's Page

Let Freedom Ring

By Jaan Laaman,
Ohio 7 anti-imperialist political prisoner

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, is a very new, very informative and very useful book. It is edited by Matt Meyer and published by PM-Kersplebedeb.

This is a huge book, over 800 pages, comprised largely of just what the subtitle says: documents from the movements to free U.S. political prisoners. This includes significant historical documents like the complete indictments, presentations and findings of three International Tribunals that have investigated the reality and conditions of political prisoners held by the U.S. These were: Special International Tribunal on the Violation of Human Rights of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in United States Prisons and Jails (1990), International Tribunal of Indigenous Peoples and Oppressed Nations in the USA (1992), and International Tribunal on Human Rights Violations in Puerto Rico and Vieques by the United States of America (2000).

The book also has loads of information on the issues, reality and struggle of political prisoners, including lots of well-selected writings by many of the prisoners. There is also a good collection of statements, information and analysis from many human rights and activist organizations.

In the first section of the book, author and activist Dan Berger has written a “Brief History of Political Militancy and Incarceration: 1960s to 2000s.” This is a condensed but clear, informative, non-sectarian and quite detailed account of the movements, organizations and some of the individuals who are a unique part of recent U.S. history. The book concludes with 30 pages of up-to-date political prisoner support organizations. Each group’s contact information and a short description of the work they do is presented.

Let Freedom Ring in one sense is like a resource centre. It also contains some moving and inspirational writings and thoughts. Overall it is loaded with information, analysis and history.

As a long-held political prisoner, while I have not yet read all 800 plus pages of this book, I can say that I have not come across any serious errors or many omissions of fact or information.

This is a very useful and even important book for any person or group interested in political prisoners, human rights, the prison industrial complex, and more broadly with social, environmental and economic justice struggles. It does have a high list price ($38), but think of it as an investment or buy it with a friend.


Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Matt Meyer's Page


Let Freedom Ring in the Political Media Review

By Ernesto Aguilar
The Political Media Review

The Sixties presented social movements with some of recent history’s most spectacular schisms, many of which continue to be debated. Assimilation versus revolutionary nationalism versus cultural nationalism; and Old Left aesthetics versus New Left rejection of convention were among them. But none so clearly defined the troubles of that period like the verbal and other skirmishes over militancy.

Pacifism, the use of political violence and the peculiar merging of the two that came to be called self-defense were prominent fixtures of the Vietnam War era. The integrationist sit-ins contrasted with the incendiary solidarity acts of groups like the Weather Underground, which were at times motivated by those same sit-ins as well as the fiery deeds and iconography of the Black Power movement, which itself clashed at points with the mainstream civil rights movement in how each saw the way forward.

Though it isn’t about those debates, Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners cannot be divorced from such either.

The massive tome, spanning over 800 pages, endeavors to tell the story of political organizing primarily from the aforementioned period, along with the narratives of individuals incarcerated for activities in alliance with same. The definition of ‘political prisoner’ is most assuredly to be contentious, for in this reading, such encompasses individuals who have taken up political violence as a means to an end. Such a designation, to hear groups like Amnesty International tell it, obscures non-Western activists’ tribulations and the spirit of political resistance. Or does it? Meyer makes a persuasive case for consideration.

Let Freedom Ring brings together scores of previously released documents, featuring former combatants from a constellation of North American organizations including the Black Liberation Army, Weather Underground and more. Many of these writings would have otherwise been lost, and the service Meyer does in capturing a critical though largely unknown call to free those imprisoned for actions associated with political demands in the United States is bold.

Few areas in the realm of such trends are left unaddressed. Race, history, public policy and revolutionary arts are among the themes writers cut into. Meyer should also be applauded for avoiding old-school divisions around political orientation; Earth Liberation Front sabotage, for example, is discussed with the same level of seriousness Puerto Rican liberation campaigns are, and each is presented as part of a larger vision for freedom. Gender and sexism are also plumbed, though more might have been offered. Consider books like Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left by Sara M. Evans to supplement some of Let Freedom Ring’s offerings.

Key business for those interested in the ideas of Let Freedom Ring is how political prisoner movements cross paths with aspirations for criminal justice reform. Jails and poverty impact economically disadvantaged people and communities of color in fathomless ways. Yet, for the commitment former Black Panther Party members and others went to prison in hopes of seeing such disparities end, little progress has been made in linking their hopes and those of people caught up in the prison-industrial complex. Meyer serves to give hope such a connection is possible, and Let Freedom Ring is a great start for organizers seeking not only context but inspiration.

Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Matt Meyer's Page

Why the Red Army Faction Matters

Sketchy Thoughts

"It is of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, whatever rank he has, should not have to encounter in War those things which, when seen for the first time, set him in astonishment and perplexity; if he has only met with them one single time before, even by that he is half acquainted with them. This relates even to bodily fatigues. They should be practiced less to accustom the body to them than the mind. In War the young soldier is very apt to regard unusual fatigues as the consequence of faults, mistakes, and embarrassment in the conduct of the whole, and to become distressed and despondent as a consequence. This would not happen if he had been prepared for this beforehand by exercises in peace."

- Carl von Clausewitz, On War

 A couple of years ago i visited San Francisco to table at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, which was a somewhat disappointing experience - however, the bonus of any such trip is the chance to meet with comrades and colleagues who you otherwise only know via email.

So it was in this way that after the bookfair i found myself out with some folks from AK Press drinking beer. Talk turned to work and future publishing plans, and on the walk back to the subway someone asked me why today's radicals would be interested in reading about the Red Army Faction - West Germany's iconic Cold War urban guerillas, and the subjects of a book i had vague plans to publish.

I remember being at somewhat of a loss. In fact, if memory serves, i think i admitted to not knowing why anyone would want to learn about the RAF, or why they should. Not the best pitch, i admit, but at the time the whole "book about the RAF" thing was something i felt ambivalent about - not only did the project seem daunting and the group's writings somewhat unintelligible, but i didn't really like what i thought i knew about them in the first place, the impression i had being of an authoritarian bunch of Germans with pretensions of historical grandeur. Not like we haven't seen enough of that before...

It's now a couple of years later, and I have just received twenty odd cases of Projectiles for the People, the first of what will be a multi-volume series about the RAF. If, in 2007, i had doubts about how this project could be either interesting or relevant, today i am firmly convinced of its importance. Indeed, my own opinion of the RAF was at first challenged and then completely overturned by authors Moncourt and Smith's work, which not only places the guerillas in their proper historical context, but also provides a crash course on postwar Germany and its New Left from a radical anticapitalist perspective.

So what happened? Well, first off - surprise, surprise - it turns out a lot of what i "knew" about the guerillas was just wrong. While the state and media lie about all revolutionaries, they seem to have really gone into overdrive about the Red Army Faction, to the point that it soon stopped being shocking and became funny, and has now stopped being funny and has simply become expected. One only has to look at the blather that's been written about the group over the past year, and it becomes clear that some journalists are still willing and able to just make it up when in need of new material.

This is the legacy of the state's psychological warfare campaign against the RAF, a campaign very similar to the FBI's COINTELPRO. The West German experience involved many "false flag actions" - threatened or actual attacks, generally against civilians, blamed on the guerilla but most likely carried out by the far right or government secret services. It also involved a constant stream of media stories personalizing the guerilla's politics, making it all a matter of unbalanced individuals with crazy ideas and unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. This psychological campaign reached its crescendo around the deaths of RAF members in prison, which the state insisted were suicides, even though compelling evidence existed to suggest that they were in fact murdered.

Even a liberal author like Jeremy Varon, whose book Bringing the War Home attempts to explain where the RAF was coming from, ends up presenting a misleading story marred by his own liberal bias, which requires him to dismiss much of the group's politics without properly grappling with them on their own terms. This shouldn't be surprising, given that when Varon wrote his book hardly any of the RAF's own documents were available to English readers.

What's even more problematic, as Moncourt and Smith explain, is that for years the English translations of RAF documents that were available were of a very uneven quality, and some were downright atrocious. From their "Translators' Note":

"In no few cases, segments of the original text were found to be missing from the available translations. It was also not uncommon to encounter what might best be called transliteration—the translator “adjusted” concepts to suit the milieu for which he or she was translating the document. The end result of this latter phenomenon was often, however unintentional, the ideological distortion of the original document—usually only slight in nature, but occasionally egregious. Perhaps the oddest thing we encountered on more than a few occasions was the existence of accretions in the translated documents we referred to; usually only a phrase or a sentence or two, but occasionally entire paragraphs."

Given this status quo ante, the publication of all of the RAF's communiqués and theoretical documents (up until 1977) in Projectiles for the People is of value simply because it corrects and completes the historical record. Countering some of the bias in extant accounts, Moncourt and Smith also devote significant space to examining the deaths of RAF prisoners, showing that despite claims to the contrary there is no reasonable basis for insisting that these were suicides and not executions.

But for radicals, i would argue, the value of Projectiles for the People goes far beyond this. It's worth quickly looking at some of this story's themes, to tease out some political threads, in order to explain why.

In two introductory chapters Moncourt and Smith take us through the quarter century after the Second World War, showing how a political alliance between U.S. imperialism and the German middle and upper classes guaranteed the continuity of key elements of the Nazi state. Moncourt and Smith quote William D. Graf to the effect that:

"Almost all the representatives of big business labeled as war criminals by the American Kilgore Commission in 1945 were back in their former positions by 1948; and of roughly 53,000 civil servants dismissed on account of their Nazi pasts in 1945, only about 1,000 remained permanently excluded, while the judiciary was almost 100% restored as early as 1946."

Little surprise that before the New Left revolt of the 60s/70s, West Germany was an intensely conservative society, one where parents were still criminally liable if they allowed their children to spend the night together before the age of 21, where students could be expelled from university for interrupting a lecture, and where corporal punishment was routinely resorted to throughout the school system. Radical opposition faced constant repression, the Communist Party of Germany being banned in 1956 and its leadership imprisoned, while throughout the fifties and early sixties, over ten thousand cases of "treason" were brought before the courts.

This was the world that most future RAF guerillas grew up in, the world they were revolting against. When the so-called "Auschwitz trials" in the early sixties shone light on what had actually happened during the Holocaust - a subject that had been taboo, effectively hushed up in polite German society before then - this combined with revulsion at imperialism's ongoing crimes in the Third World to instill the New Left with a real sense of urgency and determination. Just as Jim Crow discredited America even in the eyes of many of its white children, the older German generation’s participation in genocide discredited them in the eyes of many German youth.

Moncourt and Smith document this evolution in terms of the wider West German left and the other radical tendencies that also opted for armed politics. Groups like the anarchist 2nd of June Movement and the autonomist Revolutionary Cells weave themselves in and out of the narrative, showing how the movement could field different organizations with their own tactics and strategies, all within an overarching worldview that took the need for revolution as a given.

So far so good, but you may still be wondering what's so special? After all, within white North America there were also several armed groups, ranging from the Weather Underground to the George Jackson Brigade and the United Freedom Front, and including smaller ad hoc outfits which proved themselves willing to engage in armed struggle. A very widely quoted figure from Scanlan's magazine in 1970 reported hundreds of acts of sabotage and violence in the united states as part of the campaign against the Vietnam War. This figure does not refer to those armed actions that took place in the context of the national liberation struggles which rocked North America at the time, anticolonial insurgencies of Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Indigenous peoples that constituted the main revolutionary fronts on this continent. In Canada, it is worth remembering that an armed organization fighting for an independent and socialist Quebec - the FLQ - was stamped out not only by social democracy and its own contradictions, but also by the imposition of martial law, tanks in the streets, and predawn raids in October 1970, which saw hundreds of Quebec nationalists and progressives incarcerated as political prisoners.

So why is the RAF worth learning about, why are these voices from so far away worth listening to?

First off, it is certainly also worth learning about what happened here, and much work remains to be done documenting these North American movements. This is all the more pressing, as many remain in prison after all these decades for the part they played in the liberation struggles of the day. For instance, even after almost forty years behind bars comrades like Jalil Muntaqim and Herman Bell are not only consistently denied parole, but are now being dragged through the courts to face new charges dating back to the early seventies. Showing how the system’s thirst for blood can never be quenched, only appeased or resisted.

But it is important to recognize that this is not a case of either/or, and that the RAF was not completely separate from what was happening here. Certainly there were major differences - political, historical, cultural - between the situation in West Germany and that in North America, but all these people saw themselves as part of a global struggle against a worldwide capitalist system led by U.S. imperialism. For all these groups, Vietnam was a reference point, and for all these groups, an awareness of each others activities and goals served as inspiration.

Secondly, the RAF differs from most North American armed organizations in the number of documents it produced, not only analyzing imperialism and capitalism and the historical circumstances the organization found itself in, but also examining its own struggle, the specifics of its actions and the broader meaning of these actions in the lives of its members, and for the left. In these documents, the guerillas laid out ideas and strategies regarding not only Germany and Vietnam, but also alienation, subjectivity, and the hard choices revolutionaries must face. These contributions retain their relevance today.

What emerges from the RAF's documents - all translated here for the first time - is a subtle, nuanced, and realistic strategy that embraced the complexity of the German situation, the tragedy of being revolutionaries in a society in which revolution was not likely, at least in the short term. As they put it in their founding manifesto, "The RAF’s urban guerilla concept is not based on an optimistic evaluation of the situation in the Federal Republic and West Berlin."

The guerilla did not envision "victory" in the sense of seizing power or precipitating revolution all by themselves, but rather saw its actions as a requirement of the broader revolutionary struggle. Indeed, the impression one gets is that the RAF’s goal - at least initially - was to complement the aboveground left, to support it and be supported by it in turn. This view is repeated time and again in early statements:

"If the red army is not simultaneously built, then all conflict, all the political work carried out in the factories and in Wedding and in the Märkisch neighborhood and at Plötze [women's prison] and in the courtrooms is reduced to reformism; which is to say, you end up with improved discipline, improved intimidation, and improved exploitation. That destroys the people, rather than destroying what destroys the people!"


(Build the Red Army!, 1970)

"Some say that the political possibilities of organization, agitation, and propaganda are far from being exhausted, and only when they have been exhausted should one consider armed struggle. We say that the political possibilities will not be fully utilized until armed struggle is recognized as the political goal, as long as the strategic conclusion that all reactionaries are paper tigers is not grasped despite the tactical conclusion that they are criminals, murderers, and exploiters."
(The Urban Guerilla Concept, 1971)


"When we build the revolutionary guerilla, we are creating an instrument that is beyond the reach of the system’s repression, that does not depend on the system’s tolerance for its capacity to act, that does not have its room to maneuver determined by the Verfassungsshutz [secret police]."


(Statement to the Red Aid Teach-In, 1972)


For the first few years that it existed, the RAF's main priority seems to have been avoiding arrest, surviving underground, and developing their capacity to act. Apart from bank robberies, the group's only "actions" during this period were deadly firefights with police, who had adopted a "shoot first and ask questions later" attitude. (Indeed, unarmed innocent bystanders were killed by police in these years precisely because the cops would sometimes shoot on the mere suspicion that they had spotted members of the guerilla.)

In 1972, the group moved to a new level. At the May Day demonstrations that year, supporters handed out copies of the RAF's second major theoretical manifesto, Serve the People: the Urban Guerilla and Class Struggle, a document that attempted to grapple with the realities of class in West Germany and how this related to the anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World. Again, the armed struggle was posed as central to the work that must be done:

"We’re not saying it will be easy to build the guerilla, or that the masses are just waiting for the opportunity to join the guerilla. However, we do, above all, believe that the situation will not change by itself [...] We believe that the guerilla will develop, will gain a foothold, that the development of the class struggle will itself establish the idea of armed struggle only if there is already an organization in existence conducting guerilla warfare, an organization that is not easily demoralized, that does not simply lie down and give up."


(Serve the People: the Urban Guerilla and Class Struggle, 1972)


Shortly after releasing this document, the group went into action. On May 11, a RAF commando bombed the U.S. Army V Corps headquarters and the site of the National Security Agency in Frankfurt - three blasts went off, killing a Lieutenant Colonel and injuring thirteen others. The next day two police buildings were bombed in the cities of Munich and Augsburg, as payback for the deaths of guerillas at the hands of the Bavarian police. Bombs would continue to go off throughout the month, targeting a right-wing newspaper chain, a judge who presided over RAF trials, and another U.S. military base, this time killing three soldiers.

One of the chief merits of Moncourt and Smith's treatment of these bombings is that they place them within the context of the ongoing imperialist massacre in Vietnam, and the debates occurring within the West German New Left at the time. This was clearly what was important to the RAF itself, as shown by a tape recorded statement Ulrike Meinhof sent to a teach-in organized by the political prisoner support group Red Aid, at the end of May.

Dialogue with the left remained a priority for the guerilla. While this conversation may not have always been polite, the relationship between the RAF and other revolutionaries is one of the most interesting themes in Projectiles, one which belies the claim by many authors that the guerilla was uninterested in reaching out to others. Indeed, this is a story punctuated by demonstrations, protests, one-off bombings and riots, all carried out by others in support of the RAF, or at least against the repression the guerilla faced.

For most of those involved, the 1972 "May Offensive," as it came to be known, proved to be both the first and last series of attacks of its kind. Thousands of cops were mobilized and, on the first day of June, several leading members of the RAF - Andreas Baader, Holger Meins, Jan-Carl Raspe - were cornered and apprehended in Munich. As the police pressed on with their hunt, more and more guerillas were captured, and plans for future actions had to be called off, as the organization found itself almost entirely wiped out.

If this were the end of the story, i would still say it was worth checking out. This "first generation" of the Red Army Faction included many seasoned activists who had spent years organizing legally in the student movement, the antiwar movement, and various anarchist, socialist, and communist organizations. Ulrike Meinhof was a leading intellectual of her day, as well as having formerly been a secret member of the banned Communist Party. Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin were well known members of the West Berlin scene, and enjoyed the status of folk heroes for having firebombed two department stores to protest the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, Horst Mahler had been the most high-profile political lawyer in West Berlin. (He would later be kicked out of the RAF, and finally decades later would reinvent himself as a neo-nazi and Holocaust denier.)

With this solid basis in the movement, the early RAF's texts resonate with debates that have not been resolved to this day. While predictably concerned with armed struggle, they also grapple with questions of political agency, of how to relate to Third World movements, and of what kind of organization is best suited to revolution in the First World. They are well-written, articulate explanations of how the guerillas saw their struggle, and if few readers will agree with them completely, i am sure many could benefit from their study.

But this is not the only reason this story is of interest.

Unlike most armed movements in North America, the RAF managed to survive the arrests of all its key members following the May Offensive.

As Moncourt and Smith reveal, the West German state pioneered various forms of "clean torture" in an effort to break the captured guerillas and force them to recant. The goal here was to use the prisoners against the revolutionary movement, by pushing them to publicly admit they were wrong, or else by messing them up so badly that they appeared insane.

This ongoing campaign against the guerillas took the form of isolation imprisonment. Prisoners were separated from the general population, allowed limited or no visits, and had their mail routinely intercepted. In many cases, entire prison wings were emptied so there was no possibility of even calling out to others through the bars.

In some cases this isolation was taken even further, amounting to sensory deprivation. RAF members Astrid Proll and Ulrike Meinhof were both subjected to this then-experimental form of torture in Cologne prison. As Moncourt and Smith tell us:

"The cell was lit twenty-four hours a day with a single bald neon light. It was forbidden for the prisoner to hang photographs, posters, or anything else on the walls. All other cells in the wing were kept vacant, and when other prisoners were moved through the prison—for instance, to the exercise yard—they were obliged to take a circuitous route so that even their voices could not be heard. The only minimal contact with another human being was when food was delivered; other than that, the prisoner spent twenty-four hours a day in a world with no variation."

Some of you who were active at the time may recall similar conditions at the united states' hideous Lexington Control Unit, where female political prisoners were held in the mid-eighties. Lexington was closed down after a campaign showed how this kind of sensory deprivation, coupled with 24-hour-a-day surveillance, was intended as a form of psychological torture. In fact, these techniques had been pioneered in Germany in its attempt to smash the RAF.

The women endured these conditions for months on end. As Astrid Proll would later recall:

"During the 2½ years of remand I was 4½ months completely isolated in the Dead Wing of Cologne-Ossendorf. Not even today, six years later, have I completely recovered from that. I can’t stand rooms which are painted white because they remind me of my cell. Silence in a wood can terrify me, it reminds me of the silence in the isolated cell. Darkness makes me so depressive as if my life were taken away. Solitude causes me as much fear as crowds. Even today I have the feeling occasionally as if I can’t move."

It is difficult to say what would have happened if the authorities had adopted a less vicious attitude towards the captured guerillas, but as it is his persecution forced them to react.

In a series of hunger strikes throughout the 1970s the RAF prisoners not only brought attention to their plight, they essentially opened up a new front in their war against the West German state. These hunger strikes, in 1972, 1973, and 1974-5, and then in 1977, became the key organizing tool for the captured combatants. As the prisoners explained in their statement announcing their third such strike:

"In isolation, the hunger strike is our only possible form of collective resistance to imperialism’s counterstrategy. Revolutionary prisoners and prisoners who have begun to organize themselves to fight are to be psychologically and physically, that is to say politically, destroyed. Disarmed, imprisoned, isolated, this is our only option for asserting our psychological and spiritual strength, our identity as people, so that the stones the ruling class has thrown at us may land on their own feet."

Not only did these hunger strikes force the radical left to take the RAF into account, they also served to inspire a new generation of radicals to take up the gun and renew the organization. Against all odds, from inside the prisons, the RAF would, time and time again, successfully draw in new recruits through the use of hunger strikes and the campaign against "isolation-extermination."

The story of how the RAF, a revolutionary guerilla organization originally oriented around the realities of 70s New Left, survived wave upon wave of arrests by renewing and reorienting itself in response to the plight of the prisoners, is an undercurrent running through Projectiles for the People. While they are gentle in their judgments, Moncourt and Smith clearly view this as an error, one that led to isolation from much of the left and several serious miscalculations.

This focus on the prisoners finally reached its logical conclusion in 1977, when a number of former legal supporters went underground and joined with the RAF to try to force the state to alleviate isolation conditions, and ultimately to release the prisoners.

This campaign started with the assassination of the Attorney General during the RAF's fourth hunger strike. While this initially seemed to work to push the state to make concessions, the hard line was soon reasserted, and a new plan had to be put in motion. An attempt was made to kidnap a leading banker - it failed, and he was killed. Next, Germany's leading industrialist was successfully kidnapped and held for weeks as the guerillas attempted to negotiate with the prisoners' release. The country was plunged into de facto martial law, and matters were further complicated when a Palestinian commando skyjacked a plane in support of the RAF's demands. After several days, the Palestinian commando was wiped out in a lightning attack by Germany's special forces, and that same night several leading RAF prisoners were found "suicided" in their cells. For the guerilla, failure could not have been more complete. (For more details on the 1977 events, see the series of articles from the Sketchy Thoughts blog in 2007, reposted on the German Guerilla website.)

As Moncourt and Smith argue in their conclusion:

"it is striking how much the RAF’s legacy and credibility were damaged by 1977; it took years to recover, even while most of the guerillas remained uncaptured. Most popular and even scholarly works about the group act as if it disbanded afterwards, while in fact it remained active until the 1990s.

Compare this to 1972, when practically the entire guerilla had been wiped out by arrests, and yet the actions of the May Offensive inspired renewed resistance throughout the spectrum of the revolutionary left.

One part of the equation was the distance that had grown between the RAF and the rest of the left, both as a result of its own paradoxes and of the vicious state repression and psychological operations. The other factor, in its own way an expression of the first, was the level of confrontation in which the 1977 commandos had chosen to engage, well beyond the capacity of any other segment of the left to imitate or even support."


Despite these observations, in retrospect it is difficult to know what else could have been done. The "error" of focusing on the prisoners to the exclusion of other contradictions may have been unavoidable, one which the organization had to go through in order to get past it. And as the 1980s would show, the RAF would in fact manage to get past it - though that is a story that will not be told until the next volume in this series.

Projectiles for the People will likely be of interest to researchers and academics of various persuasions, in part because this is the first time most of the RAF's documents have ever been translated into English.

But for radicals, for those of us who are anticapitalist and anti-imperialist in 2009, looking back at the strategies and thoughts of past revolutionaries is particularly rewarding. While it would be foolish to set out to compile a "list of lessons" from such and intense story, learning about the RAF may help prepare us for the struggles that lie in our own future.

Urban guerilla warfare will likely never be waged again in exactly the same way it was in the 1970s, but it is equally unlikely to ever be completely removed from the menu. By theorizing about what they were doing while they were doing it, the RAF combatants have left us a rich legacy from which to draw not only inspiration, but also knowledge and understanding of the dynamics and pitfalls associated with armed clandestine movements.

As noted by Carl von Clausewitz in the quote that introduces this text, it is indeed of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, should not have to encounter those things which, when seen for the first time, can appear daunting and perplexing.

For that reason, i think Projectiles for the People is a book worth reading.

Buy this book now


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