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Department of Book Reports: "We Called Each Other Comrade"

Jackson Steet Books on 7th
July 8th, 2011

Allen Ruff's "We Called Each Other Comrade": Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers (PM Press $24.95) is social history at it's best. The subject of the book is Charles H. Kerr, who began publishing Unitarian tracts and books, starting in 1886, was a pioneer of books published in cheap editions and made accessible for the average man. Kerr (1860-1944) led a very interesting life, filled with ideas with many stops along the way. The books he published reflected an intellectual curiosity and showed his migration from Unitarianism, to Marxism, the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, and finally to the Proletarian Party, a splinter group of the original Communist Party of America.

Ruff's gift to us in this book is not only the examination of one mans life, but an exploration of ideas current in the late 19th century and into the Pre-World War One years on the left. Along the way we get a history of book publishing (centered mostly in New York, but with a strong presence in Chicago, where Kerr's house was located); the drift of Unitarian thought from it's Congregational roots to the church we would recognize now; to Marxist ideas in American thought; a history of the origins of the Socialist Party, which had a big hand in the founding of the IWW, otherwise known affectionately as the Wobblies; to the suppression of Left opposition to the "imperialist" first world war; and it describes the fractious and turbulent history of the American Left, which resonates even today. It is fascinating stuff.

Kerr himself revolutionized in many ways book publishing, offering books, pamphlets and ephemera at low cost to the customer. Always a man who thought education important, he wanted to make readily available these ideas to the common person. He also started the journal, International Socialist Review (ISR), which along with the Masses, was a very important vehicle for left-wing thought, and became another victim of the Great War when Kerr was not allowed to send it through the mails.. Kerr also translated from the French, the English lyrics to the Socialist anthem, The Internationale, which begins Arise Ye Prisoners of starvation/ Arise Ye wretched of the Earth, which many of you might recognize from the Franz Fanon anti-colonial book. He was a man of solid, middle-class background, who, as he got older, moved more and more to the Left.

The Charles H. Kerr Company still exists today and it's slogan is "Subversive Literature for the Whole Family Since 1886. This is the second edition of "We Called Each Other Comrade", first published in the mid 1990's and reissued by PM Press with a new foreword by Paul Buhle, a noted historian of American radicalism. I should note that the publisher provided me with a copy & a super cool sticker gratis. This book brims with ideas and reminds us that what we suffer today is not new, and must be opposed. "We have been nought/ We shall be all".

I will continue my commentaries on the American Modernist writers soon, with some thoughts on Ernest Hemingway, coming up soon. For now, I did want to tell you about "We Called Each Other Comrade", which is available at (Jackson Street) Books on 7th and fine Independent bookstores everywhere. Visit us on Facebook Jackson Street Books.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Allen Ruff's Author Page

Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus Vandalism and Upcoming Events Around the Country

We recently published a book with Reach & Teach that explores the complex lives and representations of LGBTQ Youth from their perspective. Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus by author and photographer Rachelle Lee Smith is more than a book. It's an ongoing, "for youth, by youth" project of positive, inclusive, and empowering images of LGBTQ Youth. It's to give hope, inspiration, to show that we're not alone, and to foster empathy in a world that is often filled with bigotry, oppression, and hate. Unfortunately, hate is exactly what the project received.



Recently, the Speaking OUT photographs that were on display at The University of Connecticut were vandalized, reminding us all that Rachelle's work is still relevant, important and so necessary. The silver lining is that this act is creating a dialogue and discussion around the issues still at large within our homes, schools, and country.

Please spread the information to continue the conversation and perhaps with enough outreach we can find the person(s) responsible.  And we continue to work towards a better tomorrow.

Pick up a Speaking OUT book and donate it to your local school or library! or stop by an event listed below and say hello.

Here’s a multimedia round-up (newspaper, radio, and TV) from the UConn coverage the vandalism of Speaking OUT on campus:
Speaking OUT Spring/Summer Events

Currently:  Philadelphia, PA - On Public Display at the SouthEast corner of Broad and Walnut Streets (24/7)



  • 18th: Hartford, CT @  PFLAG Hartford Reception - Reception, Talk, and Book Signing (6:00pm)
  • 20th-21st: UConn, CT @ True Colors Conference - Exhibition, Reception, Talk, and Book Signing
    • 20th: @ The Student Union Art Gallery - Workshop + Signing (1:15-2:30pm)
    • 21st: @ The Student Union Art Gallery  - Workshop  + Signing (10:30-11:45am)
  • 25th: Philadelphia, PA @ CHOP - Children's Hospital of Philadelphia - Pop-up Exhibition (tentative)
  • 31st: Ontario, CA @ York Region District School Board - Teleconference



  • 2nd: NYC, NY - Pre Bureau Party event and Pop-Up Exhibition @ BitCoin Center NYC - 40 Broad Street (2-6pm)
  • 2nd: NYC, NY @ LGBT Center NYC - The Bureau - Open Mic with Speaking OUT Subjects and Book Signing (7:00-10:00pm)
  • 24th-25th: Provincetown, MA @ The Provincetown Library - Exhibition (12:00-5:00pm)
  • 24th: Provincetown, MA @ Provincetown Library - Talk and Book Signing in the Marc Jacobs Reading Room (3:00-4:00pm)
  • 25th: Provincetown, MA @ Womencrafts - Book Signing (3:00-4:00pm)


  • 4th: Boston, MA With the Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY) and SpeakOUT  - Talk, Interactive Photo Shoot, Book Signing (Location + Time TBD)
  • 7th: Asbury, NJ @ Asbury Pride (Tentative)
  • 14th: Philadelphia, PA @ Philly Pride (10:00am-5:00pm)
  • 20th: - Lancaster, PA @ Lancaster Pride (Tentative)
  • 24th-30th: Bay Area, CA with the Publishers!
    • 24th: Oakland, CA @ Laurel Book Store (6:30pm)
    • 25th: San Francisco @ Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Store (7:00pm)
    • 26th: San Mateo @ Reach and Teach Book Store  (7:00pm)
    • 27-29th: San Fransisco @ American Library Association ALA Conference (Dates + Times TBA)
    • 27th:  San Francisco @ Pride w/ PM Press table (11:00am-6:00pm)
    • 28th: San Francisco @ Pride with PM Press table (11:00am-6:00pm)
    • 28th: Palo Alto @ First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto (7:00pm)
    • 29th: San Francisco @ Green Arcade Book Store (7:00pm)



1st-2nd: Washington DC @ The Reeves Center - OutWrite LGBT Book Fair - Book Selling + Signing (Times TBD)


Scenes Resembling Civil War

By Michael Mccanne
The New Inquiry
January 3rd, 2013

Before “the cancer of occupy,” there were Germany’s Autonomen; a new translation of Fire and Flames, a history of the struggle, shines a light on this proto-Black Bloc.

Six years before the Chernobyl disaster, several thousand people occupied the construction site of a nuclear waste facility in the forests of West Germany. Within days they had built a makeshift encampment and were holding general assemblies and demonstrations. Local farmers donated food, which was prepared and shared communally, and local politicians and celebrities came to give speeches. The occupiers for their part represented a broad cross-section of West Germans: environmentalists, suburbanites, students, Leftists, pensioners and local farmers united to prevent the waste holding facility’s construction. They built wooden lookout towers, walls, and communal lodges, and the occupied site started to resemble a festive medieval village. The encampment was called, “The Free Republic of Wendlend,” after the area’s traditional name.

A month later, in the early hours of June 4, 1980, nearly 8000 riot police, including the paramilitary Bundesgrenzschutz (Border Police), poured out of the wooded darkness and announced the site was to be evicted. It was the largest police mobilization in Germany since the Second World War. As had been decided in their general assemblies, the Wendlenders sat down peacefully, but suffered terrible brutality anyway at the hands of the police. By the end of the day the site was cleared of occupiers, and the remains of the village carted away.

The Wendlenders chose explicitly non-violent forms of resistance, but the West German authorities attacked, undeterred by moral force or persuasion. A year later, when the government restarted construction of a nuclear power plant at Brokdorf near the North Sea, perhaps they expected the same peaceful acquiescence. What they found instead was quite different.

Opposition groups called a large protest and nearly a hundred thousand came; many attempted to storm the building site and occupy it. As the police tried to drive protesters away with clubs and water cannons, they were attacked with stones and Molotov cocktails, mostly hurled by youths in black ski masks and motorcycle helmets. By the end of the day, protestors had breached all but the last inner fence of the construction site and destroyed a water canon truck with petrol bombs. The authorities were stunned by the protesters’ ferocity, and the fight at Brokdorf revealed a new radical force in the cracks of West German society.

Today, the German media uses the word Autonomen as a catch-all for militant anarchists, and it is easy to oversimplify the German Autonomous movements because they didn’t represent a unified group or ideology. In the English speaking Left, the West German Autonomen are best known as innovators of the “black bloc,” a tactic for mass militancy in which participants dress in black, hide their faces and wear pads or helmets to ward off police clubs or rubber bullets.

In the 1990s, when autonomous activists joined the burgeoning “Anti-globalization movement” in Europe, they brought the black bloc to demonstrations against transnational, neo-liberal organizations like the IMF and World Bank. When those summits and counter demonstrations occurred in Canada and the United States through the later 1990s, North American anarchists adopted the German Autonomen’s style and tactics, donning black masks, storming security fences and smashing corporate windows.

In the past year, autonomists and anarchists played a key role in the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street, and many signature modes of OWS reflect those tendencies: non-hierarchal organizing, general assemblies, affinity groups, direct action over representation, and a refusal to dialogue with established powers. And Occupy’s militant wing (what Christopher Hedges called “the cancer” and Jonathan Mahler labeled “ The Menace”), appeared in various Occupy demonstrations, as groups of young people with their faces covered, sometimes dressed in black, offering active resistance when the police tried to evict encampments or sweep protesters off the street.

It is always tempting to draw direct historical comparisons between past and present social movements. But one has to situate the Autonomen’s strategies and tactics in the context of the 1980s and the topography of West Germany to determine which practices are applicable to contemporary struggles and which are particular to history. PM Press’s new translation of Fire and Flames (published as Feuer und Flamme in 1990) offers that context by placing the German autonomous movement alongside the various groups and events that defined their horizon of possibilities. There are chapters on the plethora of leftist groups that predated the Autonomen (the Marxist-Leninist K Groups, the Spontis, the urban guerrilla movement and Italy’s Autonomia), and the book follows German autonomous theory as it transferred from group to group and evolved. The book is a classic history of the movement (alongside George Katsiaficas’ The Subversion of Politics), and in it the pseudonymous author Geronimo sketches the Autonomen’s peripatetic rise in the militant wings of the social movements of their time. The release of Fire and Flames, alongside the debates about “black bloc anarchists” in the Occupy Wall Street movement, gives impetus to examine the German Autonomen in their historical context.

The Wirtschaftswunder (or economic miracle) transformed West Germany from the ruins of the Second World War into a major economic power and a bulwark against Eastern European Communism. Workers and trade unions were integrated into the national reindustrialization project, and quality of life and work prospects rose for West Germans through the 1940s and 1950s. Guest workers were enticed from Turkey, Italy and Greece to fill out the depleted work force, and industry boomed, backed by huge investments from the United States.

But the economic miracle faltered in 1975, shaken by high inflation and rising unemployment. The recession accompanied a crisis in the country’s young democratic institutions and the New Left movement, which seemed to implode and fracture. Geronimo starts his short book by saying, “The Autonomen of today can be only understood in the context of the New Left’s history” and goes on to detail the rise of student and neo-Marxist movements that characterized 1968 in West Germany. By the mid-1970s, however, these groups were all but dissolved, either through recuperation or brutal repression by the Federal Police. Some went underground and took up “anti-imperialist” armed struggle, which reached its disastrous crescendo in the 1977 German Autumn, with the Red Army Faction’s kidnapping and murder of industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer and the failed hijacking of a Lufthansa jet by a joint German-Palestinian commando. The subsequent repression unleashed by the West German state cast a pall over the country, and it seemed the period of political militancy in West Germany was finished.

Despite this, a new way of political struggle emerged in West Germany in the blighted urban centers and on the fringes of various social movements. It arose as a rejection of the “alternative movement’s” self-satisfied activism and armed struggle’s grim futility, instead extending the anti-authoritarian and anti-bourgeois tendencies that emerged in 1968. It developed haphazardly as a synthesis of influences (the squatter movement, radical feminist and environmental tendencies, the punk scene and the praxis of Italy’s Autonomia and the Metropolitan Indians) into the West German autonomous movement.

As young West Germans increasingly turned to urban social centers as hubs of political activity (as opposed to workplaces or universities), they formed frameworks to interlink their various milieus. In Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and West Berlin, autonomous groups squatted empty houses, started radio stations, organized demonstrations and published journals promoting the autonomous position, many of which Fire and Flames quotes from directly. Their political and organizing practices reflected a distrust of representative democracy, favoring instead direct action, direct democracy in the form of general assemblies, and a politics of the first person. On this point Geronimo writes, “They were strongly influenced by the ‘No Future’ attitude of the time, confronted bourgeois norms of control and domination and turned their own needs into a central political issue.”

By 1981, a unique political subculture developed, the seventies militant styles (coveralls, motorcycle, helmets, bandanas) fused with punk rock (leather jackets, studs, combat boots, balaclavas, and of course everything in black.) The West German press dubbed them the “black bloc” and wrote about the movement in sensationalist fragments: hooded youths, toughs, violent criminals, hooligans, chaoten. The iconic black balaclava was dubbed the Hasskappe (or hate cap). To them, the Autonomen were a dangerous mixture of militant politics and youthful nihilism, a rejection of political participation and the promises of Western European capitalism. But the Autonomen found liberatory promise in negation. “Freedom,” a 1981 autonomous thesis appended to Fire and Flames states, “is the short moment between throwing a rock and that rock hitting its target.”

Many Autonomen had developed their tactics as activists in the anti-nuclear movement’s militant wing. The West German coalition government of liberal and conservative parties viewed industrial infrastructure as integral to Cold War policy and began building nuclear power stations and related facilities with little input from the populace. Shut out of the political establishment, communities formed Bürgerinitiativen (citizen’s movements or BI) in the late 1970s to address these issues. They organized the protests and occupations at Gorleben and Brokdorf, in which many autonomous activists participated.

After the government announced they would expand a NATO runway at the Frankfurt Airport in 1980, a broad coalition of citizens groups and left wing political parties, inspired by Wendlend and Brokdorf, occupied the building site and built a small village of wooden huts. When police evicted the occupation, widespread unrest broke out. One reporter wrote, “A 15-year debate about plans to extend Frankfurt International Airport into nearby woodland erupted this month into scenes resembling civil war. Hooded youths barricaded freeways, catapulted steel pellets at police, and hurled Molotov cocktails – all in the name of ecology.”  To continue this level of confrontation, the citizen’s groups and their Autonomen allies organized weekly ”Strolls” for years to come, assembling every Sunday, circumnavigating the perimeter and attempting to tear down the security fences and reoccupy the site when the opportunity arose.

Many of these environmental coalitions splintered over what constituted acceptable resistance to police violence and whether or not to compromise with the authorities. The anti-nuclear movement’s legalist wing joined the liberal political establishment, and the radical wing took what they had developed tactically and organizationally in the ecological struggles to assist the second wave of the squatter movement developing in the abandoned zones of West German cities.

Berlin today is the fashionable city of Europe, and the Kreuzberg neighborhood is slowly transforming into a sort of east east-Williamsburg. Among empty parks and industrial buildings, boutique restaurants and chic cafes have opened over the past few years, gentrifying what was once an almost ungovernable zone. But in the decades before the 1990 reunification, the Wall bordered Kreuzberg on three sides, all but cutting it off from the rest of the western zone. Turkish guest workers and their families lived among rows of empty houses and factories, some still bombed out from the war. West Berlin’s unique status under de jure allied occupation, deep within East German territory, meant that residents were exempt from military service, and young men came from all over West Germany to live and study there as a way of avoiding conscription. The city had never recovered from the war’s depopulation and these young people moved into the abandoned buildings that littered the city.

By the late 1970s, large sections of Kreuzberg were squatted and squatter’s councils coordinated social reproduction and eviction defense. These practices spread to other cities, and in 1981 Hamburg squatters took over an entire street along the Elbe River called Haffenstrasse. When the city government tried to evict Haffenstrasse in 1986, Autonomen and residents built barricades out of cars and burning rubble and fought off the police for several nights. Over the years the authorities launched several more failed attempts to evict the street and eventually negotiated to sell the property to the occupiers, resolving years of strife. After the Wall came down most of the squatted buildings in Kreuzberg were legalized into cooperatives, normalization succeeding where police repression had failed.

Despite several large events, such as the 1987 anti-Reagan demonstration and the 1988 anti-World Bank Summit, the Autonomen lost most of their focus and power through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The reduction of squatted spaces, though legalization or eviction, put pressure on individuals within autonomous circles to meet their daily needs outside the movement, and the reliance on spontaneous organizing models had a diminishing effect of its own. Action committees, formed to prepare for this or that demonstration, dissolved after each street battle, and this endless reconstitution of forces caused burnout and dissipation.

Their commitment to militancy at all costs reduced their political position to mere escalation, which never coalesced into a strategy for dual power or even revolution. The Autonomous Theses of 1981 said it explicitly,” we want to dismantle and destroy—to formulate affirmative ideals is not our priority.” Without any overarching goal or ideal, their identity became a macho fixation: fighting the police, distrusting outsiders and eschewing tactics perceived as weak or legitimate. The authorities, for their part, developed their own tactics (kettling for example), and by 1989, clashes between riot cops and Autonomen approached the level of choreography. In Fire and Flames, there is clear criticism on this point, “militancy had always defined the Autonomous movement, but particularly after the Startbahn began operating in 1984, it often turned into mere ritual and increasingly into individual gesture.”

By the mid-90s the Autonomen had atomized into a disparate collection of housing cooperatives, anti-gentrification committees and anti-fascist groups, occasionally gathering to disrupt IMF or G8 meetings with small-scale black blocs, but never regaining that early, fractious momentum.

Still, the Autonomen remained an almost mythological phenomenon, percolating through the decade’s various social struggles. They materialized from the abyss of the modern industrial state, transforming anger and alienation into moments of collective power: a ghost at the feast of the post war economy. When Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and gave his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech, it was under conditions of de facto martial law, with all demonstrations banned and thousands of Autonomen kept at bay by police barricades.

The Federal Republic of Germany is gone, and Germany today is the cornerstone of the European Union, defined by finance capitalism fused with policing power. It has grown more potent and dynamic, able to absorb riot and financial crisis alike. A unified Germany led to a unified Europe, melded out of free markets, consumerism and law and order, as if it has always been. But for a brief moment, like that of a stone in midair, the Autonomen shook the stability and permanency of that system.

When a radical political movement is taken out of its context, it is easy to dismiss as a youthful revolt or failure. But Fire and Flames refuses these notions, and repositions the Autonomen as part of an evolving struggle in post-war Germany. The book’s brief history ends at 1989, but the currents of autonomous and radical thought continue, influencing current situations and social movements. The West German Autonomen showed the potential of militancy, and its pitfalls. The new generation of autonomists will have to learn from them and create a force that is not merely disorder within the system but a world outside of it.


Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Geronimo's Author Page

Homophobic Vandals Damage Philly Artist Rachelle Lee Smith’s “Speaking OUT” Exhibit

By Brian Buttler
Philadelphia Magazine
March 9th, 2015

Philadelphia artist Rachelle Lee Smith‘s traveling exhibit “Speaking OUT: Queer Youth In Focus,” which caused quite a positive stir in town when it was exhibited on the corner of Broad and Walnut in the now-defunct Robinson Luggage store (some of the prints are still there), has fallen victim to homophobic vandals during an exhibit in Connecticut.

Assailants allegedly broke into the display at the University of Connecticut‘s student union art gallery and used markers to damage the pictures. The exhibit was to be part of the upcoming True Colors Conference, according to Smith.

"There [was] a binder [left in the exhibit] that says 'God hates the gays,' two prints have penises on them and I was given a mustache," says Smith. "If the prints themseleves get damaged, it's a big deal. They are one-of-a-kind, handprinted in an almost obsolete darkroom machine. And each image comes with a  handwritten message by the subjects, some up to 13 years ago." She shares some of the vandalized images below:


Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Rachelle Lee Smith Author's Page

Speaking OUT reviewed in Booklist

March 9th, 2015

One of the strengths of young adult literature is its capacity to give every teen a face. This is literally the case with photographer Smith's splendid portfolio of full-page portraits of LGBTQ youth ages 14 to 24. In their wonderful variety, the more than five dozen color images are proof positive that being queer is an exercise in heterogeneity, not homogeneity. Adding to their inherent insight, the photos incorporate the subjects' personal thoughts via handwriting on the final photographic prints (e.g., "Love is bigger than labels and categories. Love is bigger than everything." "In today's world, people are too concerned with labels." "Don't let your mind win the battle over your heart"). In some cases, the photos are also accompanied by thoughtful retrospective commentary from the subjects. Energetically designed, the book includes contact sheets, a six-page insert describing the photographer's process, a foreword by Candace Gingrich, and an afterword by gay teen activist Graeme Taylor. A salutary addition to the growing body of LGBTQ literature.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Rachelle Lee Smith Author's Page

Speaking OUT in School Library Journal

By Kyle Lukoff
School Library Journal
Grade 10 Up—This gorgeously produced photo-essay book takes a unique spin on showcasing LGBTQ youth. The young people in the photographs speak for themselves, some in longer form essays, others by writing, scrawling, or drawing directly onto the images themselves. Their words seem truly their own, not edited or filtered through an adult editorial lens, which allows them to be messy, contradictory, inspiring, well spoken, frustrating, occasionally graphic, and interesting, sometimes all at the same time. The photographs are beautifully presented, and the technique of including the subject's writing upon them is compelling. At times the handwritten notes are difficult to decipher, but that adds another intriguing layer of complexity to the work as a whole. Some of the youth also write more at length in formatted sidebars, reflecting on how their thoughts about their identity have shifted since they were first photographed. Some of the other text inserts, like a positive review from the Huffington Post or the Human Rights Campaign, seem out of place but do not detract too much from the reading experience. Smith includes an impressive array of youth, diverse in age, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. One noticeable lack is that none of the subjects clearly identify as trans women, though trans men were well represented. Overall, this is a stunning and unique addition to the existing literature, with an immediately relevant approach.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Rachelle Lee Smith Author's Page

Organize!- a review in Foreword

By Edward Morris
Foreword Reviews
August 30, 2012

Living in a Politicized World

Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or try to ignore ‘em, politics are a fact of life—and not just in election cycles. In fact, elections may be one of the least significant events in our political lives since they rarely bring about radical change. Besides, there are always people who are too young, too marginalized, or too cynical to vote on the issues that affect them. But they can always take their grievances to the streets, an arena in which the fate of many a nation has been determined.

The world is a tinderbox. America is in economic recession, and China is struggling to reconcile rampant capitalism with rigid state planning and control. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain—the Arab Spring countries—teeter on the slippery debris of unfinished revolutions. Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy are mired in debt and squeezing their understandably resistant citizens to balance the books. Syria is careening toward civil war or worse. Afghanistan and Pakistan are open wounds. Obviously, politics—the process of living and functioning together—matter greatly.

Six new books have a lot to say about what’s gone wrong and right with governments and social movements and how politics wisely practiced may yet make things better.

Nearly two dozen case studies in political organizing, most of them from Canada, are presented in Organize! Building From the Local for Global Justice, edited by Aziz Choudry, Jill Hanley, and Eric Shragge (PM Press, 978-1-60486-433-5, $24.95). The techniques cited range from simply paying more attention to the voices of the victims of injustice to using art and music to unite people behind a common cause. The two primary themes that emerge from these examples are that movements can be—and often are—co-opted by the very forces they were established to oppose, and that local movements alone are insufficient to hold back the depredations of such global forces as colonialism and capitalism. The implicit conclusion here is that global enemies require a global network of resistance.

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Aziz Choudry, Jill Hanley & Eric Shragge's page HERE

Men in Prison reviewed in Foreword Reviews

By Diane Prokop
Foreword Reviews
August 27th, 2014

This thinly veiled fictional autobiography is a powerful polemic on prison life, as well as a beautifully wrought literary gem.

First published in 1931, Men in Prison chronicles Victor Serge’s time spent as a political prisoner in France from 1912 to 1917 and shares his harrowing account of the struggle to remain sane under deplorable conditions. Originally translated from the French by Richard Greeman in 1977, it was recently reissued with a fresh introduction by Greeman, the cofounder of the Praxis Center and Victor Serge Library in Moscow, and a foreword by David Gilbert, who is full of insight about present-day prison systems, since he is currently a prisoner at Auburn Correctional Facility for crimes committed when he was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground.

Men in Prison is tagged as a novel, but in the book’s epigraph, Serge says, “Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true. I have attempted, through literary creation, to bring out the general meaning and human content of personal experience.” If one knows anything about Serge’s life, it will read as if it came from his own diary. It is fiction so unfathomable that it must be truth.

With unflinching honesty and sometimes excruciatingly grim prose, Serge writes about his five-year journey through the French penal system. The prose is layered with searing revelations and demonstrate his talent for parsing out an incarcerated man’s primal fears. He writes of suffering a thousand daily humiliations at the hands of those in charge, which eventually led most to inhabit a dull space into which nothing could penetrate. It is here they found solace. He says, “I am free because nothing more can be done to me.” Serge’s struggle to maintain sanity in the face of a lengthy sentence is one of his most difficult challenges, and he repeatedly, with great psychological insight, probes these existential depths.

Serge writes poetically of simple pleasures that come unexpectedly and are few and far between. “The sky! Above our heads a glittering winter sky, full of constellations, spread out its deep blacks and blues, its profusion of stars, the ripples of light in its shadowy gulfs. Had I ever understood the marvel of a simple starry sky before?”

Men in Prison deserves to sit prominently in the canon of prison novels with the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Serge manages to render an atmospheric perspective on prison life written in the highest literary style.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Victor Serge's Author Page | Back to Richard Greeman's Page

Dead Kennedys on Scanner Zine

By Steve Scanner
Scanner Zine
March 2015

In many ways, it should come as absolutely no surprise that this is the first book to be published about what is arguably the definitive US Punk band. Given the band featured someone as meticulous as Jello Biafra would probably be enough to scare off many so-called ‘music journalists’. When you take into consideration the acrimonious legal battles that have blighted the band since, it’s clear that any attempt to portray a truthful account from any stage of the band’s tenure could be a task of insurmountable contradictions, myth, backstabbing and quite likely legal action. Thankfully, the man that has written this is Alex Ogg who has been responsible for many highly-regarded books about Punk, including The Art Of Punk and No More Heroes.

The book dates back to the very genesis of the band when, in 1978, guitarist East Bay Ray placed an advert for other musicians. The likes of CRIME, NUNS, AVENGERS and NEGATIVE TREND already flew the Punk flag in San Francisco at the time, but the arrival of the DEAD KENNEDYS announced a new twist to a familiar sound. No band before had been as jarring, as acerbic or as sarcastic - and that could be true on not just a local level but a national and international level also.

What follows is an incredibly well researched account of the band’s formative years, through the recording and release of the album in the book’s title and onto December 1980 with the departure of original drummer, Ted, and the June 1981 release of the single, ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’.

Thankfully, Ogg has conducted fresh interviews with all of the band, specifically Biafra and Ray, and just about every other significant party involved. He has represented both parties equally and fairly, but does not refrain from suggesting doubt at various dubious statements (like Ray’s insistence that he wrote, or rewrote, a number of the band’s greatest songs) or emphasising any contradictions. If any doubt is cast over the amount of effort on Ogg’s part to get this as accurate as possible, you only need to read the book’s prequel in which Ogg states the book took ten drafts running to 64,000 words when there were space for but 5,000; he even calculated quote allocations to prove all parties were equally represented.

The resulting narrative makes compulsive and essential reading. It’s laden with facts previously undisclosed and has a continuity that most other biographies (and biographers) can’t even aspire to.

The book is rounded out with a veritable cornucopia of visual material, be it some excellent photography from San Fran’s legendary Mabuhay Garden taken by Ruby Ray, or many images of flyers and promo material created by Winston Smith. The narrative is completed by some extensive notes from Ogg, some soundbite snippets from a bounty of notable names and an essential five-page piece about Winston Smith who was responsible for so many of the band’s infamous graphics; the book would have missed an integral part of the story without kudos being given to Smith.

It’s these new, exclusive interviews, Ogg’s directness and his attention to detail that makes this among the best biographies you will ever read. It should certainly be a lesson to all those who write error-laden biographies based only on information already available. Ultimately, the book recounts a vital chapter in US Punk history and delivers its narrative with style, focus and sincerity. Ogg is quick to state in the book’s final chapter that he has no intention of documenting the remainder of the band’s career; should anyone decide to take up that challenge, Ogg has set a stunningly high standard to follow. (06.03.15)

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Alex Ogg's Author Page | Back to Winston Smith's Illustrator Page | Back to Ruby Ray's Artist Page

Three Star Review of Positive Force in Video Librarian

By T. Keogh
Video Librarian

Three stars

Back in the mid-1980s, a bunch of young musicians from the punk rock scene in Washington, D.C., decided to channel their frustrations about society and government—typically aired in loud, brash songs and raucous performances—into concerts action on behalf of the disenfranchised and vulnerable in America. Thus was born Positive Force, a social action coalition of regional bands who wanted to make a difference. This interesting documentary tells their story, now 30 years old and still going strong. While its graying founders remain committed to original principles, the organizations’s energy is constantly repoenished by newcomers to the D.C. music scene. The most interesting parts of director Robin Bell’s film look back on the founding of Positive Force in 1985, followed by the extraordinary decision of its loose-knit membership to buy a house and convert it into a headquarters (which still exists). The originators recall idealistic meetings with free agendas in which musicians hammered out priorities and rallied around plans for fundraisers and street demonstrations addressing the issues of homelessness, hunger, income inequality, Regan-era politics, and much else. Combining archival concert footage featuring bands including Bikini Kill, Fugazi, and Anti-Flag, with interviews with Dave Grohl and other who discuss their history with the collective, this should appeal to punk fans and socially conscious viewers. Extras include bonus live performances and archival documentary shorts. Recommended. Aud: C,P.

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page


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