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Real Revolutionaries Carry a Banjo

by Jesse Drew

 [Jesse Drew sends us his reflections on the late Pete Seeger, whom he met during the making of his documentary on the politics of country music. A rough mix of Open Country was screened and presented by Jesse and Glenda at last January's Retort, during which we learnt that the new Billboard category 'Country and Western' was a McCarthy era (December 1949) coinage intended to break the lineage with political 'folk' e.g. Guthrie, the Almanacs and the Weavers. Jesse himself worked as a sound engineer at Dolby Labs in San Francisco and recently as director of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis, where he specializes in digital arts, media archaeology, documentary studies and the history of labor. He contributed 'The Commune as Badlands as Utopia as Autonomous Zone' to West of Eden (PM Press 2012) where he described himself as 'a young teenage runaway, who roamed the United States and thrived thanks to a strong network of urban and rural communes and collectives, spending many years as a labor activist in traditional smokestack industries before becoming involved in grassroots video production and the nascent digital arts movement.' IB] 

29. i. 14

I spend a lot of time thinking about Pete Seeger.  I was even thinking of him the night news of his death flashed on my screen.  In the course of working on an excruciatingly long-term film project on the politics of Country music, the influence of Pete Seeger arises quite often.  Part of the thesis of the film, called Open Country, is that Pete Seeger should be considered a founder of Country music.  Not folk music, mind you, as that has been around for some time.  Country music.  Nashville, I believe, owes Pete a statue in the center of town. But I will return to this seemingly absurd point later.

It is not possible to sum up the contributions of Pete Seeger in this commentary, nor in any article, anthology or book. His connection to the labor rebellions of the Great Depression and the post-War years, battles with HUAC and the anti-communist witch-hunts, participation in the Civil Rights movement in the South, agitation against the wars in Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East, building a community effort to clean industrial waterways, acting against global warming—these are all rich areas where Pete Seeger would have to be included.  To do justice to the legacy of Pete Seeger, indeed, one would have to write about every significant movement for social justice in the United States, if not the world, within the last 80 years.
With his passing, as I try to take the long view of his life, I am tainted not by what I know from books, recordings and word-of-mouth legacy, but by the small personal experiences I had of him. Growing up in the 1960s, I had heard a few songs of his in school, sung “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” in summer camp and saw him as a distant dot on a stage at anti-war rallies.  Our family watched the Smothers Brothers television show religiously, and was vaguely aware of his censorship battle while “waist deep in the big muddy”. But in my transition from pro-war patriotic teenager, to peacenik, to militant revolutionary, Seeger was too much “kumbaya” and not enough “street fightin’ man.” It wasn’t until the mid seventies, as I transitioned into a life in factory jobs and labor activism, that I realized how profound Seeger’s contributions were.  I discovered “Talking Union,” a record album of the Seeger-led Almanac Singers, with the labor songs that sitdown strikers and factory-occupying industrial workers sang across America in the 1930s and 1940s. They called themselves the Almanacs after Lee Hays remarked that "back home in Arkansas farmers had only two books in their houses: the Bible, to guide and prepare them for life in the next world, and the Almanac, to tell them about conditions in this one". I was surprised that I knew many of these songs from the Civil Rights movement, and discovered that they were indeed transported by Seeger and others from Flint and Pittsburg to Selma and Montgomery. Pete believed singing gave people the strength and resolve to maintain courage and dignity in the face of clubs, mace, jail and violence.  “Like a tree standing by the water” was relevant wherever your fight.  Throughout his life, he brought music to every arena of popular struggle.  He believed in the power of music.  He also believed deeply in the power of individuals to rise above their daily lives and join in a struggle for the greater good.  Quite simply, he believed in two facets of society no longer mentioned in polite company.  He believed in “the masses” and he also believed in “the working class.”

In the late seventies, a friend of mine whose father had fought in Spain invited me to a reunion of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  We entered the dark, wooden lodge-like old union hall in the East Bay of San Francisco, to encounter perhaps 50 older, somewhat grizzled men sitting on folding chairs around tables. Sitting casually amongst them was a tall, slim Pete Seeger, plucking a banjo, and chatting amiably with his table of military veterans, those who chose to fight prematurely against fascism.  No generals, politicians or Chamber of Commerce people to thank these veterans for their service, just Pete Seeger, who stood later during the evening and roused them with the songs of their militant youth.

Years later, while on a visit to the squatted community gardens of the “Loisaida”, the remnants of a once working-class and Nuyorican Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I spied the man ahead of me walking with an instrument case.  As I approached from behind, I could see it was not a guitar, but a banjo.  The man turned into a small pocket park, and shortly ahead was a group of perhaps 25 school children, sitting in the park in a semi-circle.  It was Pete Seeger, of course, who serenaded the kids of the neighborhood with children’s songs. I spoke with him after his casual performance, sitting in a wooden gazebo in the park, while he packed up his banjo. “I try to get out here as often as I can, to play for the children, and to visit the neighborhood.”  He left unaccompanied, on foot, just an old man and a banjo.

Years later I found myself beginning research on the politics and history of Country music, which I believe is rightfully the progressive voice of the rural and working poor, not the right wing, cowboy hat, pickup truck listeners of Nashville pop.  Preparing to examine the long history of Country music, I was stopped short in the late 1940s-early 1950s. That was pretty much as far back as music called “country” went.  Before that, it was called “folk”.  All the music we would call “country” today was listed on the charts as “folk.”  Hank Williams, the standard by which every self-respecting country musician holds themselves  (What would Hank do?) considered himself a folk musician.  Country music only showed up in the midst of the McCarthyite and HUAC assault on popular culture, whose impact is widely known on the film industry, somewhat known on the television and radio industry, but fairly unexamined in the music industry.  As Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and others who would dare sing about the struggles of poor and working people were dragged before HUAC and other un-American investigative committees, the industry read the lyrics on the wall.  Their self-preservation stance was: We don’t do “folk” music, we do “country” music: God, guns and beer, not coal miners, sharecroppers and strikers.  Almost overnight, the industry charts and lists separated “folk” from “country,” with Nashville as the homeland of country.  Folk music with suspect lyrics were marginalized and pulled from the air, while the now safe Country music hit the charts.  So, Country music—that’s Pete’s fault.

As I spent more time on research into Country music, I kept being dragged back to Folk music, and to the role of Pete Seeger.  For the film, I dreamed of interviewing him.  But how? After months of asking around, all I could come up with was a PO Box in upstate NY.  But he did not know who I was, or anything about my intentions.  Why would he speak with the likes of me? One night I wrote him a letter and sent it off to the PO Box, not expecting any response.  No response came and I quickly wrote off the possibility. Then, nine months later I had a voicemail.  “This is Pete Seeger, finally got around to opening your letter. Looks like an interesting project.  Why don’t you give me a call and we’ll set something up.”  Then he left his phone number.  I immediately called back and booked a plane for NY.

Picking up a friend and his daughter for technical support, we drove from Brooklyn up to his house in upstate NY in sub-zero weather, negotiating around dirt roads and frozen landscape.  We approached a complex of cabins at the top of a hill, not knowing if we’ve reached our destination or not, when we saw an elderly man with a knit cap splitting wood on the side of the house.  Pete, of course.  He invited us into his house, where his wife Toshi insisted that Pete “build that fire higher, as it’s freezing in here”, so our crew pitched in splitting and carrying wood to get the house warmer.  We got to roll camera and talk for hours, about country music, traditional music, revolutionary change.  We heard the great stories about writing “Union Maids” with Woody Guthrie in the back room of a union hall in Oklahoma, about sharing “We Shall Overcome” with SNCC and other civil rights activists, about his involvement in organizing a community push to clean up the Hudson, about his optimism for the future.
Pete Seeger and Jesse Drew up the Hudson

It struck me in the months afterwards that Pete Seeger embodied two of the most important characteristics I value in a revolutionary.  He truly believed in the power of ordinary people to act for social change on a mass level. Many today give lip service to that idea, but Pete really believed it.  And why not?  In his lifetime he was witness to rank-and-file workers standing together and occupying their factory, of communities sitting in and standing up to brutally racist attacks, of students who put down their books and took over administration buildings, of young people who blocked trains of munitions heading for war, of thousands of young and old who occupied Wall Street. He’s advocated for “the little drops that add up to buckets, that become a tidal wave of change.” And he sang for them all. The other valuable attribute I found in him: his political ideas were lived in his daily life. His generosity and respect to individuals was genuine, not rhetorical.  While interviewing him, I found there was a major film crew from Europe coming by the next day.  Yet, it was clear my little production was as important to him as that production was.  He remarked that just a few days before, “that fellow Bruce Springsteen” was sitting in the same chair, asking him similar questions.  I still had the impression that my sitting there was just as important to him. Pete lived the politics he believed in, he built his own house, grew a garden, chopped his own wood, was kind to people, and yet on top of it all still managed to change the world.  And in the true tradition of punk rock, “he booked his own damn life” although he may have been many months behind!

In the weeks to come, there will be many eulogies to Pete Seeger.  Many will downplay and sanitize who he was, stripping his politics away and leaving a kindly man who played banjo songs about America. Others will question and poison his motives, bringing in the spectre of the Communist Party, USA and when he broke from its Stalinist past.  One thing is for sure. A profound link with the long trajectory of revolutionary change in the US has been lost. 

Someone who understood the links between labor, race, ecology, peace, culture and music. 

One who understood the importance of bringing masses of people into the struggle, to be respectful, inclusive and inviting. These are all qualities we are in desperate need of today.  May his passing inspire the ranks of many new Pete Seegers.

Barred For Life: An Encounter and A Tattoosday Book Review

by Bill Cohen
Tattoosday Blog
December 15th, 2013

As a Gen-X child, the Black Flag bars are familiar to me. I’ll be honest, I was never a huge fan, but I had friends that were, coming of age in the 1980’s.

I remember first seeing Black Flag on film in the groundbreaking The Decline of Western Civilization, screened at the University of Hawaii Physical Science Auditorium, whose film series had a cult following  among teens in Honolulu in the early 80’s. It was there that I saw Rocky Horror (many times), Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, Russ Meyer's Up!, The Song Remains the Same, and the Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult concert film, Black and Blue.

And, Decline.

The film didn’t shake my core like it did many of my friends, but my middle-aged memory cites it as my first encounter with Black Flag. Their emblematic bars found their way onto my notebooks, sharing the doodling of metal band names and logos. The bars remind me of adolescence and rebellion.

Other people’s rebellion, not mine, mind you.

I won’t claim to be someone I’m not, or someone I wasn’t.

I don’t have any Black Flag tattoos on me, and I never will.

This past summer, on my way to a job interview, I was in lower Manhattan in a suit on a sweltering day when I met Harley, a woman with a lot of ink. I had a few minutes before my interview and asked her about her work. She showed me her back:

Running into Harley and having her share this tattoo seemed fortuitous, as I had just received a copy of Barred for Life in the mail. Subtitled “How Black Flag’s Signature Logo Became Punk Rock’s Secret Handshake,” this book was on my list of titles to review, and there had just been several events in New York celebrating its release.

I envisioned a big post, combining Harley’s tattoo and the review. This is that post (obviously), but just fashionably late to the party.

A word first about Harley’s tattoo, which she credited to Troy Denning at Invisible NYC. Harley told me, when I asked her why she got the "Rise Above" tattoo, simply, “to rise above.” She added later, “And to … let nothing keep you down...”

As for Barred for Life, I can’t think of a more compelling gift for someone who is either a 1) punk/hardcore fan; or 2) a fan of simple tattoos that mean a whole lot. So, if you know someone looking to use a bookstore gift card this holiday season, tell them to special order this book.

Let’s face it, the Bars are fairly rudimentary – four rectangular blocks offset in equidistant parallel orientation. Barred for Life unveils a wide array of variations on the tattoo, which anchors album art and other punk sentiment. The really compelling aspect of each tattoo is that of the interview that accompanies it.
We get an inside view into the minds of people who have been “barred for life,” including the fan’s relationship with the band, the story behind the tattoo (right up our alley!), and the favorite singer/song/album trifecta. We’re also treated to interviews with current and former band members, with Henry Rollins noticeably absent.

The scope of this volume is magnificent. The number of people who are “barred for life” is staggering, just based on this sampling alone. Think of the thousands of others who have been similarly branded – where a tattoo of a band logo goes above and beyond one’s appreciation of the group itself.

That said, this is more than just a tattoo book – it’s a chronicle of a mindset, a visual exploration of a family that united around a symbol that inserted itself as a logo of a punk band, and evolved into a cultural icon.
Thanks to Harley for sharing her Black Flag tattoo with us here on Tattoosday, and to Stewart Dean Ebersole for putting together such a great chronicle of bars tattoos.

More info on the book here.

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The Rhetoric of Life: S. Brian Willson’s Blood on the Tracks

By Charlie Canning
Kyoto Journal

In some respects, S. Brian Willson’s Blood on the Tracks is similar to Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. Both Kovic and Willson are Viet Nam Veterans who had to change their way of thinking once they’d discovered that the reality of the war had little to do with the ideals that had been used to sell it. But while Born on the Fourth of July is limited to Kovic’s Viet Nam War experience and its aftermath, Willson’s Blood on the Tracks takes a more encyclopedic approach to U.S. history.

At times, Blood on the Tracks reads like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. There’s a lot of tangential material woven into the narrative and Willson doesn’t mind departing from the timeline if there is something on the periphery of his experience or his education that he feels people should know about. There’s an attempt at psychohistory as well, but this thread is less developed than the personal memoir and historical parts.

In terms of subject matter, there are at least three books here: one on Viet Nam, one on Latin America, and one on sustainable living. The event that cauterizes all the parts is Willson’s encounter with a U.S. Navy munitions train in Concord, California on September 1, 1987. Willson and two other men were sitting on the tracks in a public right-of-way to protest the shipment of arms to Central America and other places around the world including Asia.

Willson’s protest at the Concord Naval Weapon’s Station was textbook civil disobedience. He had read his Martin Luther King, Jr., his Gandhi, and his Thoreau. Willson had fully expected the train to stop.

I had been following Willson’s campaign in the local newspapers and thought that we were in for a fairly predictable, drawn-out battle of wills. Willson would sit on the tracks — the Navy would remove him from the tracks; Willson would sit on the tracks — the Navy would remove him from the tracks. This would go on until some concessions were made or until the Navy had figured out a way to keep Willson and the other protestors off of the tracks. Never did I expect that the train would run over Brian Willson.

What a shock it was to hear that the train hadn’t stopped. In fact, not only had the train not stopped, it had speeded up. Willson’s legs were a mass of pulp. There was no way to reattach the severed leg or to save the other one. Both legs had to be amputated below the knee. More shocking still was how quickly the story had faded from public consciousness. Soon it was like the whole thing had never happened. Brian Willson is one of the Beach Boys, isn’t he?

Like Ron Kovic, Willson is savvy enough to understand that suffering can, in itself, be a form of activism. In order to pull this off, you have to have both innocence and will. Without innocence, the suffering becomes masochistic and only brings on further pain. Without will, there’s no arc to the suffering.

In his book Power and Innocence, psychologist Rollo May makes an important distinction between innocence and pseudo-innocence. Innocence “is the preservation of childlike attitudes into maturity without sacrificing the realism of one’s perception of evil….” Pseudo-innocence, on the other hand, “is childishness rather than childlikeness” and leads to unconscious “complicity with evil.”* According to May, the United States is a pseudo-innocent country that has repeatedly invoked the “design of Providence” to rationalize genocide, slavery, the use of atomic bombs on largely civilian populations, and a host of other evils.

What makes Brian Willson so effective as an activist is his innocence. He doesn’t expect to find blackened bodies of women and children on the battlefields of Viet Nam. Willson doesn’t expect that the U.S. Government will secretly fund arms shipments to mercenaries in Central America to kill poor farmers working in small village cooperatives. He doesn’t expect that a Navy munitions train will run him over. But once he sees the truth, Willson doesn’t shy away from it or pretend that the evil doesn’t exist.

The other quality that Willson has in abundance is will. Like other activists before him, Willson has been consistently overmatched. In every single one of the causes that he has fought for, the other side has had most of the power and most of the resources. What they haven’t had is the right.

Brian Willson’s had that and his life has an extraordinary rhetoric to it. As a young man, he goes off to Viet Nam a “Commie-hating, baseball-loving Baptist.” By bitter experience, he learns that there are no just wars — only justifications. He attempts to stop a Navy munitions train from making its run to protest the killing and maiming of poor farmers in Central America.

He loses both his legs in the attempt. After an absurd legal battle in which he is countersued for causing distress to the train crew that ran him over, Willson wins a large civil suit and increases his activism. For three years, he travels around the world campaigning for human rights. Sensing that it is the American Way of Life that is driving the U.S. imperial juggernaut, Willson begins to focus his attention on his own consumption patterns. He builds a solar house with a composting toilet and starts driving electric cars. Currently on a speaking tour to promote Blood on the Tracks, the now seventy-year-old Willson is transporting himself to the bookstores along the route by three-wheeled hand-cycle.

Each day that Willson meets with people to discuss the events recounted in Blood on the Tracks, he uses the rhetoric of his life to raise the consciousness of those around him. Each day, Willson is outgunned by the Patriot Act and the banality of the mass media. And each day, Brian Willson prevails.

*May, Rollo. Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1972, p. 49.

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Jobs With Justice: 25 years to trying to transform Gompersism in the labor movement

By Paul Buhle
Labor and Working-Class History Association
October 31st, 2013

These days, successful labor activity among the unorganized seems to depend, in ever greater degree, upon “faith based organizing,” union efforts interfacing with the constituencies of churches and the occasional synagogue. If this is a major trend, it surely begins with the story of Jobs with Justice. One of the shining stars in the general darkness of the past thirty years, JWJ has often felt more like a missionary organization than a collective project for self-interest—just as in the most vital moments in American labor history, before the dead hand of the functionaries took hold.

Looking way back, the AFL of Samuel Gompers, exclusionary by intent, eventually yielded to an AFL-CIO run by highly paid figures of the 1950s little interested in unpromising avenues including (mostly women) office workers, agricultural workers, and, of course, the undocumented workers who were considered unwanted at best. No wonder labor went to rack and ruin.

Enter JWJ, a most unusual venture supported by progressives and even a few noted regressives, i.e., Cold Warriors with suspicious past connections, like certain officials of the Communications Workers before Larry Cohen stepped into the presidency. Cohen’s rise was doubly important because more than anyone else, he pushed the idea that community organizing movements, support groups for non-English speaking immigrants and others, could coalesce with sections of labor was the right one at the right time, i.e., the 1980s. Here is the secret for a valuable little book, impressive as an oral history project, equally impressive for the ideas that it brings to labor. Jobs with Justice: 25 Years offers deeply personal stories, varying widely according to local conditions, allies and prospects. Here we rediscover some considerable victories and, inevitably, some bitter defeats. Perhaps beyond the details, we find a sensibility that could be, might yet be, a rebirth of a solidarity labor movement.

Larry Cohen himself suggests lucidly, without being polemical, about why that moment has not arrived for the AFL-CIO generally. Members disappear but “institutionitis” even more than a growing scarcity of resources (including money for organizing) hangs on. It could be called the Dead Hand of the post-1950 past, although that would be too simple. Readers are directed to dig into the details for themselves. It’s a rich trove, and tells us much about efforts in the nonunion South, for instance, armed with civil rights allies, women’s groups, and the coalitions around Living Wage efforts. Or post-industrial cities like Cleveland and Buffalo, where strong unions had come and gone, leaving the community (and especially minorities) behind.

Jobs with Justice aimed at a “permanent coalition,” placing labor where it would naturally be, and was in the days of the ethnic halls near the big manufacturing plants reached largely on foot from the neighborhoods.

In the days before Social Security, sickness-and-death benefit societies, consumer coops and music on weekends wove a fabric of solidarity. Now, the fabric needs to be rewoven with all the resources available and more.

That “more” is, in significant degree, a spiritual thing. Thus a cofounder of the Cleveland chapter describes growing up Catholic, boycotting lettuce in solidarity with the United Farm Workers (and Cesar Chavez), feeling uplifted by Martin Luther King, Jr., and fighting for health care reform arm and arm with local black ministers. That the Cleveland Federation of Labor vigorously opposed the US role in Iraq as well is a tribute to how labor could be turned around from the hawkishness of the George Meany/Lane Kirkland years.

Jobs with Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices
is not a critical history, and the weaknesses of the movement remain to be addressed. But this is a wonderful beginning on preparing any reader for the story of labor in the 21st century

Jobs with Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices.
Edited by Eric Larson, with contributions by Larry Cohen, Rev. Calvin Morris, and Sarita Gupta. Oakland, PM Press, 2013. 180pp, $15.95

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How To Make Trouble and Influence People: A Review

By Meredith Jacka
Socialist Party Australia
November 4th, 2013

How to make trouble and influence people – Pranks, protests, graffiti and political mischief making’ provides a brief yet diverse historical account of Australian radical politics over the last 225 years.

But unlike many other history books, this one is delightfully easy to read, you can pick it up and open it to any page and you’ll learn something. It could be about a convict uprising in 1798 or anti nuclear activists in 1986.

There’s no need to sift through dry, academic, text book style stuff, Iain McIntyre has done that for us, with the result being an aesthetically pleasing and easily accessible resource book for anyone interested in progressive activism.

You certainly don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this but by the time you get to the end you will be armed with a very good picture of the ways in which people in Australia have developed through two centuries of struggle. McIntyre documents the rise and fall of various movements and how they are all intertwined throughout history.

The first section of this book is comprised of short accounts, all are a paragraph or two long, of regular people standing up for their rights.

From the moment Captain Cook landed his boat, and two Indigenous warriors tried to warn him off, right up until the Occupy movement in 2011, and everything in between. And if like me, you like visual aids, there is an amazing archive of photos to go along with it.

These snippets of history highlight the willingness to struggle and the progressive views and held by the working class since the beginning of the colonial era. The book also highlights the continuous and unrelenting exploitation by the ruling class, whether it is at the hands of governments, police or bosses.

‘How to make trouble and influence people’ pays particular attention to some of the more obscure social movements that wouldn’t otherwise be published in mainstream capitalist press. Very importantly McIntyre doesn’t neglect to mention the many battles fought by Indigenous people over the last two centuries.

The second section of the book contains interviews with pranksters and theatrical activists and again there are some very interesting insights in to how some of Australia’s most famous stunts came into being. From The Chaser team making it into the ‘red zone’ of the 2007 APEC convention dressed as Osama bin Laden to my personal favourite – the John Howard Ladies Auxiliary Fan Club. A group of women who frocked up like it was the 1950’s and followed John Howard around drawing attention to his racist and bigoted policies.

All of the interviews provide us with a many ideas for challenging the system and having a bit of fun along the way. However where this section falls flat is the lack of politics in the views of many of the interviewees. There is very little mention of organised class politics or even of the use of direct action. While the people interviewed have many creative ideas most lack a clear political strategy to actually build movements and win lasting social change.

I love street theatre, graffiti and pranksters, but these things alone can’t change the world. Certainly there are times when the radical left could use some added vibrancy, but we mustn’t lose sight of the strength of ordinary people collectively organised and fighting for a common goal.

How to make trouble and influence people
By Iain McIntyre
Published by Breakdown Press
Available in Melbourne from the New International Bookshop, Brunswick Bound, Polyester Books and Readings Carlton. Sydneysiders can find it at Jura Books and Resistance Books. Everyone else can order it directly from

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How To Make Trouble and Influence People: Recommended Summer Reading

By Rachel Evans
Green Left Weekly

In this beautifully-designed book, Melbourne-based author Iain McIntyre reveals the vital history of creative resistance in Australia. It is told through stories of Indigenous resistance, convict escapes, picket-line high-jinks, student occupations, creative direct action, media pranks, urban interventions, squatting, blockades, banner drops, street theatre and billboard liberation.

Included are stories and anecdotes, interviews with pranksters and troublemakers - and more than 300 photos. "History is filled with individuals and organisations who were totally out of step with the mainstream of their time," says McIntyre. "In learning about the deeds of rebels past, we are provided with a memory bank of ideas and tactics from which to draw." This year's updated edition, also available as an ebook, reaches out to audiences worldwide with introductions added for key periods in Australian history. It features an extra 30 pages of new material.

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Oscar López Rivera’s 32 Years of Resistance to Torture --Will President Obama pardon the longest held Independentista?

By Hans Bennett
May 29th, 2013

(First published by Upside Down World on May 29, 2013. Permission is granted to reprint in full as long as Upside Down World is cited, with a link to the original article.)

“It is much easier not to struggle, to give up and take the path of the living dead. But if we want to live, we must struggle.” –Oscar López Rivera, 1991

Today, May 29, marks 32 years since Puerto Rican activist Oscar López Rivera was arrested and later convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” a questionable charge that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has interpreted to mean “conspiring to free his people from the shackles of imperial injustice.”

Today, 70-year-old Oscar López Rivera, never accused of hurting anyone, remains in a cell at FCI Terre Haute, in Indiana. Supporters around the world continue to seek his release, most recently by asking US President Barack Obama for a commutation of his sentence. Similar pardons granted by President Truman in 1952, President Carter in 1979, and President Clinton in 1999, were the legal bases for the release of many other Puerto Rican political prisoners.

Since all of Oscar López Rivera’s original co-defendants have already won their release, he is famous in Puerto Rico as the longest held Independentista political prisoner. Supporters are planning a range of events across the island for the upcoming week, as they mark this dubious ‘anniversary.’ Among those calling for his release is Javier Jiménez Pérez, the mayor of his hometown of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, and a supporter of statehood.

Upside Down World interviewed Dylcia Pagán, one of López Rivera’s co-defendants pardoned in 1999, by telephone from her home in Loíza, Puerto Rico, where she continues to work in support of other political prisoners. Asked why the US government should release López Rivera now, after 32 years, Pagán told Upside Down World:

“Oscar should be free because he is an incredible human being, an artist, and a man that has a lot to give society in both the US and Puerto Rico. He has never even been accused of committing an act of violence. This conviction for ‘seditious conspiracy’ is what they’ve used against all of the Independentistas. The US claims to believe in democracy and human rights, but Oscar’s continued imprisonment is a clear violation of both.”

Pagán adds: “Oscar has served his time with dignity and has contributed to the lives of other prisoners. He deserves to be home in Puerto Rico, just like all of us.”

Between Torture and Resistance

“i was born Boricua, i will keep being Boricua, and will die a Boricua. i refuse to accept injustice, and will never ignore it when i become aware of it.” –Oscar López Rivera, 2011

With public support continuing to build for Oscar López Rivera’s release, PM Press has just published an important book, entitled Between Torture and Resistance, timed well to amplify López Rivera’s voice at this critical time. The book bases its text upon letters López Rivera has written over the years to lawyer and activist Luis Nieves Falcón, as well as letters to and from many family members during his imprisonment. This new book examines the broader political significance of López Rivera’s case, while providing an unflinching look at how imprisonment and draconian policies like solitary confinement and no-contact visits affect prisoners and their loved ones.

Perhaps nothing illustrates López Rivera’s character better than how he refers to himself with the lowercase use of the letter ‘i,’ in order to deemphasize the individual with respect to the collective. His letters offer a view into the mind of an extraordinary person. Reading first-hand in Between Torture and Resistance about the range of abuses that López Rivera has survived while in US custody may cause readers nightmares, but his accounts are a badly-needed reality check for anyone unfamiliar with the typically brutal treatment of US political prisoners. As Reverend Ángel L. Rivera-Agosto, executive secretary of the Puerto Rico Council of Churches comments, the book “is a powerful testimony, born from the cold bars of imprisonment, as a sign of today’s injustice and lack of freedom and respect for human rights.”

The chapter entitled “Life Experiences: 1943-1976,” offers a glimpse into the early years of Oscar López Rivera, born on January 6, 1943, in Barrio Aibonito of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. At the age of fourteen, he moved with his family to the US and eventually graduated from high school in Chicago in 1960. In a 1981 interview, López Rivera’s mother, Mita described this initial move, reflecting: “My husband came looking for a better environment and it was not to be found here. We have to work harder, it’s colder, [there is] more humiliation, more racism for us…We live humiliated by the Americans…We suffer in this country.”

(López Rivera's painting of his mother, Mita)
After working several different jobs to help support his family, in 1965 the government drafted López Rivera into the Vietnam War, which ultimately “awakened previously unexperienced feelings about Puerto Rico. First, the Puerto Rican flag became a symbol of important unity among the Puerto Rican soldiers…Second, Oscar began to question his role in such a terrible war. Why did they have to kill people who had done nothing to them? Why kill people who appeared to have things in common with Puerto Ricans themselves? He began to question the actions of North American imperialism in that Southeast Asian country, and the role of Puerto Ricans in the imperialist wars of the United States. These two seeds—cultural nationalism and anti-colonial struggle—begin to germinate in Oscar’s mind in Vietnam, and ripened later in his life,” writes Luis Nieves Falcón.

López Rivera’s politicization continued after serving in Vietnam, when he returned to Chicago. After working with the Saul Alinsky-influenced Northwest Community Organization, in 1972, he co-founded the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school controlled directly by Puerto Ricans. Nieves Falcón writes that here “Oscar articulated a powerful vision of how alternative schools can challenge the essentially racist system of mainstream US education.”

In 1973, he co-founded Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center and in 1975 helped establish Illinois’ first Latino Cultural Center. López Rivera participated in some of the Young Lords’ activities, but he was not a member of the group. In addition, he worked on other issues, including racial discrimination in hiring and working conditions, confronting landlords about housing conditions, and improving hospital conditions and medical services for the most vulnerable. Luis Nieves Falcón comments that Lopez Rivera’s “civil activism between 1969 and 1976 clearly evidenced his genuine and significant effort to use every possible route of change within Chicago’s existing official structures.”

In 1973, after joining the National Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church, López Rivera publicly supported Independentistas imprisoned in the US for attacks on the Blair House (the Presidential guesthouse) in 1950 and on the US Congress in 1954. In the early 1970s, several armed clandestine groups formed in Puerto Rico and carried out actions to protest the US occupation of Puerto Rico. At this time, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) formed inside the US and from 1974-1980 claimed responsibility for multiple bombings, mostly in New York and Chicago, of military, government and economic targets. The FALN said they meant for their actions to publicize US colonization of Puerto Rico and to demand the release of the same imprisoned Independentistas that Oscar López Rivera and other community activists had been publicly supporting.

In response, the US government held Grand Jury investigations, ‘fishing’ for intelligence on the FALN, in 1974 and from 1976-1977. The government jailed several members of the National Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church for refusing to cooperate with the Grand Jury, including López Rivera’s brother, Jose. With Oscar López Rivera expecting to be the Grand Jury’s next target, he and three other close associates went underground, where López Rivera remained from 1976 until his subsequent arrest in 1981.

Convicted of ‘Seditious Conspiracy’

“This is not a trial. It is not even a kangaroo court.” –Oscar López Rivera, speaking at the 1981 court proceedings.

Oscar López Rivera’s legal team at the People’s Law Office, explains on their website:

“In 1980, eleven men and women were arrested and later charged with the overtly political charge of seditious conspiracy — conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force, by membership in the FALN, and of related charges of weapons possession and transporting stolen cars across state lines. Oscar was not arrested at the time, but he was named as a codefendant in the indictment…In 1981, Oscar was arrested after a traffic stop, tried for the identical seditious conspiracy charge, convicted, and sentenced by the same judge to a prison term of 55 years. In 1987 he received a consecutive 15 year term for conspiracy to escape–a plot conceived and carried out by government agents and informants/provocateurs, resulting in a total sentence of 70 years.”

At Oscar López Rivera’s 1981 trial, he took a position similar to that of his co-defendants at their earlier trial: he declared the trial illegitimate and refused to present a defense or pursue an appeal. However, López Rivera did make an eloquent statement, reprinted in Between Torture and Resistance:

“Given my revolutionary principles, the legacy of our heroic freedom fighters, and my respect for international law—the only law which has a right to judge my actions—it is my obligation and my duty to declare myself a prisoner of war. I therefore do not recognize the jurisdiction of the United States government over Puerto Rico or of this court to try me or judge me.”

Later, at his 1987 trial where the court convicted him of “conspiracy to escape,” López Rivera took a similar stance, and in his statement, also reprinted in the new book, he elaborated further on the precedent set by anti-colonialist international law:

“Colonialism, dear members of the jury, is a monumental injustice according to the norms of civilized humanity and a crime under international law. According to United Nations Resolution 2621, the continuation of colonialism in all its forms and manifestations is a crime that constitutes a violation of the charter of the United Nations, Resolution 1514 (XV), the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples….No nation, ladies and gentleman, has the right to take over another nation. The military invasion and occupation of Puerto Rico clearly depicts the rapacious and voracious nature of the United States government, with the armed forces, rifles, and cannons it used to subjugate a people into submission and reduce a nation of one million inhabitants to a commodity for the bartering of human beings. For 89 years, this nation, conquered by force—the Puerto Rican people—have been denied their basic rights to self-determination and independence.”

(Painting of US-Mexico wall by López Rivera.)
‘Spiritcide’ and the Torture of Imprisonment

“The memory of our pain deserves to be appreciated, remembered, and never denied.” --Oscar López Rivera, 1997

Following his 1981 conviction, the government first held López Rivera at FCI Leavenworth in Kansas, until 1986. Upon arrival, Luis Nieves Falcón writes that “the majority of the prison guards were waiting for him. They surrounded him and verbally assaulted him. They repeatedly stressed that they didn’t want him there; that he was a dangerous terrorist and the place for him was Marion: an even higher-security prison, regarded among prison guards as the right place to eliminate terrorists.” Despite a clean record at Leavenworth and a 1985 report by his jailers that “he demonstrated favorable adjustment and maintained positive relations with the staff,” López Rivera became the target of an FBI entrapment scheme, involving a fabricated escape plan. On June 24, 1986, just days after the government formally accused him of planning to escape, he received a disciplinary transfer to the notorious federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

During the court proceedings for the ‘escape’ charges, held from September 1986 to February 1988, prison authorities held López Rivera in solitary confinement at MCC Chicago. Following his conviction and sentence of 15 years, authorities transferred him back to Marion, where he stayed until 1994. The new book features his reflections upon his living conditions during this period. López Rivera writes:

“i use the word ‘spiritcide’ to describe the dehumanizing and pernicious existence that i have suffered…i face, on the one hand, an environment that is a sensory deprivation laboratory, and on the other hand, a regimen replete with obstacles to deny, destroy or paralyze my creativity…i am locked up in a cell that is 6’ wide and 9’long, for an average of 22 ½ hours a day…Living in these conditions day after day and year after year has to have an adverse effect on my senses. i don’t have access to fresh air or to natural light because when i turn off the light in the cell to sleep, the guards keep the outside lights on and light enters the cell…Day and night i hear the roaring of the electric fans, whose noise is so strident that when I don’t hear them, i feel disoriented.”

Later in the same letter, López Rivera explains how he has survived:

“i know that the human spirit has the capacity to resurrect after suffering spiritcide. And like the rose or the wilted leaf falls and dies and in its place a newer and stronger one is reborn or resurrects, my spirit will also resurrect if the jailers achieve their goals…My certainty lies in my confidence that i have chosen to serve a just and noble cause. A free, just, and democratic homeland represents a sublime ideal worth fighting for…i am in this dungeon and the possibility that i will be freed is remote, not to say impossible, under conditions equal to or worse than caged animals, under spiritual and physical attack, but with full dignity and with a clean and clear conscience.”

(Painting by Oscar López Rivera)
In 1994, authorities transferred López Rivera to a new federal prison in Florence, Colorado that soon became as notorious as Marion was, for its own human rights abuses. After over a year of good behavior at Florence, authorities transferred him back to Marion after denying his request to be transferred elsewhere. Even though Marion had officially become lower security than before, following his transfer back, López Rivera reported that conditions had become worse.

Perhaps most chilling is his account of getting an operation for a hemorrhoid condition three days after his mother had passed away. Authorities had denied his request to attend the funeral. Within hours of the procedure, the area operated upon became infected, with his fever finally reaching 102.7 degrees. At this point, instead of giving him antibiotics as he immediately requested from the medical staff, authorities accused him of stealing the needle used for a blood test. The authorities cruelly withheld the antibiotics. Two days later, as the still untreated infection got even worse,

“They released me from the hospital and returned me to the hole. The jailers that took me were racing wheel chairs. Every turn made me feel as if someone was cutting me with a razor. i got to the cell and was preparing to clean up the blood. A lieutenant came in and said they were going to cuff me…According to him i had stolen the needle and immediately passed it to an accomplice who took it away…They searched me from head to toe. Blood was running down my legs, and here he was passing a metal detector on my rear. To punish me, they did not allow me to use the sitz bath or give me medications.”

It was not until 10:00 pm, the following day, López Rivera writes “that they gave me the sitz bath and the antibiotics…An hour later, my body responded and I was able to use the toilet—an incredibly painful ordeal”

In 1998, after 12 years in total isolation, authorities transferred López Rivera to FCI Terre Haute, in Indiana, where he remains today. Once there, he was finally able to have contact visits and other new ‘privileges,’ which increased his quality of life. Despite these improvements, the People’s Law Office reports that prison authorities imposed a special condition requiring him to report his whereabouts every two hours to prison guards. Even though this condition was initially scheduled to end after 18 months, it still continues today, over 14 years later.

Since 1999, authorities have barred the media from interviewing López Rivera, “in spite of policy allowing for media interviews of prisoners, in spite of allowing media interviews of other prisoners, and in spite of having allowed Oscar to be interviewed many times previously, without incident. Each rejection has used the identical, unsubstantiated excuse that ‘the interview could jeopardize security and disturb the orderly running of the institution,’” writes the People’s Law Office, noting further that “since 2011, the government has extended this ban beyond media, rejecting requests by New York elected officials to meet with Oscar.”

(Painting of socialist Salvador Allende by López Rivera)
The Struggle Continues

“They will never be able to break my spirit or my will. Every day i wake up alive is a blessing.” –Oscar López Rivera, 2006

In 2011, the denial of parole to Oscar López Rivera outraged the leaders of Puerto Rico’s political and civil society, who publicly denounced the ruling. One critic, Puerto Rico’s non-voting U.S. congressional representative,  Pedro Pierluisi, said, “I don’t see how they can justify another 12 years of prison after he has spent practically 30 years in prison, and the others who were charged with the same conduct are already in the free community. It seems to me to be excessive punishment.”

In response to the parole denial, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined Nobel Laureates Máiread Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, to send a letter to US President Barack Obama expressing their concern about his parole hearing. The letter cited how “testimony was permitted at that hearing regarding crimes López Rivera was never accused of committing in the first place, and a decision was handed down which—in denying parole—pronounced a veritable death sentence by suggesting that no appeal for release be heard again until 2023.”

Following the parole denial, López Rivera declared in a public statement to supporters:

“We have not achieved the desired goal. But we achieved something more beautiful, more precious and more important. And that is the fact that the campaign included people who represent a rainbow of political ideologies, religious beliefs, and social classes that exist in Puerto Rico. This to me represents the magnanimity of the Boricua heart—one filled with love, compassion, courage and hope.”

Today, López Rivera and his support campaign are focusing their efforts on a a letter-writing campaign asking US President Barack Obama to pardon him (view/download a suggested letter). There is a strong precedent for this strategy. In 1952, President Harry Truman commuted the death sentence of Oscar Collazo. In 1977 and 1979, President Jimmy Carter pardoned Andrés Figueroa Cordero, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebrón, Irving Flores and Oscar Collazo.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Oscar López Rivera’s co-defendants Edwin Cortés, Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jiménez, Adolfo Matos, Dylcia Pagán, Luis Rosa, Alberto Rodríguez, Alicia Rodríguez, Ida Luz Rodríguez, Alejandrina Torres, Carmen Valentín, and Juan Segarra Palmer. President Clinton offered to release López Rivera on the condition that he serve ten more years in prison. However, because Clinton did not extend that offer to two other Independentista prisoners, López Rivera did not accept the offer. In 2009 and 2010, those two other prisoners won their release on parole, making López Rivera the last co-defendant still imprisoned today, even though Clinton’s offer would have ostensibly released him in 2009.

Dylcia Pagán, pardoned in 1999, says that after 32 years of imprisonment, the time is now for President Barack Obama to pardon Oscar López Rivera. Asked to compare today’s political climate to that in 1999, Pagán is optimistic and says the movement is “alive and well,” with popular pressure continuing to build in support of López Rivera. “Hopefully, Oscar will be home by Christmas."

The new book, Between Torture and Resistance, concludes with a final thought from Luis Nieves Falcón:

"The best tribute we can extend to Oscar is to continue to fight every day, with yet greater determination, for his release. Every day that Oscar remains in prison is another reminder of the hypocrisy and absurdity of the US government's talk of human rights in light of its colonial rule. In the strongest possible terms, let us raise our voices to denounce this abuse and demand freedom for Oscar López Rivera."

(Painting of Hurricane Katrina survivors outside of the Super Dome in Louisiana, by López Rivera)


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Open Letter to President Obama: A Pardon for Oscar Lopez Rivera

By Guillermo Rebollo-Gil
November 28th, 2014

Dear President Obama:

Here in Puerto Rico, your lunch with now Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla is commemorated by way of a small plaque on the table in the restaurant where you paid cash for a sandwich in a button-down white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I presume that restaurant owners placed the plaque there because customers might want to sit at the same table where the President of the United States ate a sandwich—they might even want to have their picture taken there. They’re probably right: people often enjoy imbuing everyday activities with historical significance, even when the historical event in question here was not all that significant, when compared to the kinds of things that usually make up the history of nations and so forth. Several months after you left, the island government unveiled a statue of you across the street from the Capitol building in San Juan, next to statues of all the other Presidents who had visited Puerto Rico in the history of American colonial rule over the island. They’re not that many. And there’s no record of what they ate, I don’t think.

I share this because, like so many here, I have a somewhat distorted notion of history and of the events that comprise it. For example, I know that you are the 44th President of the U.S. and that you were first sworn into office on January 20th, 2009. I know this because I turned 30 years old that day and was standing in a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Washington D.C, overwhelmed by the sight of you on the big screen approaching the podium to address the crowd as President for the very first time. I remember thinking “this is historic” and I even managed to convince myself that although I had stood in the middle of a crowd before, that particular occasion was significant. To commemorate it, I bought and kept a copy of the New York Times. However, by the time you made your first visit to Puerto Rico in June 2011, I, as perhaps others around the world, was already significantly underwhelmed by the moral character of your presidency. I sometimes wonder whether it will be those feelings of deception, disillusion and supreme disappointment experienced by millions that will define you historically. Sometimes I hope so. Sometimes I hope not.

Anyway, I’m writing because this past Saturday, I was standing in the middle of a crowd of tens of thousands in front of the Federal Court Building in San Juan, and I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many diverse groups of people, set to march through the city to demand the liberation of Oscar López Rivera, who has served more than 32 years in federal prison for conspiring to oppose U.S. authority by force. At present, he is one of the longest held political prisoners in the U.S., although he was never convicted of directly harming anybody. During his incarceration he has been subjected to behavioral modification programs, kept in isolation. He is 70 years old, has a daughter and a granddaughter whom he met through the glass in a prison visiting room. He deserves to be back home.  Although, to be honest, on January 20th 2009, I was unaware of the particulars of Mr. López Rivera’s incarceration. I was aware, of course, of the historical struggle in Puerto Rico for  independence from the U.S. and of the many men and women who have been imprisoned by the federal government in the history of U.S. colonial rule over the island for attempting to liberate our country—an at once beautiful and nefarious legacy, no doubt. This notwithstanding, it was your name (and not Oscar’s) that I learned to say first, as an affirmation of hope for more progressive politics, individual liberties and social justice—an unfortunate but typical effect of colonialism, no doubt. Thankfully, I don’t say it that way any longer. Instead, I write down the name OSCAR in big, black letters on a poster board and, like thousands upon thousands inside and outside the island, I hope against all odds that you pay attention to a place where people are expected to pay you homage simply because you dropped by and ate a sandwich. I’m writing because I, like so many of us here, would like to have Mr. López Rivera back on the island so we could run into him casually at lunch time and have the opportunity to shake his hand and thank him for doing something as significant as fighting for the liberation of his country, and enduring so many years in prison, all the while giving us hope for more progressive politics, individual liberties and social justice. But I digress.

This is just to say that your lunch here in June 2011 is not significant. Nor is your statue, really, as it does not commemorate anything historical you might have done here. People do insignificant things every day, even Presidents. It’s a historical fact. Some facts, however, stand out more than others. The fact that Oscar López Rivera has spent the last three plus decades in prison stands out the most around these parts. Over the last three plus decades, five different Presidents have been sworn into office. I wonder if it would be possible for you to consider standing out amongst them. I wonder if you would be interested in imbuing your presidency with historical significance in the form of a direct action to assuage this injustice perpetrated by the American government. I wonder if you would be interested in affirming the fundamental American principle of freedom and grant a pardon to Mr. López Rivera. I really hope so. At all times.

On Saturday, students at the march were chanting in unison: “Obama can’t talk about freedom, if he keeps brother Oscar incarcerated.” Thousands upon thousands agreed. And now I am tempted to ask, can you?


Guillermo Rebollo-Gil
San Juan, PR

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Little Known Black History Fact: Russell 'Maroon' Shoatz

by Erica L Taylor
January 6th, 2014

Russell “Maroon” Shoatz  is a former Black Panther Party (BPP) member now serving two life sentences. Shoatz helped to found a revolutionist organization called the Black Unity Council in 1969. From August 1970 to January 1972, Shoatz was an active underground member of the Black Liberation Army, born from the BPP.

Then in 1970, Shoatz was convicted of murdering a police officer in Pennsylvania. He was part of an attack on a Philadelphia police station, leaving one officer dead. Seven years later, Shoatz escaped from a maximum security prison.

He had stolen a gun from a prison guard, Dale Rhone, later abducting him and his 5-year-old son. Rhone’s family was found physically unharmed later, tied to a tree. It was reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later that Shoatz had built a wooden barrier in the street, to hide himself from unsuspecting drivers, one of which he would take hostage.
He “lived on the land” for 27 days, finding food wherever he could. On October 11th, Shoatz took 27-year-old Calvin Reddings hostage, forcing him to drive him to a new location.

Shoatz was eventually located by his arresting officer, State Trooper Lawrence Szabo. The officer arrested Shoatz at gunpoint while standing on the hood of Redding’s car.

Shoatz attempted another escape from a Fairview prison after another priosoner obtained a machine gun and revolver for him. His attempt was unsuccessful and he was once again captured.

In 2005, Shoatz was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He is now serving two consecutive life sentences and has been held in solitary confinement since 1991. The lights in his cell never turn off. The prisoner has appealed his prison dwellings, the latest in May 2013. Rapper MI from the group Dead Prez has held a benefit in his honor to help Shoatz’ defense.

In April 2013, Russell Shoatz released “Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz” with a foreword by Chuck D.

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All Power to the Councils: A Review in Insurgent Notes

by Gary Roth
Insurgent Notes
December 24th, 2013

Review: Wild Socialism: All Power to the Councils!

Workers’ councils have been something of an embarrassment for the left ever since they first appeared in the early 1900s.

With the exception of a few key moments, they have never attracted much interest either. Two new books by Martin Comack and Gabriel Kuhn focus on the German workers’ councils that developed at the end of the First World War. That the recent Occupy movement dealt with many of the same issues as the councils—direct democracy, popular governance, and general assemblies—makes the appearance of these two books all the more timely. But whereas the Occupy movement confounded people because of its refusal to articulate immediately obtainable goals, the councils threatened pre-existing institutions and newly-established modes of governing. What’s more, the immediate danger for the councils came not from the bourgeoisie and the reactionaries but from the left itself.

Nothing about the councils seemed to make sense, even at the peak of their influence. If they were essential to the unfolding of the German revolutionary developments, the councils were equally responsible for their own demise. They were all-powerful and yet freely ceded that power to groups who then neutralized their effectiveness. This is a less complicated story than is often assumed. Comack’s Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918–21, condenses the main threads of this history into a short, lively, and highly readable digest of less than 100 pages. It has the additional value of focusing exclusively on the councils rather than the various left political parties and organizations which have obsessed chroniclers ever since. Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils!: A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918–1919 is an excellent accompaniment, with translations of original documents, short biographies of key figures, and introductions of a page or two in length for each major phase of these tumultuous years. The translations are of exceptionally good quality, with many moving accounts. For Kuhn, “readability has been a priority,” rather than the wooden, literal translations that mar previous attempts to bring the German developments to the attention of the English-language world.[1]

By some estimates, 10,000 or so councils were scattered throughout Germany in late 1918.[2] Just about every sizable workplace and military garrison had one. Other than the vague rumors that filtered through about developments in Russia the year before, the councils seemed to materialize out of nowhere.[3] They were formed within the space of a few days, so contagious were the events that constituted the German revolution. The same circumstances that catapulted the councils into existence also elevated Germany’s socialist (Social Democratic) party into a position of dominance, thereby realizing a decades-old ambition. A limited franchise had kept the pre-war socialists marginalized politically despite their great popularity, with over one million members and one-third of the vote nation-wide. The movement had grown rapidly during the previous decades because no other political entity within Germany was as willing to represent working class interests, whereas the socialists were quite aggressive in getting their ideas into the public realm, with hundreds of newspapers and publications, frequent meetings, and a huge roster of public speakers who toured the country.

These background developments are a particularly strong aspect of Comack’s Wild Socialism.

With Germany’s defeat imminent, the military authorities essentially handed the socialists the keys to the capital building and fled the scene. The Kaiser had abdicated, the aristocracy was in hiding, the military in near-complete disarray, and the middle classes in shock and fearful of the popular outcry against the war. For a brief period, no one except the socialists was willing to take responsibility for what came next. The immediate situation was quite dire, and the socialists voluntarily embraced the tasks that their previous oppressors had deserted—to demobilize and send home the returning troops and, even more urgently, to ensure that the municipal authorities had adequate food supplies now that the war was over.

If the socialists owed their ascension to the councils, they also understood that the councils were a threat to their newly-acquired status. This was not immediately apparent, as the councils were easily mollified in the weeks following the collapse of the monarchy. The introduction of an eight-hour working day and plans to introduce universal suffrage seemed to presage the start of a new era. True, the radical takeover of buildings in the center of Berlin produced a bloody reaction on the part of the socialists, who paid decommissioned soldiers to put down the rebellion. But the radicals had misread the readiness of the working class for revolution. Afraid that events had stalled already, and prone to their own ultra-left forms of mystical thinking, the radicals imagined that their actions might prompt a still-wider response within the working class. They were wrong about this and paid dearly for their mistake.

That the socialists resorted to violence against members of their own movement stunned everyone on the left, including the socialists’ closest followers. It wasn’t the radical rebellion, the so-named Spartacist uprising at the end of December 1918, which produced the leftward lurch sought by the radicals, but the use of paramilitary forces and wanton killing of well-known and beloved figures like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests. One merit of Kuhn’s documentary collection, All Power to the Councils!, is the republication of editorials written by these two figures during the few short months that separated the outbreak of the revolution from their deaths.

The councils, however unclear they were about their own power and intentions, wanted something more than just a democratic version of the previous status quo. A major rethinking about the goals of the revolution began, now that the space for such activity existed. Egged on by the radicals within its own ranks, the working class lurched leftwards. The working class thought in terms of the socialization (nationalization) of the means of production, especially the nationalization of the mining industry in the Ruhr region’s industrial belt, where low wages and brutal working conditions continued to prevail. Nearly a half century of socialist propaganda had had an impact.

The socialists were caught in a tremendous dilemma. Wedded to the idea that elections were essential to their own success, they introduced universal suffrage and thus undercut the councils whose base was overwhelmingly working class. This was obviously the case in the factory and workplace councils. The soldiers’ councils, on the other hand, had initially served as a brake on the revolutionary developments because they included lower-lever officers (enlisted men) alongside the working class draftees, but these councils were in a process of rapid dissolution because of demobilization and played a diminished role precisely as the working class began to radicalize further.

By suppressing the radicals (Spartacists) only six weeks after the overthrow of the monarchy, the socialists had in effect signaled that they meant no harm to, and were even willing to protect, the middle and upper classes. It was only then that these other social groups reappeared on the political scene. In the elections that followed in January—a short two and a half months after the overthrow of the monarchy—the socialists were surprised when less than half the electorate voted for them. Thus began a decade of coalition governments that continued until the Nazis finally abolished the democratic system, and with it, the need for coalitions. As the socialists moved right and lost ground, the working class was radicalized anew, with a newfound embrace of the councils. Throughout the spring months of 1919, the socialists, sometimes in conjunction with their coalition partners, used government resources to fund an ever-expansive paramilitary force to quell the radicalization.

Both Comack and Kuhn expand what is known about the radical left by including information about “unionist, syndicalist, and anarchist influences” in their accounts.[4] Still other groups could be mentioned, especially from northern seaports where radical Social Democrats maintained their independence from all party-oriented politics during the war (in distinction to the Spartacists who joined the newly formed anti-war party, the Independent Social Democratic Party). In the accounts by Comack and Kuhn, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards receive special mention. These were the shop floor delegates (radical trade unionists) who created an underground network during the war and played a leading role in Berlin as the revolution unfolded. In most historical accounts, only the Spartacists are mentioned. But if the Spartacists tended to run ahead of the working class and were thus decimated by the socialists for doing so, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were guilty of just the opposite problem. Their sense of realism led to a cautiousness that prevented them from ever getting in front.

From the vantage point of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the Spartacists were guilty of “revolutionary gymnastics,” a slight that is repeated by both Comack and Kuhn.[5] In truth, neither the impatient tactics of the Spartacists nor the prudent policies of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were successful. During the critical opening weeks of the revolutionary period, both groups were defeated, but each for different reasons. The Spartacists were turned into martyrs, while the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were outmaneuvered by the vastly shrewder and politically-experienced socialists. To favor one group over the other, as do Comack and Kuhn, seems gratuitous. Neither group could figure out how to advance the revolution. Besides, when only a few short weeks separated the defeat of the Spartacists from the marginalization of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, why bother to talk about tactics at all? All the radicals, no matter what their ideas or actions, wound up on the losing end.

Comack and Kuhn might have made more explicit the crucial role played by new organizations which would not outlast the revolutionary wave. Both the Spartacists and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards fit this bill, as does the Independent Social Democratic Party, forced into existence when the anti-war faction within the Social Democratic Party was expelled midway through the war. A bit later, many radicals clustered in the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and the General Workers Union (AAUD), until they too were outflanked and overwhelmed by organizations more adept at refashioning themselves for non-revolutionary times, like the original Social Democratic Party and the hastily-convened but long-lasting Communist Party, both of whose adaptive strategies were helped along by ample financial resources.

Notwithstanding these criticisms of Comack and Kuhn, their treatments are vastly superior to several recently re-published accounts of the German revolution, in particular Pierre Broué’s exhaustive 1000 page tome, The German Revolution: 1917–1923, originally published in 1971, and Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution: Germany, 1918–1923, dating back to 1982.[6] Both books are classic accounts of who did what wrong when, as if a historically-vindicated politics might have been possible. In neither account are the councils of real interest, pushed aside in a rush to judge the errors committed by the Communist Party (KPD). The focus on great men (and a few women), political ideologies, and organizational trajectories mirrors in an uncanny fashion an older, stodgy form of historiography, a merger of politics and methodology that has been out of vogue, even if still widely practiced, for some time now. Form and content merge into one, all in the name of a vanguard politics that focuses on leadership and the elite.[7]

The inability to treat the councils as something fundamentally different from the left political parties is as true for Broué and Harman as it was for the early twentieth century radicals. The German Social Democrats referred to the councils as ‘wild socialism’; hence, the title of Cormack’s book. The Russian Bolsheviks weren’t much different; once in power they reassessed their relationship to the councils, and council advocates were denounced as ‘infantile leftists.’ Even Rosa Luxemburg, whose eventual embrace of the councils was all-consuming, spent a decade juggling the relationship between spontaneity, mass strikes, and socialist political parties before accepting councils as the logical endpoint towards which radical activity should strive.

For left organizations like the Social Democrats and Bolsheviks, the councils were stepping stones, not the final outcome.[8] Socialist organizations were expected to provide both form and content for the unpredictable outbursts that every so often overtook the working class, lest these dissipate into something ephemeral and ineffective. So fixated were these ideas that newly-conquered political power in both German and Russia led to the violent repression of radicals who thought otherwise.

But of what relevance are the councils to the contemporary world, given their location a century ago within the factory system? And what about the relationship of the workplace councils to other forms of councils—neighborhoods, consumers, municipalities and regions? Some analysts have been misled by the events described in Comack’s book into positing that the councils were the preferred organizational form for skilled, well-paid workers who feared mechanization within Germany’s metal industry.[9] Comack provides the information needed to rebut these charges, although he does not make the arguments explicit.

Inside the factories, the councils served initially as grievance and strike committees, either because union representation was lacking or because the unions, including the socialist unions, cooperated with civil and military officials to suppress wage demands and protests about harsh working conditions. Coordination throughout a locality, like the factory districts of Berlin, likewise required a council of delegates. The workforce had changed considerably during the war, with women and adolescents drawn in as auxiliary employees. The links between working women and housewives’ protests against food scarcities helped draw the councils into action. This was the situation in both Germany and Russia. Women were key. Responsible for the well-being of their families, they also had fewer roots in the cautious and conservative labor movement, and because of gender, were somewhat less subject to police violence, so much so that they generated sympathy within the population at large, including members of the middle classes. The women’s actions goaded husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers to follow suit.

Very little attention has been focused on the connections between gender and forms of protest, something true not just for Comack and Kuhn but also for other chroniclers of the German events. If the councils represented an anti-politics, they were rooted nonetheless in workplaces, neighborhoods, and families, situations mostly beyond the purview of anyone obsessed with politics and organizations as levers of social change. In this way of thinking, if something doesn’t acquire a fixed institutionalized presence, it doesn’t really exist.

The councils could be revolutionary, or they could be nothing much at all—a temporary means to hold society together during a time of crisis and collapse until some facsimile of the old order reconstituted itself. In Germany, they were primarily workplace councils, some of which served as grievance committees vis-à-vis management and the government, while in other places, they took over managerial functions directly. Soldiers also had their version of councils. In Russia, poor peasants and sharecroppers had theirs too. In both places, councils took on responsibility for municipal and regional affairs. They established committees to run police departments and security agencies, regulated public transportation, arranged food shipments and the distribution of essential consumption items, produced theater productions and public service announcements, and more.

Councils were easy to form and had enormous potential. They were flexible and democratic. They presupposed cooperation and coordination, and they extended notions of popular governance and grassroots participation. For council members, neither pre-existing organizations nor a background in socialist theory were prerequisites. Councils made the unions and political parties redundant. They could embrace as much of the population as prevailing political understandings and cultural prejudices made possible. Because of the councils, society was both thrown into chaos and was susceptible to a thorough and radical reorganization. If councils are still relevant today, it’s not because they imply a particular solution to humanity’s problems, but because the need for something new in both form and content grows ever more pressing.

The German Revolutioni—A Timeline

1912—As Germany’s largest political party with nearly one million members, the Social Democratic Party receives one out of every three votes in the national elections.

1914—Soon after World War I begins, the Social Democrats agree to suspend all strikes and take punitive action against any job actions.

1915—Revolutionary Shop Stewards, Spartacists, and other independent groups begin to meet illegally.

1916—Food protests begin in earnest. A widespread strike wave startles the county and emboldens the anti-war movement.

1917—The anti-war faction is expelled from the Social Democratic Party and eventually forms the Independent Social Democratic Party.

February: Russian Revolution begins, characterized by workers,’ peasants,’ and soldiers’ councils on the local and municipal levels. In place of the monarchy (Tsar), a series of coalition governments form which include the various liberal, socialist, and populist political parties.

November: The Bolsheviks piggyback on the councils and seize power.

1918–October: German Social Democrats invited as junior partners into a ‘peace’ cabinet.

November: Revolution spreads throughout Germany. Councils formed in workplaces, municipalities, and in the armed forces. The monarchy (Kaiser) abdicates, and military rule ends. Social Democrats and Independent Social Democrats jointly form an all-socialist government. An eight hour day is negotiated with leaders of the country’s business community.

December: Social Democrats open negotiations with remnant units of the military. Independent

Social Democrats resign from government in protest against repressive actions. National Congress of Councils endorses elections with universal suffrage.

1919–January: German Communist Party founded by Spartacists and other groups. Spartacist uprising in central Berlin suppressed by paramilitary forces at the behest of the Social Democrats. Luxemburg and Liebknecht arrested, tortured, and killed. National elections force Social Democrats into coalition with bourgeois political parties.

Spring: Major strikes and council republics are suppressed in Berlin, Bremen, Upper Silesia, the Ruhr industrial region, Württemberg, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Brunswick, and Munich.

October: Reformist wing of German Communist Party purges over half the membership.

1920—The Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and General Workers Union (AAUD) form as radical alternatives to the Communist Party.

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