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The Bonnot Gang: Two Reviews

By Chris Kortright
Briarpatch Magazine
February 10, 2017

The Bonnot Gang: The Story of the French Illegalists 
By Richard Parry
PM Press, 2016

Without a Glimmer of Remorse 
By Pino Cacucci. Illustrated by Flavio Costantini
Black Powder Press, 2016

Class war is usually envisioned as a mass movement, often under the umbrella of formal organizations like revolutionary parties or syndicalist federations. But is that the only articulation of class war? In 2016, two books came out looking at other forms of expropriation. Both books are reprints of classic texts exploring the French illegalists known as the Bonnot Gang, a group of individualist anarchists involved in forgery, counterfeiting, and, most notoriously, bank robberies and burglaries to support their insurrectionary politics.

The first book is The Bonnot Gang: The Story of the French Illegalists by Richard Parry. The second is the novel Without a Glimmer of Remorse written by Pino Cacucci and illustrated by Flavio Costantini. Each of these texts, in different ways – one historical, the other fictive – presents informative, engrossing, and exciting narratives exploring political and personal revolt against society. The texts make you wonder: what if folk heroes like Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, or John Dillinger actually had politics behind their actions?

Parry contrasts the Bonnot Gang with “American antiheros” and argues: “[T]he illegalists were consciously political, both on a personal level and in their view of the structure of the state and society. They are far more fascinating as individuals with their vegetarianism, teetotalism and belief in anarchy and free love as well as for their daring exploits.” Their “daring exploits” included the expropriation of wealth from capitalists and other members of the bourgeoisie as a means of personal survival while funding anarchist projects. They also carried out acts of revenge against those responsible for poverty, exploitation, and violence.

Cacucci, meanwhile, explores the ideas of rebellion and action through a fictional monologue by Jules Bonnot: “Hitting the exploiters with their fondness for the guillotine and for champagne in precisely what they cherished most, their purse. Not for the sake of lining one’s pockets, but so as to repay them in kind for a little of the terror they spread, so cocksure that they were unreachable. And not with bombs, but at gunpoint, wresting back a fraction of everything that they were hiding from the millions in despair.” While this passage appears as a fictional representation of Jules’ perspective, it is also a vantage point through which to consider the perspective of many anarchists at the time. Specifically, many European individualist anarchists believed the act of expropriation was a legitimate form of revolt against the social order (capitalists, politicians, and the church). Expropriative anarchism, or “expropriations on the bourgeoisie,” has been a practice of anarchist affinity groups – most famously in Argentina and Spain by Buenaventura Durruti, Severino Di Giovanni, Miguel Arcángel Roscigna, and Lucio Urtubia – that has involved theft, robbery, scams, and counterfeiting currency. The French illegalists expropriated not only to finance anarchist activities; for them, it became a way to live.

Parry situates the Bonnot Gang’s philosophies within a larger individualist anarchist milieu that was thriving in France in the interwar period. Founded by Octave Garnier, Raymond la Science (Raymond Callemin), and René Valet, the cornerstone of the Bonnot Gang’s philosophy was the liberation of an individual’s desires (that is, following one’s desires rather than being crushed by the laws and morality of the church, state, family, and so on) and the drive to live a free life outside of or in contrast to the forced labour of the masses. Members of the Bonnot Gang were influenced by earlier anarchists: La Science was inspired by Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and others were also influenced by Max Stirner’s egoism. Cacucci explores these ideas through Jules Bonnot’s meditations on Stirner: “Revolution has its sights set on a new organization; rebellion on the other hand prompts us to reject being organized any longer, but rather to look to self-organization and places no great hopes in institutions.”

When the gang started out, the press referred to them as the “Auto Bandits” because they were the first gang to utilize an automobile for their getaways. Because of this, the gang had an edge over the French police, who didn’t have access to the repeating rifles and automobiles used by the gang. The gang was later referred to as the Bonnot Gang after Bonnot – worker, soldier, chauffeur to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and primary character in Cacucci’s novel – walked into the offices of the popular daily newspaper Le Petit Parisien and, in an act of bravado, set his semi-automatic gun on a desk and complained to the journalists about stories they had been running about the gang.

It was also around that time that Garnier published a letter in Le Matin mocking the police, challenging their “intelligence,” and taunting them for their inability “to pick up my trail again.” In the letter, he wrote, “Don’t think I’m going to run away from your police; on my word, I believe they’re the ones who are afraid.” Addressing the police, he closed the letter: “Awaiting the pleasure of meeting you.” These acts of defiance led to an increase in police funding of 800,000 francs; a bounty of 100,000 francs was charged as a reward for the gang’s capture.

Eventually the police rounded up the gang’s supporters and other anarchists, and the Bonnot Gang’s spree of bank robberies, burglaries, and shootouts with police came to an end. André Soudy was arrested on March 30, 1912. According to Parry, “On his person they found the, now standard, loaded Browning, six bullets, a thousand francs in cash and a phial of potassium cyanide.” Shortly after, in early April, Édouard Carouy and la Science were arrested. Cacucci describes the arrest: “Raymond was unable to draw any of the three pistols he had in his pocket because Sevestre brought the butt of his own pistol down on his head. At the Sûreté, Raymond retreated into absolute silence. Screams, threats and kicks proved useless. There was no way that he was about to talk.” As April closed, the police had arrested or detained 28 gang members and supporters, but Bonnot, Garnier, and Valet remained at large.

“The walls of the old house bore the scars of gunfire and there wasn’t a single pane of glass left intact in the window-frames,” writes Cacucci, illustrating the famous shootout between police and Jules Bonnot on April 28, 1912. The police had tracked Bonnot to Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris. For some time, he kept the 500 armed police officers and soldiers at bay despite the Hotchkiss machine gun in their possession. Finally, the police chief sent three officers to place dynamite charges under the house, blowing up the entire front portion of the residence. Bonnot took cover in a rolled-up mattress and continued to shoot back at the police. Ultimately, he was shot in the head. Roughly two weeks later, 300 police and 800 soldiers surrounded Garnier and Valet in an eastern suburb of Paris, Nogent-sur-Marne; the skirmish resulted in another dynamite explosion that killed Garnier and wounded Valet.

When the gang’s survivors were put on trial, Victor Serge was sentenced to five years for robbery, and Eugène Dieudonné to life imprisonment. Carouy and Marius Metge also got life in prison, with hard labour. Metge was sent to a penal colony, while la Science, Étienne Monier and Soudy were executed by guillotine because they refused to plead for clemency. Like many classic anti-hero tales, these ones end with shootouts and guillotines … but these rebels had an articulate anarchist politics of defiance as they looked into their executioner’s eyes.

Both books are great individually, but when read together, they fill gaps created by the other’s genre. Where Parry gives a detailed and documented history, Cacucci articulates emotion and subjectivity through his narrative. The only thing I found wanting in the texts was their treatment of the women involved as background subjects. These women were writers, journal co-editors, and active proponents of free love. They were also, importantly, involved in clandestine activities, and these two books would be richer if they engaged with the strong history of individualist-anarchist women. That said, both authors have a deep understanding of and sympathy for the philosophies and desires of the individuals involved in the Bonnot Gang, bringing out powerful accounts of this too-often ignored group in anarchist history.

Chris Kortright is an independent researcher and writer and has been involved in the anarchist milieu for many years. He is a collective member of the new anti-authoritarian publishing project Changing Suns Press and writes a blog called Firebrand Dictionary.

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Interview: The Clash biographer Randal Doane

Stylus
March 28th, 2017

A Californian expat living in Oberlin, Ohio, Randal is a huge fan of The Clash and is the author of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash

Who is Randal Doane?

I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California and played what your lot calls ‘football’ through my teens. I trashed my knee on the eve of my 16th birthday—which is lucky, I suspect, for Clash fans and myself. If I had played soccer in college, I probably wouldn’t have had the marks to go to graduate school – an experience that certainly shaped my approach to this book.

Tell us about your book
In 2003, while working as a college professor, I was writing an article on illegal file-sharing for an academic journal. While gathering data – all done in the name of science, I assure you – I found a 77-minute long track called “Clash-Palladium-WNEW-Sept21-1979.mp3.” (You can find the audio on YouTube.)

A couple years went by, and the title of the track gnawed at me. The Palladium was in New York, and I knew The Clash loved it there. But the second half of the title proved enigmatic. What were The Clash doing on WNEW-FM, a station staffed with veteran deejays from the days of free-form FM radio – the two rules of free-form then were: no disco, no punk? Also, how did two concerts take place on September 20-21, 1979, in a theatre with more than 3,000 seats, less than a year after their American debut, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, which peaked at #126 on the Billboard charts, and just two months after the release of the Americanized version of their first LP, The Clash?

Clash

So I started my detective work and learned that The Clash (UK) was, by July 1979, the best-selling import LP in the US. I also found out that New York-based rock journalists such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau were Clash devotees – even proselytizers.

Next, I learned that bass player Paul Simonon’s impersonation of Paul Bunyan (Google him), which served of course as the cover image for London Calling, took place at the Palladium, and that the historical record indicated that the famous moment happened that same night. (That’s false, actually, as my book confirms. Also: search youtube for “Dave Marin Clash” for the definitive account.)

I then talked to WNEW deejays Richard Neer and the delightful Meg Griffin, now at Sirius XM Radio. Griffin recalled how she sought to expand the symbolic boundaries of free-form radio, and how she and her colleagues met considerable resistance, from management and fellow deejays alike. The project continued to gain steam and, after imagining the piece as a lengthy article, I expanded it into the book you have before you – or should! Ha!

How do you think punk ‘evangelicals’ see London Calling today?

As you may recall, UK critics savaged Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I swear, looking back, it’s as if critics, at NME especially, were just waiting to pounce on any sophomore effort: “How dare you release a second album? We shall destroy you!”

Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were like sharks, with a keep moving or die ethos. They didn’t want to be The Ramones, and said as much later, I believe. I think of that bar scene in Repo Man, when Otto checks out The Circle Jerks onstage, as a lounge act, basically, and says, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.” The Ramones are great, of course, but lots of great bands mellow – The Replacements, Husker Du, The Flaming Lips even – and that mellowing can lead to something totally amazing.

Finally, tell us your top five albums of all time

Oh, must we? Ha! All right, here we go, alphabetically:

London_Calling-1
The Clash: London Calling
Enough said.

Hamell on Trial
Hamell on Trial: Rant’n’Roll
A live album, actually. Think The Clash meet Louis C.K., and throw in a battered ’37 Gibson. Great songs about politics, race, parenting, drugs, and redemption.

Prince Sign o the Times
Prince: Sign O’ the Times
The best guitar player of his generation, and one of the best songwriters. Gotta have a little bit of ecstasy in this collection

The Specials
The Specials: The Specials
It’s where it all started for me, I suppose. I hope to be as dignified as bassist – and painter – Horace Panter someday

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black
Such a talent, such a voice, and with the Dap Kings behind her, she was at the absolute peak of her game. Great production work throughout

Stealing_all_transmissions copy-1

 

 

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A Singer/Songwriter You May Never Have Heard Of, But Should

The Fifth Estate
April 2017

 At a time when independent publishers and record labels are going out of business at a rapid rate, PM Press keeps on putting out books, pamphlets, videos, and various other things – including CDs.

One of their most recent releases is a 5-CD box set retrospective containing close to 100 songs by singer/songwriter, Robb Johnson, titled “A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands.”

If you are a Robb Johnson fan, you’d immediately recognize the box set’s title from one of Robb’s songs, the chorus of which echoes the Situationist slogan from the revolutionary May/June days of Paris 1968.

But, you have probably never heard of Robb Johnson unless you happen to have grown up on the fringes of the punk and/or folk music scene somewhere in England, Scotland or Wales, sometime between 1986 and the present.

Robb Johnson is the quintes- sential great songwriter you’ve never heard of. The one that proves the whole record indus- try is full of shit, among other industries.

Why was “Anarchy in Hack- ney” not on the Billboard charts? Why doesn’t “At the Siege of Madrid” appear in all the high school textbooks as a teaching aid for that lesson on the Spanish Civil War? ( You know, that one.) Well, you know why.
But now, at least, Robb’s music will not only be known on the fringes of the British punk and folk scenes, but on the fringes of the anarchist scene in the US, as well. And, who knows what’s next.

To put Robb into some kind of warped, personal context, as a teenager I liked Bob Dylan a lot.

I still do. But I just assumed the media hype I grew up with must be true, that Dylan was the best politically-oriented (at least for a few records) songwriter the English lan- guage managed to produce.
Then, at the age of 19, I hitch-hiked from San Francisco to Seattle, went to the Pike Place Market, and was com- pletely blown away by a guy named Jim Page, who was busking there.
That was in the 1980s. It wasn’t until more than a decade later, on my first tour of England, that I discovered Robb.

It was one of those inevitable dis- coveries for a politically-oriented songwriter touring the folk clubs of England to make. Probably one in three people I stayed with, after attending my show, asked me if I had heard of Robb.

And, regularly subjected to Robb’s CDs as I was on that tour, I was happy to discover that this was far from an un- pleasant experience. On the contrary, I was hooked. Like Jim Page, Robb writes at least as well as Dylan, but with more authentic emotion and much better politics.

Robb has documented his life and times from the 1980s to the present, always with chilling insight, often with humor, sometimes with an old-school punk band, oftentimes with just voice and guitar.

He is a master of the instrument, particularly with his intricate fingerstyle playing, reminiscent of other masters of the technique like Jim Page or Alistair Hulett.

In addition to songs about his times, from Thatcher’s reign to Thatcher’s death (“Ding Dong Thatch”), to the fall of the Soviet Union (“Breakfast In Chemnitz”) to Blair and Cameron’s foreign wars and the resistance to them (“I Am Not At War”), the box set includes a whole CD’s worth of Robb’s gorgeous songs about love, childhood (“Real Cool Purple Shirt”), and parenthood – some of which also manage to include World War I history in them, among other things (“When Harry Took Me To See Ypres”).

Taken as a whole, you’ll get an excel- lent primer on some of the more notable events of the 20th century from this collection.

OK, now go look him up on You- Tube. But if you still have a CD player and you got an extra $45, the full-on Robb Johnson binge via PM Press is way better.

David Rovics is a Portland, Oregon- based singer/songwriter and anarchist. His many songs and albums, and his cur- rent touring schedule for the U.S. and Eu- rope is at DavidRovics.com
 

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Anti-Fascist Sports, Autonomen, and PhDs: An Interview with Gabriel Kuhn

By Gregory Zobel
Freedom News
March 2nd, 2017

Gabriel Kuhn has been writing political books from the late ’90s on topics ranging from women pirates to football and the State. In this interview Freedom reviewer Luther Blisset talks to him about the Autonomen, workers’ councils and the history of anti-fascism in sport.

LB: You graduated with a PhD at a young age, at least for the US. Did you know that you wanted to do philosophy for a long time? How did you get interested in philosophy and radical politics? And why go for a PhD instead of just an undergraduate degree?

GK: I knew that I wanted to study philosophy already in high school. It was simply a fascination with questions that seemed central to our existence: is there a God or not? What is good and what is evil? What is the meaning of life? Why does something exist and not nothing?

The interest in politics developed a little later, but it quickly became very strong and, inevitably, influenced my take on philosophy. Political philosophy and ethics became the fields I was mostly interested in. During the early 1990s, when I did my studies, there was a bit of an upheaval in the humanities, at least in Europe. For many, the fall of the Soviet Union had discredited Marxism, which was still the leading ideology among left-wing academics. Interest in poststructuralist leftists — such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari — soared. I remember the period as exciting, even though much of poststructuralist-inspired work today has degenerated into nonsensical gibberish.

The reason I did a PhD was because it was an easy thing to do in Austria. It didn’t cost you anything (university education was free and still is for the most part) and I hardly had to do any courses. All I needed to do — so to speak — was to write a thesis, which wasn’t a big sacrifice since I always enjoyed writing. That’s why I saw the project through, although I had no interest in an academic career. I’ve never had a job in academia.

LB: I remember reading that you were involved with the Autonomen for several years. How would you describe your activities? Demos? Publishing? Outreach? Could you share several of the lessons you learned from the experience?

GK: The autonomous milieu was pretty much where all radical leftists in the German-speaking world found themselves in if they didn’t want to be involved in party politics. It was very diverse and ideologically quite open. For some years, I was part of a collective in a smaller Austrian town that contributed to and distributed the country’s biggest autonomous newspaper; I guess in more modern language you’d call it an affinity group. We also went to demonstrations together and were involved in different protests — against the first Gulf War, the rise of the FPÖ (a right-wing party, today one of the country’s biggest), real estate speculation, Austria joining the European Union (at the time, opposition to the EU was a mainly leftist issue — today, it has been taken over by the nationalists). We also were involved in starting a pirate radio station, which opened the path for legal non-commercial radio projects that still exist. In 1994, I left Austria and I can’t really claim that I have been active in the German-speaking autonomous movement since, although I’ve always been following the developments and discussions and it’s still the milieu I move in when I go visit. A few years ago, I was involved in a German publishing project that tried to reevaluate the autonomous movement in the new century.

What did I learn from those experiences? Interesting question, I have never given that much thought. Obviously, it introduced me to autonomous organising, for better or worse. I learned about militant protest and direct action, security and legal issues, the publishing and distributing of literature, the dynamics of radical collectives, and about building broader alliances or at least trying to. Plus, there were many debates about goals, strategies, and tactics. I think I mainly gathered impressions for a few years and had in no way reached any particular conclusion when I left the country to travel and then live abroad. I guess what I took me with me was the feeling that you can have an impact even as a small group, as long as you’re connected to a broader movement through regular discussion and common action. If that connection is lost, however — as I feel is increasingly the case for radical collectives, at least in Western and Northern Europe — it’s easy to fit the image of an isolated social club with radical pretensions.

LB: Given your background, reading, and networks, have you seen any phenomenon or organising in the US that resembles any of the iterations of the European Autonomen? If so, could you elaborate or discuss a bit?

GK: I think that the anarchist subculture I experienced studying and travelling in the U.S. between 1994 and 2005 in many ways resembled that of the Autonomen. This concerned everything from what people wore to what they ate to the music they listened to and to the way their homes and social centres looked. All of that was very familiar. And despite certain differences in focus, the main political topics were also the same: gender, racism, anti-capitalism, and so on. Add to that the shared enthusiasm for direct action, Black Blocs, and related forms of protest and you have very similar scenes.

The strongest differences probably concerned ideology. The Autonomen were still fairly influenced by Marxism — even if it was a Marxism of the “left communist” or “operaist” variety — and I didn’t see much of that in the U.S. I hate to employ overused stereotypes, but I felt there were fairly strong anti-intellectual strains in the radical circles I encountered there. All of this might have changed, however. I haven’t been able to travel to the country since 2005 due to immigration issues.

LB: You edited a book of key source documents on Workers Councils. How did you first run into the material? And how did you decide which documents to translate into English — that must have been incredibly hard! I’m very curious about what relevance you see in getting these documents published. What have you specifically learned from working with this body of documents?

GK: The book came about in roundabout ways. Originally, I was interested in the role of the anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam in the Bavarian Council Republic, which existed for a couple of months in the spring of 1919. Mühsam had written a personal account of the period, and an American friend, who wanted to publish it as a pamphlet, had asked me to translate it. The pamphlet never appeared, but talking about the project with other English-speaking friends, it seemed there was a more general interest in the German Revolution of 1918–1919, especially in the radical, that is, the anarchist, syndicalist, and communist currents. The folks at PM Press were among those I talked to, and this is how the book was conceived.

The material wasn’t difficult to find. The period is well covered in German literature. I chose the texts for the English edition according to their overall importance and to how representative they were for the currents I wanted to focus on. Of course I wanted to include the most influential texts, but I also wanted to tell a story. Anthologies — in particular academic ones — all too often consist of individual texts that might be of great quality but are only loosely connected; it can be hard to identify a thread that runs through them all. For me, it seemed important to tie the individual parts together and create a narrative. So that’s what I tried to do.

As far as the relevance of publishing historical material is concerned, there is a standard answer: we need to learn from history to make the future better. More specifically in this case, the question of revolution remains unresolved. Fortunately enough, there are still a lot of people who want a socialist society; but few of us know how to even begin the discussion about how to get there. Looking at earlier attempts seems like a good starting point.

LB: How many languages are you able to translate with/across?

GK: Basically, I translate between German, English, and Swedish, although the translations into Swedish require more time and editorial help. I can also translate from French (albeit slowly) and — by default, as they are so close to Swedish — from Danish and Norwegian. I cannot translate into those languages, my active command of them is simply too poor.

I enjoy translating. It’s like writing, only that you can fully focus on the technical aspects of it, since someone else already has done the thinking for you. If you like writing and have an interest in language, it’s a great thing to do.

LB: When I saw your work about sports and anti-fascism, I was a bit surprised, honestly. Normally, in the US, sports is run by and with nationalism. Often other ugly forms of chauvinism appear. Anti-fascist sports strikes me in many ways like anti-racist or communist skinheads: a rare exception or novel idea. What motivated you to work on and write about this? How has the work been received? Do you play sports yourself?

GK: I play a lot of sports and have always done so. Next to family and politics (which includes the work I do), sport is the most important part of my everyday life. This is also what motivates me to write about it.

Of course you are right, there is plenty of ugliness in sports, especially in the professionalised and commercialised varieties: competition, chauvinism, exploitation, unhealthy body norms, you name it. But sport is not only a big part of my life, it’s a big part of many people’s lives, and it won’t go anywhere in a liberated society, and neither should it, because there is plenty of beauty in it as well.

Essentially, sport is the combination of physical activity and play, which are both essential for our well-being. If the environment is right, sports can be great fun, they bring people together, and they teach us social values. The challenge for radicals is to create an environment that brings out the best in sports instead of the worst.

It is true that good examples are not always easy to find, but they exist: from the workers’ sports movement of the early twentieth century to sport’s role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to antifascist organising among sports fans today. Sport has tremendous political significance and the struggle for liberation needs to happen there as much as everywhere else.

The reception of the work I have done on the subject has largely been positive. Mostly, it’s read by radicals who share an interest in sports and find the stories inspiring. But I’ve also got nice feedback from people with no particular interest in sports who felt they had discovered new aspects of it.

Of course, there is the occasional critic who lambastes me for “misusing sports for political purposes”, but that has to be expected. For some people, addressing injustice is a distraction from having a good time, which they associate with sports. Sometimes, these people generally don’t want to hear about injustice, maybe because they themselves don’t experience much of it. But even for the exploited and the oppressed, sport can function as an escape and they don’t want to hear about politics in that zone. That needs to be respected, but in the long run, it’s not going to break the cycle where escape is the only way of dealing with injustice, which is never sustainable. I suppose the goal is having sports and politics being based on the same values, so that mixing the two will appear natural rather than contradictory. This, I believe, would be great progress.

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Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: A Review in Freedom News

By Gregory Zobel
Freedom News
March 2nd, 2017

This book is too short. All the content is of high and tight quality. Read Kuhn’s introduction and mini-bio of Deutsch and you’ll want to know much, much more about Red Vienna. It’s a crack incisive introduction to the vital, visceral intersectionality of anti-fascism, sports, and sobriety.

Kuhn’s volume offers a detailed, readable, well-sourced, and accessible entry into health-centred anti-fascism. Veracity and believability stem from his refusal to present Red Vienna as an idyllic time. No. They made mistakes. Knowing this, it’s inviting and more honest in approach than many traditional narratives surrounding revolutionary utopian efforts and projects.

This is not a “back in the good ole days of state smashing” sales pitch. Instead, Kuhn helps readers understand more of the strengths and weaknesses from the era. He works to free the era from sole control and historical representation by communist party loyalists and historians. Just as reading about the 1936 Spanish Revolution would be problematic if only read from a communist or Stalinist perspective, so, too, with Red Vienna. With this book, Kuhn adds an important work to the relatively limited number of English works about Red Vienna.

If you’ve read Kuhn’s work on Straight Edge, you will find a number of connections between the volumes. Whether Kuhn read some of Deutsch’s work and the related authors first, and those moved him to Straight Edge, or the other way around, doesn’t really matter. What is interesting are the shared concerns: remaining sober, healthy and strong so that you can see the lies of governing forces, retain clarity, maintain strength, and build capacity to resist.

Kuhn makes the point that, unlike many socialist groups and parties throughout the German-speaking world, Vienna was different. They fought back. They lost, but they resisted. They had armed militias, they had training programs, and they knew the importance of providing access to the natural world, physical training, and sports leagues — management and operation were not trusted to petty bourgeois or ruling classes. Instead, resources were run by and provided to, for, and by the people where they lived and worked.

This is absolutely one of my favourite books. I sat down and read it in an evening.

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Cooperators Then and Now; Other Avenues in The Progressive Populist

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
April 2017

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff unpacks the trials and triumphs of food co-ops that rose during the 1960s and 1970s in Other Avenues are Possible: Legacy of the People’s Food System of the San Francisco Bay Area (PM Press 2016). The author, as an observer and participant, delivers a bird’s eye view of this alternative project.

According to the cooperators of that time, distributing food for the holistic needs of consumers and workers was best. That perspective continues in our vastly different era of capitalism on steroids, with Democracy at Work a case in point.

Nimbark Sacharoff writes: “The goal of new-wave cooperators was to bring food back to the people and the people back to their communities to share it in a meaningful way.” Easy to say, challenging to do, as she narrates the rise and demise of co-op stores in one area of the US’ Left Coast.

The author, reared in Gujarat, India, shines critical light on how and why co-ops operated in the SF Bay Area decades ago. Spoiler alert: things were sweet and sour for such cooperators as they bid to build up their self-directed enterprises.

We see the strengths and weaknesses of challenging the capitalist order as a part of—not apart from—wider social movements, e.g., popular struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. It was quite a unique time in US history, with unexpected twists and turns exposing the best and worst in movement politics.

The author helps readers, especially those born after the 1960s and 1970s, to grasp the counter-culture ethos that partially propelled the People’s Food System, rooted in the Bay Area Food Conspiracy. The high-water mark of the PFS was 1976-78, she writes, showing and telling how this achievement gave wind to the sails of co-ops later.

Such is the nature of social movements. Their momentum can extend beyond their shelf life, as the Occupy Wall Street encampments gave rise to Sen. Bernie Sanders near-upset of Hillary Clinton recently.

Throughout the book are wonderful vegetarian recipes. Nimbark Sacharoff, also author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lays out how the collective process of preparing, eating and distributing plant-based fare dovetails with the co-op experience, then and now.

The second part of the book explores the enterprises that survived the demise of the PFS. Two retailers and one wholesaler still operate today.

There are several factors that explain this endurance. One of note is governance structures.
They allow member-workers such as the author to actively participate in day-to-day actions and decisions. On this note, the issue of paid versus nonpaid labor recurs.

In the book’s third part, the author fleshes out the personal aspects of her journey with community-building in the co-op movement of the SF Bay Area. I would say the practical matters outweigh theoretical insights.

Today, co-ops face challenges from the corporate “natural food” purveyors such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. This is no small matter for co-ops, since they operate on very thin margins.

Keeping the co-op movement alive is the special focus of the book’s final section. The author offers down-to-earth recommendations for readers to, if they are not already involved to be part of this progressive social change movement.

She wraps up the book with a list of additional readings, co-ops, and cooperative markets and groups. The author invites readers to join with other cooperators.

Who can resist that, given what we learn about the benefits in Other Avenues?

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com.

Buy Other Avenues now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff's page




The Explosion Of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance And Social Revolution In San Francisco, 1965 —1975: A Review

By Willis M. Buhle
Midwest Book Review
March 2017

Synopsis: As the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love floods the media with debates over morals, music, and political movements; celebrations of "flower power", "acid rock", and "hippies"; "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco, 1965 - 1975" offers a critical re-examination of the interwoven political and musical happenings in San Francisco in the Sixties.

In "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams", author, musician, and native San Franciscan Mat Callahan deftly explores the dynamic links between the Black Panthers and Sly and the Family Stone, the United Farmworkers and Santana, the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the New Left and the counterculture. Callahan's meticulous, impassioned arguments both expose and reframe the political and social context for the San Francisco Sound and the vibrant subcultural uprisings with which it is associated.

Using dozens of original interviews, primary sources, and personal experiences, Callahan shows how the intense interplay of artistic and political movements put San Francisco, briefly, in the forefront of a worldwide revolutionary upsurge.

Simply a 'must-read' for any musician, historian, or person who "was there" (or longed to have been), "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams" is substantive and provocative, inviting the reader to reinvigorate our historical sense-making of an era that assumes a mythic role in the contemporary American zeitgeist.

Critique: Exceptionally well written, organized and presented, "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco, 1965 - 1975" is a unique, comprehensive, informative, and thought-provoking read from cover to cover and unreservedly recommended for community and academic library 20th Century American Music History collections and supplemental studies reading lists. It should be noted for students and non-specialist general readers with an interest in the subject that "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams" is also available in a Kindle format ($9.99).

Buy Explosion of Deferred Dreams now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Mat Callahan's page




Q&A with Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff (in pink scarf) works behind the counter at Other Avenues co-op in the Sunset District of S.F. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff (in pink scarf) works behind the counter at Other Avenues co-op in the Sunset District of S.F.

By Jonathan Kauffman
San Francisco Chronicle
March 16th, 2017

In the 1970s, the Bay Area developed a vibrant, interactive network of cooperatively run enterprises called the People’s Food System. Though it lasted only a few years, the movement gave birth to Other Avenues Food Co-op, Rainbow Grocery and Veritable Vegetable (now for-profit), all of which are still open. (Chronicle gardening columnist Pam Peirce started writing as one of the editors of the group’s newsletter.)

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, a longtime member of the worker collective at Other Avenues in the Sunset District, has told this story in her new book, “Other Avenues Are Possible” (PM Press, 2016, 200 pp., $14.95). The Chronicle asked Nimbark Sacharoff to outline the movement’s arc.

Q: Chronicle: How did the People’s Food System start?

A: Nimbark Sacharoff: The history of the People’s Food System was influenced by the 1960s era, when the war in Vietnam was ending and people still had the energy to remain organized. What better way to remain organized than to get together and share food, distribute food? At the time, the system wasn’t so much about making money or creating jobs but about food for the people — and we were the people.

We started with buying clubs. We called them “food conspiracies.” Food conspiracies were about education and outreach to the whole community, using food distribution as a vehicle for social change.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff’s book “Other Avenues Are Possible” is a history book about Bay Area food co-ops and food-buying clubs in the 1970s. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff’s book “Other Avenues Are Possible” is a history book about Bay Area food co-ops and food-buying clubs in the 1970s.

Q: What was involved in a food conspiracy?

A: Typically, you’d get together with neighborhood people and sign up for the foods you want. The person who was hosting the ordering was also hosting a potluck dinner. He or she would provide the space, and you’d come and bring your money or food stamps, and that list would get compiled, and the food buying would be on Saturday or Sunday. Once a month was the “Great Divide,” when we divided up dried food.

Q: How many food conspiracies were there?

A: There were hundreds of conspiracies in San Francisco, concentrated in (the western half) of the city, the Mission and Noe Valley. In the Haight, the motto was “If you can’t walk to order food, you should start a new food conspiracy.”

Q: How did they turn into stores?

A: In the mid-1970s, we were moving lots and lots of food — probably hundreds of thousands of dollars of food, all combined. We thought not only would it be safer and cleaner if we opened up stores, we could reach more people. In 1974 the first store opened, the Noe Valley Food Store. Before that there was one called Seeds of Life, Semillas de la Vida, in the Mission.

Q: At its peak, how many businesses were in the People’s Food System?

A: Approximately a dozen storefronts. The biggest ones were the San Francisco Cooperative Warehouse, they did all the dry goods, and Veritable Vegetable, now a thriving national organic business. There was a big herb collective and a cheese collective. There was a one-woman milk business. There was a poultry place where we got eggs, and a Honey Sandwich co-op nursery school.

Ed. note: The People’s Food System fell apart in 1977 and 1978 due to political infighting and a turf war between two groups of former prisoners that ended in a shootout outside the warehouse. You can read Nimbark Sacharoff’s book for details.

Q: How did Other Avenues survive the collapse of the People’s Food System?

A: It was really difficult, especially for a small store like this. We had 10 years that were so difficult financially and organizationally — we almost closed down three times — but the community was our strength. Because we’re so isolated, the community that lives near us is drawn to us.

Jonathan Kauffman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jkauffman@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jonkauffman

Buy Other Avenues now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff's page




The Food We Eat: Other Avenues in India Currents

By Praba Iyer
India Currents
February 18th, 2017

When I moved to the Bay Area in the 90s I came across a book called Flavors of India by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff. I was intrigued by the recipes as they were Indian but they had a little twist. For example Shanta‘s  sambhar (a soup made with vegetables and legumes) recipe called for  ginger and lime juice. Being from the South of India, I had never made sambhar without tamarind using ginger and lime juice. When I tried it, I was in for a pleasant surprise. It was delicious.
Shanta has been one of the very early writers for India Currents magazine and a pioneer in introducing Indian vegetarian cuisine to San Franciscans and others in the Bay Area. Her new book, Other Avenues Are Possible, is a comprehensive historical examination of the food co-op movement in the Bay Area and it talks of her involvement in The Other Avenues Co–Op Store. When she moved to the Bay Area in the early 70s, she joined the San Francisco natural food movement and thus began her lifetime of work with food and co-ops. This book is an in-depth look into the trials and tribulations of communities that have cooperated and supported sustainable farming and food sharing.  It is also quite daunting to read about the obstacles and challenges co-ops face even to this day when farm to table is an approved and accepted way of life.

In her opinion, there can never be too many organizations that work in the area of food co-ops. In her words, “The most valuable lesson that I got out of this journey is the symbiotic nature of the relationship between a co-op and the community it serves. When the Outer Sunset neighborhood where I live did not want a Starbucks in the neighborhood, we helped them, and when we needed financial backing, the community in turn helped us.”

In the chapter titled “Keeping the Vision,” she lays out ways of encouraging and supporting sustainable healthy food communities. Even though I am a chef and educator, it was an eye-opener for me at many levels. We are so far removed from the process of growing and distributing food that we forget the committed work involved in keeping sustainable methods of production alive. When asked about how young people can get involved in the food movement, she refers to Michael Pollan who says, “Cooking your own meals can be your best weapon to fight agri-business.”

Shantha’s passion and commitment is woven through the pages of her writing.  The decades of hard work, determination and struggles to keep Other Avenues Co Op Store open and successful is fully evident. This book is for all those people who care about a green planet, food politics, communal engagement and like Gordon Edgar says, “a must-read for anyone who eats food.”

Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area.praba@cookingmastery.com

Buy Other Avenues now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff's page




Elizabeth Hand, one of the finest, if not THE finest, horror stylists we’ve seen.

By Andrew Andrews
True Review
March 2017

 I have always enjoyed the work of Elizabeth Hand, one of the finest, if not THE finest, horror stylists we’ve seen.

 In “The Saffron Gatherers,” in the present-day, professional authors and other artists gather to discuss their artistic work and the beauty of ancient art. This all happens when an East Coast author ventures to find a home near San Francisco. But appreciating art is all they may have, as a catastrophe on land happens during the artist’s plane trip home: a catastrophe that defines why even appreciation of long-ago art is not forgotten, and the work of an artist is oh-so transitory and subject to the tyranny of reality.

 In “Fire,” the tale-tellers are necessary, are part of our wonderful humanity, even if (or as) the world steadily comes to an end.

 In “Beyond Belief: On Being a Writer,” in her autobiography, Hand details her early yearnings to write and her experiences in life, in education and in the terrible traumas she has endured, and how she was shaped, as an artist, by them. But I wonder why she kept those early rejection letters in a freezer? And were the perpetrators of the violent night she recalls ever found?

 “Kronia” is a vignette about a woman recalling the years of someone she has a distant but somewhat potent relationship with. And an explanation for the existence of memories.

There’s an interview with Hand in “Flying Squirrels in the Rafters.” It details her life in Maine, the Cottage, her inspirations and all the things she either likes or doesn’t.

“The Woman Men Didn’t See” is a mini-biography of James Tiptree Jr. -- the pen name of female author Alice Sheldon -- a woman born about 50 years too early. It’s the true story of the daughter of wealthy safari-goers, world explorers and a woman who needed an identity, but was too complex to find (or trust) one to call her own. It’s a shame, really, because Hand believes that if Tiptree/Sheldon hadn’t left this world, a suicide, that Sheldon/Tiptree could have given us so much more.

“Tom Disch” is another mini-biography and tribute to the novelist of ON WINGS OF SONG, an artist angry at his upbringing, resentful at how short life is, furious with how the world became so blatantly ordered and predictable and boring, and looking for the voice of God to explain it all.

Buy Fire. now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Elizabeth Hand's page



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