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Alternative history: The Human Front- A Review

By Pik Smeet
The Socialist Party of Great Britain
September 2013

Alternative history

Alternative history is a strange genre. Its central premise, that small changes in history can lead to radically different worlds is somewhat tenuous: Hitler dying as a small child is unlikely to have prevented a Second World War (merely changing the cast and their precise lines, instead). It is, though, fiction, and it provides a useful means of exploring ‘what ifs’, where the route to the alternative history is usually just an excuse to look at a world that might have been or is simply just different from our own. Being able to imagine different societies is a useful skill, in and of itself.

A few are wish fulfilments, and there’s a few too many ‘If the South won the Civil War’ or ‘If the Germans won the Second World War’ and even ‘If the British Empire never fell’. And of course, the less said about Zeppelins, the better.

Ken Macleod’s work has featured in our review columns before, often for their interesting examination of the ideas and cultures of the revolutionary left, as well as for his commitment to libertarian (proper sense) causes. The Human Front was his first published novella, and it has recently been reissued, along with an essay and an interview that further flesh out some of its themes.

It begins with the news that the Communist partisan Joseph Stalin has been killed in early 1963. The Soviet Union had fallen in 1949, under assault from Allied super hi-tech secret weapons. As Macleod explains in the essay, this dramatically changes the shape of the post-war world, leading to the unrestrained use of military superiority to maintain the colonial powers’ positions. The absence of the Soviet Union and the ongoing Chinese revolution means Maoism rather than Trotskyism comes to predominate on the British left. This leads to several scenes of ‘People’s War’ in the Scottish Highlands, with all the horror and brutality that entails.

Originally published in 2001, the image of a fugitive Stalin gunned down escaping is now resonant with the fates of Hussein and Bin Laden, and indeed, of our present unipolar world with the unrestrained use of drone strikes. Tens of years on, it seems more like prescience than alternative history. Although the novella soars off into high science fiction for its end twist, its grounding in the Scotland and the Lewis of Macleod’s childhood gives it a sense of solidity, grounding it in real history and left wing arguments remembered.

This reissue is an opportunity to not only consider the themes of the original story, but also alternative history itself and the way in which we shape our pasts to try and make our own future.

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Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in World Literature Today


by Issa J. Boullata
World Literature Today
September 2013

Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad is a winding street about one thousand feet long, noted for its many bookstores and outdoor book stalls. Named after the famous classical Arab poet Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (915–965 CE), it has been a thriving center of Baghdad’s bookselling and publishing for many years. On March 5, 2007, a car bomb was exploded on it, perhaps to intimidate intellectuals. More than thirty people were killed, and more than one hundred were wounded—booksellers, book buyers, and devotees of reading and of books—and the Shabandar Café where intellectuals met was gutted. Beau Beausoleil, a poet and San Francisco bookseller, created in solidarity a coalition of poets, artists, writers, printers, booksellers, and readers; broadsides of their writings and artwork about this tragic event were printed, and recitations were made in many cities. With Deema K. Shehabi, another San Francisco poet, an anthology of 135 pieces in prose and verse has now been compiled in this book, including some translated from Arabic and French and the texts of some broadsides (see WLT, May 2012, 34–37).

The pieces are of different lengths and moods. Some describe the street and decry the horrible event, others commemorate the innocent victims, and others still exult defiantly in the eventual triumph of freedom and truth:

“You can bomb a bookstore or ban / a book, but it will not die. You cannot kill / a poem like you can a man. / Al-Mutanabbi Street will rise again” (Sam Hamill).

“The books blew up and people, / cafés and stores; but words remained, / hovering, circled, waiting” (George Evans).

The anthology begins with an impressive five-page essay by Anthony Shadid, originally published in the Washington Post on March 12, 2007. Born in Oklahoma City in 1968, Shadid died on February 16, 2012, while covering the current Syrian revolution. His essay is a heartfelt story of Mohammed Hayawi, an Iraqi bookseller who died on Al-Mutanabbi Street and whom he knew while he was the Baghdad bureau chief of the newspaper. A similar personal essay is by Maysoon Pachachi, a London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origin, who reminisces about a 2004 visit to Baghdad for the first time in thirty-five years and remembers Al-Mutanabbi Street and Shabandar Café and other experiences. She ends by saying, “And sometimes it seems like the rhythm of Iraqi history is one of destruction, lament, and repair.” In fact, Al-Mutanabbi Street has reopened, and Shabandar Café has been renovated, although its owner lost many family members in the murderous blast.

Among other contributions, there is one by Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) entitled “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” another by the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–64)—his famous “Rain Song”—and another by Marilyn Hacker entitled “Ghazal: Dar al-Harb,” critical of the United States: “I might wish, like any citizen, to celebrate my country / but millions have reason to fear and hate my country.”

This anthology is recommended, not only for its literary merits, but also for its testimony.

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JwJ: Still Alive & Kicking Today

By Steve Early
www.PopularResistance.org
August 28, 2013

In the run-up to their convention next month in Los Angeles, top AFL-CIO officials have welcomed closer ties with non-labor groups and associations of workers’ who lack bargaining rights. In an interview with USA Today this summer, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka claimed that formal partnerships with the Sierra Club and NAACP would soon be forthcoming. In a Wall Street Journal interview, he waxed enthusiastic about bringing a leading Hispanic civil-rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, into the house of labor as well (despite its controversial funding from the Walmart Foundation).

Trumka also told a conference of the Labor Research and Action Network in June that “we must rethink what it means for working people to have a collective voice and real power.” He urged the assembled academics and activists to provide him with some “fresh thinking and new ideas for a dynamic labor movement.” He announced that the federation would collect “a lot of ideas, try them, experiment with them and see which ones work.”

The AFL-CIO’s latest quest for “new ideas” was launched shortly after the country’s most durable community-labor coalition celebrated its first quarter century of grassroots organizing work. Formed in the late 1980s, Jobs with Justice (JwJ) is the subject of a timely new book, edited by JWJ supporter Eric Larson, from Providence, R.I., and with an introduction by Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen, a founding father of the group.

Jobs With Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices (from PM Press in Oakland) uses oral history to trace JwJ’s development as a singularly effective vehicle for uniting workers, their unions, and non-labor allies. Among the longtime activists interviewed are the late Mattie Stegall, an African-American cafeteria worker at a state university in Texas; Margaret Butler, a former telephone operator in Portland, Oregon; Barb Ingalls, a printer radicalized by the Detroit newspaper strike in the mid-1990s; Lara Granich, a former tenant and student organizer in St. Louis; Maria Whyte, an organizer for economic justice in Buffalo; and Rev. Calvin Morris, a veteran of the southern civil rights movement. Rand Wilson and Russ Davis report on the experience of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, while Carl Rosen, John Ryan, and Stewart Acuff describe how their big city coalitions took root in Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta respectively.

Reading this book, one wonders if Trumka and others at AFL-CIO headquarters are not missing one key element of JwJ’s success? (If so, it wouldn’t be the first time, as noted below.) As the best case studies in this volume demonstrate, it takes direct networking among local insurgents to enhance individual union effectiveness and revitalize labor in any city or region. Roping together the walking wounded of institutional liberalism, inside the Beltway, is an entirely different project. It’s also far less likely to produce any discernible results, nationally or locally, other than a few convention-related newspaper headlines.

JwJ was created at a time when a far more conservative AFL-CIO dominated any “letterhead coalitions” of national organizations that it deigned to participate in. Too often, local central labor councils were, as Rosen puts it, “pretty moribund” and certainly more wary of left-wing “outsiders” (including Rosen’s own unaffiliated United Electrical Workers). Worse yet, many CLCs proved unable or unwilling to generate real solidarity in major strikes, organizing campaigns, and contract fights. When JwJ emerged to fill that void, it often had “an uneven, rocky start,” according to Acuff. In Atlanta, where he was a local leader of the Service Employees International Union, JwJ was initially “crushed and suppressed by the State Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Council.”

But this only spurred Acuff to campaign for the Atlanta AFL-CIO presidency “focusing on organizing and solidarity, all of which was the JwJ program.” When he got elected, Jobs with Justice became “a committee of the labor council” and the main vehicle for its strengthened ties with the community. Elsewhere in the book, John Ryan recalls his parallel experience as a reform-minded CWA local president, who played a similar dual role in Cleveland Jobs with Justice and, later, the city’s central labor council. As Ryan recalls:

“Jobs with Justice allowed for smart, energetic incredible women and people of color to be leaders of the coalition at a time when they were shut out of the labor federation, which we later changed. Now, there’s a much more diverse labor federation. Today, it is headed up a by a big supporter of Jobs with Justice, our first woman leader after I left.”

Out-reach to students, immigrants, environmentalists, the clergy, civil rights organizations, and others in the community is now second nature to many unions, when they find themselves in a tight spot. But, in the late 1980s, the mainstream labor movement was just beginning to value community-labor relationships that were more reciprocal and less opportunistic. As immigrant minister and Pride at Work member Israel Alvaran notes in the book, JwJ has helped many unions “realize that a lot of their membership can easily be part of community organizations. Maybe you are a hotel worker and you are Filipino. There’s an overlap.”

Eventually, some (but not all) Jobs with Justice-affiliated unions contributed to the national AFL-CIO’s own political upheaval in the mid-1990s. SEIU’s John Sweeney was elected president of the federation on a “New Voice” slate. Trumka, an early JWJ backer when he led the United Mine Workers, became Sweeney’s secretary-treasurer. JwJ’s initial reward for their victory was to be informed by Trumka (and New Voice backer Jerry McEntee, then president of AFSCME) that the only community-labor coalitions needed in the future were those created by the “new” AFL-CIO.

In 1997, after Trumka and Sweeney became reconciled to the continuing existence of JwJ, the AFL-CIO did donate $100,000 a year to its national office. Fifteen years later, the federation was reportedly still contributing the same amount out of an annual budget of $140 million. During labor’s failed campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, American Rights at Work (ARAW) received greater labor funding, now scaled back to the same level as JwJ, which merged with ARAW last year.

With the AFL-CIO poised to “invest” more in formations allied with labor, one would think that JwJ would be at the top of its grantee list? After all, as Cohen notes in his introduction: “Jobs with Justice brings to the table 25 years of practice building unity, bringing diverse groups together, balancing interests, seeking commonalities, and aligning campaigns and movements. That experience and those skills will be crucial in the coming period.”

It remains unclear, however, whether national JwJ will receive AFL-CIO funding at the same level as before its absorption of ARAW or more generous allocations. “We’re hoping that they’ll see the utility of supporting a stronger, merged organization at a higher level,” one local JWJ leader told me. He touted ARAW’s boost to JWJ’s national lobbying, research, and public relations capacity.  Other representatives of the AFL-CIO and JwJ/ARAW would not confirm any details of their financial relationship.

If there’s a weakness in 25 Years, 25 Voices, it’s the amount of ink devoted to mutual back-scratching by past or present national staff members (who are all fine folks). Inside the Beltway, such self-congratulatory “discourse” may be standard fare, at labor and political testimonial dinners. But it doesn’t reflect what built JwJ at its best, over the years, at the grassroots level. There, the group was often defined by its rebel spirit, rank-and-file orientation, and bottom-up initiatives. JwJ’s leaders were widely known and respected for being self-effacing and self-sacrificing. Among them are formidable organizers like ex-GE machinist Russ Davis in Massachusetts or former Pac Bell worker Margaret Butler in Oregon. Both have toiled for much of their career on “movement” salaries far below the pay of the full-time union functionaries whose faltering campaigns their JwJ affiliates have rescued on innumerable occasions.

Hopefully, 25 Years, 25 Stories will be a reminder that JwJ was created as an alternative to the bureaucratic functioning of existing unions and their “progressive alliances” of three or four decades ago. “What’s different about Jobs with Justice is it really is about building a permanent network of relationships grounded in one local community,” says Butler, who was initially skeptical of JwJ when Cohen visited her local union in 1987 to promote the idea. “He was from the national union,” she explains. “In Portland, we were a radical union and we didn’t like the national that much.”

Mimicking the organizational behavior of national unions today, however much improved, or the model of foundation-funded workers’ centers is not the best way to be what Stewart Acuff calls “the militant wing of the labor movement.” In the 45 communities and 24 states where JwJ is still promoting worker mobilization and direct action, there is no more important and unfinished role for it to play.

Steve Early worked on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. During that time, he was an active supporter of Jobs with Justice in Boston and its predecessor, the Massachusetts Labor Support Project. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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Love and Struggle in Socialism and Democracy

by B. Loewe
Socialism and Democracy
2013 Vol. 27, No. 1, 191–221

For organizers and students of history too young to have touched the 1960s, that decade holds a mystique that David Gilbert’s Love and Struggle does wonders to make real.

Bernardine Dohrn, former Weather Underground member and now juvenile justice advocate, says that the sixties are a club used against today’s activists. She suggests that the way the history of the time gets told makes it a story inaccessible and artificially unique. She helpfully notes that the way we tell the myth of the sixties makes its advances and its fervor seem impossible today. Love and Struggle dispels those myths and provides readers with an inside view of one of the more controversial and misunderstood components of those times: white anti-imperialist armed struggle and the third world movements with which they allied themselves.

Unlike other books by former Weather members, Gilbert’s is neither an adventure novel nor an apologist saga. Being part the 1968 Columbia student strike, the rise and fall of Students for a Democratic Society, the counterculture and its “sexual liberation,” and one of the underground groups which carried out a series of bombings against government and corporate entities gives Gilbert plenty of material to keep readers turning pages through heartracing tales. But that’s not the point of the book. Instead, it is the production of a man who has had 31 years to reflect on the whirlwind of organizing and opposition that eventually led to an act of solidarity gone terribly wrong, tragic loss of life, and his 75-to-life sentence, which he continues to serve in a New York State prison today.

In a sense it carries to completion a task he set out for himself immediately after his arrest.

Love and Struggle is a thorough assessment of the achievements and mistakes, groundbreaking thought and misguided lines, revelations and retreats of its author and the organizations in which he participated.

As he and his co-defendants dealt with beatings and intimidation, attempted to develop a courtroom strategy, enlist outside support, and ensure his newborn son would be raised in a loving environment, Gilbert also felt that participants in the armored truck robbery in Nyack, NY, that would become known as “Brinks” had the duty to provide a self-reflection to movement forces. “As revolutionaries,” David writes toward the end of the book, “our commitment isn’t to our own status but rather to advancing the struggle. Indeed, if we can draw out useful lessons, our personal sacrifices are not completely in vain.”

Nothing that David Gilbert has done with his life has been in vain. Love and Struggle is 300+ pages of useful lessons. He documents his own politicization from suburban Boston to Harlem/Columbia, the body of study he embarked upon to make sense of the world and his and others’ place in it, the dynamics within the student movement, the violence of the state, and the solidarity with third world movements that eventually led to his decision to go underground.

Gilbert models what seemed so troubling for some of his peers, honest self-criticism. Many movement veterans of that period will say that “criticism, self-criticism” was anything but using someone’s strengths to overcome their weaknesses. Instead they recount that criticism, self-criticism was a weapon to tear people down and often ensure their submission to leadership. Gilbert’s dedication to advancing the struggle by focusing on lessons – as opposed to enhancing his own status – is clearest when he invites a former collective member who worked under his leadership to share his distinct memory of Gilbert so that readers get an assessment unbiased by the “vanity of memory” that could come from the author himself.

How is such an assessment useful to readers today? Readers who open Love and Struggle hoping for a memoir will be disappointed. Entertaining and autobiographical pieces are included only as opening vignettes that serve as starting points for Gilbert’s reflection. He’s constantly answering questions. What were organizers thinking? What examples and theories offer the most revolutionary potential? How did activists’ interactions with each other reinforce or reinvent power? What were the blind spots that allowed for mistakes to be made? At times he’s clarifying history, at others he’s correcting it.

He refutes the efforts to paint Weather members as guilt-ridden or blood-thirsty and points out that often such critiques are launched because those making them seek to avoid what actually makes Weather lasting and important – the politics they represented.
He lays out their goals:

1)  Draw some heat so that the police and FBI couldn’t concentrate all forces on Black, Latino/a, Native, and Asian groups
2)  Create a visible example of whites fighting in solidarity with Third World struggles
3)  Educate broadly about the major political issues
4)  Identify key institutions of oppression
5)  Encourage white youth to find a range of creative ways to resist despite repression.

And he points out that Weather was not alone in using armed propaganda to accomplish their pursuits. Multiple militant actions took place nationally, for example, in response to the Attica prison massacre of inmates and even guards at the hands of state police.

But most telling to illustrate both the politics that brought Gilbert to Weather and what eventually got him expelled is the glimpse of above-ground life we get when he temporarily surfaced in Denver. Without a cell and without armed purpose, Gilbert is neither guilty nor seeking violent confrontation. Instead he sets an example of what white anti-imperialist politics look like in a different context. He situates himself among the white counterculture, developing a collective home and alternative lifestyle and from that place seeks to: act in solidarity with people of color organizations that both are rooted in their community and share a common politics; support women’s liberation and challenge his own sexism through a men’s group and its activities such as childcare; and be a bridge that may link the separate worlds into something greater than the sum of their parts.

In the multiple lives Gilbert got to live throughout the book, we see many examples of solidarity in action, sometimes odd other times profound – from running across vacation beaches with the flag of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front to purposely going limp at the start of his own trial and having to be tied to his chair because of his complete non-cooperation with a government he deemed illegitimate.

To be totally transparent, I’ve been in off-and-on correspondence with David since the summer of 2001, when I worked on a farm whose mission was to support organizations carrying on the legacy of the Black Panthers. David served as an adviser to that project and quickly became a mentor to me, a role he plays for hundreds of people who have found their way to his thoughtful letters after seeing the Weather Underground movie in 2003, reading Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America, or Gilbert’s other book, No Surrender. Reading Love and Struggle is like reading a long series of letters from David with fewer puns.

It’s an invaluable addition to anyone seeking to understand the world of 50 years ago or the efforts to change the world today. It shows that the history-makers of the sixties are neither gods nor devils but simply fierce and flawed people who threw themselves toward their understanding of freedom. It is further proof that David Gilbert (or any of the political prisoners) should not now be in jail.

Love and Struggle shares how one person answered the age-old question of “which side are you on?” or, in the more pointed form addressed to white activists by James Forman in The Making of Black Revolutionaries, “What will you do when they seal off the ghettos of America?”

And it pulls back the curtain on a system that’s still alive and unfortunately doing too well, thus asking readers the same. What will we do to see that David Gilbert and the other political prisoners still behind bars are freed? What will we do to carry on their legacy? What will we do so that the lessons learned and shared are advanced for another generation? I’m sure David would love to hear your answer. You can write to him at #83-A-6158 / Auburn Correctional Facility / P.O. Box 618 / Auburn NY 13024.

# 2013 B. Loewe Chicago bstandsforb.wordpress.com twitter: @bstandsforb
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2012.752999


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An Interview with Norman Nawrocki about His New Album, CAZZAROLA!

By Norman Nawrocki
Les Pages Noires
Montreal, September 2013

1. What kind of music is on CAZZAROLA!, the album?

It ranges from traditional Italian folk – kind of world beat, but updated – to contemporary Italian-themed compositions of my own that are folkloric, ambient, electroacoustic and somewhat ‘indie.’ The songs are arranged chronologically following the story in the book (CAZZAROLA! Anarchy, Romani, Love, Anarchy: A Novel), spanning 130 years of Italian history from 1880 to today. There are waltzes, folk dances, love ballads, prisoner songs, a marching band, and different kinds of soundscapes, from a 1920 auto factory and 1920s street noise, to Rome street music today. You will hear traditional Italian instruments on some songs: large tambourine hand drums, hurdy gurdy, bagpipes, bass mandolin, etc., and sampled/looped beat creations on others. Thirty tracks total.

2. Can you give some examples of the songs?

The album opens with a traditional, lone, Italian shepherd bagpipe piece, followed by a waltz by one of my bands which includes a harp and steel drums. There is an acapella love song by a friend I recorded recently in a 15th century Italian abbey, then a 1894 theatrical soundscape we assembled in Montreal. There are well known Italian singalong favorites like ‘Bella Ciao,’ in Italian and English – one a solo folksinger; the other, full band; a 1960s jazz duo; a Romanian Roma refugee accordionist playing on the streets of Rome; a Rome ‘noise’ band, a 1950s swing song with another band of mine, and more. One-third of the songs are in Italian; one-third in English; the rest, instrumentals.

3. Are these adaptations or new compositions?


Both. The album is a mix of interpretations of older Italian songs dating to the 1880s, newer ones, and original compositions by myself and friends. Some sound like they were recorded in 1910, others are clearly contemporary.

4. Why did you make CAZZAROLA! the album?

I’m a writer but I'm also a musician, so I wanted a musical soundtrack for my new novel – CAZZAROLA! Anarchy, Romani, Love, Italy (PM Press, Oakland, 2013). I imagined an album with period songs and soundscapes reflecting, based on, and inspired by the book. A reader could listen to the album before, during or after they read the book. Or potential readers might hear the album first, then be curious about the book.
The album is very much an invitation to read the book. It offers another entry point into the novel, and complements the story with real period sounds and songs. It also stands on its own as a audio document: a brief musical survey of Italy from the last 130 years that covers historical events in song. It allows a listener to travel in time through music.

5. How did you choose the tracks for the CD?

I wanted the music to cover the same period in the book, from 1880 to today, so I consulted ethnomusicologists I know, Italian musician friends and others for suggestions. I also did a lot of research, online and in person, through interviews and scouring the Montreal library’s Italian music collection. In the end I chose some traditional period songs, composed new ones, and asked for contributions from Italian friends. I visited Italy twice this year to do field recordings and meet and work with local musicians. This resulted in a few amazing collaborations.

6. Where did you record CAZZAROLA!?

Everywhere! I recorded at home, in a Montreal studio, and in different regions of Italy, in cities in studios and on the street, in villages and mountain meadows. Collaborators recorded in their own studios here and abroad and sent me pieces.

7. How did you meet and work with your collaborators?


I met Italian musicians during previous book and album tours of Italy, and more recently online. They invited me to return to Italy to work directly with them. I met other musicians there and invited them to contribute to the album. Otherwise, I asked local friends and bandmates to play on it.

8. How many artists besides yourself are on the album?


Two incredible bands (DisCanto and Obsolescenza Programmata ) plus two separate singer/songwriters from Italy. One band is folkloric from Abruzzo, the other, an underground ‘noise’ band from Rome.
There are three of my bands from Montreal (Crocodile, DaZoque! and SANN), and an assortment of other local and Italian musicians.

9. You have 30 tracks on this album?

Yes, running from 30 seconds to 6 minutes long. They range from full band instrumentals to single folk singers with guitar, a few spoken word pieces set in soundscapes, including recited extracts from the novel.

10. Who co-produced the album?


David Sturton, a renowned Montreal sound engineer/friend with unlimited talent and a track record of working wonders with everyone’s music, from Jean LeLoup to Bran Van 3000 among others. He also engineered two of my earlier albums, with one of my bands, DaZoque!, and my solo cd, Duck Work.

11. What was your last album?


“Letters from Poland/Lettres de la pologne” (Les Pages Noires, 2008), a bilingual collection of letters set to music from my short story collection, The Anarchist & The Devil Do Cabaret’ (Black Rose Books, 2003).

12. What are your current music projects?

I have a new band, Crocodile, from Montreal. A bar owner once said we sounded like The Ex from Holland. We will record a first album later in 2013. I am also working towards another cd based on the Quebec student strike of 2012, setting my poems to music. I continue to perform many solo violin shows, sampled and looped, with and without spoken word.

13. Other stories about making CAZZAROLA!, the album?


In Italy, we drove through the mountains of Abruzzo one day looking for a shepherd with his flock. We found one, and with the permission of the shepherd and his 7 sheep dogs, I walked through the herd recording them live. Musician friends in Italy introduced me to other musicians, colleagues at work for example, and I invited them to play on the album and recorded them after work the same day. One night, I discovered a marching band in a mountain village and recorded them and fireworks on the spot. In another village, I recorded the sounds from a metal sculpture dedicated to emigrants, and gave the recording to some friends and asked if they could compose a piece based on them. I was incredibly fortunate to meet generous, creative, talented musicians all over Italy. I am deeply grateful to them for their contributions.

14. Is it true that you actually sing on this album?

Ha! I am not a singer, everyone knows this, and I would never pretend to call myself one, but for the first time since I started recording albums, in 1986 – and that’s 24 albums and about 35 compilations – I actually do sing a few songs, sort of. Mostly I do the vocals and play violin, some keyboards, accordion and a wee bit of percussion.

15. Will the Italian song lyrics be translated and included with the CD?

They will be translated very soon and available online from my website.

THE ALBUM, “CAZZAROLA!by Norman Nawrocki & amici,”
WILL BE AVAILABLE ON NORMAN’S CANADIAN TOUR,
OCT 24 – DEC 3RD, 2013, or online from Les Pages Noires
or from his publisher, PM PRESS:

www.nothingness.org/music/rhythm
www.pmpress.org/

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Maroon the Implacable: A Review in Solidarity

By Steve Bloom
Solidarity
July/August 2013

RUSSELL MAROON SHOATZ is not a household name. Even within the milieu of those who are engaged in work to free the many political prisoners in the United States there are some who have not heard about his case — though a new political campaign that was launched in early 2013 is actively changing that reality as these lines are written. Go to www.freemaroon.org to find out more.
In brief: Shoatz is a political prisoner, a former Black Panther and revolutionary activist from Philadelphia. He has been behind bars continuously since 1972 — except for two brief periods in which he escaped, thus earning the nickname “Maroon.” More than 30 of his years in prison have been served in solitary confinement. That he has been able to remain so much in touch with what is happening in the world, to discourse intelligently on popular culture and political events, is testimony to an individual with an intense intellect and profound perseverance.

This book is a collection of essays, composed mostly for the education of fellow prisoners. It is written, therefore, in a popular style that’s easy to read. But it is also filled with deep and profound insights. That is a rare combination.

Most of the material — except for one essay written explicitly for the book — previously existed only in the form of scattered small pamphlets or manuscripts (in the literal sense of being hand-written) in the files of family and friends. The editors, for the sake of completeness, have included everything that was available to them.

Different essays will, therefore, have different weight or interest for different readers. But even a piece like “Respect Our Mothers, Stop Hating Women” (2010), with conclusions that might seem obvious to those who went through discussions in both activist and academic circles in the wake of the feminist rebirth during the 1970s, takes on a qualitatively different meaning if we understand the context of macho culture that predominates in a prison where men are incarcerated.

Masculinism was also a prominent feature of the Black revolutionary milieu that Maroon himself comes from. This piece thus represents a significant personal testament by a human being who successfully challenged both himself and the culture which surrounds him.

Resistance and Deep Critique

The subject matter of these essays ranges from the fraud perpetrated by the U.S. prison system, in the name of “law and order,” to the theory of revolutionary organization. It includes, in particular, a deep critique by an active participant of the Black liberation movement as it developed in the 1960s and ’70s.

Shoatz’s assessment is particularly striking in light of the wave of nostalgia which has emerged in recent years for the Black Panthers and similar formations. Maroon does not fail to salute the important advances in consciousness that were made during this period and embodied in such organizations. But he undertakes a serious critical balance sheet that considers their weaknesses and flaws as well.

He is critical, for example, of the Panthers for their top-down organizational style that restricted the possibility of initiatives at the local level. Also, while asserting that attention to the development of armed struggle was an obvious necessity during this time, he expresses the view that “Panthers ‘shooting it out’ with more heavily armed police from fixed positions was downright ludicrous! Even if they survived, it still left them in jail or hospitalized, causing everybody else to have to drop important work to bail them out or raise money for their legal defense.” He also talks about ways in which the Panthers in Oakland, under Huey Newton’s leadership, essentially became corrupt and abandoned their original vision, while the East Coast wing was too weak and inexperienced to forge a genuine alternative.

One key historical insight is contained in Maroon’s essay titled “The Real Resistance to Slavery in North America” (2005).

The focus is not on the conventional challenges to slavery that we all know about — the northern bourgeoisie whose hesitant opposition was embodied in the Republican Party, or the hard-core abolitionists who were far more resolute than the Republican Party (John Brown, the underground railroad, the abolitionist press, etc.), or even the Black slaves and ex-slaves who took more decisive action and whose contributions have come down to us as part of the established history (even if a lesser-known part of that history) such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner.

Instead this essay focuses on an element most readers will be aware of only dimly, if at all — the maroon communities created primarily by escaped slaves but also including native peoples who refused to adapt to a white settler-colonial society, along with disaffected whites who dropped out.

Creating an independent, self-sufficient culture within the context of territories considered by others to be unsuitable for human habitation — such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina — these maroon communities successfully battled for decades against all attempts to wipe them out, providing first a refuge for escaping slaves and then a fighting force that was among the decisive elements that led to a Northern victory in the Civil War.

One important distinction made in the book is between what Shoatz calls “treaty maroons,” who first won their own independence but then attempted to institutionalize what they had won in collaboration with their former oppressors — often agreeing to sell out the interests of other slaves or native peoples in the process — and those he labels “fighting maroons,” who never compromised or gave up the struggle for a genuine independence.

Based on this assessment, Shoatz offers an interesting challenge to conventional revolutionary Marxist thinking in his essay “The Dragon and the Hydra: A Historical Study of Organizational Methods” (2006).

Here, too, he focuses on the resistance of maroon communities in North America and the Caribbean, considering in particular how those who refused to subordinate themselves to any centralized authority were able to survive and continue to struggle for decades as “fighting maroons,” whereas those which attempted to establish more conventional forms of political or state structures were consistently beheaded, or co-opted, or disarmed by the imperial authorities — or else transformed into new kinds of repressive instruments as in Haiti.

Shoatz’s conclusion is that the proper organizational model for genuine revolutionary struggle should be the multi-headed “hydra,” rather than the centralized “dragon” — an idea which constitutes a particular challenge for those, such as the author of this review, who have lived our lives and consistently built organizations based on one or another version of the “Leninist” paradigm.

In grappling with this question we do have to acknowledge Shoatz’s insights. Yet there is something that he does not consider in this chapter: the fact that even if the decentralized maroon struggles were able to survive on their own terms for decades, continuing a genuine battle for independence, they were not able to stop the global advance of the imperial project which, today, threatens the destruction of our planet.

Something else needs to be factored into the equation, therefore, if we are going to actually disarm and dismantle the machinery of patriarchal white supremacy and imperial conquest. I have personally begun a correspondence with Maroon on this all-important question. From our exchange so far it becomes clear to me again (as was already obvious from the book itself) that Shoatz is an honest and creative revolutionary who will think about and consider every serious question that is raised with him, even (especially) those which challenge his own previous modes of thought. I am hopeful, therefore, that our exchange will lead to some further development of a collective synthesis. I’ll keep readers of ATC informed if I can as our conversation develops further.

The Question of “Matriarchy”

The concept of “patriarchy,” just mentioned, leads us to another theme that is central to the book. Shoatz is straightforward about the influence on his thinking that others have had over the years. One of the individuals named most prominently is Fred Ho, also an editor of this volume, whose proposal to embrace “matriarchy” as an alternative to patriarchy and “manifest destiny Marxism” Shoatz openly embraces.

It is not quite clear from the book itself just what is meant by the term “matriarchy.” But it is obvious that for both Ho and Shoatz this represents something more than “feminism,” or even “radical feminism” — which still suggests an equality of women with men in the context of our present-day industrial culture. The concept of “matriarchy” being embraced here is tied in with a vision of “ecosocialism” which would constitute a sharp break from our present-day industrial culture.

Shoatz calls directly for the development of a “subsistence economy” — a term used not in the sense that most will probably instinctively understand it, an economy which produces a bare minimum necessary for survival and nothing by way of a social surplus, but in the sense used by writers like Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva from whom Shoatz quotes extensively: an economy where local production for local use begins to replace a reliance on industrial production in general, and on globalized industrial production in particular.

Given the ecological challenges posed by 21st century technology this is an idea that at least deserves a serious conversation within the revolutionary movement today.
 Finally, a list of those individuals to whom Shoatz expresses his deep gratitude would not be complete without a mention of Stan Goff, another whose writings are quoted extensively in the book.

Appendices include a “Manifesto for Scientific Soul Sessions” (SSS is a group founded several years ago by Fred Ho and others), also available at www.scientificsoulsessions.com, and a statement by a relatively new organization called “Ecosocialist Horizons,” which was created initially by members of SSS but has begun to establish a fairly broad national and international network. [Fred Ho’s article on the revolutionary content of jazz music appeared in ATC 159 and is online at http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3642. For more information on Ecosocialist Horizons, go to www.ecosocialisthorizons.com.]

The book also includes a foreword by rap artist Chuck D. (who characterizes Shoatz as “one of the most brilliant thinkers on the subject of Black liberation, as well as freedom, justice, and social transformation for all who want a planet free of abuse, oppression, and exploitation toward humans and Earth itself”), an introduction by Quincy Saul, one of the editors, and a “prelude” by Fred Ho.

If you are interested in a book which will challenge you in creative and intelligent ways, read this one.

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In Letters of Blood and Fire in The New Yorker


The New Yorker
July 5th 2013

What We're Reading: Summer Edition Volume II


Summer reading plans and aspirations from the New Yorker staff. This second installment follows part one.

...George Caffentzis has been writing as part of what is sometimes called the “anti-capitalist” movement for roughly thirty years. In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism is the best available collection of his work. Rooted in Marxist fundamentals, Caffentzis examines how capital has turned forces like “information technology” into newer and more efficient modes of labor exploitation. His tone is less stringent than that of some academics (thought this isn’t a book for anyone scared of theory), and he pokes around into more historical badger holes than other writers in his cohort (the Turing machine pops up).

Calm but furious and meticulously researched, this collection is required reading for anyone other than the Koch Brothers.

—Sasha Frere-Jones

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Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here reviewed on Jadaliyya


By Asmaa Abdallah
Jadaliyya
June 23rd, 2013

Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi, editors. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5, 2007 Bombing of Baghdad's "Street of Booksellers."

You can bomb a bookstore or ban a book,
but it will not die
You cannot kill a poem like you can a man.
Al-Mutanabbi Street will rise again.
(Sam Hamill, To Salah al-Hamdani, November 2008)

At the heart of a new anthology is the idea that the written word is invincible. The sentiment may not be altogether new, but that does not mean it has been exhausted. Far from it, as shown in the new collection, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers,” edited by Beau Beausoleil, poet and owner of the Great Overland Book Company, along with Palestinian-American poet and editor Deema Shehabi. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here features a diversity of voices unified in their commitment to a shared project of literary activism, a shared assertion that books—and literature and knowledge—must triumph in the face of blind ignorance and fundamentalism.

To appreciate this anthology’s value, we need to remind ourselves of a disturbing fact: there is nothing inherently liberatory about literary culture. In the service of state power, literature has often been little more than a tool of propaganda. Not so long ago, writers and intellectuals from across the Arab world were conscripted—and duly rewarded—for singing the praises of the Iraqi regime, hailing Saddam Hussein as a hero. Saddam himself was heavily interested in the power of literature, penning numerous novels during his time as ruler. Nor should we forget the annual Mirbid Poetry Festival, where poets and critics, including major figures of the Arab literary left, were awarded the dubious “Saddam Hussein Medal for the Arts.” In this way, the official celebration of literature in Iraq rested on a system where writers and journalists were commissioned to produce novels, poems, and films about the dictator’s life story, the bravery of Iraqi soldiers, and more.

But alongside the official literary culture of Baathist Iraq, there were other literary cultures, some independent, some dissident, some radical. And this is one of the central meanings of Mutanabbi Street as an actual place. For besides being the greatest book market in the entire Arab world, Mutanabbi Street was (and is) a place for independent readers, poets, critics and activists to meet and argue. Its existence was proof of Iraq’s lively public sphere in spite of the wars, the sanctions, and the occupation.

The history of Mutanabbi Street shows how fragile the public sphere can be. Indeed, the bloody attack on the space was, in so many ways, an attack on the very proposition that Iraqis deserve a public forum, a place where people can meet to debate ideas. And thus, we arrive at the enduring necessity for the motivating force behind this collection: if writers believe that literature can play a liberatory role they must not only assert and reassert that proposition in words, they must sustain it by actions as well. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here comes from precisely this understanding, it is a book of deeds as much as of words. Here is a group of writers engaged in a political cause, responding to an event that has touched them deeply and, in some cases, personally. Some of the contributors had a direct relationship with the famed cultural street, and so their pieces either tell a personal account of their experience with the street or are dedicated to one of its victims. The others that have never been to Baghdad are able to relate to Al-Mutanabbi Street nonetheless. They do so by drawing parallels between the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street and other acts of violence targeting places that may stand for culture, freedom of expression or exchange of ideas.

The variety in the choice of the anthology’s contributors is also telling. By including voices from countries outside the Middle East, the anthology not only becomes richer and more diverse, but it also communicates accurately the sense of solidarity over a cause that is able to pull in people from different backgrounds, and reiterates the main theme of the project, namely that Al-Mutanabbi Street is in places other than Baghdad. It is in every place where people can pick up a book and read, exchange ideas or learn. It is in the black market of books in Pansodan, Burma and even in Alexandria’s Al-Nabi Danial Street, which was ransacked last year by the Egyptian authorities but has also risen again just like Al-Mutanabbi Street.

The same diversity in the contributors’ backgrounds means that the fight is closer to home for some writers than others. While it is easier for those writing from the comfort of a context where there are less life-threatening constraints on freedom of expression, this is not the case for others living under oppressive regimes, and risking their very lives to simply write what they feel or think. Nonetheless, both types of contributors come together in this anthology to join forces in speaking out against a common enemy for all. Knowing that there are others around the world – who have no direct gain – are sharing the concern and making their voices heard is a meaningful and much needed token of solidarity with the cultural community in Iraq.
The anthology is divided into three sections: The River Turned Black with Ink, Knowledge is Light, and Gathering the Silences, all titles that refer to the importance of writing and books.

The project itself, much like the stories told within the anthology, bear testimony to how much value is attached to books and artistic culture. This global project has transformed the geographical location of Al-Mutanabbi Street, even for those who have never been there or heard of it, into a metaphor for freedom of expression. It has been able to unite voices from across the universe, to show people that even though violence is loud, literature has means of confronting it. As a counterpoint to arms, the anthology offers the arts.

The street in question is named after the famous tenth century Iraqi poet, and so it seems fit for Sinan Antoon to address Al-Mutanabbi in his contribution “Letter to Al-Mutanabbi.” In the poem, Antoon complains to the famed poet that people have yet to find a future world where they do not devour one another. Although Antoon is admittedly not very optimistic, his awareness of the power of words almost trumps his pessimism when he says that he dreams to “weave an ocean out of ink / for our myths / and out of words a sail / or a shroud / vast enough for us all.”

In “The River Turned Black with Ink,” Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi recounts her trip back to Baghdad in 2004 after a long absence. Her visit to Al-Mutanabbi Street to shoot her documentary reveals the importance the street held in the hearts and lives of Baghdad’s population, describing books as “food of life” for Iraqis and saying that Al-Mutanabbi Street was where they went for nourishment. Three years later, when the bombing took place, she is comforted by the idea that Iraqi history follows a plotline of classical Arabic poetry where “the opening lines … are a lament over ruins. Once the lament is over, however, the poem gets on with the rest of its work.”

San Francisco-based author Lewis Buzbee tells the story of how Al-Mutanabbi Street gradually evolved from a place where travelling booksellers often passed to Baghdad’s cultural hub. In “Crossroads,” Buzbee describes what had happened the day of the bombing, “the sky rained pages and the ashes of pages. Fragments of words fell quietly to the earth…. The market had a black hole in it, where the booksellers had been; the city had a black hole, the world had a black hole.” But Buzbee is quick to note that despite the great loss, the legacy of the street and of the books themselves was far too great to be overcome by the bombers. Booksellers came back to the street and so did readers, “and the readers came to believe that their reading might be the only way to heal the black hole in the world’s heart.”

Some of the entries do not refer to the victims of Al-Mutanabbi Street alone, but also hail lesser-known soldiers of culture and knowledge in the bereaved country as heroes and heroines. For example, ‘Hearing of Alia Mohamed Baker’s Stroke’ by Philip Metres tells of a brave Basra librarian who saves the contents of a library – more than thirty thousand books – by sneaking them out in her car bit by bit, against the threat of being discovered by the occupation forces. Another poem “311 and Counting” by Lamees al-Ethari introduces the reader to some of the Iraqi academics who disappeared or were killed since the US invasion of Iraq. The official count is at 311, but she believes the real number to be even greater. In her three short stanzas numbered with the number of the victims, who remain nameless, she provides a brief description of what they did for the field of knowledge and what happened to them:

No. 313
A desk piled with last week’s essays.
19th century British Poetry.
Dark rimmed glasses silently folded
Kidnapped and still missing.

The anthology is only one installment of the larger project Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. While most were rendered speechless and stood helpless by the scale of destruction, the loss of life, and the elusiveness of the enemy of the street of culture, and of freedom of expression and exchange of ideas in general, Beau Beausoleil spearheaded the effort Al-Mutanabbi Starts Here. It started with a project of 130 letterpress broadsides by 130 individual printers, which ultimately made their way into the collection of the Iraqi National Library and Archives in April 2013. In another attempt to bring the broadsides to the region, an exhibition will be held at the American University in Cairo in Spring 2014. The broadsides contain artwork and/or short prose or poems that somehow respond to the attack. The project members simultaneously worked on a parallel product for the project: an anthology containing the responses of scores of poets and writers to the same bombing of 2007. Even years after Al-Mutanabbi Street has officially been reopened, and after the broadside project and the anthology have been completed, the indefatigable project members continue to muster support and ideas to keep the memory of Al-Mutanabbi Street legacy alive. In a new attempt to honor Al-Mutanabbi Street and its victims, the project has a launched a call for book artists, whereby 260 artists would create three books over the course of one year as “an inventory of Al-Mutanabbi street.”

Of course this artistic project, large and far-reaching as it is, has not stopped the bombings and killings in Iraq: over 700 people lost their lives there last April, making it the deadliest month over the last five years.The contributors, whether publishers, writers or book artists, have all expressed their unequivocal support and solidarity with the Iraqi community. Their words and images are powerful, moving and have gone from one place to the next to be heard and seen, and although they cannot stop the bullets and bombs, they can do a lot more, according to contributor Fred Norman whose bio describes him as hoping “that he might someday write the words that will make the human beast humane.” Norman dedicates his entry to the famed Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika who died a few months after the bombing in 2007. His poem contains a clear reference to her important status as the first Arab poet to use free verse. It laments that destruction, bids Malaika to come back to Baghdad, which she left for Egypt, and laments the status of female writers in Iraq after extremism gained a stronghold in the aftermath of the US-led invasion. But it also reveals his belief that she can, through her poetry, “teach al-Mutanabbi’s cruel destroyer to play the oud, to love both night and day, both sun and moonlight, peace, to love a woman’s world.”

Until the destroyer of Al-Mutanabbi learns to play the oud, and to love peace and a woman’s world, writers and intellectuals from across the world will continue to unite and make themselves heard in every way possible. As Beausoleil says about the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project, “What is happening in Iraq hasn’t stopped, and so this shouldn’t either.”

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Fire and Flames reviewed in Counterpunch


By Ron Jacobs
Counterpunch
Weekend Edition July 5-7, 2013

Inside the Street Movements

Spontis, Squats and West Germany


My latest novel is situated in Frankfurt am Main in what was then West Germany (or the Bundesrepublik Deutschland for you German speakers).  The time period is 1971-1972 and two of the main protagonists live in a squatted building across from the US military’s Post Exchange.  This squat really existed.  In fact, there were several squatted buildings in Frankfurt, especially in the part of the city known as the Westend.  The squats served as living spaces and community meeting places.  By 1973, they would become the site of some of the fiercest street battles ever seen in postwar Frankfurt.  The battles took place because the police had been instructed to take the buildings back by the banks that owned them and the politicians that served those banks.

I mention this because I just finished reading a testament of the movement that grew up in the wake of the early 1970s squatting movement, the demise of the German New Left, and the rise of the West German terror groups like the Red Armee Fraktion.  This testament, written by a participant in this movement who goes by the name Geronimo, is titled Fire and Flames. 

Originally published in Germany in 1990, it was translated from the original German in 2012 and published by the left/anarcho press PM Press out of Oakland, CA.  The book is a brief survey of the numerous left and anarchist movements that characterized extraparliamentary West German politics in the 1970s until the end of East Germany in 1989. 

The squats, the red cell groups, the antinuclear movement, the Spontis, the Red Armee Fraktion and the alternative movement are presented and briefly discussed.  In addition to relating stories of actions and events, Geronimo also discusses the politics of the different groups from what can best be termed a libertarian left perspective.

Unlike in the United States, the left libertarian and anarchist groups in Europe tend to have a clear understanding of how capitalism works.  Instead of identifying as anti-capitalist without the theory to back that position up, the groups discussed in Fire and Flames (who would become known as Autonomen) usually professed their anti-capitalism in clear Marxist terms. 

The areas where the Autonomen differed the most with Marxist organization, whether they were small and cadre-oriented like the Rote Zellen and the Rote Zora, or larger party organization bearing the term Kommunistische somewhere in their name, was in how they organized.  In short, the Autonomen were against leaders and against cooperation with the authorities.  They expressed their politics through protest, lifestyle and attitude.  Naturally, this frustrated those with more long term goals.

Fire and Flames is introduced by George Katsiaficas, author of The Global Imagination of 1968 and several other books examining various protest movements around the globe, including his look at the European squatters’ movement of the 1980s.  The choice of Katsiaificas is an intelligent one.  His approach to modern social movements extends well beyond a traditional Marxist-Leninist or anarchist understanding.  The phenomenon he calls the “eros effect” is similar to what Immanuel Wallerstein calls “antisystemic movements.”  While incorporating a Marxian analysis of capitalism and its history and its mechanics, both reject the approach to systemic change experienced in previous modern revolutions.  In other words, for these men the vanguardist model is dead.  Meanwhile, both consider the changes in consciousness and culture brought on by the events of 1968 (and in Wallerstein’s thesis, 1848 as well) to be intrinsically revolutionary in a perhaps even greater sense than the bourgeois revolutions of the late 18th century and the Leninist ones of the 20th.

One of the most intense protests I ever attended was in spring of 1973.  A German-American friend of mine had introduced me to a squatted set of apartments in the Westend of Frankfurt am Main.  The main attraction for me was a small Gasthaus and meeting room on the ground floor of one of the buildings. I would occasionally visit the place to listen to music, drink beer, smoke hash and maybe talk to a German girl. That spring there was an impending sense that a showdown with the authorities was coming. The speculators who had purchased the buildings were tired of letting squatters live in them. They wanted to tear them down to build much more profitable office buildings. The Social Democratic city council was ready to cave and the Polizei were ready to kick ass. I convinced myself that I was ready for whatever happened and took the streetcar to a stop near the protest that April weekend. The fight was already underway when I got off the tram. I lasted perhaps four hours and left when a couple hundred more cops arrived.

This protest was an early part of the movement described by Geronimo.  From the squats to protests against nuclear power; from struggles against prison terror to rallies against abortion laws and more.  This quick catalog of the West German street movements of 1968-1989 suffers from only one thing: its brevity.  Thanks to PM Press for introducing it to the English speaking audience.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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All Power to the Councils!: A Review

By Matthew S. Adams
Anarchist Studies
Volume 2 Number 1
pp. 110-112


The motif of the guns falling silent is a popular one in studies of the First World War. The idea of an unreal calm makes the absurdity of the foregoing years starker, and marks the start of a period of uneasy mourning in Europe, complete with a patched-up peace that left many of the pressing political issues unresolved, and created many fresh ones. The tragedy of the experience of war is therefore mirrored by a deeper historical tragedy. In spite of the carnage, these unanswered questions and makeshift solutions set the scene for an even more sanguinary conflict to come, and gave fascism political purchase in the tumultuous 1930s.

Gabriel Kuhn’s documentary collection All Power to the Councils! unintentionally complicates both of these interpretations, by exploring a period of European radical history that is often ignored. For one, the idea that the guns fell silent in 1918 overlooks the fact that many of the regional conflicts sparked by the First World War continued well beyond the Armistice. The Russian Civil War for instance, emerging directly from the political and economic instability intensified by the war, rumbled on into the 1920s. And secondly, as the Russian example suggests, the road to fascism in Europe was by no means a predestined one, as a number of political traditions vied for supremacy in the social dislocation that characterised the post-war continent.

This is particularly apparent in the German case, and a revolution that started in
October 1918, as the war was reaching its denouement in Flanders.

As Kuhn notes at the outset of his collection, the history of the failed German
Revolution is partly of interest in a ‘What would have happened if?’ sense (p.xi).
How, for instance, would the history of Europe have been different if industrialised Germany had emerged as a socialist ally of Russia? While raising these questions in his introduction, Kuhn admits that All Power to the Councils! is not an exercise in ‘what if’ history, but suggests that understanding the history of the German Revolution might help ‘strategizing for the future’ (p.xi). With the manuscript completed against the backdrop of the ‘Arab Spring’, he notes a fitting historical resonance: ‘It was ... apparent that many of the Arab revolutionaries faced questions that were essentially the same that German revolutionaries ... faced almost a hundred years earlier – or, for that matter ... all revolutionaries throughout history’ (p.xiv).

Instead of a straightforward history, or a polemical analysis of the Revolution,
however, Kuhn’s book offers an overview of events in Germany through its primary
documents, many of which appear in English for the first time. A central theme of All Power to the Councils! is that a number of revolutionary groups with a variety of political commitments defined the German Revolution, a fact that the historiographical focus on Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League has tended to obscure. While prominent, and enduringly influential given Luxemburg’s modest criticism of Bolshevik high-handedness, Kuhn emphasises in his introduction that both anarchists and the Revolutionary Stewards movement played an important role in the Revolution, and are in need of rescuing from historical obscurity.

This is reflected in the subtly subversive structure of the book, stressing as it does
the efforts of these traditionally sidelined political actors, but also the geographically
contingent nature of events in 1918 and 1919. The seven substantive chapters therefore focus on key political documents by region, starting with the mutiny of sailors in October 1918 in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel that is seen as the spark of the Revolution, before shifting to Berlin where the actions of Revolutionary Stewards and Spartacists were especially important. These chapters are followed by a document from the workers’ and soldiers’ council that assumed power in the state of Brunswick in November 1918, and proclamations from, and reflections on, the council in Bremen, where syndicalism was strong. The fifth, lengthy section, which will be of particular interest to readers of Anarchist Studies, focuses on events in Bavaria. Although a traditionally conservative state, Munich was, as Kuhn notes, home to ‘both radical workers and bohemian artists’, while Bavaria more broadly was a ‘center of federalist sentiments’ (p.169). This synthesis also meant that it was home to an important anarchist faction, with both Erich Mühsam and Gustav Landauer active in the state.

The documents collated in this section are varied. They include a rich collection of letters from Landauer, that give both a personal and political reflection on events at the end of 1918, and a more formal pamphlet from Landauer’s pen, translated here for the first time. There is also a reflection by Mühsam on the Revolution, written during his imprisonment in Ansbach in 1920, and addressed to Lenin, with the hope of influencing his policy during the Russian Civil War then in progress. Finally, two appendices collect documents from the Red Ruhr Armya, spurred into action fighting the Kapp Putsch in 1920, and the memoirs of the ‘Robin Hood-like’ Max Hoelz, leader of a band of communist rebels in the Vogtland (p.279).

Through judicious footnoting and brief contextual overviews at the beginning of
each section, All Power to the Councils! deftly conveys the complex, and often overlapping political allegiances that characterised post-war radicalism in Germany. That Landauer and Mühsam are the subject of particular attention shows that this book is a companion volume to Kuhn’s other two edited collections published by PM Press, Revolution and Other Writings comprising selections from Landauer’s work, and Liberating Society from the State and Other Writings formed from Mühsam’s texts.

Nevertheless, the book stands alone. Its stress on the multiple strands of political
dissent that defined the radical terrain in Germany is an important challenge to the
dominant historical treatments, and it makes an important contribution by making
the words of those involved in the Revolution, whatever their stripe, available in
English for the first time.

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