Book reviews from Black Flag #223 (2003).
BENDING THE BARS
by John Barker (Christie Books)
Older readers may well remember the Angry Brigade trial in 1971. John Barker made a famous defence at the trial, and later remarked that “they fitted up a guilty roan". In his preface Barker calls this book "an unsentimental celebration of the class spirit of many cons" as well as an "obviously selective account" of his first stretch inside. Necessarily so, as the boredom involved would have detracted from a fascinating, humorous book. What you get is a chronological collage of the jails he was in, the mates he made, and their refracted perspectives on what was going on outside. It starts with his period on remand, and that first experience of the cons exercising collective power by having a sit-down in Brixton prison.
The 1970s had a lot more going on in terms of everyday politics than now, and this is reflected in the level of consciousness generally among the cons, and the events going on outside. The Hull prison riot particularly energises them. Barker tells of his own experiences, like his first acid trip or the toy rat his mates or the outside send him. When Irish republican prisoners start arriving in the English prison system, he finds much to share with them. In this selective account, it's the spirit of resistance and the imagination the prisoners use to fight back that shines through.
Most of the book is in dialogue form, which is worth elaborating on. Unlike many autobiographical writings which paint the author as a hero who was largely right a lot of the time, Barker knows he is a human. He has a different political consciousness to most of the other cons, but he never pretends it makes him better. He might understand the theory of the class nature of prisons, but all inside are experiencing it. That he gives space to all at times makes the book harder to read, but the value in hearing all those normally-silenced voices makes up for it. Some of the cons' strategies for coping are clearly of their time (obsession with Erik von Danikin's spaceships, for example) but this is like good oral history. If I have a criticism, it's that at £12 this is quite a whack for a book of just over 100 pages. It's written in an informal style and is thus unlikely to feature in many "Best of" lists of prison memoirs, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
NO WAR BUT THE CLASS WAR! LIBERTARIAN ANTI-MILITARISM THEN AND NOW
Edited by Anna Key, ISBN 1-873605-13-7. (Kate Sharpley Library, 2003)
This pamphlet presents 110 years of anti-militarist propaganda, from Spain's last imperialist adventure in 1893, through the First World War right up to the 'War on Terror'. It includes Randolph Bourne's classic analysis of why war is the 'health of the state' and a recent dissection of the myths of Rememberance Day.
Libertarians have opposed the armed forces as the ultimate prop of the state, a pool of scab labour and the place where the authority principle (orders, not logic) runs rampant. Anarchists have always argued that the alternative to dying for our leaders is fighting for a new world. There's a brief glimpse of how this looks in practice, from the Ukraine's Makhnovist insurgents to Spain's revolutionary militias.
Libertarian anti-militarists don't want the kind of peace that is only a breathing space between wars but peace from below. To get all leaders and bosses off our backs, no war but the class war will do!
THE ANGRY BRIGADE: THE CAUSE AND THE CASE
by Gordon Carr
“You can't reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just kick it till it breaks.” - Angry Brigade, communique 8
Between 1970 and 1972 the Angry Brigade used guns and bombs in a series of symbolic attacks against property, A series of communiques accompanied the actions, explaining the choice of targets and the Angry Brigade philosophy: autonomous organisation and attacks on property alongside other forms of militant working class action. Targets included the embassies of repressive regimes, police stations and army barracks, boutiques and factories, government departments and the homes of Cabinet ministers, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
These attacks on the homes of senior political figures increased the pressure for results and brought an avalanche of police raids. From the start the police were faced with the difficulty of getting to grips with a section of society they found totally alien. And were they facing an organisation or an idea? This book covers the roots of the Angry Brigade in the revolutionary ferment of the 1960s, and follows their campaign and the police investigation to its culmination in the ‘Stoke Newington 8' conspiracy trial at the Old Bailey - the longest criminal trial in British legal history.
Gordon Carr produced the BBC documentary on the Angry Brigade and followed it up with this book. Written after extensive research - among both the libertarian opposition and the police - it remains the essential study of Britain's first urban guerrilla group. This expanded edition contains a comprehensive chronology of the 'Angry Decade', extra illustrations and a police view of the Angry Brigade. Introductions by Stuart Christie and John Barker (two of the 'Stoke Newington 8' defendants) discuss the Angry Brigade in the political and social context of its times - and its longer-term significance.
ANARCHY! AN ANTHOLOGY OF EMMA GOLDMAN'S MOTHER EARTH
Peter Glassgold (editor), (Counterpoint Washington)
Emma Goldman is, rightly, considered a key figure in US anarchist history. You need only read "Anarchism and Other Essays" or "Red Emma Speaks" to see that she was an important thinker, able to discuss clearly and convincingly on a host of subjects. From 1906 to 1917, she helped produce the legendary Journal "Mother Earth."
Whilst the journal is often referred to, archive material from the magazine is hard to find. A few essays by Goldman can be found in the above-mentioned books but that was it, until now. Peter Glassgold must be congratulated for taking the time to go through over a decade of issues to cull this excellent anthology. It contains articles by anarchists on a wide range of subjects, with contributors including lesser known comrades to such notable anarchists as Goldman herself, Peter Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman and Voltairine de Cleyre (and given the lack of material by the latter two, this makes this book doubly valuable).
All the articles are well written and till enthralling, Reading this anthology makes it clear why the name Mother Earth is still mentioned nearly one hundred years on. It is anarchist publishing at its best and a great contribution to the development and spreading of anarchist ideas. You can understand why the US government suppressed it and exiled Goldman and Berkman!
The anthology itself is broken up into five sections: "Anarchism," "The Woman Question," "Literature,' "Civil Liberties" and “The Social War," Each has important articles, the great bulk of which are unavailable anywhere else. Voltairine de Cleyre writes about the Paris Commune, the Philadelphia General Strike and the Mexican revolution; Goldman discusses the Russian revolution, atheism and feminism; Berkman defends anarchist internationalism, anti-imperialism and anti-militarism against Kropotkin and his support of the allies in the First World War; Max Baginski argues for anarchist methods to be applied in the labour movement; Kropotkin writes on Mutual Aid and the failure of prisons. All this and so much more.
A powerful collection of essays which not only shows the validity of anarchist ideas but will inspire readers today. It is an essential work for all anarchists who seek to know the history of their movement and use that knowledge to build upon and surpass past glories.
By Tony Allen (Gothic Image Publications)
Tony Allen Is probably best known as the grandfather of alter-native cabaret. His book Is part biography, part history, part comedy manual and part analysis.
In his book, Tony Allen is concerned with how comedy differs from theatre by demolishing the "fourth wall", the shared deceit of acting. This relationship to the audience is what Allen argues characterises performance and his book is called Attitude because attitude is what a performer needs to make that relationship work.
Early on, it becomes clear that Allen likes to play to his home crowd, as his particular political humour requires an understanding of the subculture it springs from. He mentions that one of the crucial differences between an anarcho-squatter audience and a lefty one is that lefties don't like anti-work jokes. (Another thing they have in common with bosses).
The most enjoyable parts for me are the tales of creating Alternative Cabaret and what it was like at the early Comedy Store shows. That stand-up comedy is today dominated by lads retelling knob jokes and professional patter merchants on a corporate circuit obscures the break that comics of Allen's generation made with the past. Allen himself is keen not to overstate the role of Alternative Cabaret, noting that the rise of the raconteur style of comedians meant that personal authorship became the norm, therefore comics couldn't hide behind the argument that it was only a joke. I get the feeling that Allen would rather see performers challenging themselves and the audience in the process of being funny, rather than entertainment being an end in itself. Even his descriptions of clowning have a political edge to them, albeit an edge that is only visible if you accept that personal behaviour is political, and that play is subversive.
The book is humorous and made me laugh out loud several times, but it's not uniformly funny and certain references are very specific to the squatting scene. It’s in the nature of comedy that some parts are already dated, like the famous chemistry on "Have I Got News For You” Yes, it was there, but it ain't no more! He is scathing on the laziness of comedians doing a weekly topical show at the Comedy Store. I stopped going to comedy shows because they failed to excite me any more and don't think things have changed a lot since then. Perhaps most interesting is where he sees the current mirror of the energy and radicalism from the late seventies/early eighties' scene: spoken word, a performance form that goes under the sinister alias of poetry. A couple of reviews illustrate the power that contemporary spoken word has, and made me want to check it out, so it's fulfilled at least one part of its purpose.
Not for the humourless, but well worth a read if you've ever considered getting up on stage and literally making a fool of yourself.
A Review of May '68 and its Afterlives' by Kristin Ross
University of Chicago Press, 2002. ISBN 0-226-727971- 527.50
The events of May 1968 in Paris are one of the great legacies of the sixties. They show that no matter what concessions are made to create social peace (bigger cages, longer chains) revolution still has plenty to offer; and not just to groups of political nit-pickers. Whole swathes of people can get up and say 'Enough of this! We want to live!' Such inspiring examples, when too large to be ignored, have to be explained away. The rivers of ink which have been used to try and blot out this significance are the subject of May '68 and its Afterlives.
This is an academic book, and the author's not afraid to come out with lines like this: "Liberation: would play a central role in producing and circulating the tropes and images through which May came progressively to be transcoded.” (page 116) Thankfully, most of the bock is clearer than that. If this book has a sound, it's the sound of an axe being sharpened, rather than someone applauding their own cleverness. Ross has her axe out for accounts of May'68 which attempt to portray it as a high-spirited tea party rather than a revolutionary situation, or paint it as the growing pains of capitalism, not an attempt to destroy it. It's important because it reveals the agenda of those who focus on students in Paris in May and sweep under the carpet the unruly workers all across France - before and after May. All history runs the risk of getting tangled in myth, and it's very pleasing to see the process of deliberate falsification and its purpose laid bare. Make no mistake, the neo-Liberal fuckers are just as bad as the Stalinists.
Anarchists would do well to read this since the examination of the 'prehistory' may challenge a few myths of the ‘Situationists paint great slogans on walls, and Paris erupts' type. But the greatest strength of this book is that it gives some sense of the liberation people felt, freed from being bounced between working and consuming, able to get on with living - a yawning gap opening up between the-world-as-it-is and the-world-as-it-could-be. My favourite example of this is the origins of those famous posters: the artists first produced some to sell to support the -movement. These were taken off them and fly-posted: art goes immediately from being just another commodity to something useful. The discussion of the political process during the ferment of May plays up the importance of equality, direct democracy and self-management. It also explains the role of capitalism's expert 'loyal opposition' the unions and Communist Party in the destruction of the movement and that of 'expert' historians and ex-militants (poachers turned gamekeepers) in making sure the idea of liberation stays dead.
“Anonymous militants, neither celebrities nor martyrs, people embedded at the time in the texture of everyday neighbourhood grassroots activity - these are the voices that by the mid 1980s had all but disappeared from any version of ‘68, eclipsed by those who had become the post facto stars, leaders and spokesmen for the movement.” (page 143).
This is not a study of the events of May themselves - there are no pictures of barricades - but it is a great mental detonator to encourage us to look at them and their meaning. Hopefully next time well remember that every-thing must change and that the privileges of experts - even experts of revolution or social change - are trouble waiting to happen.