Reflections on "The Anarchist Cookbook" (The Book and the Movie) Reply

I have to thank my “Smash the System” webring comrades at FolkandFaith.com for alerting me to “The Anarchist Cookbook”, an independent film by Jordan Susman released in 2002. “Folk N’ Faith” provides an accurate and interesting review of the movie in a recent edition of the national-anarchist web journal “Terra Firma”, which in turn inspired me to seek out and purchase a copy of the DVD version of this flick.

The movie is, of course, named after the book of the same title, published in 1971. The author was a nineteen year old college student named William Powell, who took up the cause of “anarchy” because of his anger over the war in Vietnam. Powell would later become a devout Anglican, and renounce his radical past, and has since attempted to halt any further publication of the book. Most of the book is exceptionally silly, consisting mostly of recipes for the manufacture of drugs or bombs of dubious validity or effectiveness. The book includes an introduction by Peter Bergman where anarchist political theory is discussed with modest depth and accuracy, but the substance of the book is pure idiocy, having little to do with historic anarchism as a political philosophy.

“Folk N’Faith” describes the story line of the film rather thorougly, so I won’t reiterate any of that. Instead, I might add a few comments concerning the relevance of this movie to the contemporary political underground. The film itself is of slightly better than mediocre quality in terms of the acting, writing and attempts at humor. The depictions it contains of various political subcultures are accurate if exaggerated. I have belonged to a number of “anarchist collectives” similar to the one the film’s story line is built around. The Blast Collective (named after a radical paper published by Alexander Berkman), Libertarian Socialist Alliance and Richmond Anarchist Workshop (RAW). The main character in the film, an anarchist who goes by the name of “Puck”, is a dead ringer for the fellow who was the de facto leader of the first anarchist group I belonged to, a film student whose father was a policeman in the Pittsburg area. At the time, a group of us “anarchists” were living in an attic apartment in a particularly rundown building. Our neighbors were mostly junkies, hookers, a skinhead who worked as a guard at the local penitentary, and an acid crazed Deadhead who was later arrested for the abduction and rape of his former girlfriend and the attempted murder of a bystander who tried to intervene.

The residents of our attic apartment included the film student, his half-Iranian wife who would later descend into heroin addiction (much like the characters in the film), a former racist skinhead turned anti-racist skinhead who got arrested for throwing a brick through the window of a Hardee’s fast food restaurant in broad daylight, a high school buddy of the film student who had recently returned from the Army, a heroin addicted hooker who turned tricks out of nearby bars and, of course, myself. Our comrades included a New Age guy who objected to the use of a podium during the meetings of our university anarchist group (because the podium was too Hitleresque), his seventeen-year-old girlfriend who complained that the fluorescent lights in the university meeting room hurt her eyes, a couple of art-punk types who were roomates and insisted on passing the bong around and playing the Butthole Surfers at full blast during our “anarchist” meetings at their apartment. There was also a Jewish anarchist kid from the D.C. suburbs who consistently shocked and offended our leftist cohorts by referring to black people as “niggers”.

Visitors to our attic apartment included members of the shock-rock group GWAR, who would later receive a Grammy nomination for one of their videos, a sociology student named Lisa and her younger brother David Grohl, a teenaged drummer in a punk rock band who would later be a member of well-known groups like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. There was a thriving rock club and alternative music scene in Richmond in those days and attendees at some of our parties included Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, Cheetah Chrome, fomerly of the Dead Boys, a forty-year-old former member of the Fugs and his twenty-year-old girlfriend, the late Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and the late Root Boy Slim. The apartment had no air conditioning and was unbearably hot in the summer, so much so that I used to sleep on the roof, even in the rain. We also had a great dane, who was supposedly only a puppy but looked to be as big as a horse, and who was constantly shitting and pissing all over the floor with no one bothering to clean up after him. People who came to our place barefoot were walking on dangerous ground.

Our collective eventually split up after the film student caught veneral disease from the hooker, much to the dismay of his wife, who had since taken up with her supplier. A new group was founded, with myself and the anti-podium guy as the de facto leaders. Just as the characters in “The Anarchist Cookbook” had their own guru in the person of leftover sixties radical “Johnny Red”, so did we have our own guru in a middle-aged former organizer for SDS and SNCC. His wife was the daugher of a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War and they had three children in their teens and twenties, a son who was a drunken punk rock musician, a girl who was a pacifist-vegetarian-feminist and another son who was an aspiring right-wing reactionary. He’s now a Bushite, Zionist warhawk. There was also another associate of ours, a then-thirtysomething former Yippie, a cohort of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the sixties, who’s now a fiftysomething alcoholic and drug addict who panhandles on a nearby median strip with a sign that says “Bush is Hitler”.

Watching “The Anarchist Cookbook” made me feel as if I was watching a videotape of an earlier part of my life, much like what Christian fundamentalists envision Judgement Day to be. Just as “Puck”, the main character in the film, eventually hooks up with a girl who’s a Young Republican by day, an S&M raver by night, so in those days did I have for a time a girlfriend who called herself a Republican, regarded black people as welfare cheats, thought Ronald Reagan was wonderful, and was a business major who aspired to be CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. I met her at an open-air rock concert. She was wearing Gothic eye makeup (like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson) and an Iggy Pop T-shirt. She used to talk about her fantasies of being raped, of incest, and she had a thing for handcuffs and being tied up. I thought of her when I first heard the Guns n’ Roses tune “Pretty Tied Up”:

I know this chick she lives down on Melrose
She ain’t satisfied without some pain
Friday night we’re goin’ up inside her again
I crack the whip, this bitch is just insane.

She was also the only girl I ever caught a venereal disease from, although it was only some sort of genital fungus, not any of the biggies. I used to teasingly call her the “bourgeoise bitch” and “BitchWoman” (like “Wonderwoman”). She took it as a compliment.

The bulk of the plot in this film involves the relationship between the anarchist collective and a character named “Johnny Black”. He is a shadowy figure who comes on the scene and urges the anarchist collective to become more aggressive and ruthless in their tactics. Such was the role I often attempted to assume during my days in the anarcho-leftoid scene. During those years, I would sit through meeting after meeting, workshop after workshop, one debate about “process” after another, listening to the same old line about how horrible evil Republican villians were, how awful racism was, how wonderful the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was, how urgent the need to rescue baby calves from veal manufacturers was, listening to one emasculated dude after another give an emotional plea for “gender balance” in the rotatio
n of s
peakers, even if there were no women in the room (I always figured this was just a ploy to get some feminazi pussy). One discussion after another concerning the latest techniques in dumpster diving, squatting and shoplifting. I used to listen to all of this and wonder, “So when do we get past all of this hippy-dippy, punk-rock, art-fag, vegetarian shit and get to the actual business of revolution?”

My involvement with the antiwar movement had provided me with a comprehensive education regarding the crimes of the US empire. The bodies were piling up in the mass graves and the ranks of the “disappeared” were growing in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, Colombia, the Phillipines, Timor, Angola and Mozambique. The first of the intifadas was raging in Palestine and the South African regime was attempting to save itself under a total international news blackout. The regime of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush was attempting to bring Pol Pot back into power in Cambodia in order to punish the Vietnamese for their victory in the war. Domestically, the War on Drugs was really starting to take off and the prisons were filling up. Meanwhile, the “anarchists” would sit around in “workshops” and “facilitation” meetings talking about how horrible their childhoods were, how guilty they felt about their alleged “white skin privilege”, how humanity should die off in order to make more room for the plants and animals, how they needed to purge themselves of their racism, sexism, homophobia, looksism, ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, classism, speciesism, AIDS-phobia, transphobia, producerism, et.al. ad nauseum. It was like a parody of the old “Phil Donahue Show”.

In one of the more interesting scenes in “The Anarchist Cookbook”, Puck awakens to find that Johnny Black has assembled a motley assortment of radicals in the living room of the anarchists’ “squat”, including skinheads from the “Aryan Peoples’ Party”, gun-toting cowboys from the “Texan Militia”, still more gun nuts from NAFTA (North American Firearms and Tactical Association) along with the usual crowd of eco-freaks and scum-punks, recruited through a web site containing an American Anarchist Manifesto, or something to that effect. A militiaman describes Johnny Black as a bridge-builder, pointing out how all of these people have been fighting each other for so long, they’ve neglected to recognize their common interests or common enemies. The militiaman shakes hands with Johnny Red, the old Yippie, saying, “I like you!”. In one tense scene, tempers flare between a skinhead and Johnny Black, guns are drawn, but Johnny manages to talk the situation down by mentioning how everyone is going to get a piece of the pie following the revolution. Johnny and the skinhead then embrace. A moving scene, indeed.

Being as involved in the radical leftist subculture as I was in those days, I encountered an enormous variety of political factions from the left and center-left. I also came across many of the factions the radical right, often as counter-demonstraters to the marches I participated in, or as hecklers who showed up at left-wing meetings and activities. These included Young Republicans, pro-lifers, born-again Christians, Libertarians, paleoconservatives, Nazi skins, SHARP skins, union members with right-wing political views and others. Unlike many of my cohorts on the left, I always had an interest in hearing other points of view, even from people I regarded as my diametrical opposites. What I discovered along the way was the presence of a considerable amount of common ground between people and groups who seemed on the surface to have nothing in common. I found that leftist-anarchists such as myself shared the same hostility to the state as right-wing libertarians. I found that paleoconservatives often had the same communitarian values as the Greens and Socialists. When I listened skinheads from White Aryan Resistance and the American Front discuss racial issues, I found that their rhetoric mirrored that of the Nation of Islam and Peoples’ Democratic Uhuru Movement. I found that both Christian fundamentalists and gay militants viewed the US government as a threat to their way of life.

A number of major strikes were going on in the United States in those days, including those by the Greyhound bus drivers, Eastern Airlines employees, Hormel meat packers and coal miners in Southwest Virginia and Kentucky. I used to take my motley anarchist cohorts out on the picket lines with the strikers, where we experienced some tense moments with scabs, strikebreakers and private security agents. The union members typically appreciated our assistance, even if we were a bunch of weirdos, but many of our anarchists tended to look disdainfully at the striking workers, whom they tended to regard as racist redneck slobs insufficiently concerned about feminism and ecology. At one point a group of us went to stay at a compound established by striking coal miners in the Virginia mountains. Most of the people there were quite conservative, holding prayers and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the commencement of their rallies. Alcohol and, God forbid, marijuana were verboten at the compound. This was irritating to some of my anarcho-cohorts and at one point one of the art-punks asked, “What are we doing here with all these Christians and flag-wavers, anyway?”, to which I responded, “This, my friend, is what we call the class struggle.”

During this time, I began to more fully recognize the hostility of the modern left to authentic working class culture. I came to understand that a tremendous “cultural divide” existed between the students, intellectuals and bohemians who comprised the Official Left and the actual working class itself. As an anarchist in the classical tradition influenced by the historic anarcho-syndicalist movements of Spain, France and the American IWW, I began to realize that a much different approach would be needed if an authentic class struggle effort were to emerge. Such an effort would necessarily have to position itself as a populist movement rooted in the culture of the common people. I began reading about radical populist and labor movements in earlier US history and eventually the anti-podium guy and myself came up with the idea of an “American Independent Labor Movement” modeled on the earlier populist efforts of figures like George Wallace or Father Charles Coughlin, but with an anarcho-syndicalist economic outlook. When we presented this idea to the former SDS guy, he was horrified, saying, “Do that and you’ll attract people with white sheets over their heads and burning crosses!”. To which I responded, “Well, would they be that much worse than the losers we attract now?”

In “The Anarchist Cookbook”, Johnny Black keeps asking his cohorts, “How far are you willing to go?” At one point around 1990, the national headquarters of the IWW in Chicago began exhibiting all sorts of strange behavior. The organizational newspaper began to adopt a cliched hard left line, money was turning up missing, bills were not being paid, strange resolutions were being proposed and so on. It was determined that an enemy Communist sect had infiltrated and commandeered the national office. A war council was held among representatives of local and regional IWW branches concerning what to do about the problem. I reminded my comrades of the history of Communist treachery against anarchists and syndicalists at Kronstadt, Barcelona, Paris and elsewhere. I insisted that the only solution was to “fight fire with fire”, and that a posse of Wobblies should assemble, preferably armed, and go to Chicago to expel our enemies. The idea was rejected as “too violent”, “too extreme” and other typical anarcho-liberal, hippie bullshit. I realized that this was not the IWW that had engaged in mortal combat with cops and scabs alike in the heyday of the Wobblies. So I quit. From what I understand, a “national-office-in-exile” was subsequently established in San Francisco.

By the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, our local anarchist insurgency was in shambles. Ou

r latest anarchist collective had disbanded. Our IWW group had disbanded. The local antiwar movement amounted to a gang fight between Stalinists from the Workers World Party, LaRouchies and militant pacifists. I went to a few antiwar demos and then dropped out entirely. The following year, when the Clinton-Bush-Perot election came up, I was helping another anarchist draw up fliers to pass out during a demo that was to take place during a debate between the three candidates scheduled to occur at one of the local universities and to be aired on national television. We were discussing the minor parties participating in the election. He was backing the New Alliance Party and I was backing the Libertarians. We starting talking about how the programs of many of the opposition parties overlap in many ways and I mentioned the many discussions I had engaged in with persons from all sorts of political subcultures and the common ground that I had found. We toyed with the idea of founding an all-encompassing “Resistance Party” which would combine the agendas of all the disparate radical movements under a single umbrella, much like the ad hoc coalitions of interest groups that comprise the support base of the Democrats and Republicans, but the idea never went anywhere.

“The Anarchist Cookbook” depicts Johnny Black as a sociopath, who leads naive and foolish young anarchists off into the worlds of violence and drug addiction. To be sure, the character in the film often pursues paths than are less than constructive when it comes to building a revolutionary movement. It is not a good idea to encourage your comrades to use intravenous drugs, not if you want them operate in any sort of functional capacity. Nor is the random destruction of buildings likely to bring about tangible results. Typically, the perpetrators go to jail and a new building is built. Armed struggle can certainly be effective, even against modern states (as the present example of Iraq indicates), but such efforts have to be supported by some type of organizational infrastructure, even if these are clandestine, and maintain some sort of popular support base. But this film is valuable for its inclusion of the idea of cross-cultural and cross-ideological tactical alliances of factions whose common issue is hatred of the System.

Coming to the realization that I had much in common with people I had previously regarded as my enemies motivated me to explore the ideas of the whole spectrum of dissenting political factions. There exists a vast array of such elements. By themselves, these forces have not a snowball’s chance of achieving their full agenda. There will never be an America modeled on the Spanish CNT anymore than there will ever be a Maoist or Aryanist America. However, the forces of dissident America collectively comprise millions of people. Together, these groups might be able to form a political coalition rivaling those of the ruling class parties. Furthermore, there exists in America a long established revolutionary tradition containing elements of both populism and decentralism. The notion of overthrowing one’s government as the patriotic thing to do. There exists throughout the historical record and in the contemporary world countless examples of free cities, medieval kingdoms, ancient republics, autonomous tribes and villages, sovereign regions and provinces, remote and isolated communities, micronations, city-states and confederations, each of these with their own unique set of values, customs, traditions, ideals, religious, political, economic and cultural systems. Such is the alternative to the modern state and the global imperial order.

Get a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook” and show it to all of the student radicals, and other political dissidents, that you know. Maybe a seed can be planted.

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