Why we wrote the new “Anarchist Cookbook”

Posted: February 24, 2016 in Anarchism, Livin' in the USA, Politics
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Anarchist Cookbook front coverby Chaz Bufe (co-author The Anarchist Cookbook)

At a reading last weekend, an audience member asked me and Keith (McHenry, primary author of the “cookbook” and co-founder of Food Not Bombs) why we had written a new “Anarchist Cookbook.” The question took us aback a bit, as we’d assumed that the answer was blindingly obvious. Evidently it’s not. Here’s the story:

Forty-five years ago, William Powell, then a 19-year-old kid, spent several weeks prowling through the stacks at the New York Public Library searching for every instructional  book and article he could find on drug making, bomb making, and other forms of mayhem. He then compiled all of this material, unedited, into a book. He field tested none of the “recipes,” and as a result the book is riddled with “recipes” that simply don’t work and/ or are dangerous to the user.  At that point, Powell had another unknown write introductory political material that was as incoherent as it was inaccurate (equating anarchism with Maoism, for instance), and that explicitly recommended violence as a political tactic.

Powell then presented this toxic mess to publisher Lyle Stuart. Evidently smelling money, Stuart, over the objections of his staff, accepted the book. He also did something I (and virtually everyone else in the publishing field) consider grossly unethical: he presented Powell with  a contract in which Powell surrendered the copyright to him.  Powell signed, and a misbegotten monster was born. (Powell subsequently had a change of heart and has publicly denounced his book and asked that it be taken out of print, but because he handed over the copyright to Stuart, he has no control over that; we included Powell’s denunciation in the front matter of our new “cookbook.”)

Powell’s book has been in print continuously ever since it was first published in 1971, and has done untold harm. After publication, the “cookbook”  quickly became a very popular ornament for young guys who wanted an edgy coffee table book with which to impress their friends. Fortunately, probably not one in ten ever read it, probably not one in twenty ever tried its lousy drug recipes (e.g., for “bananadine”–a “drug” derived from banana peels), and probably not one in a hundred ever tried its explosives recipes.

Still, it was a constant irritant to actual anarchists. Year after year, decade after decade, it reinforced the stereotype that anarchists are violent morons with no coherent political philosophy.

Worse, the FBI began using the book to entrap naive political activists. They’d give a copy of the book to their victims, or have the victims buy it, and then use the book as evidence in trumped-up terrorism cases. This use of the Powell book accelerated drastically after 9/11, with set-up victims being both Muslims and leftist political activists. A case in point is the 2012 “Cleveland Five” case, in which the FBI used the book as part of its entrapment of five young, homeless guys at Occupy Cleveland, who it had enticed with a place to stay, hot showers, and food. As a result of this FBI-orchestrated “plot,” which prominently featured the Powell book, the “Cleveland Five” received sentences ranging from eight years and one month to eleven-and-a-half years.

That was the situation that faced us when Keith and I began talking about producing a real anarchist cookbook two years ago. Anarchists had been talking about producing such a book for decades, but nothing ever came of it, and it had become obvious that if we didn’t write, and See Sharp Press didn’t publish, a real anarchist cookbook, no one else was likely to do so. (There are a few PDF food recipe “books” around under the name, but no other physical books.)

We decided to go considerably beyond food recipes in our new “cookbook.” We decided that we’d include the following: 1) Accurate information on the nature of anarchism; 2) A section on why use of violence is almost always a self-defeating political tactic; 3) A section on nonviolent political activism, both from a theoretical and practical standpoint; 4) An evaluation of all common social change tactics and approaches; 5) A how-to section detailing ways of putting those tactics and approaches into practice; 6) A section on the nuts and bolts of political organizing; 7) A section on food politics; 8) Vegan recipes for both large and small groups; and 9) A lengthy bibliography, to give those interested in further study a handy jumping-off point.

To put this another way, we decided to write an antidote to the Powell book, a book that would do good rather than harm.

We think we succeeded. We hope you’ll agree.

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