More book reviews - Black Flag

Reviews of Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill, Camden Parasites by Daniel Lux, Anarchist by Ian Bone, Heavy Burden on Young Shoulders, Prisoners and Partisans by Kate Sharpley Library and Rigoberto Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans by David Stoll.

From Black Flag #218 1999.

Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill (Arbeiter Ring)

Essential Reading. Churchill's attack on the gutless pacifism of the us left is just as relevant here. As he says

"what is at issue... is not the replacement of hege-manic pacifism with some cult of terror. Instead, it is the realisation that in order to be effective and ultimately successful any revolutionary movement within advanced capitalist nations must develop the broadest possible range of action by which to confront the state_ They should be conceived not as an array of component forms of struggle, but as a continuum of activity stretching from petitions/letter-writing and so forth through many mobilisations/demon-strations onwards into the arena of armed self-defence and still onwards through the realm of offensive military operations,"

The bottom line. Either we build a revolutionary movement that is entirely rhetorical, that confines its resistance to what the state will allow (demos along agreed routes, lollipop placards, etc.) or we build a movement that seeks to use all means at its disposal to make a difference, to make history.

"In order to achieve non-violence, we must first break with it in over-coming its root causes. Therein, however, lies our only hope."

Camden Parasites by Daniel Lux — Unpopular Books

Daniel Lux was a work-shy, thieving druggie who supported himself for much of his adult life by poncing off the middle classes. He came from a poor family and started professional shoplifting as a school boy. Shortly after, he discovered almost simultaneously, drugs, and in London's Hampstead, the middle class. Why were these people so much better off than his family? His early attempt to achieve the middle class life style he envied by becoming a pop star failed and instead he used his personal charm to acquire a succession of middle class girlfriends so that he could sponge off their families. Going through people's coats at parties looking for cash was a staple. Professional shoplifting led to a few nickings (but only a few, and those spread over many years); over the top drug use led, at varying times, to hepatitis, a spell of impotence, heroin addiction, breakdown and a spell in mental hospital. Periods of dead end jobs that he hated, (in other words, normal unskilled work), and stays in filthy junkie squats alternated with living in the large house of the family of the latest girlfriend.

Camden Parasites is an addition to the growing body of literature on the nature of the middle class, (other titles include The Circled A and its Parasites, Collectable Anorak and The Enemy is Middle Class), but from an individualist rather than an anarchist perspective. Would Danny have seen anything wrong with society if he had been born middle class instead of working class? He combines a healthy dislike of the middle classes, their patronising and contemptuous attitude to the working class and the way they speak, with jealousy of their wealth. Apparent sympathy for the working class is offset by contempt for most of the working class people he knew, a contempt he later transferred to the middle classes when he got to know them better. He has psychological insights into the middle classes but no analysis of them. Is it really true that all the middle class live off inherited wealth so that their jobs are nothing more than hobbies? This is true of some, but surely not all of them, Danny doesn't try to work out how things got to be as they are, and has no suggestions for changing them other than his own personal style of hedonism. He is honest, funny and vicious, exploiting dim middle class women for his own benefit. The book ends on a high. Long clear of heroin, Danny has escaped the streets by installing himself in the house of the family of yet another middle class girlfriend. He says he is "back where he belonged, among people who deserved me." The author died taking heroin in February 1999. Those who live by the needle die by it.

Anarchist by Ian Bone

Autobiography—fact and fiction inextricably mixed — but would there be any point in trying to disentangle them even if it were possible? The riots of the eighties turn into fiction when a Reclaim the Streets action in Bristol ends with half a dozen police burned to death. Anarchos and rioters are jailed and the handful of anarchos still on the loose try to free the prisoners by digging up Princess Diana's corpse and holding it ransom. Diana's coffin turns out to be empty, but in the Diana Museum, the frustrated grave robbers secretly photograph Diana's brother having sex with her embalmed corpse which is disguised as a waxwork. When an enterprising pornographer releases the photos onto the Internet, a disillusioned mob sacks Buckingham Palace. A somewhat unlikely scenario to say the least.

Ian Bone was one of the key figures in Class War back in the mid-eighties, continuing his earlier activism, and is still busy today, not least as one of the members of punk band The Living Legends. Anarchist is his first novel, an all-action narrative further enlivened by sex, alcoholism, and near constant expletives. The philosophical background, as opposed to the factual one of Britain in the eighties, is the psychopathic wing of anarchism, Lucy Parsons, Emile Negri, Sergei Nechayev and the rest. The underlying theory, that our society can be sparked into a revolution at any moment by a catalyst of some sort, is one I totally disagree with but Anarchist is still well worth a read.

Heavy Burden on Young Shoulders
A chronology and analysis of the schools occupation movement that rocked Greece in the past academic year. A third of Greek high schools were occupied, some for months. Students set up road blocks and defended their occupations from the police, the state, the ruling socialist party and their parents. Written by participants the previous year's teacher's struggle.

Prisoners and Partisans - Kate Sharpley Library
Italian Anarchists in the struggle against Fascism. A collection of articles translated from the Italian anarchist paper Urnanita Nova mostly written in the 80s. The pamphlet covers aspects of anarchist and working class history through the years of fascism and war through to anti-fascist squads after the war. A lot of it is quite dry history but it does include on a lighter note the attempts on El Duce's life including Gino Lucetti's immortal words: "I did not come with a bouquet of flowers for Mussolini. I also meant to make use of my revolver if I failed to achieve my purpose with the bomb".

NB: The following review did not appear in the published issue of Black Flag, but was included in the web version at

Rigoberto Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans - David Stoll (Westview 1999)

Michel Foucault once observed that “Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statement, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”

(Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77 Pantheon Books 1980). With the flight of the Western left in the face of the revealed bankruptcy of Stalinism and the establishment of a viciously anti-working class social democratic hegemony, ”the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” has moved to the foreground of political contest. Simply - the only truth is the truth of the status quo, and any attempt to hold on to an alternative history, of resistance to power, is no more than an exercise in self-deception. Denouncing as liars any who seek to deviate from such an agenda has become, also, part of the process.

In 1998 the Afro-American feminist poet Patricia Smith was forced to resign from her position as columnist at the Boston Globe, having been found to have fabricated characters and quotations in her columns in late 1995 and early 1996. Smith, who saw herself as a voice for “the unheard” admitted, “I wanted the pieces to jolt... So I tweaked them to make sure they did. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen.” The progressive movement around Boston ran for cover-as if Smith’s “tweaking” of her stories turned the reality of social oppression into an entirely fictional affair. Soon thereafter another Globe journalist, a white male, Mike Barnicle, was revealed to have continually fabricated stories and plagiarised other writers. At one point the Globe had paid out $40,000 to a victim of Barnicle’s “misquotes”. Barnicle was shielded by the Globe. The NAACP noted “In our view the unacceptable journalistic practices of Smith, an African American female and Barnicle, a middle aged white man were handled differently because of who they are and not what they had done.” However much the “general politics of truth” seeks to erase the recognition of discrimination in the popular media, the reality seeps through.

David Stoll’s attack on the reputation and integrity of the Guatemalan activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberto Menchu attempts also to portray as a lie Menchu’s involvement in revolutionary struggle, her history and the history of the movement of which she was a part. Stoll’s book is fairly shoddy, less expose than cheap slander. That so few who would once have embraced the movements of resistance in Latin America have come forward to challenge his account is but further proof of the scale of the retreat of the post-‘68 left, long since driven from the streets and now unwilling even to contest the ideological arena. The postmodernist icon Friedrich Nietzsche once argued that “truths are illusions… coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” In 1990 the Guatemalan journalist Julio Godoy recorded that what had taken place in Guatemala was “a virtual genocide that has taken more than 150,000 victims,·in what Amnesty International calls a government program of political murder.” No illusion then, and it should be cause for shame that we of truth in Guatemala allow Stoll to pass off the bloody currency as counterfeit coin.

Stoll’s premise is simple enough. ”What if much of Rigoberta’s story is not true?.. ·While interviewing survivors of political violence in the late 1980s, I began to come across significant problems in the life story she told at the start of her career. There is no doubt about the most important points: that a dictatorship massacred thousands of indigenous peasants, that the victims included half of Rigoberta’s immediate family, that she fled to Mexico to save her life, and that she joined a revolutionary movement to liberate her country.0n these points, Rigoberta’s account is beyond challenge and deserves the attention it receives. But in other respects, such as the situation of her family and village before the war, other survivors gave me a rather different picture, which is borne out by the available records.” Some of us could be forgiven for thinking that the “significant” instances in Rigoberta’s life story are precisely those events which Stoll concedes are true. As the author concedes “I agree that it would be naive to challenge Rigoberta’s account just because it is not a model of exactitude···Indicting a Nobel laureate for inaccuracy is not the point of what follows here.” precisely what the point is, is made clear by Stoll from the start; ”Was the guerrilla movement defeated in the early 1980s a popular struggle expressing the deepest aspirations of Rigoberta’s people? Was it an inevitable reaction to grinding oppression by people who felt they had no other choice?” Stoll’s conclusion, not surprisingly, is negative; ”When a person becomes a symbol for a cause, the complexity of a particular life is concealed in order to turn it into a representative life. So is the complexity of the situation being represented.” In attacking the factuality of Rigoberta Menchu’s story Stoll seeks deliberately to attack the legitimacy of the Guatemalan guerrilla movement per se.

The charges Stoll lays against Rigoberta amount to...nothing much. Many of the issues have been subsequently dealt with by Rigoberta herself. He contends that the land dispute Rigoberta’s father was involved in was not a battle between “noble Indians and evil landlords”, but a dispute between small-holding peasants. Rigoberta’s father contests the land claim of the Tum family. Stoll contends that Rigoberta’s account is mythologised because the Tums are indigena rather than ladina(European landholders). The fault here must surely lie with Stoll’s inability to grasp the fact that land in Guatemalan society is an issue of class not one simply of racial polarisation. As he notes, by 1928 the Tums had bought up over 800 hectares of land and had “the requisites for an independent life for their children and grandchildren.”

Stoll tells us that Rigoberta was not illiterate and monolingual, but attended a Catholic boarding school. She replies (NACLA Report on the Americas March/April 1999)”I was there for a long time, but as a servant. I mopped floors and cleaned toilets, work that I am very proud to have done.” He charges that her account of the death of her brother Petrocinio is false. In “I, Rigoberta Menchu” we are told that soldiers soak 23 prisoners, including her brother, in gasoline and set them afire. Stoll interviews 7 townsmen who state that the army had never burned prisoners alive in the town plaza. Rigoberta states (NACLA March/April 1999)that her sister and other living witnesses saw the murders and she refused in 1982 to reveal their identities as “I would have been exposing (them) to death. “

Vicente Menchu, Rigoberta’s father, died on 31 January 1980-one of a group of Indian peasants who peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City in an attempt to force an official enquiry into Army atrocities in the highlands. A fire broke out as police began to smash their way into the embassy. The Guatemalan state contend that the occupiers started the fire. Rigoberta states that ”Neither we nor any of our compañeros can say what the real truth is, because no-one from the Spanish embassy siege survived.” Stoll prefers the account of the Spanish foreign minister who records that the Ambassador, Cajal, saw one of the protesters light and throw a gasoline bomb. Fifteen years later, Cajal tells Stoll that “not having eyes in the back of his head, he never saw the fire’s actual source, therefore cannot say for sure that the protesters started it. ”There was, however, one survivor, and potential witness. In his book “Garrison Guatemala” NACLA researcher George Black records his fate; ”... Badly burned, he was dragged out of his hospital bed by the customary “unknown assailants” and his mutilated corpse later found dumped at the University of San Carlos.” Stoll himself accepts that Gregorio Yuja Xona, the survivor, was found with a sign next to him which read “The ambassador of Spain runs the same risk.” On the balance of probability, most rational observers would assume the truth lay with the peasants. Not Stoll.

On and on it goes. Having conceded the truth of “the most important points” Stoll is left with muddying the waters of a very shallow pool. As he grants “With problems cropping up in Rigoberta’s testimony, readers may ask, how reliable are your own sources? Perhaps many of the people I interviewed have some reason to discredit Rigoberta and her father. Or perhaps they did not like being questioned and misled me... Who are we to believe? If there are disagreements, Might not the stories I gathered be as unreliable as Rigoberta’s? Perhaps they are even less reliable: While Rigoberta was presumably free to tell her story in Paris, peasants in Guatemala must still reckon with the power of the Guatemalan army. Maybe the truth is unknowable, because the milieu is too ambiguous and fraught with repression to have confidence in any particular version.” Which makes you wonder whether it was all worth the effort at all. Except that “the truth” was never the issue at all. Stoll’s book is intended to smear not Rigoberta Menchu but the idea of resistance itself. We are told that “Insurgency would seem to be the remedy that prolonged the illness” that the Guatemalan army’s “fanatical anticommunism” was a response to “the specter of foreign communism”. Stoll ‘s book is one more in a long line of poorly written would-be exposes that are no more than a contrived attempt at blaming the victim for the sins of the aggressor. Stoll wants us to believe that “middle class intellectuals”, seduced by the “moral simplicity of the just war” are responsible for the “disaster” of armed struggle. In Guatemala, he tells us, ”For the better part of four decades, a misguided belief in the moral purity of total rejection, of refusing to compromise with the system and seeking to overthrow it by force, has had profound consequences for the entire political scene. It has strengthened rationales for repression, poisoned other political possibilities . . . guaranteeing a crushing response from the state.” What other political possibilities? The legally elected Arbenz government was overthrown in 1954, because its embrace of “policies designed to bring about a broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses”(qu. US State Department) was seen by the CIA as “communist. ”Social democracy was put to death in Guatemala because it threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company. In 1960 an army rebellion against the corruption of Miguel Ydigores Fuentes’ military regime was bombed into submission by US planes. Ydigoras was in turn overthrown in 1963 by a US backed coup which brought to power Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia. As William Blum observed (Killing Hope-US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2)”The tone of the Peralta administration was characterised by one of its first acts; the murder of eight political and trade union leaders, accomplished by driving over them with rock-laden trucks.” Peralta proved too much of a liberal for the US, who engineered his replacement with Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro. From then began “Guatemala’s final solution to insurgency; only mass slaughter of the Indians will prevent them joining a mass uprising.” (Richard Gott-The Guardian-22/12/83). 0ther political possibilities?

The clandestine peasants' organisation, the Comite de Unidad Campesinos, was only formed after the suppression of legal avenues of resistance in Guatemala (assassination of social democratic politicians, the murder of the entire CNT leadership). To aid agribusiness expansion, the bourgeoisie organised land grabs throughout the 1970s, creating a radicalised migrant “semiproletariat” which was drawn to the guerrilla organisations for its own defence. What legal options were available, Stoll doesn't say -perhaps because no organisations representing the interests of the poor had been legalised since 1954!

As Rigoberta Menchu pointedly observed in her NACLA interview, ”I think that the intention is to divert the question of collective memory by bringing the discussion to a personal level. Of course, there are other intentions here as well. I think that underlying this is the fact that the “official history” is always written by others.. It is unfathomable for certain sectors in Guatemala that we have written our own history, that we have insisted on our rights to our own memory and our own history. They would like to see us remain victims forever.” Stoll would have it that social change can only come about through a patient reformism that seeks to persuade the state. Guatemala’s history tells us that the price for such illusions is death. Assata Shakur, the exiled Black Panther Party activist has said that “It is the obligation of every person who claims to oppose oppression to resist the oppressor by every means at his or her disposal.” Unless the left is able to refute the smears of those like David Stoll who would trap us in a social democratic blind alley, we deny ourselves the chance to make history on our own terms, deny ourselves any role in history save as victims. Nor should we fool ourselves that armed struggle is a matter only for the Latin American left, that it is the end of some long, strange Maoist trip. Since 1969, the nationalist community in the Six Counties in the north of Ireland has been engaged in an armed resistance to the British state. Much of the left here has failed the test of solidarity on its doorstep. When, in 1969, Civil rights marchers were attacked by the RUC at Burntollet Bridge, the North’s Prime Minister Terence O Neill ranted “We have heard sufficient for now about civil rights. Let us hear a little about civic responsibility.” The “general politics of truth” tells us that democratic society allows us, if we exercise civic responsibility, a range of political possibilities. The history of those like Rigoberta Menchu, which David Stoll here tries to turn to “illusion”, tells us that such promise is, quite simply, a lie.


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Sep 19 2020 12:38


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