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Jura Books: Forty Years and Now

Guest blog contributions - Sun, 16/07/2017 - 10:26am

Robert P. Barbagallo wrote this piece as part of an oral history project he worked on as a student at the University of Sydney. It is based on a series of interviews with Jura Collective members.

 

This piece will tell the story of the Jura Books anarchist collective as it was told to me through a series of five interviews I had conducted throughout May 2017. Five different members, both present and past, told me about their personal arrival to Jura, what they had experienced along the way, as well as their views on the Australian anarchist movement and their interpretation of anarchist ideas in general.

***

Amongst the busy lunch time sprawl at a Sydney University café, between the noisy chatter of students crammed at tables, I spoke to PS about Jura Books. PS had been a member of Jura Books during the 70s through to the early to mid-80s, a time he describes as “effervescently” active—just like the noise around us. We had been speaking for an hour or so. The lunch time sprawl had dulled. We maybe spoke for too long. “My car’s about to be booked, if it hasn’t been booked already.” (I’m deeply sorry if it was) But before he left he told me:

“One of the great things about Jura over the years is that it has been an opportunity for people to learn about anarchism, to learn about how to organise autonomously and work together in a collaborative way with rules, but with rules that are collectively decided and that are changed when they don’t work. They are not just rules for the sake of rules. Where [there are] people form very different backgrounds and generations…Sid, whose now one of the ‘old guys’ was one of the ‘young guys’. LM started when she was at university as an undergraduate. I started when I was an undergrad, now I’m an ‘old guy’ there. People learned to work in an anarchist way which in our society is not—maybe now is more available in kind of networked organisations.—But it’s also a way where people give without expecting material returns. There’s something very attractive about that kind of volunteer work.”

One of the Jura collective’s more recent ‘young guys’, Jeremy, had grown up during the apartheid in South Africa. “I was just a child, but I experienced a very racist, extremely class divided system which was incredibly barbaric.” He moved to Australia when he was 10, “it seemed like paradise, where people were very equal…you could go on the streets, you didn’t have to live behind six foot high electrified barbed wire.”  Throughout high school, the rose tinted glasses began to fade. He started to notice that between Australia and South Africa, “there’s actually a lot of similarities, the way aboriginal people are completely dispossessed and oppressed in Australia is part of the same sort of colonial dynamic that [exists] in South Africa…that was a sort of eye opener.”

Jeremy began university at a particularly heated time. A number of debates and rallies were formed to oppose the Howard Government’s introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). During his undergrad years he had also been involved with the student group ‘Red and Black’/‘Love and Rage’ which was a network of anarchists and libertarian-socialists across several universities in Sydney, such as Macquarie University, Sydney University, UTS, UWS. “It was definitely a time of upsurge in the movement and that group, ‘Red and Black’, was quite anarchistic, and that shaped my politics and helped me learn more about anarchism.” It was once he graduated, Jeremy decided to be involved in Jura because it was more “aimed at the long term.” Jeremy still considers himself an activist, but for him, “you can only go for so long doing political work that is like immediate and acting as if the revolution is coming tomorrow—which is great! It’s awesome when people do that and it has a certain energy to it. But Jura is not that sort of project. Jura is more of a project like recognising that the revolution isn’t coming tomorrow, but that we do want the revolution to come eventually, and to keep working until we get there.”

Jura Books does not organise any protests or activities. One of the main aspects of the project is to maintain a space for other groups to get together and organise things based on their own interests—so long as their activity is broadly in agreement with the Jura collective. Sid, the oldest current member at Jura Books, expresses the Jura attitude: “You guys over there, form a collective, form a group, run it how you like and we can support you, it’s not we who control you, we just support you.”

Sid has been at Jura for as long as it has been around. He recounts to me how he came across an anarchist movement as it was emerging in Sydney during the 1970s. Sid had begun thinking about anarchist ideas since he was 14. The student movements of the 60s and 70s had put alternative visions for society in the spotlight. Sid recounts to me seeing on TV student protests, the black riots in America, the Cuban missile embargo, and so on. There was a heightened sense of a crisis waiting to happen. The time was effervescent. “People were shit scared…for people of my generation it was almost like the First World War…we were like civilised Europe and we were tearing each other apart.” The social movements of the 60s and 70s instilled in people new ideas, optimism for a new world that was better, freer and more peaceful than the one they were living. For Sid, “the end point of Catholicism, the end point of Communism, the end point of Anarchism was all the same…a free world.”

To put it in the terms that Noam Chomsky does in a Jura books published zine called Goals and Visions (from the 1995 Sydney conference of the same name)—all three movements had the same vision, even if a vision of a “free world” is distant and vague. But their goals, the path that they take in getting to that vision are different. For Sid, “they all wanted a peaceful world that was all happy, bright and cheery…but the only one that made sense to was anarchism, which said we don’t have to go through this tortured way…of police, prisons, nuclear bombs…the only one that said: well here’s the path to get there directly.” Sid hadn’t intellectualised it like this at the time of 14. But it was in his head. His brother had moved out of home into a shared house in Glebe while he studied at university. It was in January 1975 when Sid had gone to visit him and stumbled across an anarchist squat in a local house —the famous 130 Glebe Point Road.

The houses nine bedrooms acted as the main dormitory for the nine day long ‘Sydney Anarchist Conference.’ Anarchist groups from across Australia had been convening to discuss the formation of a national organisation, the Federation of Australian Anarchists (FAA). The talk in the lead up to this conference had agitated for an organisation of local, regional and state groups into a national body. The talk emphasised that the FAA form on the basis of a mutual, common interest so as not to follow the trend of being “merely another leftist sect waiting for the day when they can set up a 'dictatorship of the proletariat.'”1 Throughout the preliminary discussions about what a federation would need to be, there had also been particular attention given towards the need for the distribution and creation of “propaganda”. An article from the FAAB2 writes,

"One needs groups of people who will take it upon themselves to publish magazines, newspapers, pamphlets or newsletters since these things are local in production however national their function. Similarly one needs groups that will maintain lists of speakers for propaganda work - and of course do propaganda themselves - as well as groups that engage in, or organise, research into topics of interest to the movement. It is the existence of such a network of specialisations that defines a federation as something more than the sum of its parts."3

These efforts towards expanding the availability of anarchist literature or “propaganda” in Australia have a beginning at 130 Glebe Point Rd. After the Sydney conference, the house remained in anarchist hands for eighteen months—it had become a centre for anarchist activity in Sydney.4 Sid tells me that in front of the place was a little bookstall with about three books on the table—“there weren’t many anarchist books in Australia at the time…and very few in English.” While the effort was impoverished, it would be the seed from which Jura Books would grow.

With the sacking of Whitlam later that year in 1975 came a desperation to leave—Sid remarks somewhat sarcastically—“this desolate, horrible place, this fascist Australia.” They went on a ten month backpacker trip of Europe along with some Marxists, social Democrats, and some Anarchists, a hodgepodge “lefty sort of milieu.” Visits to ‘Freedom Bookshop’ in London and ‘Shakespeare and Company’ in Paris provided new material that couldn’t be found back home.

Sid came back to get involved with sort of anarchist project. He got into contact with those who had been running that little bookstall at Glebe Point Road. While he was in Europe, the second FAA conference was held in June 1976. However during the conference a split had occurred in the FAA, between the ‘organisationalists’ and the ‘anti-‘organisationalists’—also referred to as the ‘carnival anarchists’ and the ‘serious anarchists’. A few of the ‘serious’ anarchists from Melbourne and Sydney put together what would be called the ‘Jura Literature Service’—taking its name from a group of 20-30 000 workers who had organised along anarchist principles in the Jura region of France and Switzerland.5 The FAA would see its third and final conference in January 1977.

John Englart, a past member of the Jura collective who was actively involved during these years, describes the Jura Literature Service as,

"Essentially a federation of three groups in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide around the activity of importing, distributing and selling overseas anarchist texts. Its initial capital was raised by donations, the three groups specializing in different overseas publishers, then trading stock with one another."

"The Sydney branch of the service saw itself as a group which was anarcho-syndicalist in orientation and whose long term aim was the distribution of 'a wide range of previously unavailable anarchist and related literature'. Its selling outlets consisted of stalls on the three university campuses and at the Domain (Sydney's Speakers Corner)."6

Talk of Jura or an FAA was not the first time Sydney had heard anarchist tongues. Quiet sometime before, in the 50s and 60s, a number of Spanish and Bulgarian anarchists—many of whom would later become key, respected individuals in Jura Books for their energy and contributions to the project—had been considerably active. From Europe they had brought an anarcho-syndicalist approach to the Sydney movement—a very ‘classical’ European brand of working-class anarchism which focuses on the autonomy of the labour movement through unionisation and action against the tyrannical structures of wage-slave capitalism.

Two of the Bulgarian anarchists in particular, George H and Jack Grancharoff—Grancharoff being an regular speaker at the Domain, where he also distributed the English anarchist paper Freedom7—arrived in Sydney in the early 50s and found themselves in a society with very few unsympathetic voices. They had practically come from poverty and from a political climate where they essentially risked their lives under the Bolsheviks for holding anarchist views. The Bulgarians worked closely with the Spaniards, such as Antionio Jimenz. George and Antonio found themselves a part of a group called ‘The Cellar’ near Oxford Street. A fellow named Bill Dwyer—who Sid described as a sort of individualist—had joined the group. He was an anarchist known for being “one of the best speakers at the Domain.”8 The group soon collapsed due to a police raid after Dwyer used it to distribute to Australia, for the very first time, LSD. George had also visited the Glebe Point house, but “[all] the 'anarchists' were stoned, so he just walked out again.” George disliked all the obscenity that was prevalent in the Sydney anarchist scene. A relentless “emphasis on ‘fuck’” that alienated all of those who “wanted a more, committed, serious approach.”9

Similarly, Jack had found himself associating with the infamous Sydney Push—a loose group of Pub dwelling, libidinal intellectuals; offspring of Andersonian libertarianism and Freudian gesticulation.  Jack says that “the only way to a more anarchistic society is via libertarianism. They [the Push] had a social critique, but they didn’t believe they were going to change society…they don’t attack the hierarchy sufficiently, and also polygamy in no sense implies that there is no hierarchy in it.”10

The creation of an anarchist group that was committed to being a structured and permanent organisation with a commitment to longevity was much needed in the Sydney anarchist scene. While the activities of the Push—as well as those of Glebe Point Road and Bill Dwyers’ ‘Cellar’—had made an impact on Sydney’s social scene, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that a great deal of their efforts were focused on their immediate and personal impacts rather than the continuous and sustained efforts required to make any worthwhile social and political change.

For PS, “Jura was an attempt to develop a strain of organised anarchism within a Sydney scene that was very, I would say, dysfunctional.” The influence of the anarcho-syndicalism of George, Jack and Antonio, among others, would guide the formation of the Jura Literature Service beyond a dysfunctional Sydney scene to create an incredibly functional and pragmatic collective in the Sydney and the wider Australian anarchist community.

The Jura Literature Service began to expand into a larger, more permanent project. The service had played a vital role in introducing Australia to a wide range of previously inaccessible European anarchist literature. Sid got involved with the Sydney book service just as the discussions began about renting a storefront for the project. Not too long after in 1977, Jura Books found its incarnation as a solid bookstore, renting the building at 417 King St Newtown. But the revenue generated through selling books would never be enough to keep the collective afloat. PS, Sid and a few other members like the older European anarchists, had to pledge money each week to pay the rent, and when necessary, make small contributions to expand the range of the store’s stock.

During the early years at Newtown, Jura was open at least five days a week from 9.30 in the morning till 9 at night. PS recalls: “It was unbelievably long hours. People did three to four shifts that were rotated between twelve to fifteen members.” “We always had people staying overnight…for security reasons because we feared being attacked by fascists…so we used to sleep at that building in Newtown…filthy, disgusting place to sleep, but we did…I thought it was disgusting [laughs].”

While the Jura Books collective was active in King St, it was also working hard distributing literature at campus stalls. Another member I had spoken with, LM, had come into contact with the Jura collective through the bookstall that PS and some other members were running at Sydney University in 1982. The stall had generated enough traction amongst students that the Anarchist Collective student society was formed in order to keep the bookstall running on campus. Everyone had a key to the society’s locker which functioned as a mock-up library for the books and pamphlets that were bought primarily to inform the society’s discussions about anarchism. LM recalls the Anarcha-Feminist booklet Quiet Rumours as amongst the titles in the locker. There was also “Some Kropotkin, some Bakunin…maybe some Emma Goldman…pretty fundamental, introductory kind of books. Not really thick heavy ones, but shorter ones that people could read and pass around.”

After LM graduated from university in 1986, she got a job in regional Victoria. She maintained sporadic contact with some of the members from the Jura collective. Somehow or other she had heard about and participated in the Anarchist Centenary Celebrations being held in Melbourne in May that same year. Shortly after, LM returned to Sydney, “seeing how those celebrations had worked…I started to get involved in Jura and by the end of 1986 I was a member.”

Conferences have played a significant role throughout Jura’s history. As we have seen, they enabled the development of personal connections between anarchists all across Australia. These connections had facilitated the creation of the Jura Literature Service, the various university bookstalls and, the subsequent creation of Jura Books. All of these differing yet interconnected aspects of book distribution represent the broad engagement that anarchists had with the community. It was not just focused between anarchists, but attempted to engage with the student body as well as Sydney’s general public.

In LM’s case, she had become engaged with anarchism because of Jura’s activity on university campuses throughout Sydney. The conference she attended in 1986 only bolstered her connection with Jura. But in creating these kinds of connections that looked beyond anarchist circles and into the wider world, it became necessary for the Jura collective to diversify its ideas in extension of its anarcho-syndicalist orientation.

The 1986 conference had been an example of the diverse range of anarchist ideas that were actively being discussed in Australia. A similar conference that Jura Books had been directly involved in occurred two years earlier. It was called the ‘1984 and Social Control Conference’ held in Sydney University’s Merewhether Building. It had been a big success, attracting over 600 people. “It was aimed not at anarchists” Sid says, “it was aimed at the world. So it was trying to bring in other people.” It had included discussions such as; “Networks of Control: Looking at control as a tool of technology”, “Prostitution: Work or Deviance - Social Control of Sexually Repressive Society's Dirty Work”, “Psychiatry: the confused Politics of Mental Health” and “Are the State and Capitalism Enough? Factors in the explanation of Social Control in environmental areas. (Nuclear Power & Forestry)”—just to name a few.11

Perhaps something of the success that these conferences had in bringing in different people was its ability to ‘convert’ the former ‘anti-organisationalist’ anarchist, Peter McGregor, to the more ‘organisationalist’ view of anarchism that Jura supported—and still does support. He got involved with the collective around 1984/85. He “did lots of good things” Sid recalls. He instigated a follow-up conference to the one in 1984, the 1988 ‘Beyond Social Control Conference’ held at UTS. It had also been a big success, attracting several hundred people throughout its two days.

But a year earlier, in 1987, Jura had been forced to move from the building at King St because the owner had decided to sell the building. Jura had spent its first ten years here as an established bookshop which had proved the success of the project. Sid says “as far as a small radical bookshop is successful, we were very successful.” Their proven success gave them a determination to continue the project. Efforts soon began to raise the $85000 (roughly $200000 in 2016) to hopefully purchase the building. A fundraiser was started which raised $78000 ($180000) over 18 months.12 But in the end, and despite all their immense effort, they fell short of the asking price. They began looking for another location to continue Jura Books.

It was at this time around 1988/89 that several collective members got together and formed the Anarchist Resources Incorporated (ARI), a legal entity through which they could take out a loan and put down a deposit on a building.13 The constitution of the ARI at this time specified that the funds both raised and borrowed were to be spent on acquiring a space for the collective and, in addition, defined the aim and use of this space. The space had to ensure that:

  1. The Jura Books collective could have a home.
  2. If possible, enough room for the Fanya Baron library.
  3. And, if possible, room to stage events.

In 1987, the ARI purchased the building at 110 Crystal St in Petersham which then lent it to the Jura Books collective.

The ARI would play a significant role in the historical perseverance of Jura. It essentially made it impossible for any individual or group to stage a takeover of the collective’s resources and subsequently, dissolve the collective. “That’s why we did it”, Sid tells me, “when a bunch of radicals opened up a bookshop in George St Sydney back in the 60s, during the anti-Vietnam days…Bob Guild and a group took it over. They found a way of doing so. Other groups had a bookshop in Brisbane that was taken over by a small clique…lost a 2, 3 million dollar building because it was not organised properly.”

Despite the security that the ARI brought to the collective, it had become the centre for several heated arguments amongst the collective members. The notion of buying and owning a property went against the classic anarchist principle of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—where he declared and argued in his 1840 work What is Property? that “property is theft.” But Sid defended the ARI to me. He says “In a capitalist world something has to own property, not that that’s what we want in an ideal world, but that’s the capitalist world we happen to be in now.” The ARI meant that no one could make any money out of the space or the selling of the building. It had been set up along anarchist principles as much as what could work within the capitalist structure of NSW law. But criticisms against the ARI and the Jura collective persisted in various forms; assaults in meetings, verbal tirades during store meetings, and written polemics still which are still circulated on the Internet to this day.14

As a result, the collective saw a decline in its membership. The tireless fundraising as well as the physical effort of moving the store had also burnt several members out. The store’s opening hours had become greatly limited due to the shortage in members. Sales declined. The location of the store didn’t help much either. It was a busy road with little foot traffic.15 The collective found themselves isolated in Crystal St. For whatever reason, Sid tells me, “the community that were around Jura and built up over ten years in King Street didn’t come up two stations to come to Jura.”  The move to Crystal St had proved to be unsuccessful for the store.

Low membership continued to be a theme throughout these years. But this in no way meant a general decline in anarchism in Australia. In 1995, Jura along with several other key individuals and anarchist groups in the Sydney and wider Australian community helped to organise the ‘Goals and Visions’ conference. At this conference, Noam Chomsky famously gave a lecture that was publicly advertised as anarchist at Sydney Town Hall to a crowd of three thousand people, with 2-300 people being turned away because of overcrowding.16 The broader public’s interest in anarchism hadn’t gone anywhere.

In 1998, the ARI sold the building at Crystal St and used the funds to purchase the building at 440 Parramatta Road, Leichhardt—which was practically around the corner. This has proved to be a much better spot for Jura Books, where the collective has remained ever since.  Sales have been on the increase. There are two thousand people registered on the email list and a range of different groups use the space and contribute to the community. For Jeremy, this is what has kept him at Jura the thirteen years since he joined. It’s this variety of community engagement that happens at Jura—the bookshop, the library, the gigs, the political meetings, the poster collection.

For a small bookshop tucked away in Sydney’s inner west, Jura Books has a surprisingly rich history. Jura has seen many different individual members from many different backgrounds and life experiences—each bringing their particular interpretation of anarchism, and their own particular energy to the collective. Throughout the conferences, the disagreements and arguments and the forty years running the store, Jura has diversified itself since its anarcho-syndicalist days. But it still retains something of what George, Jack and Antonio had brought to Jura all of those years ago—their insistence on maintaining, with solidarity, an incredibly pragmatic approach to realising the vision of an anarchist society. In the scope of this vision, Jura is like a tiny little microcosm, it prefigures “the potential of what might be, what could be, and what is better…it holds the potential for something of a better world.” For Sid, this is what Jura means. This is why the Jura project generously welcomes to its space and supports a variety of other groups in the community, because it falls in line with its praxis.

What is Jura then? It’s the preservation of an organised space where today they are quickly becoming a rarity—or put more grimly—becoming extinct. I will finish on the words of another Jura member that I had interviewed. For AJ, “[Jura is] an organising space for people to come and think about activist and even revolutionary ideas and to use that as a base for discussion…as a resource for changing the world even in a little way. I think it’s a very, very important and actually, unfortunately and probably shamefully, a rare thing in such a huge, huge metropolis.”

Whilst today’s times seem like it’s becoming harder and harder to be a revolutionary, the least we can do is say: Jura, here’s to forty more.

 

Footnotes

1. FAAB No 2, Nov-Dec, 1974, p. 85, in Bob James’s Anarchism in Australia. An Anthology, 1986, a collection of written pieces that were prepared for the 1986 Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations Conference in Melbourne. All of which can be accessed at < http://www.takver.com/history/aiandx.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

2. Do not be confused by the title FAAB occurring before the formation of the FAA. It was an arbitrary name picked by a group of anarchists. See FAAB No 1, 1974, in Bob James, Anarchism in Australia. An Anthology.

3. FAAB No 1 and 2, Nov-Dec 1974, in Bob James, Anarchism in Australia. An Anthology, pp. 83-5.

4. John Englart Anarchism in Sydney 1975-1981 <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd7581.htm>

5. Jura Books, 2005, http://www.jura.org.au/history, viewed 30 June 2017; John Englart, Anarchism in Sydney 1975-1981 <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd7581.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

6. John Englart, Anarchism in Sydney 1975-1981, <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd7581.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

7. Jack Grancharoff, An interview with Jack, interview corrected by Jack Grancharoff, possibly a self-interview, possibly from his anarchist journal Red and Black, <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/grancharoff.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

8. Anne Coombs, Sex and Anarchy (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1996), p. 185.

9. Bob James, Notes from interview with George H., written 1985 / updated 1998, <http://www.takver.com/history/aia/aia00028.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

10. Anne Coombs, pp. 101-3.

11. 1984 and Social Control Conference Sydney, workshop list, updated 2001, <http://www.takver.com/history/meetings/c1984syd.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

12. I am sticking to the figures that are listed on Jura’s site, <http://www.jura.org.au/history>. However, John Englart states that $50000 had been raised by June 1988, and that a bank loan for $68000 was taken to purchase Crystal St. <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd8202.htm> viewed 30 June 2017.

13. Jura Books, 2005, <http://www.jura.org.au/history>, viewed 30 June 2017.

14. See John Englart, Anarchism in Sydney 1982-2002 Anarchism in two bookshops, July 2002, http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd8202.htm, viewed 30 June 2017. See also the forum thread from May 17 at libcom.org, to see the debate about the version of history that Sid presents in an interview, titled ‘The development of anarchism in Sydney - interview with Sid of Jura books" uploaded by Workers Solidarity’, <http://libcom.org/node/46893>, viewed June 30 2017.
The interview can also be found at <https://www.wsm.ie/c/history-development-anarchism-sydney?page=3>, under the title ‘The development of anarchism in Sydney’ from May 16 2013, viewed June 30 2017.

15. John Englart, Anarchism in Sydney 1982-2002 Anarchism in two bookshops <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd8202.htm>, viewed June 30 2017.

16. Jura Books, 2005, <http://www.jura.org.au/history>, viewed 30 June 2017.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Barbagallo, Robert, P., interview with Peter Sheldon, 4 May 2017, 1:04:37.
——— interview with LM of Jura Books, 9 May 2017, 0:53:56.
——— interview with Sid of Jura Books, 13 May 2017, 2:15:55.
——— interview with Jeremy of Jura Books, 20 May 2017, 0:49:02.
——— group interview with Jura Books store meeting, 20 May 2017, 0:34:31.

Secondary Sources

1984 and Social Control Conference Sydney, workshop list, updated 2001, <http://www.takver.com/history/meetings/c1984syd.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

Coombs, Anne, Sex and Anarchy (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1996),
Englart, John Anarchism in Sydney 1975-1981 <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd7581.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

——— Anarchism in Sydney 1982-2002 Anarchism in two bookshops, July 2002, <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/syd8202.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

Grancharoff, Jack, An interview with Jack, interview <http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/grancharoff.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

James, Bob, Anarchism in Australia. An Anthology, 1986, prepared for the 1986 Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations Conference in Melbourne.
——— Notes from interview with George H., written 1985 / updated 1998, <http://www.takver.com/history/aia/aia00028.htm>, viewed 30 June 2017.

Jura Books, 2005, http://www.jura.org.au/history, viewed 30 June 2017.

 

 

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Categories: Blog

Russian Revolution book reviews

Sid's blog - Thu, 09/03/2017 - 9:47pm

This month sees, not only International Women's Day (March 8th), but also its connection to the Russian Revolution, which celebrates its 100th anniversary. One hundred years ago, women in the bread lines, of the cold March of 1917, began protests and riots that led to the overthrow of the 300 year Romanov monarchy. Now, before history-phobia sets in, remember that the events that those women and the larger revolution initiated, affected hundreds of millions of people, have huge lessons for revolutionaries of today, and show as much what shouldn't be done, as what could be done to live on this planet in a peaceful, creative, fulfilling, sustainable way.

Here are some short reviews of books that are relevant to exploring those events which still resonate today. The first is by an overt marxist (Murphy), the second by an academic who is more critical and presents a more realistic view (Pirani). The next group of authors are anarchists, the first a participant in the revolution (Makhno), the other an historian with a cultural background in the area he writes about (Skirda) and the third by an anarchist/libertarian-socialist/councilist and neurologist, (Brinton), should have been read and adsorbed by Murphy, and even Pirani.

Kevin Murphy's Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class struggle in a Moscow metal factory has many fine features, including using recently opened Russian archival material, and attempting to bring women into the revolutionary story. One of the strongest features of the book is in bringing the reader into many of the struggles and arguments on the factory floor during the revolutionary period and the 1920s to early 1930s. Like the next book reviewed, by Pirani, this is a marvelous window into the past, and includes aspects of the social life of the workers and bureaucrats as well as into the factory floor meetings. However, Murphy's main theme is to show how the life of workers was so much better during the era when Trotsky was around as compared to Stalin's rule. What he does not do is recognise how the repression of the Russian people started with the beginning of Bolshevik rule, and certainly may have accelerated under Stalin, but Trotsky, Lenin and the rest were just as complicit in the silencing dissent. Stalin merely built his machine on the foundations of the previous rulers. Much of evidence that the author presents is based on the Bolshevik/Communist Party's meeting minutes, thus a biased account is inevitable. Murhpy just seems sour that Stalin gained the crown instead of Trotsky: there is no evidence to say that Trotsky would have behaved any better, and much to say the opposite. On a positive note, the attempt to look at what was happening 'on the factory floor' is a bonus. Just keep your eyes open as you walk with the author, or you may trip over a litter of 'the party directed' and the 'the party committee expelled x' – accepting the party records as an almost solely valid account of worker reality leaves me with wanting a fuller, more accurate account.

Simon Pirani's book The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet workers and the new communist elite is along similar lines as Kevin Murphy's book, reviewed above, however it is a vast improvement. The main strength is in not having a seemingly ulterior motive, an inherent bias that clouds the narrative. Pirani does take us onto the factory floor, but uses a wider range of evidence and has a far more refined analytical capacity. Here we read an honest attempt to examine the relationship between the Bolshevik/Communist Party and the working class in the factories, not merely examine the arguments between one set of authoritarians within the Party and other sets of would-be bosses, each set wanting to take over the reigns of power via that very same Party. While Pirani uses similar archival material from Party and Secret Police records, his aim is to find out why and how the growing bureaucratic machine succeeded in destroying worker's power, democratic worker decision-making structures, and the increasing terror used to maintain control over the population, although focusing on this process in the working class factories and districts. Given the focus on the period 1920-1924, the author misses analysing the previous period, 1917-1920, when the foundations for the revolutionary retreat began and the tactics used to repress dissent within the Party were formulated to repress those revolutionaries outside the Party. Good book, though.

Nestor Makhno wrote an autobiography, now published in English in three volumes by Black Cat Press in Canada, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Under the Blows of the Counterrevolution (April-June 1918), and The Ukrainian Revolution. These books tell the story of Makhno, a peasant/proletarian's role in building a huge voluntary army in 1917 to fight the invading armies after Lenin ceded the Ukraine to the German & Austro Hungarians in order to end Russia's involvement in World War One. The Ukrainians didn't like the deal and Makhno, the former factory worker, with a small band of supporters, took up a guerilla campaign to free the predominantly agricultural region from the new oppressors. Not only was it a struggle against invaders, but also a fight to establish a revolutionary society that was based on anarchist principles. Within a few months a large area was liberated and new social systems developed by the peasants on the land and the workers in the towns. This is an exciting account of the ups and downs of four years of struggle, not only against foreign invaders, but also against local would-be rulers who wanted to crush the Ukrainian Revolution. Well worth reading this original history.

Alexandre Skirda has written an authoritative account of the Makhnovist movement during the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1917-1921. In one book, this historian has used more recently available material, as well as primary sources, such as Makhno's autobiography and those of others in the Makhno Insurrectionary Army. Skirda examines not only the brilliant military tactics of Makhno and the strategists who fought along side him, but the politics and the revolutionary principles they fought for and the revolutionary structures that were put in place, not only among the anarchist troops, but also by the Ukrainian people that had been liberated. Often missed is that the Makhnovists fought some of the greatest and last of the world's cavalry battles – against the invading Austro-Hungarian and German armies, the reactionary White Russian armies, and finally the Bolshevik troops. Stirring stuff, an exciting and fast paced read.

Maurice Brinton (aka Chris Pallis) wrote The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, 1917-1921: The state and counter-revolution in 1970, but don't let that date put you off, as it hasn't really been surpassed for sharp critical analysis of the facts that happened on the factory floor during the Russian Revolution. Importantly, he firstly untangles the notion of 'workers' control' and notes that many political tendencies have trumpeted that as a slogan, from social democrats, Trotskyists, libertarian Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists. But what do they mean, and what does the concept sensibly mean at all. If the Bolsheviks said that they had installed workers control in, say, 1918, when they began dismantling the original Factory Committees that workers themselves build, and replaced them with Party controlled 'factory committees', is that the same idea? Can it be the same beast? Can it lead to the same sort of worker-controlled decision making? And ultimately, the same sort of society? Crucial questions, and ones that we still need to consider, mull over, argue around and come to conclusions about. A must read for any revolutionary, or aspiring change agent in the current times.

The Russian Revolution may have begun 100 years ago, but the challenges that it posed, not only to the monarchy of the time, to the growing capitalism, but to authoritarianism of any sort, and are as relevant today as they were then.

Categories: Blog

The Egyptians: A Radical Story - the book that Noam Chomsky couldn't stop reading

Christian's blog - Fri, 03/03/2017 - 8:27pm

It's hard for me to find enough superlatives to do justice to this excellent book. So instead, to get an idea of how good it is, it's worth reading what other people have said about it.
 
Take Noam Chomsky for instance. He tends to dish out fairly bland acclaim for lots of left-wing books, and isn't usually given to hyperbole or wildly extravagant statements. Not for The Egyptians: a radical story though. "I started reading this and couldn't stop," he gushes on the back cover of the book. "Remarkable."
 
Another critic seemed equally dazzled, writing that it was "truly astonishing," while someone else rated it as "revolutionary journalism at its finest" which "belongs in the bookshelf next to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia." The Guardian and the Economist both listed it as one of the top books of 2016. And, to cap it off, the military government in Egypt banned it. So it must be alright.
 
The Egyptians: a radical story is journalist Jack Shenker's attempt to cover Egypt's revolution and counter-revolution from below. Rather than portraying the events of early 2011, which saw the overthrow of one of the Middle East's longest reigning dictators, as some kind of sudden outburst, he traces the roots of the revolution back through decades of struggle. And rather than framing the story as some kind of battle to win free markets and liberal democracy – as much of the media did – Shenker shows that its motive forces were, above all, aspirations for social and economic justice.
 
He knows what he'd talking about. Shenker speaks Arabic and lived in Cairo during 2011 and for years leading up to it. He writes about a country convulsed by rebellion: "the far-flung communities waging war against transnational corporations, the men and women fighting to subvert long-established gender norms, the workers dramatically seizing control of their own factories, and the cultural producers (novelists, graffiti artists and illicit bedroom DJs) appropriating public space in defiance of their repressive and violent western-backed regime." And he so obviously sympathises with and shares the aspirations of the people he describes. The book is beautifully written – at times almost poetic – and overflows with humanity.
 
Like Chomsky, I found The Egyptians: a radical story almost addictive. It was completely thrilling and exciting to witness millions of people struggling on such a massive scale against nearly unbelievable levels of repression. It’s so moving that at the end I was quite shell-shocked. And above all it gave me a much-needed shot of confidence that the great mass of people really can overturn the existing order and create a new society – not just in some past era, like 1936 or 1968, but right now.

The Egyptians: A Radical Story is available at Jura for $20.

Categories: Blog

The Case for Anarchism or why Hierarchy should be Abolished

Drewy's blog - Sun, 07/08/2016 - 8:45pm

This short work outlines the current state of society, the structure of that state, and the dialectic of hierarchy and anti-hierarchy and the conclusion of said dialectic.

 

When you look at society today, what do you see? You see workers and business owners, citizens and policepeople, policepeople and commanders, citizens and government, soldiers and officers, agents and agencies, renters and property owners, users and intellectual property owners, and so on. How did these relationships materialise? Quite simply, "primitive communism" led to warring tribes, with territories expanding, and stronger members of tribes oppressing others. Following the invention of farming and stronger weaponry, these tribes had a revolution, with the creation of the hierarchy of feudalism. The king ruled supreme, with the knights and lords and peasants all in hierarchical subordination. After a while, the bourgeoisie toppled the feudal hierarchies of the world creating their own hierarchy - haute bourgeoisie, state, petty bourgeoisie, proletarian. This bourgeois hierarchy has been in effect for roughly 200 years and continues in this class subordination.

 

Looking at the hierarchical relationship of today's society, what do you see? You see two things. Obviously you see a relationship between an inferior and a superior. You see a relationship between an oppressor and suppressed, a leader and a follower, an educator and a student. And so on. Then you see the psychology of the two in this relation. The person below sees the person above as having authority, whether intellectual, strength, power in numbers, etc. They see themselves as necessary being in the lower rung in the relationship. They do not believe they are intelligent, they do not believe they can make decisions for themselves, they look to their superior as knowing best, they do not believe in themselves. The oppressor in the relationship lets their negative human qualities consume them. Power, greed, malice, domination, sadism. They draw energy and feed on their subordinates in a sick fashion. This relationship only gets worse the higher they propel themselves into the hierarchy of society, whether it be the corporation, the state, or whatever institution it may be.

 

Hierarchy clashes with basic human character. When we have a friend we do not try and control them, dictate what they can and cannot do. We do not talk down to them. We do not delegate, or decide their lives. Similarly, when we work in a team, unless we are in a hierarchical institution, we do not have a leader materialise who does nothing and tells everyone what to do, we work collaboratively and cordially, with mutual respect and co-ordination. Why is it then, that the contradiction of hierarchy plagues every society on earth?

 

The simple answer, as mentioned before, is that the modes of production have fundamentally stayed the same for thousands of years. Hierarchy and domination.

 

What people don't realise, is that their mode of thinking is not immovable. People can start to think, why do I need to government to decide what's best for me, why can't I consult with my local community to decide what is good? Why do I need a policeperson to "protect" me? Why can't the local community join in solidarity to protect each other. Why do I need a political party? Why can't we all decide things with equal weighting? Why do I need a landlord? Why can't people share the land equally? Why do I need money? Why can't people share their goods and services equitably? Why do I need a boss? Why can't we all own entities collectively? Why can't I decide things at work without asking my boss? Why do we need an army? Why can't we just unite with other workers around the world and destroy all killing machines. Why do we need spies? With no private property the spies cannot rat on who might want to share. Why do people own software and books etc? Why can't we share our works?

 

Why do we need a state? The very thing that enslaves us.

 

But the propaganda of media - TV, books, shows, news, sport, political coverage - all teaches us to be divided and helpless, and to see our oppressors as not only necessary, but infallible.

 

But, human nature will always win, even in hierarchical society there have been many victories and systems of anarchism operating within this hierarchical monstrosity. Hierarchy will be destroyed, sooner or later.

 

Hierarchy must be smashed. Destroyed. Obliterated. It must be pulverised so hard that it may never surface again. The people who are not at the bottom of the hierarchy must be divested of their authority and learn to live co-operatively, socially and fairly, on a horizontal basis. Only through the total implementation of anarchism can we be truly free.

Jura BooksAnarchismAnarchist communismCapitalismLibertarian socialismSocialismCommunityRevoltRevolutionThe StateWorkers control
Categories: Blog

Don't vote your life away!

Stuart's blog - Fri, 29/07/2016 - 9:02pm

The electoral commission's been sending me letters for a while now, demanding I pay a $160 fine for not voting. They've cancelled my driver's licence and sicced their debt collectors Dun & Bradstreet onto me, threatened to steal money from my bank account, or steal my belongings and sell them to pay their debt. Still I haven't given in to this criminal gang, these terrorists known as 'the government.'

I've lost count of how many letters I've received, threatening me, trying to intimidate me, but I've ignored them all, as I've done for more than 20 years. I stopped voting in the early '90s after I realised that it's pointless. How will they actually get the money out of me?

It seems the State's repressive apparatus isn't really all that efficient. If they steal the money from my bank account I won't be able to stop them. But my friend said they'll have to get a court order to do that.

They keep reminding us that voting's compulsory. A lot of people say they vote, or at least get their name ticked off at the polling booth so that they don't get fined. But how well do they actually enforce this law?

Past generations fought for the right to vote. But not for the State's right to compel us to vote! Voting was made compulsory in Australia in 1924 because of falling voter turnouts. That's nearly a century ago now. Logically the right to vote implies the right not to vote. So it's no longer a right but a duty.

I suspect there are thousands upon thousands of people in Australia who don't vote, many of whom aren't even on the electoral roll, even though both these things are compulsory. The number's probably rising too, as more and more get pissed off with the system.

The media tries to whip up enthusiasm for the election by broadcasting the words of politicians. They try to make it seem exciting. Your vote counts! Isn't democracy wonderful? Anything could happen on the day! The most important election since World War II! (Did they say that one again this time?) We have so much freedom! Aren't we grateful to our masters for giving us the right to vote?

We all know that the promises and words of politicians are worthless. Because unless we're rich enough to give them big donations, we can't hold them accountable. Before the election they pretend to be interested in community issues, but afterwards they don't want to know you.

Some say to get off the electoral roll. But how do you do that? I've moved 3 or 4 times but they always manage to track me down. Others say to tell them you have a religious objection to voting. But why should I lie? I haven't done anything wrong.

Each time I voted I felt like a mug after. For getting sucked in to the bullshit. "Come on, you've got to support our friend so-and-so! She's standing for the Greens and you know they do a lot of good work! They're not anarchist but it's a step in the right direction!" Yeah right. Candidates I voted for didn't win, and even if they had, they wouldn't have been able to achieve anything worthwhile.

Recently the Australian Electoral Commission sent me a warning letter, saying that I may be prosecuted if I don't vote in the 2 July election, and fined up to $180. Well, again I didn't vote in your election on Saturday, 2 July, so suck shit, you pathetic authoritarian bastards!

I went past Petersham TAFE college on the way to the Jura monthly collective meeting and there seemed to be a polling booth there. I was accosted outside on the footpath by party workers trying to give me their how-to-vote cards. I declined them all and asked whether there was a sausage sizzle. (I'm a vegetarian most of the time but when it comes to sausage sizzles I'm afraid I can't help myself!) Some polling booths have sausage sizzles but, no, this one apparently didn't.

Seems a polling booth up the road had one. Too bad! Nope, they missed their chance at seducing me with a sausage sizzle. Glad I didn't get sucked into supporting the stupid system of selecting slavedrivers.

I look forward to a new series of intimidating letters from the AEC.

AnarchismDecision makingRevolt
Categories: Blog