Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017
The Anarchist Cookbook
By Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe
See Sharp Press: Tucson, 2015, 154 pages, $19.85 paper.
LABOR NOTES PUBLISHES its Troublemaker’s Handbook series as a practical guide to bottom-up union organizing. Keith McHenry and Chaz Bufe’s The Anarchist Cookbook, released by the anarchist See Sharp Press in 2015, envisions itself as a similar text by a manual that belongs on the shelf of any committed activist.
McHenry is a long-time activist who co-founded prominent projects Food Not Bombs, Indymedia, and Homes Not Jails while Bufe helped found the See Sharp Press in 1984 and is known for his writings in anarchist theory. Their collaborative text takes its name from the 1971 Anarchist Cookbook, written and since denounced by William Powell, which gave readers tools to make home-made drugs and bombs.
This new Anarchist Cookbook, by contrast, is a thoughtful and ideologically broad guide to anarchist activism in the 21st century. It combines the authors’ expertise in anarchist theory and practice, including McHenry’s interest in food reclamation and preparation as a source of rebellion and liberation.
The text includes essays on anarchist theory; guidelines for such tasks as developing a campaign, planning a meeting, and holding a rally; and recipes for mass food preparation at such events. Although it takes an anarchist perspective, its pragmatic organizing tools can benefit left-wing activists from all ideological traditions.
Following an introduction by Chris Hedges, the book reprints a pamphlet titled You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship, originally released in 1979 by an Australian anarchist collective. Thereafter, the exact authorship of each section is undefined, perhaps in deference to anarchist rejection of copyright and authorial ownership.
Other than the reprinted pamphlet, the text appears to be written primarily in the voice of McHenry, whose name is most prominent on the cover and who makes frequent use of the first person pronoun. Nonetheless, because Bufe is listed as a secondary author and the boundaries of authorship are unclear, I will assume joint authorship of the book’s primary ideas.
McHenry and Bufe begin with a definition of anarchism, contrasting it to popular misconceptions of chaos or terrorism, right-wing appropriations by capitalist libertarians, and niche offshoots such as primitivism or “amoral egotism.” They define it as not only the absence of a state but “the rejection of coercion and domination in all forms” and the belief in humans’ equal freedom to act in ways that do not harm others and also to access physical and cultural resources such as food, health care, and shelter. (3)
Corruption of Power
Anarchists’ fundamental opposition to a state and to central planning, including a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” derives from what McHenry and Bufe describe as the fundamentally corrupt nature of power.
Citing Bakunin, they maintain that “any power, whatever it calls itself, would inevitably subject the people to old slavery in new form.” Instead, they call for “egalitarian and decentralized structures that are led by the people as opposed to a new class of bureaucratic mandarins.” (ii)
This vision requires broad-based participation both in activist resistance and in a future, more egalitarian society. As a result, the organizing skills that the book presents are essential skills for everyone, not only the most dedicated activists. The text hopes to cultivate its vision of egalitarianism and democracy by promoting a broad-based sharing of activist duties, from cooking to note-taking and event planning.
Following their theoretical beginning, the authors include several essays promoting non-violent direct action strategies and making a case against property destruction. They denounce the “diversity of tactics” argument that some anarchists make as a shorthand for property destruction.
Often, large events or rallies will include members of many anarchist affinity groups or other left-wing and liberal organizations that are not anarchist. The larger group may want to prohibit participants from engaging in property destruction, whereas a plea for a “diversity of tactics” asks that individual affinity groups be permitted to choose their own tactics, including illegal ones.
McHenry and Bufe uphold the right of the larger group to prohibit property destruction and strongly caution against approaches that involve violence or property destruction, outlining the consequences for individuals and the movement.
Writing about Occupy Oakland, McHenry and Bufe argue that “support vanished overnight after people claiming to support ‘diversity of tactics’ vandalized Whole Foods and several local small businesses on November 2, 2011.” (23)
They make the case that eschewing violence and property destruction benefits the activist cause by winning public support, especially considering that the level of damage activists can do to the enemy, financial or otherwise, is rarely enough to result in a structural victory.
They further note that advocates of aggressive tactics are sometimes infiltrators who can take advantage of unseasoned or careless activists, citing the case of Occupy Cleveland, which was infiltrated by an FBI informant who established a relationship with some of its more militant members and helped them modify a plan to plant a “smoke bomb” by replacing it with a real explosive. The activists were ultimately charged with plotting to blow up a bridge, and three received substantial sentences of approximately 12, 10, and 9 years.
Violence and Provocation
McHenry and Bufe use this example and others to warn activists against even discussing actions that may do violence to human life, result in prison time, or incur severe financial consequences. They maintain that violence against humans fundamentally violates the anarchist tenet that the means, not just the ends, of political change matter.
And while they may not oppose property destruction categorically, they believe that the costs to the movement, in financial loss or in prison support for activists, typically outweigh the political benefits. They warn readers that listening to a fellow activist’s promotion of aggressive tactics and failing to categorically oppose it puts you at risk.
At the same time, they remind activists that they should not turn against one another in the search for possible informants. “The government can use the fear of infiltration as a way of destroying trust in your community,” they say (32). The goal, instead, is to maintain a firm and true commitment to ethical and non-violent means while assuming that fellow activists are sincere.
McHenry and Bufe allow that there are revolutionary circumstances that warrant illegal, destructive actions. However, they rest firmly on the side of non-violent uprising as the appropriate model for a just future society, seeing violent revolution as a precursor to violence in a new post-revolutionary society.
They cite the research of political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, who have found that “campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts” (qtd. in McHenry and Bufe 22).
A commitment to non-violent means of resistance and revolution, they argue, increases the likelihood of success, forces activists to recruit a larger percentage of the population, and generates a liberating and ethical model for a future society.
Recipes for Organizing
While the first half of the book outlines broad precepts for anarchist belief and action, the second half provides concrete ideas for organizing. It lists and describes possible activist tactics, from boycotts and petitions to occupations and strikes. The authors offer counsel about how and when to escalate campaigns and the advantages and disadvantages of different tactics.
Even more pragmatically, the book concludes with sections of “recipes” for organizing, including detailed instructions for planning meetings and creating literature tables and literal recipes for food that might be served at activist gatherings, including large-scale functions that may require oatmeal or vegetable soup for 100 people.
McHenry brings his long experience with Food Not Bombs to this text. He helped found and shape the organization over decades as an avowedly anarchist group devoted to recovering the good vegetarian food that capitalism routinely wastes and serving it for free to those who want it.
Food Not Bombs provides free food not as an act of charity but as a celebration and an act of resistance by activists take both ethical and rebellious joy in creating good, enjoyable meals from what capitalism deems “scraps.” That food is not handed out to the “needy” but offered to everyone as an experience of community.
For McHenry, then, this text has food at its center: his anarchist worldview demands large-scale social change but also creates autonomous spaces within the capitalist world to practice cooperative and sustainable living.
His text includes sections advocating a vegan diet and the practice of personal “simple living,” acknowledging the limitations of personal choices but also embracing the notion that left-wing activism is a lifestyle as well as a larger political project.
In its extensive discussions of non-violence and its sometimes basic explanations of organizing strategies, this book is in certain ways a tool for beginners. On a practical level, it could function as a guide for young anarchist-identified activists who are trying to establish theoretical and tactical guidelines for themselves and their affinity groups.
On the other hand, it is also a useful resource for veterans who sometimes gloss over the basics by whether ideological or practical. (McHenry reminds us on numerous occasions to always put the largest flyers in the box before the smaller ones.)
Yet the text emphasizes the degree to which political organizing requires not simply theoretical analysis but also the ability to book a venue, navigate insurance requirements, procure pots and pans large enough to cook for crowds, and endless other tasks.
Mark Bittman’s kitchen tome How to Cook Everything includes a recipe for hard-boiled eggs, which could be seen as similarly insulting. But Bittman simultaneously welcomes cooks with even the barest knowledge of the kitchen and celebrates technique and creativity for the more advanced.
I read McHenry and Bufe in the same manner. A political group, they insist, must school its members in skills related to event planning, secretarial work, financial management, public relations, performance, and publication.
Such tasks require attention, skill, and institutional documentation. There is value in sending a literature table manager with a checklist or providing a model agenda for a new facilitator, and this text provides both.
As a socialist who has worked in political groups with anarchists many times, I enjoyed and took much from this text even as I disagreed with some of its approaches and conclusions.
First, the authors’ definition of anarchism conveniently excludes many problematic forms that anarchism has taken over the years. Many socialists by or proponents of any ideology by employ a similar strategy, excluding oppressive or problematic expressions of the theory from the definition itself.
McHenry and Bufe’s definition of anarchism includes a provision for affirmative freedoms such as the “freedom of action,” which they define as requiring “equal access to the world’s resources.” (5)
Moreover, they denounce all forms of oppression, not simply state power, and adamantly oppose capitalism. Their definition excludes anarcho-capitalism and primitivist strains of anarchism.
Enforced primitivism, they maintain, would require “the use of coercion and violence on a mass scale” and thus “come about through means which are the absolute antithesis of anarchism.” (2) Anarcho-capitalism “denies freedom and positive freedom to the majority” while “retain[ing] the coercive apparatus of the state.” (3)
Although they admit that “in its narrowest sense, anarchism is simply the rejection of the state,” and these forms would fit within it, they argue for a stronger anti-capitalist definition. I, too, support the anti-capitalist anarchist vision over primitivist and pro-capitalist versions. However, I wonder if their insistence on claiming the broad term “anarchism” is necessary. McHenry and Bufe end their analysis of different “anarchisms” by praising the achievements of anarcho-syndicalism as “the replacement of coercive government by voluntary cooperation in the form of worker-controlled unions coordinating the entire economy.” (5)
After outlining this model and its attempted realization during the Spanish Revolution, the authors declare that “this is anarchism.” Here, they define the broader term “anarchism” through an anarcho-syndicalist lens.
For the purposes of building coalitions between left-wing organizations, it may be more useful to embrace the term “anarcho-syndicalist” rather than defending the perimeters of “anarchism.” Anarcho-syndicalism foregrounds the centrality of the labor movement and worker control of production. As such, it offers a site of collaboration between socialists and anarchists and a potential to compound the impacts of activist work.
Despite positive words for anarcho-syndicalism, McHenry and Bufe do not devote much space in their text to the details of labor organizing. They dismiss “business unions” as ineffective sites for organizing, telling activists not to “waste your time and energy on these reactionary dinosaurs.” (43)
They do not mention examples of rank-and-file organizing successes within such unions or acknowledge that strategy as a viable possibility for the future. Thus, although numerous types of labor organizing are listed as revolutionary strategies, the authors lend them little support or specificity.
Eat the State?
My final concern with this text is its name by what was, for McHenry, an irresistible play on words. As a reader, I enjoy the allusion, too. This is an anarchist cookbook that is actually a cookbook by it teaches you how to cook vegan macaroni and cheese and also how to organize a revolution!
But I worry that the delicious (nudge nudge wink wink) pun misses the political mark. The authors outline at length how the FBI case against Occupy Cleveland activists included claims that they had read bomb-making instructions in the original Anarchist Cookbook. They also note that another informant provided copies of Powell’s Cookbook to activists in Brooklyn. By publishing a new Anarchist Cookbook, McHenry and Bufe may simply be causing confusion and reviving interest in the older text. The linguistic joy isn’t worth the risk.
Nonetheless, while most socialists will disagree with elements of McHenry and Bufe’s text, I recommend it as an addition to the activist bookshelf. Political organizing requires flexibility and creativity, along with a host of practical skills, and this text usefully collects ideas about campaign development and advice about how to hone specific and often under-appreciated organizing skills.