Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture

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In the mid-1990s there were a number of books published on the “zine revolution,” many of which seemed more about cashing in on the new “trend” rather than exploring it in a worthwhile manner. While I read most of those books, I somehow managed to miss Duncombe’s book, which is a shame, because it is without a doubt the best of the bunch and the only book on zines I would actually recommend to people.

Duncombe relies heavily on actual zines for his content, dividing the book into chapters that cover the various types of zines that can be found in the zine underground, while admitting that such attempts at classification are always imperfect given the variety of zines. He mixes the right amount of quotes from actual zines with political/social analysis without relying too heavily on one or the other.

Duncombe is at once both optimistic about the oppositional and radical nature of zines, as well as realistic about their limited scope and their prospects for achieving influence outside of their underground scene. His analysis of the politics of alternative culture and the inclusion of various sociological theories works quite well–the book retains the sense of passionate opposition that makes zines so great while putting them into a larger context without taking the excitement out of them.

Stephen Duncombe, Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, (Verso, 1997).

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Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties

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This short book examining how post-September 11 anti-terrorism measures threaten our civil liberties is a part of Seven Stories’ Open Media Series. The book is a 138-page look at how the USA PATRIOT Act, passed without any serious debate in the House and Senate in October of 2001, undermines constitutional guarantees including free speech, due process, and many others.

While the first chapter has a few too many superlatives for my liking, describing the Constitution and the “Founding Fathers” as possessing a certain “genius,” the book is an excellent introduction to the problems inherent in the USA PATRIOT Act. Ms. Chang also briefly explains the wider historical context of past campaigns aimed at politicial dissent–something that is essential if one is to understand the USA PATRIOT Act. Among those topics, she covers the Sedition Act of 1798, the Espionage Act of 1917, and COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 1970s.

While most of this information is readily available on the Internet, it is nice to have it in a more readable printed format.

Nancy Chang, Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties, (Seven Stories Press, 2002).

French Communist Party Versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968

During my senior year in college, I attempted to write an intellectual history of the Situationist International, a group of radical theorists in France who published scathing critiques of the capitalist system and consumerism, while seeking to find a new revolutionary praxis. The paper was an ambitious project to be sure, attempting to cover a group as complex as the Situationist International in only 25 pages is probably not possible, especially for a student who is unfamiliar with the history of Marxism and radicalism in France.

Nevertheless, I was able to place the Situationists within the context of their contemporaries and thus was able to explain why they rejected the policies of the majority of the Marxist left. In order to do that, I had to rely on a variety of different works, including a couple by the scholar Tony Judt, working slowly to make sense of a political milieu that was completely unfamiliar. After reading French Communist Party Versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968, I realize that there was a lot more I could have addressed within the paper.

The French Communist Party Versus the Students is essentially a history of the French Communist Party (PCF) and their relationship to both the student movement as well as other radical parties in France during the 1950s and 1960s. The book examines how the party was structured and how it functioned, a necessary study if one is to consider the PCFís role in the May-June events of 1968. Granted, most of this book is a rather dry history of a party that by the 1960s had lost most of its radicalism, and indeed has little contemporary relevance. While it lacks the sense of immediacy as well as the readability of Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, a book that covers the way in which the PCF and other “radical” parties acted as counter-revolutionary forces, The French Communist Party Versus the Students explores the role of the PCF in a broader historical context and is an important book for people wanting to understand the Communists role in May and June of 1968.

Richard Johnson, French Communist Party Versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968, (Yale University Press, 1972).

All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement

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While I am not a huge fan of biographies, I picked this book up because I am interested in learning more about anarchism in America. It seems that with the exception of Emma Goldman and occasionally Alexander Berkman (although he does not get much mention except for his shooting of Henry Clay Frick or his relationship to Emma Goldman), anarchists in the United States have been largely left out of both history books and studies on anarchism. Perhaps such an exclusion is due to the weakness of the anarchist movement in the United States compared to Europe and Russia, but I still believe it is worth studying.

Joseph A. Labadie was involved in the struggle for socialism, labor rights, and eventually anarchism, along the way working with the Knights of Labor and various other labor organizations both in Michigan and on the national level. There are certainly many contradictory aspects in Labadie’s thought, and while some of those contradictions may be addressed if one was to read his writings rather than rely on this biography, this book presents a man with conflicted positions on several issues. Many of the contradictions seem to be a result of his “individualist anarchism,” a type of anarchism favored by Labadie and many other American anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be worth reading, as there are currently no titles in publication containing Labadie’s writings and there are relatively few books on anarchists in the United States compared to the literature available on the European movement.

Carlotta R. Anderson, All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement, (Wayne State University Press, 1998).