West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California (Book Review)

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“West of Eden:
Communes and Utopia in Northern California”
(PM Press, 2012):
A book review by Nemeton

PM Press was founded in 2007 by Ramsey Kannan, who also founded AK Press in 1987 in Stirling, UK, along with several other members from AK including Craig O’Hara. PM Press is located in Oakland, CA and AK Press now is also primarily operating out of a large warehouse in Oakland, as well as maintaining a continued presence in the UK. Both publishers print numerous books on the same topics including anarchism, globalization, direct action, class struggle, the environment, subculture, and many more. In 2012, PM Press has already published over 100 titles in various formats (books, pamphlets, tshirts, dvds, cds, etc). PM Press has published some books in English translation that were not available before such as “Fire and Flames” by Geronimo about the history of autonomist movement in West Germany in the 1970s to 1990. Unfortunately, the afterward by Gabriel Kuhn, who is also the translator, regurgitates factually incorrect and trivial denouncements of anti-german critique that can be seen as part of a strategy in English which includes a text in CrimethInc’s “Rolling Thunder” magazine (#3 Summer 2006). PM Press also is in the process of publishing a second volume of a 2 book series of RAF texts and documents, some of which are not translated into English, or badly translated, or are hard to find. However, a more critical position on the RAF’s anti-imperialist and anti-Semitic ideas is needed in the introductory chapters to these volumes. While PM Press has printed some worthwhile radical books and makes a real effort to further independent publishing in the US, they also give voice to anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activists, which is the predominant position of various tendencies in the American ‘left’ concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict. Noel Ignatiev is a well-known activist, author of “How the Irish Became White”, editor of the PM Press published book “A New Notion: Two Works By C.L.R James”, and editor of the now defunct “Race Traitor” magazine. Ignatiev has a blog on the PM Press website which feature many posts by him or others that are virulently anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist, wherein Ignatiev claims that Israel should not exist as a nation state, that Israel has committed a genocide or holocaust against Palestinians, that Israel policies are like those of Nazi Germany and that Jews like white Nazi Germans act as a ‘master race’, etc., etc. Ignatiev also blogged a very personal ten part series titled “Memoir of an Ex-Jew”. Although there are not enough pages here to conduct a detailed analysis of Ignatiev’s anti-Zionism and his involvement in the American ‘left’, it is necessary to bring to the forefront whether Ignatiev’s positions and activities are held by other people working at PM Press, and how PM Press will promote positions on issues of anti-Semitism and Israel in its books, pamphlets etc., especially given the fact that their publications are widely distributed throughout the US, as well as in Europe.
The “West of Eden” book is published on the imprint “Retort”, which is also a collective of professors, researchers and writers mostly centered in Berkeley, CA, positioned within a post-situationist milieu. Notable Retort members include Michael Watts, Iain Boal, TJ Clark, Carl Winslow, and Joseph Matthews. Retort is somewhat known, at least in some US “left” circles, for two broadsheets denouncing the Iraq war, as well as the book “Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in the New Age of War” published on Verso [see the useful review in “Aufheben” #17 (2009)], which are all riddled with theoretical problems in their attempt at a generalized application of Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle in an analysis of contemporary US foreign policy. The Retort imprint on PM Press has published several books including by those not directly affiliated with the collective.
“West of Eden” is the culmination of years of research by many individuals, 2 academic conferences in California, several workshops, an undergraduate university course, work by the Mendocino Institute, as well as funding from many public, private and university sources. The book was promoted with several talks in the Bay Area, including at the 2012 San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair. The book builds on previous studies about communes and collectives in the US, and its most notable new research contribution is the chapter on the Albion Nation commune is Medocino with texts by Carl Winslow and first person accounts by the original commune participants including Daw Hofberg, Weed, Bill Heil, and Carmen Goodyear. While these personal accounts give us insight into their motivations and memories of what was both successful and problematic about the commune and its connection to the larger sixties counterculture, the reader is left wanting much more detail about the specifics of life on the commune, as well as their activities in the larger Mendocino community. Several of the articles in “West of Eden” situate the commune movement within a rejection of American mainstream values and politics in the 1960s and the return to conservative agendas in the 1970s and 80s, but the book lacks a detailed historical analysis of what various commune participants’ heterogeneous positions were on anti-imperialsm, international politics, the new left, ecology, sustainability, capitalist critique, etc., beyond several generalizations that are made, when one could analyze in detail magazines (like ‘Country Women’), posters, pamphlets, activities, and groups connected to the over 1000 communes in Northern California. Several articles deal with the issue of gender division and inequality, as well as sexual and gay politics, mostly from the prospective of women communards. Issues of race are explored in an article about the Native American takeover of Alcatraz, and another on the Black Panther Party, but the book has little to say about what white commune participants’ ideas were about race and class, and how they failed to deal with issues of diversity and racism in the communes and well as in the wider, mainstream society both in rural communities and cities. “West of Eden”, as a compilation of articles, works best when the authors break down dichotomies that underpinned our basic notions about how communes operated or were described: urban or rural, secluded or networked, liberated or conservatively patriarchal, drop-out deadbeats or contributors to a new society. Some of strongest articles include a discussion of the “open land movement” at Wheeler’s Ranch in Sonoma with its fight against private property, county zoning laws, and police brutality, as well as a discussion of the symbolic affinities, ideological pretexts and architectural design of domes and shacks found at many communes through the US, and an in-depth look at the development of the Whole Earth Catalog to the Software Catalog to Wired Magazine, which all promoted capitalist, conservative, libertarian and diy positions that had a large impact both on the commune movement and the development of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area as the international node of advanced computer, internet and technological innovation. This book is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in American history and politics from the 60s to the 80s, and well as those who seek balanced assessments of strategies used by activists in direct action, diy initiatives and countercultural interventions.

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