Uses and Abuses of the Paris Commune: the Extraordinary Story of the Last Communard


The Last Communard: Adrien Lejeune, the Unexpected Life of a Revolutionary by Gavin Bowd. (Verso, ISBN 9781784782856).

David Black

Adrien Lejeune’s life story begins with his birth in the Paris of Louis Philippe’s ‘July Monarchy’ in 1847 and ends with his death in Soviet Siberia in 1942. He was, successively, a fighter in the Paris Commune, a socialist and Moscow-line communist. Gavin Bowd, having excavated the historical records, says that ‘the way his life and story have been appropriated, sold and retold is as important as the action he took on the streets in 1871.’

Lejeune was born on 3 June 1847, to a barrel-maker and a seamstress in Bagnolet, a leafy hamlet just beyond the city walls of Paris. By the age of twenty Lejeune had gained employment as a herbalist in a pharmacy on the Paris boulevards. Having joined the Republican Association of Freethinkers, Lejeune soon became notorious in the eyes of his neighbours in Bagnolet, which at the time was a bastion of conservatism. Under Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime, which was supported by a reactionary Catholic Church, all protest marches and meetings of socialists were forbidden. The Freethinkers were restricted to organising mutual aid, especially for funerals. But funerals for freethinkers often turned into popular demonstrations against the Empire, culminating in cries of ‘Vive la République démocratique et sociale!

Between 1850 and 1870 the population of Paris doubled to two million, with nearly half a million proletarians employed mostly in small and medium-sized workshops. 30,000 were organised by Workers’ Societies linked to the First International co-founded by Karl Marx.

Louis Bonaparte doomed his empire when, in July 1870, he declared war on Prussia. Two months later he was taken prisoner by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan. After a bloodless popular uprising in Paris, a provisional Government of National Defence was formed. Headed by the constitutional monarchist, Adolphe Thiers, it was essentially a ‘republic without republicans’.

The new government formed a 200,000-strong National Guard as a defence of the city against the German siege. Adrien Lejuene joined the National Guard, 2nd Company, 28th Battalion and rose to the rank of sergeant. The siege dragged on through the freezing winter of 1870-71. As food supplies ran out, poorer Parisians were reduced to eating rats and the city’s zoo animals. While the French army suffered defeat after defeat in the countryside, German artillery bombarded Paris.

In January 1871, the new government capitulated and sued for peace. Under the terms of an armistice, Thiers agreed to cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire, promised to pay a 5 billion francs war indemnity and granted the German army a victory parade on the streets of Paris on 17 February. As this latter spectacle induced a silent rage amongst the Parisians, some 200,000 of the city’s better-off residents began an exodus to the countryside in fear of what was to come next.

As the rank and file of the National Guard became increasing radicalised, the provisional government ordered that its cannons be seized and transferred to Versailles. On the morning of 18 March 1871, Versaillais troops arrived at the Butte de Montmartre, a strategic hill overlooking the city, to remove the cannons. The alarm was raised by the Parisian milkmaids, and National Guardsmen – Adrien Lejeune among them – rushed to the scene to protect the cannons. As hostile crowds agitated by the Blanquist Left mobilised, mutinous troops refused to fire on them. The generals Lecomte and Clement-Thomas were captured and summarily executed by their own men. The Paris Commune was proclaimed the same day. On 26 March, representatives of the Commune were elected by the citizens of Paris. Thiers’ government decamped from Paris to the relative safety of the palace of Versailles, 17 kilometres from the city.

In the nine weeks of the Commune’s existence, the standing army was abolished along with conscription; control of the schools by the Catholic clergy was replaced by a new system of free compulsory, secular education for all children, including girls; and far-reaching reforms enacted what workers had long demanded, such as the establishment of workers’ cooperatives and restriction of hours.

Adrien Lejeune divided his time between his home in Bagnolet and his National Guard base at the mairie (town hall) of the 20th arrondissement. In what was now a civil war, rural France was now ‘enemy-held territory’. Military efforts to break out of Paris foundered as Thiers, with help from German Chancellor Bismarck, shored up the Versaillais army.

On 21 May 1871, General MacMahon’s Versaillais army entered the city and what became known as the Bloody Week began. During the fighting, the Communards killed or wounded thousands of the invading Versaillais soldiers and torched a number of buildings including the Tuileries Palace and the Hotel de Ville. The pétroleuses (female incendiaries) were blamed for many of burnings by the bourgeois press, but the instances were exaggerated to detract from the achievements of feminists and working-class women communards. In conquering the city the Versaillais army massacred at least 10,000 Communards, including those taken prisoner. 40,000 people were arrested, Lejeune among them.

Gavin Bowd’s research into the fate of Lejeune following his arrest by the Versaillais at the end of the ‘Bloody Week’ on 28 May makes it clear ‘that the reality of Communard Lejeune lends itself with difficulty to the typical Communist hagiography’. In later accounts given by Lejeune and relayed through Communist presses, when the Versaillais assaulted the last bastions of the Commune Lejuene was among those who fought ‘barricade by barricade’ until the final defeat. This however, does not quite square with the defence he offered at his trial in February 1872. Lejeune in fact tried to save himself from incarceration and possible execution by claiming that his daily trips from Bagnolet to the 20th arrondissement had nothing to do with his known extremist politics or armed service for the Commune. He further claimed that his enrolment in the National Guard in the days of the Thiers government did not involve remaining in it to fight for the Commune. The prosecution couldn’t find any witnesses to Lejeune’s alleged military actions, but as numerous local Bagnolet croquants were called to testify that he was an extremist and an infidel, his defence wouldn’t wash with the court and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Here again Bowd finds it necessary to challenge later Communist myth-making. For contrary to various accounts Lejeune was not transported to New Caledonia along with the Communard leaders who were spared the death sentence. Rather, Lejeune was put on a prison ship, then transferred to a prison-fortress off the coast of Brittany. Lejeune showed none of the defiance in court of, for example, Louise Michel, who declared to the 6th Conseil de Guerre:

‘I don’t want to defend myself, I don’t want to be defended; I belong entirely to the social revolution and I declare I accept responsibility for all my acts. I accept it entirely and without restrictions’.

Michel was proud that she had offered to assassinate Thiers and burn down parts of Paris. Probably because she was a woman she was not executed, but deported to New Caledonia. Théophile Ferré, as head of the revolutionary police, had sent Georges Darboy, the archbishop of Paris and five other clerics to the firing squad in retaliation for executions by the Versaillais army of Communard prisoners. Ferré declared before his judges:

‘A member of the Paris Commune, I am in the hands of those who defeated it; if they want my head, let them take it! Never will I save my life through cowardice. Free I have lived, and free I will die! I entrust to the future my memory and my vengeance’.

Ferré was executed by firing squad.

It is certain the Adrien Lejeune did fight for the Commune, but his role was not as heroic as told in the legend later promoted by the Communists. During the German siege he was a member of the National Guard, but after the armistice with Germany he handed in his rifle. When the Commune was proclaimed, his role seems to have been restricted to working in the food supply service at the mairie (town hall) of the 20th arrondissement. He did this work until the start of the Bloody Week, when he decided to get out of Paris. He was then arrested at the gates of Paris by the National Guard, who proposed that he resume his service, otherwise he would stay in prison and might be considered a traitor. Lejuene re-joined the Guard, and it seems he fought bravely until 28 May, as he himself testified.

According to Bowd, ‘The records of Lejeune’s revolutionary acts are as mixed as the rest of his life, combining idealism, myth-making and all-too-human frailty. Despite his very modest contribution, the legacy of the Paris Commune would dictate his next seventy years.’


Very little is known about Lejeune’s life in the decades following his release in 1876. In 1871, the Commune’s representative for the 20th Arrondissement had been Edouard Vaillant, a Blanquist who later became a leader of the Unified Socialist Party (SFIO) along with Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde. Lejeune joined the SFIO in 1905. In 1917, according to a commemorative article in the Communist daily L’Humanité in 1971, he ‘greeted with enthusiasm the socialist October Revolution which meant the triumph of the Commune’s ideas in one sixth of the globe’. In 1922, now aged seventy-five, Lejeune joined the newly-established Communist Party of France (PCF).

In 1928, the Central Committee of the PCF asked the Comintern’s Red Aid International if it could take care of old Communards who were living in France in ‘a very bad situation’. In 1930, Lejeune, whose wife had died a few years earlier, decided to emigrate to Russia and donate his savings. He handed 4,626 francs of annuity to L’Humanité, on condition that the paper ensured him an annual income corresponding to that yielded by his securities. He also donated to the Red Aid organisation.

The octogenarian Lejeune took up residence in Moscow at the Home for Old Revolutionaries. L’Humanité endeavoured to keep him supplied with hampers of wine, chocolate and coffee. Lejeune enjoyed his stay at the home, because other old comrades spoke French and the food was good. But, after 1936, as Lejeune’s health declined, he found himself thrown from one institution to another and neglected by Red Aid. Fortunately for Lejeune, he came under the protection of André Marty, secretary of the Comintern in France and political commissar of the International Brigades in Spain. Marty, in correspondence with Comintern leaders, complained that those responsible for the welfare of the man who was now the last surviving fighter of the Paris Commune were behaving as if they were doing him a favour, rather than the other way round.

According to Marty, when on 15 May 1940 Lejeune learned that the Germans had once again defeated the French at Sedan, he commented:

‘Sedan, so it’s starting all over again? So they still have their Bazaines and MacMahons? Yes, if MacMahon holed up at Sedan, it was because he was afraid of us, because he was afraid of Paris, because he was afraid of answering to the people of France, much more than of the Prussians’.

When Lejeune learned that the Germans had just entered Paris, he sat up in bed, despite his ninety-four years, and exclaimed:

‘It can’t be true. Paris, I must see Paris freed from the brutes and bandits who are sullying it! To see Paris again, our beautiful Paris cleansed forever of fascists and traitors!’

Marty noted angrily that an official of Red Aid, after visiting Lejeune, wrote ‘a schematic, lifeless text, full of clichés plus a quotation from Marx’, and signed it Adrien Lejeune. ‘Not a single French militant will believe it to be by Lejeune’, he added. Marty proposed instead an interview under the title ‘The Communard Who Saw Three Wars’, containing ‘only Lejeune’s opinions, tidied up, of course, but very lively and very relevant to today’.

In July 1941, the Stalin-Hitler Pact was abruptly terminated by Hitler. As the Nazis approached Moscow, Lejeune was evacuated to Peredelkino, a village of dachas, south-west of Moscow. Here, he had as company disabled Spanish Civil War veterans, and a French-speaking Bulgarian exile, Adela Nikolova, who had been assigned by the NKVD as Lejeune’s carer. Nikolova complained to Marty:

‘I cannot remain silent about our arrival the day before yesterday. Our reception was rather difficult. From the very first minute I felt a very wounding atmosphere for us. To receive us like that is incomprehensible. We were greeted like beggars asking for charity, and this state of affairs continues. I hope, dear comrade, that the matter will be sorted out and that I will be able to organise our comrade’s life properly. Our collective has been outraged by the administration’s way of doing things. From my letter you will appreciate how angry I am’.

Again, Marty intervened on Lejeune’s behalf, which resulted in an improvement of the exiles’ conditions at the Peredelkino hospital. In October 1941 as the Nazi threat to Moscow worsened and a state of siege was declared, Lejeune, Nikolova and other exiles were evacuated to Novosibirsk in Siberia, 2,000 miles east. For the 94-year old Lejeune the journey was arduous and life-threatening. In the middle of the freezing Siberian winter, Lejeune’s health worsened despite the care of the ever-loyal Nikolova. In the second week of January 1942, Adrien Lejeune died. He was buried in Novosibirsk. The guard of honour was made up of militants of the Party, the Communist Youth, commanders and commissars of the Red Army, and delegations of Stakhanovites from the factories.

Bowd points out that in the Second World War, the vision of the Commune changed significantly among the French Communists. The image of the Commune, as a proletarian revolution, gave way to one of patriotic resistance to the German occupiers and their collaborators. Bowd writes:

In May 1942, the underground L’Humanité declared, with more than a soupçon of “frenzied chauvinism”: “French patriots, unite and take action against the Boches and their lackeys…” For the Nazis, there was nothing more fearsome than “patriotic resistance to their oppression, to the traitors of Vichy, Pétain, Laval, Darlan and Co…” The Paris Commune was the revolt of the People against the traitors; the people of Paris betrayed and sold; Paris handed over to the Prussians; the Prussians in Paris; Bismarck and Thiers united against the Commune; collaborators of yesterday and today.

What was not stressed by the Communists was that they had long held to the position that the defeat of the working class in the Commune had come about because the French working class lacked a nationally organised Communist Party capable of co-ordination, directing and indeed dominating the movement. They had milked the writings on the Commune of Marx and Engels as well as Lenin’s writings on Marx on the Commune. But they had then added a deadly Stalinist twist. Under Stalin the ‘Leninist’ position of ‘democratic centralism’ was adapted to employ centralised bureaucratic terror against anyone who questioned his policies, and the vision of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was perverted into the reality of dictatorship over the proletariat.

The actual Paris Commune was no one-party state. Its version of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat included a wide range of republican tendencies, including Proudhonists, Blanquists, anarchists, feminists, freemasons and Marxists. Marx was certainly aware of the Commune leaders’ shortcomings, such as the failure to seize the money in the Bank of Paris and march on Versailles. Privately Marx criticised the Commune leadership for ruling out any attempt to negotiate a compromise with the bourgeoisie in order to have a democratic republic in which class struggle could take place without violence.

The uses and abuses of the Lejeune legend and the legacy of the Commune carried on through the post-World War Two period. In China in early 1967 worker unrest led briefly to the replacement of the party-run administration by the Shanghai People’s Commune which – to the alarm of Mao Zedong – looked back to the dictatorship of the proletariat as exercised by the Paris Commune.

In France itself, for the Situationists, who played an important catalyst role in the May/June revolt of 1968, the Commune, in Bowd’s words ‘anticipated a new form of society that would be ‘realised art’. For Guy Debord and the Situationists:

‘…they practised a “revolutionary urbanism,” attacking on the ground the petrified signs of the dominant organisation of daily life, recognising social space in political terms, refusing to accept that a monument such as the column on the Place Vendôme – a symbol of Napoleonic militarism – could be neutral or innocent’.

In 1971, the centenary year of the Commune, the PCF, in an effort to restore good relations with the CPSU (which had been stretched by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) arranged for Lejeune’s ashes to be brought from Siberia and buried at the Mur des Fédérés in Père-Lachaise cemetery, next to the mass graves of murdered Communards. The PCF event drew tens of thousands, but the centenary also saw large rallies by Trotskyists, and by Maoists who saw the PCF’s initiatives as opportunist and class collaborationist. The French anarchists, for their part, insisted that the Communard most worthy of celebration had been Louise Michel, whose politics were quite at odds with later ‘Leninisms’.

On 10 November 1989, the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gavin Bowd, member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, went for a walk in Paris. He writes:

‘I tried to clear my head of the cataclysmic news of the previous day and repaired to one of my favourite places for solitary contemplation in Paris, the cemetery of Père-Lachaise. Here I wandered among dead leaves and neglected tombs, until I arrived at the corner in the south-east of the cemetery called Le Mur des Fédérés’.

Bowd discovered that day the tomb of Adrien Lejeune, which led to him writing this book. What he found most interesting about Lejeune was:

‘…his real and imagined life, with its convictions, friendships, moments of cowardice, half-truths, lies, shady corners and banalities, a story of property and theft at every level; the manipulation of memory and the (largely consensual) instrumentalisation of an individual who became a ‘relic’ of a cause; the randomness, the pathos and the cruelty of History. It seems that, much more than any novel, the documents and testimonies, swarming with contradictions and silences, constitute in themselves a historical drama and answer at least a few of the questions that a little black marble grave had raised in my mind on the morning of 10 November 1989’.

For Marxisant orthodoxy in the 20th century the Paris Commune, lacking centralised unity and strategy, was history’s ‘rehearsal’ for the Russian Revolution. But if the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ has any meaning for today then the legacy of the Communards rises in many respects above that of ‘Bolshevik Leninism’. The Situationists’ Theses on the Paris Commune, written in 1962, whilst recognising the Commune’s obvious lack of a ‘coherent organizational structure’ pointed out that the problem of political structures had turned out to be ‘far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be’. Rather than labelling the Commune just as ‘an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism’, revolutionaries should examine it ‘as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled’. They still should.

This article first appeared in the International Marxist-Humanist

Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Poetics of Hooligan Communism

Launch at Housmans bookshop  for Coiled Verbal Spring: Devices of Lenin’s Language. Introduction by Sezgin Boynik (Rab Rab Press, Helsinki 2018) 22 May 2018

Dave Black

As Darko Suvin says in an afterword to this book, when the 2nd International collapsed at the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin retreated to the library in Geneva where he read Hegel for three months, after which he analysed the world situation and, a couple of years later, went back to Russia to organise the October Revolution.

110 years earlier Hegel said of the Enlightenment Spirit that produced the French Revolution:

“Enlightenment upsets the household arrangements, which spirit carries out in the house of faith, by bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of here and now.”

The Enlightenment is the negative which “brings to light its own proper object, the ‘unknowable absolute Being’ and utility.” If Kant was right and “God”  “unknowable” then whatever is divine essentially becomes privatised (as Marcuse, back in 1964, pointed out in One Dimensional Man, “spirituality” becomes commodified in the works of the guru of your “choice”). The absolute being becomes whatever produces the utilitarian “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” an idea which suits not only the ideologues of  the free market, but also of state-capitalism in the forms of social democracy and Stalinism.

As Walter Benjamin put it,

“Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”

In post-Stalinist Russia, there are of course, few liberated grandchildren of the millions of people wiped out by Stalin’s regime. But before Stalinism there was great positive energy in the Russian revolutionary experience. As Russia was largely a peasant society, dominated for centuries by the Church, landlordism, poverty, and rural mafias, “everyday life” was a turgid back water which needed revolutionising. Having overthrown the old order, under the slogan, “Peace, Land and Bread”, Lenin announced that “Socialism is Soviets plus Electricity”; a definite case of “bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of here and now..

Coiled Verbal Spring: Devices of Lenin’s Language contains a selection of essays from 1924 by writers of the Left Front of the Arts (LEF), drawn from the schools of Futurism, Constructivism and Formalism. The editor, Sezgin Boynik, quotes the leading light of this group, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:

“…the revolution cast the rugged idiom of the millions out on the streets; the slang of the outer suburbs flowed across the avenues in the city centre; the enervated burbling of the intelligentsia with their vocabulary of castrated words like ‘ideal’, ‘principles of justice’, the ‘divine origin’, the ‘transcendental countenance of Christ and Anti-Christ’ – all this kind of talk, once mouthed in the restaurants, has been wiped out. A new element of language has been liberated. How is it to be made poetic?”

Mayakovsky knew exactly how. He wrote an essay entitled How Verses are Made, which anyone who fancies themselves as a poet needs to read, and not because they’ll necessarily find in it the encouragement they might be looking for. Mayakovsky generously lays out his trade secrets, but they are not for the faint-hearted. The true poet is a poet all the time, alert to the rhythms and sounds of everything that can be experienced, whether standing in the rain on Brooklyn Bridge, riding a rickety Moscow tramcar, making love, or dealing with the trauma of a comrade and fellow poet, namely Sergey Esenin, having committed suicide.

When Mayakovsky sent Lenin a poem he had published, entitled 150 Million, Lenin commented, “You know, this is a most interesting piece of work. A peculiar brand of communism. It is hooligan communism.”  To be a communist poet is to heed what Mayakovsky calls the “social command.” A poet must renounce the “production of poetical trifles”, have “thorough knowledge of theoretical economics, a knowledge of the realities of everyday life, [and] an immersion in the scientific study of history…”


“To fulfil the social command as well as possible you must be in the vanguard of your class… You must smash to smithereens the myth of an apolitical art.”

Mayakovsky’s identification with the “vanguard” was won in the harsh experience of revolution, famine and civil war. It is a far cry from the crazy logic of modern-day groupescules who think that, because their “line” on any given subject under heaven and beyond is more “correct” than that of any other groupescule, then they must be the vanguard.

Mayakovsky argues that “Poetry is a manufacture.” But, he warns, “You must not make manufacturing, the so-called technical process, an end in itself.”

There is thus a teleology in Mayakovsky’s aesthetic. In this sense he is a follower of Lenin in the true sense of  being a practising dialectician rather than a Lenin-ist. In 1924 he writes in protest against the canonisation of Lenin with mass-produced bronze statuettes and portraits. Mayakovsky does so because for him the Being of Lenin was, and remained, the Revolution. If you kill Lenin by making him into religious icon, you kill the Revolution by making a movement into a religion.

“Lenin is still our contemporary.

He is among the living.

We need him alive, not dead.


Learn from Lenin, but don’t canonise him.

Don’t create a cult around a man who fought cults his whole life.

Don’t sell the objects of this cult.

Don’t merchandise Lenin!”

What made the canonisation all the more deadly, was the fact that Lenin’s legacy is ambivalent. As Darko Suvin points out, before Lenin read Hegel in 1914, his main philosophical contribution had been the notorious Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which “opened the door to a quite untenable theory of arts and sciences subjectively ‘mirroring’ and objectively reality, that is, to a mechanical materialism later warmly espoused by harmful Stalinist inquisitors  into sciences and arts and amounting to a ban on radical innovation within Marxism quite uncharacteristic of Lenin’s own major achievements.”

And what is especially tragic is that the collection of the LEF articles in Coiled Verbal Spring ends with a quote by Stalin, supplied by Alexei Kruchenykh, which argues that the party leader, who is by definition infallible, can override the majority opinion of the party, Within a few years, Stalin would destroy the Left Front of the Arts and all it stood for, in favour of a reactionary school of resuscitated romanticism called “socialist realism.”

All of the writers in Coiled Verbal Spring survived the purges of the 1930s. But Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930, after which Stalin imposed on his legacy the same fate as he imposed on the legacy of Lenin; he was ‘canonised’ as the great poet of the Bolshevik Revolution.


This text first appeared in Militant Esthetix



Alexander Trocchi: Psychedelic Situationist

The following text is an extract from David Black’s book. Psychedelic Tricksters: A New Secret History of LSD (BPC Publications, 2020)

In 1965 Timothy Leary sent Michael Hollingshead, the Englishman who introduced him to LSD,  to London with 5000 trips of LSD. One part of his mission was to rent the Albert Hall for a psychedelic jamboree with big-name rock bands and poets; and with Leary himself hosting the event in his role as the High Priest of LSD. This plan never came off, because of Leary’s bust for marijuana possession in the US at the end of 1965. Another task was to set up a centre for running LSD sessions and promoting psychedelia in the arts. One thing Hollingshead was concerned about was the tendency of the London acid heads – such as those around Alexander Trocchi — to politicise, rather than spiritualise, the psychedelic experience. As he put it in The Man Who Turned On the World:

‘From what I had heard in letters and conversations, the psychedelic movement in England was small and badly informed. It appeared that those who took LSD did so as a consciously defiant anti-authoritarian gesture. The spiritual content of the psychedelic experience was being overlooked’.[i]

Hollingshead had been sending shipments of LSD to Trocchi, who distributed it to his contacts in what was to become the London cultural ‘Underground’. Trocchi, born in Glasgow in 1925, had moved to Paris in 1952, where he edited Merlin, an English-language literary magazine. In its pages, Merlin featured contributions from avant-guard writers such as Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Becket — who, at the time, were unable to get their work published anywhere else in English. Trocchi himself, surrounded by young expatriate American writers, such as Terry Southern and George Plimpton, was, in the words of Greil Marcus, ‘seen as a man of towering literary genius, fated to cut a swath through the world’.[ii]

In Paris, Trocchi joined the Lettrist International, led by Guy Debord. In 1957, the Lettrists, some former-Surrealists and others from several countries came together at a meeting in Italy to found the Situationist International. One of the central Situationist concepts was ‘psychogeography’: defined as the ‘study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In the ‘experimental mode’, they employed the derive: the basic idea of which was that individuals or groups would ‘drift’ through the city and lose themselves; their customary rationales for movement (work, relationships and leisure) would be abandoned in order to ‘succumb to the enticements of the terrain and the encounters associated with it’.[iii] One of the inspirations for such adventures was a passage in Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 book, Confessions of an Opium Eater:

‘I used often, after I had taken opium, to wander forth…[to] parts of London, in which the poor resort to on a Saturday night… an opium eater is too happy to observe the motion of time. And sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a northwest passage… I came suddenly upon such knotty contradictions of alleys, such enigmatical entires, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares… I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of the terre incognito and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London’.[iv]

The theory of the Derive, according to Debord, rested on the belief that future developments would bring about an ‘irreversible change in the behaviour and the decor of present-day society’. The Situationist concept of ‘unitary urbanism’ expressed a vision of city planning based on aesthetic and technological innovations in architecture, but freed from subordination to the needs of corporate developers and the endless expansion of private car ownership. Given the ravages of homogenised planning in the urban environments of the twenty-first century, with city centres given over to big business and tourism, functionalist architecture, and streets polluted by the noise and fumes of automobile traffic, it is difficult now to re-imagine the experience of the dérive in the Paris of the early 1950s. Ivan Chtcheglov, the young Situationist seer, could still write of a future in which city dwellers would reclaim the streets: ‘We will construct cities for drifting… but with light retouching, one can utilize certain zones which already exist. One can utilize certain persons who already exist’.[v]

Trocchi enjoyed the dérive with Guy Debord:

‘I remember long, wonderful psycho-geographical walks in London with Guy. He took me to places in London I didn’t know, that he sensed, that I’d never have been to if it hadn’t been with him. He was a man who could discover a city… [Debord had] a magical quality… Distances didn’t seem to matter to the man. Walking in London, in the daytime, at night, he’d bring me to a spot he’d found, and the place would begin to live. Some old forgotten part of London. Then he’d reach back for a story, for a piece of history, as if he’d been there. He’d quote from Marx, or Treasure Island, or De Quincey’.[vi]

Trocchi’s first novel, Young Adam, published in Paris in 1954, is a bleak existentialist parable about how a young anti-hero, caught up in a murder-hunt, grapples with the meaning of responsibility in a mean world. Set on a coal-barge on a Scottish canal, the narrator charts his ‘voyage’ towards an irrevocable break with the deadening world of the work ethic, blind justice and bourgeois marriage.

Trocchi began using heroin in the mid-fifties and would be addicted for the rest of his life (he died in 1984). In Paris, Trocchi financed his heroin habit by turning out porn stories for Olympia Press under the name ‘Frances Lengel’. In 1956, he moved to New York and wrote his second novel, Cain’s Book. This is another barge novel, which describes his time living on a scow, hauling cargoes of rubble along the Hudson, and shooting heroin in the back streets of Manhattan. The inner-voyage here is Trocchi’s wilful abandonment of his own status and vocation in the artistic-literary world. But rather than a case of biting the hand that was feeding him, Cain’s Book is an act of artistic self-destruction, with the narrator declaring himself as, ‘a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada…. The steel of logic has daily to be strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. It grows daily more hard to contain. I am a kind of bomb’.

Trocchi had originally titled Cain’s Book as The Making of a Monster. Trocchi’s ‘personal Dada’ was his projection of Guy Debord’s ideas on subversion as a ‘game’ of ‘constructed situations,’ played in deadly seriousness, and whose rules were constantly shifting. In the context of ‘the necessity of creating situations’, the junkie fix was, in Trocchi’s mind, ‘a purposive spoon in the broth of experience’. Trocchi’s heroin habit became a serious problem for him. Charged with supplying heroin to a minor in New York in 1961, he faced the near certain prospect of years of imprisonment. The Situationist International in Paris defended their wayward member, with a statement by Guy Debord, Jaqueline de Jong and Asger Jorn entitled Hands off Alexander Trocchi!:

‘Alexander Trocchi, whose case is due to be tried in October, is in effect accused of having experimented with drugs. Quite apart from any attitude on the use of drugs and its repression on the scale of society… a very great many doctors, psychologists and also artists have studied the effects of drugs without anyone thinking of imprisoning them… Indeed, we consider that the British intellectuals and artists should be the first to join with us in denouncing this menacing lack of culture on the part of the American police, and to demand the liberation and immediate repatriation of Alexander Trocchi… We ask everyone of good faith whom this appeal reaches, to sign it, and make it known as widely as possible.’[vii]

Trocchi however, was not relying on a political campaign for his freedom. As soon as he could get bail, he fled to Canada and then to Britain by boat, ‘cold-turkeying’ all the way. By this time Trocchi, in his own search for the ‘north-west passage’, had discovered a new beacon on the voyage: LSD. He had been introduced to it in California by Dr Oscar Janiger, a leading expert in the psychology of creativity, who had been tripping-out Hollywood film people, such as Cary Grant. Janiger had obtained the LSD from the British philosopher Gerald Heard, who had himself obtained it from Alfred Hubbard. Janiger explained ‘Gerald Heard… told me the emergence of LSD in the twentieth century was simply God’s way of giving us the gift of consciousness. He believed that LSD was a device for saving humanity from Armageddon’.[viii]

Coming after his bleak experiences in New York, Trocchi’s psychedelic experiences seemed to give him a new optimism and enthusiasm for re-engagement with the world of culture and politics — even though he never let up on his heroin intake. Trocchi arrived back in Britain at a time when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of One Hundred were making a big impact. By this time Trocchi’s novel, Cain’s Book, had made him notorious. At the 1962 Edinburgh Writer’s Conference in 1962 — where he coined the phrase ‘astronauts of inner space’ — he was denounced by the pillars of the Scottish literary establishment, including the Stalinist-nationalist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him ‘cosmopolitan scum’. The legal authorities in Britain likewise disapproved: some local councils banned and burned his books under the obscenity laws.

In London, Trocchi launched a new project named Sigma. This aimed to build ‘a new decentralised organisation of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, physicists, bio-chemists, philosophers, neurologists, engineers, and whatnots, of every race and nationality’. To co-oordinate a ‘catalogue of such a reservoir of talent, intelligence and power’ would be ‘of itself a spur to our imagination’. For London he planned to found a ‘living-gallery-workshop-auditorium-happening situation where conferences and encounters are to be undertaken… It will be our window on the metropolis, a sigma-centre… an experimental situation in which what is happening cannot be described in terms of conventional categories (which it transcends)…’[ix]

Trocchi argued that ‘Certain hallucinatory properties of drugs make them central and urgently relevant to any imaginable enquiry into the mystery of the human mind. Unfortunately, ignorance, hysteria and sensationalism have contributed to making this largely a police matter’. Trocchi believed that RD Laing’s ideas on the usefulness of LSD in treating schizophrenia were ‘entirely in line with those proposed by Sigma’. Trocchi planned to produce a book titled ‘Drugs of the Mind’ with Laing and Willam Burroughs but, like so many of Trocchi’s projects, it was never carried through. In 1965, Trocchi did however pull off an event which gave birth to the term, ‘Underground’. On June 5, 1965, several thousand people attended an international poetry reading he organised at the Albert Hall, called Wholly Communion.  Next, along with experimental artist, Jeff Nuttall, Trocchi initiated the Art Laboratory, which put on multi-media and performance art in an old warehouse in Drury Lane.[x] When the 1967 British ‘Summer of Love’ kicked off at the Technicolour Dream gig in Alexandra Palace with the Pink Floyd, it was Trocchi who warmed up the audience with his poetry.

The Situationists in Paris by this time considered Trocchi’s alliances to be politically dubious, so they expelled him. According to Trocchi:

‘Guy [Debord] wouldn’t even mention the people I was involved with – Timothy Leary, Ronnie Laing. I remember the last letter he sent me: “Your name sticks in the minds of good men.” He was like Lenin; an absolutist, constantly kicking people out…’[xi]

In London in 1967, Charles Radcliffe, a Situationist supporter who later formed a hash-smuggling syndicate with Howard Marks, co-authored a cultural/political manifesto with three English members of the Situationist International: Timothy Clark, Chris Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith. The manifesto highlighted the Dadaists and Surrealists of the inter-war period as their forerunners; as engaged in ‘a revolutionary avant-garde experimenting with a new life-style, drawing on new techniques, which were simultaneously self-expressive and socially disruptive. Art was a series of free experiments in the construction of a new libertarian order’. The Situationists however, went even further than their revolutionary predecessors:

‘Our wildest fantasies are the richest elements of our reality. They must be given real, not abstract powers. Dynamite, feudal castles, jungles, liquor, helicopters, laboratories… everything and more must pass into their service’.[xii]

When the Toronto Expo-67 festival exhibited cybernetic and televisual technology which pointed the way towards virtual reality computer games, the English Situationists commented:

‘Still more sinister is the combination of total kinetic environments and a stiff dose of acid. “We try to vaporise the mind,” says a psychedelic artist, “by bombing the senses” … To date Leary is the only person to have attempted to pull all this together. Having reduced everyone to a state of hyper-impressionable plasticity, he incorporated a backwoods myth of the modern-scientific-truth-underlying-all-world-religions, a cretin’s catechism broadcast persuasively at the same time as it was expressed by the integral manipulation of sense data… a crass manipulation of subjective experience accepted ecstatically as a mystical revelation’.

They did, however, take Leary seriously, carefully adding that, ‘Leary’s personal vulgarity should not blind anyone to the possibilities implicit in this’. ‘The urban guerrilla’ (using the term somewhat metaphorically) would ‘have to be inventive. We must learn to subvert existing cities, to grasp all the possible and the least expected uses of time and space they contain. Conditioning must be reversed’.

(C) All rights reserved. Please contact the editor of this for enquiries about fair use.

[i]  Ibid.

[ii]  Greil Marcus, Preface to Alexander Trocchi, Cains Book.

[iii] Guy Debord, “Theory of The Dérive,” International Situationist, No. 2 (1958), S.I. Anthology, p. 23,pp.50-4.

[iv] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, p.27.

[v] Debord, ibid.

[vi] G Marcus, Lipstick Traces, p.388.

[vii] Guy Debord, Jacqueline de Jong and Asger Jorn – ‘Hands Off Alexander Trocchi!’, Situationist International, October 1960.

[viii] Leary, Flashbacks, p.132.

[ix] Sigma Portfolio No. 5, 1964. Reprinted in A Life in Pieces – Reflections on Alexander Trocchi. Eds A Campbell and T Niel. Rebel Inc. 1999.

[x] Jonathan Green, All Dressed Up – The Sixties and the Counter-culture, ps.128-47.

[xi] Marcus, Lipstick Traces, p.387; Situationist Anthology, p.204-212.

[xii] Chris Gray, TJ Clarke, Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution.

Situationist Theses on the Paris Commune


14 March 2021

A couple of years ago, as railway workers demonstrated in Paris against proposed government labour reforms, a slogan on a banner read, “We don’t care about May ’68. We want 1871.” The memory of the Paris Commune of 1871 and its bloody barricades has a darker, edgier status than other Parisian uprisings. “Unlike 1789, the Commune was never truly integrated into the national story,” French historian Mathilde Larrère recently explained to the Guardian. The Commune was loathed by the liberal bourgeoisie as well as by the conservatives and monarchists of the right, whose world began to come apart in July 1870 with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s declaration of war on Prussia. Two months later he was taken prisoner by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan. After a bloodless popular uprising in Paris, a provisional Government of National Defence was formed. Headed by the constitutional monarchist, Adolphe Thiers, it was essentially a ‘republic without republicans’.

The new government formed a 200,000-strong National Guard as a defence of the city against the German siege. The siege dragged on through the freezing winter of 1870-71. As food supplies ran out, poorer Parisians were reduced to eating rats and the city’s zoo animals. While the French army suffered defeat after defeat in the countryside, German artillery bombarded Paris.

In January 1871, the new government capitulated and sued for peace. Under the terms of an armistice, Thiers agreed to cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire, promised to pay a 5 billion francs war indemnity and granted the German army a victory parade on the streets of Paris on 17 February. As this latter spectacle induced a silent rage amongst the Parisians, some 200,000 of the city’s better-off residents began an exodus to the countryside in fear of what was to come next.

As the rank and file of the National Guard became increasing radicalised, the provisional government ordered that its cannons be seized and transferred to Versailles. On the morning of 18 March 1871, Versaillais troops arrived at the Butte de Montmartre, a strategic hill overlooking the city, to remove the cannons. The alarm was raised by the Parisian milkmaids, and National Guardsmen rushed to the scene to protect the cannons. As hostile crowds agitated by the Blanquist Left mobilised, mutinous troops refused to fire on them. The generals Lecomte and Clement-Thomas were captured and summarily executed by their own men. The Paris Commune was proclaimed the same day. On 26 March, representatives of the Commune were elected by the citizens of Paris. Thiers’ government decamped from Paris to the relative safety of the palace of Versailles, 17 kilometres from the city.

In the nine weeks of the Commune’s existence, the standing army was abolished along with conscription; control of the schools by the Catholic clergy was replaced by a new system of free compulsory, secular education for all children, including girls; and far-reaching reforms enacted what workers had long demanded, such as the establishment of workers’ cooperatives and restriction of hours.

In what was now a civil war, rural France was now ‘enemy-held territory’. Military efforts to break out of Paris foundered as Thiers, with help from German Chancellor Bismarck, shored up the Versaillais army.

On 21 May 1871, General MacMahon’s Versaillais army entered the city and what became known as the Bloody Week began. During the fighting, the Communards killed or wounded thousands of the invading Versaillais soldiers and torched a number of buildings including the Tuileries Palace and the Hotel de Ville. The pétroleuses (female incendiaries) were blamed for many of burnings by the bourgeois press, but the instances were exaggerated to detract from the achievements of feminists and working-class women communards. In conquering the city the Versaillais army massacred at least 10,000 Communards, including those taken prisoner. 40,000 people were arrested.

A century and a half after the Commune, says Mathilde Larrère, in post-industrial France a new, poorly paid precariat is voicing similar demands for better democracy and a more social republic. Popular movements outside the political mainstream such as the gilets jaunes have begun to invoke the memory of 1871.: “The people are sovereign”, “Elected officials, you are accountable” – were communard in spirit.

For Marxisant orthodoxy in the 20th century the Paris Commune, lacking centralised unity and strategy, was history’s ‘rehearsal’ for the Russian Revolution. But if the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ has any meaning for today then the legacy of the Communards rises in many respects above that of ‘Bolshevik Leninism’. The Situationists’ Theses on the Paris Commune, written in 1962, whilst recognising the Commune’s obvious lack of a ‘coherent organizational structure’ pointed out that the problem of political structures had turned out to be ‘far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be’. Rather than labelling the Commune just as ‘an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism’, revolutionaries should examine it ‘as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled’. They still should.

(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)


Theses on the Paris Commune

Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi & Raoul Vaneigem

18 March 1962

(Translated by Ken Knabb)

“THE CLASSICAL workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, for all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future.” (Internationale Situationniste #7


THE COMMUNE was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of “governmental” politics as on the level of their everyday life. (Consider, for example, the games everyone played with their weapons: they were in fact playing with power.) It is also in this sense that Marx should be understood when he says that “the most important social measure of the Commune was its own existence in acts.”


ENGELS’ REMARK, “Look at the Paris Commune — that was the dictatorship of the proletariat,” should be taken seriously in order to reveal what the dictatorship of the proletariat is not (the various forms of state dictatorship over the proletariat in the name of the proletariat).


IT HAS BEEN easy to make justified criticisms of the Commune’s obvious lack of a coherent organizational structure. But as the problem of political structures seems far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be, it is time we examine the Commune not just as an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism, all of whose mistakes can easily be overcome, but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled.


THE COMMUNE had no leaders. And this at a time when the idea of the necessity of leaders was universally accepted in the workers movement. This is the first reason for its paradoxical successes and failures. The official organizers of the Commune were incompetent (compared with Marx or Lenin, or even Blanqui). But on the other hand, the various “irresponsible” acts of that moment are precisely what is needed for the continuation of the revolutionary movement of our own time (even if the circumstances restricted almost all those acts to the purely destructive level — the most famous example being the rebel who, when a suspect bourgeois insisted that he had never had anything to do with politics, replied, “That’s precisely why I’m going to kill you”).


THE VITAL importance of the general arming of the people was manifested practically and symbolically from the beginning to the end of the movement. By and large the right to impose popular will by force was not surrendered and left to any specialized detachments. This exemplary autonomy of the armed groups had its unfortunate flip side in their lack of coordination: at no point in the offensive or defensive struggle against Versailles did the people’s forces attain military effectiveness. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Spanish revolution was lost — as, in the final analysis, was the civil war itself — in the name of such a transformation into a “republican army.” The contradiction between autonomy and coordination would seem to have been largely related to the technological level of the period.


THE COMMUNE represents the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to date — attacking on the spot the petrified signs of the dominant organization of life, understanding social space in political terms, refusing to accept the innocence of any monument. Anyone who disparages this attack as some “lumpenproletarian nihilism,” some “irresponsibility of the pétroleuses,” should specify what he believes to be of positive value in the present society and worth preserving (it will turn out to be almost everything). “All space is already occupied by the enemy. . . . Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics.” (Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism, Internationale Situationniste #6.)


THE PARIS COMMUNE succumbed less to the force of arms than to the force of habit. The most scandalous practical example was the refusal to use the cannons to seize the French National Bank when money was so desperately needed. During the entire existence of the Commune the bank remained a Versaillese enclave in Paris, defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property and theft. The other ideological habits proved in every respect equally disastrous (the resurrection of Jacobinism, the defeatist strategy of the barricades in memory of 1848, etc.).


THE COMMUNE shows how those who defend the old world always benefit in one way or another from the complicity of revolutionaries — particularly of those revolutionaries who merely think about revolution, and who turn out to still think like the defenders. In this way the old world retains bases (ideology, language, customs, tastes) among its enemies, and uses them to reconquer the terrain it has lost. (Only the thought-in-acts natural to the revolutionary proletariat escapes it irrevocably: the Tax Bureau went up in flames.) The real “fifth column” is in the very minds of revolutionaries.


THE STORY OF the arsonists who during the final days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find themselves confronted by an armed battalion of Commune artists, is richly provocative example of direct democracy. It gives an idea of the kind of problems that will need to be resolved in the perspective of the power of the councils. Were those artists right to defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values — and in the final analysis, in the name of museum culture — while other people wanted to express themselves then and there by making this destruction symbolize their absolute defiance of a society that, in its moment of triumph, was about to consign their entire lives to silence and oblivion? The artist partisans of the Commune, acting as specialists, already found themselves in conflict with an extremist form of struggle against alienation. The Communards must be criticized for not having dared to answer the totalitarian terror of power with the use of the totality of their weapons. Everything indicates that the poets who at that moment actually expressed the Commune’s inherent poetry were simply wiped out. The Commune’s mass of unaccomplished acts enabled its tentative actions to be turned into “atrocities” and their memory to be censored. Saint-Just’s remark, “Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves,” also explains his own silence.


THEORETICIANS who examine the history of this movement from a divinely omniscient viewpoint (like that found in classical novels) can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the consummation was already there.


THE AUDACITY and inventiveness of the Commune must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the solidarity of all the common assumptions that it blasted to pieces. The profound solidarity of presently prevailing assumptions (right and left) gives us an idea of the inventiveness we can expect of a comparable explosion today.


THE SOCIAL war of which the Commune was one episode is still being fought today (though its superficial conditions have changed considerably). In the task of “making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune” (Engels), the last word has yet to be said.


FOR ALMOST twenty years in France the Stalinists and the leftist Christians have agreed, in memory of their anti-German national front, to stress the element of national disarray and offended patriotism in the Commune. (According to the current Stalinist line, “the French people petitioned to be better governed” and were finally driven to desperate measures by the treachery of the unpatriotic right wing of the bourgeoisie.) In order to refute this pious nonsense it would suffice to consider the role played by all the foreigners who came to fight for the Commune. As Marx said, the Commune was the inevitable battle, the climax of 23 years of struggle in Europe by “our party.”


A ‘Heady Brew’: the Psychedelic Implications of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Cult of Death and the Maiden: Secret Rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries by Sculptor Eleanor Crook (Zoom)

Sculptor and “lapsed classicist” Eleanor Crook, explains  in this lecture for Morbid Anatomy (  the Persephone myth and what is known about the Mystery Cults of Greek Antiquity.

It seems for one thing that the Greek ritual drink, the Kykeion, was a ‘heady brew’. Clearly there are issues here for psychedelia researchers.




Socialism and Christianity: Friedrich Nietzsche v. Helen Macfarlane

How Socialist is Christianity? How Christian is Socialism? In his book, The Anti-Christ, published in 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

“Whom do I hate most heartily among the rabbles of today? The rabble of Socialists, the apostles to the Chandala, who undermine the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence—who make him envious and teach him revenge…. Wrong never lies in unequal rights; it lies in the assertion of “equal” rights…. What is bad? But I have already answered: all that proceeds from weakness, from envy, from revenge. — The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry.”

This “ancestry” is recognised by modern anti-socialists such as the atheist/nihilist followers of the late Ayn Rand. However, the 21st century evangelists who worship “pagans” such as Donald J Trump seem blind to it, out of fear if not ignorance.

On the Left, “materialists” have always relied on “science” to dispel religious superstitions and religion. There are however,  interesting exceptions.

The following text is an extract from a three-part essay published in 1850 in the Democrat Review, monthly journal of the the left wing of the British Chartist movement. The author was Helen Macfarlane, Chartist, Feminist and Communist (1818-1860). In 1850 she translated Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Marx, who was not easily impressed by anyone, described Helen Macfarlane  as a “rara avis,” possessed of “original ideas.”

From the Democratic Review, June 1850

Apropos of Certain Passages in No.1 of Thomas Carlyle’s Latter‑day Pamphlets by Helen Macfarlane

What a noble idea is this theoretical and practical freedom of man, his infinite possibilities—which lies at the bottom of the Christian myths and sagas, and has now assumed the form of Democracy! A noble idea, but—good heavens! What a miserable, contemptible reality.

All sects hedge me in with limitations. I cannot move a step in any direction without running against some creed, or catechism, or formula, which rises up like a wall between the unhappy sectarians and the rest of the universe; beyond which it is forbidden to look on pain of damnation, or worse. No sect has ever yet raised its voice against the iniquitous inequality obtaining between the different ranks of society, whereby the accident of birth alone determines whether a human being shall have the culture necessary to develop his moral and intellectual powers — the culture without which he cannot obtain dominion over his animal wants and appetites, but must remain — like a beast — under the sway of instinct. No sect, whether established or dissenting, has ever protested against the social arrangements, in virtue of which the existence of such human brutes as that poor boy lately discovered in the diocese of the Bishop of London, is permitted — I almost said — no — but encouraged, and indeed made inevitable.

Yet such a state of society is as much opposed to the Christian idea of universal fraternity as the Hindoo institution of caste. With us the poor are the Chandalas, the unclean outcasts of society, which ignores their very existence, unless it be to punish them for crimes, the commission of which society ought to have prevented by providing all its members — first, with the means of comfortable subsistence; and secondly, with the means of moral and intellectual cultivation. Hypocritical teachers of Paganism in the guise of Christianity!

Have done with this preaching and prating about things which you scarcely even profess, and undoubtedly do not practice. You talk of the “visible church of Christ”, but you do all in your power to make it an extremely invisible church. Some of you talk much about certain persons whom you call the “Fathers of the Church”, but if these venerable fathers could become cognisant of your proceedings, they certainly would refuse to acknowledge you for sons. For it impossible to find any two things more opposed than the doctrines concerning justice and brotherly love taught by the ‘Fathers’, and the system pursued by you. If these worthy men were to rise from the dead, they would be found in our ranks; they would be Democrats, Demagogues, Socialists, Communists, Jacobins, Enemies of Order, of society, and of you.

St. Ambrose says, in express terms, that “property is usurpation”. St. Gregory the Great regards landed proprietors as so many assassins:

Let them know that the earth, from which they were created, is the common property of all men; and that, therefore, the fruits of the earth belong indiscriminately to All. Those who make private property of the gift of God, pretend in vain to be innocent! For, in thus retaining the subsistence of the poor, they are the Murderers of those who die every day for want of it.

What an incendiary vagabond is this ‘Venerable Father!’ St. John, called from his eloquence, Chrysostomus, or Goldenmouth, says,

Behold the idea we ought to have concerning rich and avaricious men. They are robbers who beset highways, strip travellers, and then hoard up the property of others, in the houses which are their dens.

St. Augustine says on the subject of inheritance,

Beware of making parental affection a pretext for the augmentation of your possessions — I keep my wealth for my children — vain excuse! Your father kept it for you, you keep it for your children, and they will keep it for theirs, and so on. But in this way no one would observe the law of God!

St. Basil the great, in his Treatise di Avarit. 21, p. 328, Paris ed. 1638, asks,

Who is the robber? It is he who appropriates to himself the things which belong to All. Art thou not a robber, thou who takest for thyself the goods thou has received from God for the purpose of distributing them to others? If he who steals a garment be called a robber, ought not the possessor of garments, who refrains from clothing the naked, to be called by the same name? The bread thou hast stored belongs to him who is hungry; the garment thou keepest in reserve belongs to him who is naked; the sandals thou hast lying by belong to him who goes barefoot; and the money thou hast hoarded — as if buried in the earth — belongs to him who has none.

Louis Blanc is a very tame and moderate person, I think, compared with the Communists I have just quoted. [ Louis Blanc (1811–1882) was a leading socialist member of the French provisional government established in February 1848. Following the counter-revolution of the June Days he was driven into exile and lived in London.]

How comes it that you, soi-disant preachers of the gospel of Christ, never take these or similar extracts from the “Fathers of the Christian church”, as texts for your homilies? I have frequently heard you quote from St. Augustine on predestination and grace, but you preserve a mysterious silence regarding St. Augustine on property. It is because you neither teach the Christian idea, nor do you live in it; because you are a set of pitiable imposters. You do not even make a profession of those precepts of Fraternity taught by the Nazarean, and said by him to contain the true spirit of his religion. You wisely keep silence on such points, else—out of your own lying mouths—would you be convicted. You leave an immense and ever-increasing mass of destitution and ignorance, and crime, lying untouched at your own doors; you enter no protest against the system of civilisation—rotten to its very core—which has produced, and which fosters, this hideous state of things; but you fly to the uttermost parts of the earth—to China or Timbuctoo—in search of objects for the exercise of your boundless and overflowing

Christian charity; and some among you have been found impudent enough to raise objections when others have proposed doing somewhat to enlighten the ignorance of which I speak. Pah! one’s very soul is sickened by such atrocious humbug. Is the democratic idea expressed with greater fidelity in any other phases of the civilisation now extant? In class legislation? In the exorbitant price of Law, whereby what is called Justice is placed beyond the reach of any save the Rich? In the Knowledge Tax? [The ‘Knowledge Tax’ was the Newspaper Stamp Duty, which was finally abolished in 1855.] In the scanty measure of sectarian education dealt out to us by priests? In our system of indirect taxation, whereby the public burdens fall heaviest on the class which is least able to support them? In the law of primogeniture, whereby one member of a family is ‘made a gentleman’, and the rest left beggars, to be kept by the producers — as state priests, bureaucrats, soldiers, pensioners — whose name is legion? In a caste of hereditary legislators? In the position of women, who are regarded by the law not as persons but as things, and placed in the same category as children and the insane? Society, as at present constituted, is directly opposed to the democratic idea; and must, therefore, be remodelled. To ask, my proletarian brothers, is one thing, but to get is another thing — a hopeless thing, I should say, from a government which does nothing unless compelled by the pressure from without, and which — instead of being its proper place — at the head of advancing society, disgracefully lags in the rear.

From Helen MacFarlane: Red Republican: Essays, Articles and Her Translation of the Communist Manifesto

100 Years of Timothy Leary: Reality Tunnels and Armed Love, 1970-71

To commemorate the hundreth anniversary  of Timothy Leary’s birth we present an extract from David Black’s Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD: sections 3 to 5 of Chapter 10 – ‘Timothy Leary’s Reality Tunnels: One Escape After Another‘.

Timothy Leary’s Armed Love

In January 1970 an Orange County judge handed Tim Leary a ludicrous sentence totalling 20 years for two minor marijuana offences. As Leary’s friends organised a defence campaign, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love paid the Weather Underground $25,000 to free him; a task made much easier by his transfer from Fulsom Prison to the minimum security establishment at San Luis Obispo. In September 1970, Leary, according to his own account, took his life in his hands and climbed along forty yards of telephone cable which ran twenty feet-high from the prison roof to a telegraph pole on the outside. Leary was picked up on a nearby highway by Clayton Van Lydegraf, a former First Lieutenant pilot in World War Two and a veteran Stalinist. Van Lydegraf, who never had any time for the hippie counterculture or LSD, told Leary, ‘I was against this whole thing from the start. If it were up to me you’d still be rotting in jail’.[i] Presumably, Van Lydegraf was given the job of getaway driver, precisely because he didn’t look or talk like a hippie. After few changes of cars and drivers Leary was taken to meet up with the group’s leaders, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd. The success of this first part of the mission was celebrated with an LSD tripping session.

The second part of the operation was to spirit Leary and his wife, Rosemary out of the US and send them to Algiers and hook up with Eldridge Cleaver, an exiled leader of the Black Panther Party. The FLN government in Algiers was at the time hospitable to an array of revolutionary exiles from across the world. Leary had always been anti-racist, but had never, until now, identified with revolutionary politics, especially that which embraced armed-struggle. What had changed him in San Luis Obispo prison? One factor was the influence of his wife, Rosemary, who much more than Tim, was a ‘natural’ radical and well connected with the more ‘extreme’ elements of American leftism. When planning to spring Tim from his prison she got him to approve the use of firearms by the rescue team that was being assembled. Another factor was the constant supply of LSD smuggled into prison by Rosemary. According to biographer John Higgs,

‘By using LSD in prison he imprinted a new reality, and replaced his old beliefs with an outlook that made him better adapted to survive in his new environment… Tim had spent years talking about reprogramming the mind in just this way, yet when he did what he had described, his audience was bewildered… Tim had simply, to use his own jargon, rebuilt his “reality tunnel”’.[ii]

Leary, facing decades behind bars, had come to believe that Rosemary and the revolutionaries were his only hope for freedom. Therefore his natural pacifism was put into suspension for the duration. Like any actor playing the good guy, Leary’s had a mission to fulfil in the cosmic drama: to promote solidarity and co-operation between the hippie counterculture and the Black Revolution.

When Leary appeared to buy the Weather Underground’s skyed-out politics, issuing a statement from hiding that, ‘To shoot a genocidal robot policeman in defence of life is a sacred act,’ he alienated many of his old friends. Ken Kesey, the old Electric-Koolaid-Acid-Tester, published an open letter in response which pleaded more in sorrow than in anger: ‘Oh my good doctor, we don’t need one more nut with a gun’.[iii]
Leary however, was playing revolution politics as a game. This is clear from an interview he did with Paul Krasner twenty years later:

Krasner: ..when you escaped from prison, you said, “Arm yourselves and shoot to live. To shoot a genocidal robot policeman in defence of life is a sacred act”
Leary: Yeah! I also said “I’m armed and dangerous.” I got that directly from Angela Davis. I thought it was funny to say that.
Krasner: I thought it was the party line from the Weather Underround.
Leary: Well, yeah. I had a lot of arguments with Bernadine Dohrn,
Krasner: They had their own rhetoric. She even praised Charles Manson.
Leary: The Weather Underground were amusing, They were brilliant, Jewish, Chicago kids. They had class and dash and flash and smash. Bernadine was praising Manson for sticking a fork in a victim’s stomach. She was just being naughty’. [iv]

With fake passports, Leary and his wife, Rosemary, slipped out of America in disguise and flew to Algeria to meet Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver had joined the Black Panther Party after serving an eight year sentence in San Quentin prison for rape and attempted murder. Released in 1966, Cleaver became a journalist for Ramparts and served as Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party. In 1968 he led an ambush of Oakland police officers in which two officers were wounded and 17-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton was shot to death by police after surrendering. Cleaver fled to Cuba, where he was at first welcomed by the communist authorities. However, when he was joined by Clinton Smith and Byron Booth, who had hijacked a plane from California to Cuba, the hospitality cooled. Fidel Castro, not wanting his island to become a haven for plane-hijackers with dubious (possibly CIA) connections, packed the three of them off to Algeria. As other Black Panther exiles began to congregate in Algiers, Cleaver asked the FLN government of Algeria to provide the US Black Panthers with an ’embassy’. This request was granted shortly before the Learys’ arrival there.

Cleaver  was impressed by Nixon’s naming of Leary as ‘the most dangerous man in America’. Leary describes his first meeting with Cleaver at a villa in Algiers, which had been provided by the FLN government:

‘Eldridge greeted us warmly at the gate, recognising that our presence meant more cards in his hand. As Rosemary and I sat uneasily in the haute bourgeois French-provincial living room, Cleaver laid out his plan. He would obtain political asylum for us from the Algerians. Then we’d set up an American government in exile. The Algerians had already recognized the Panthers as the American Liberation Front and ultimately we could swing the entire Third World behind our cause. I suggested that we could represent the non-political counter-culture forces of America. We’d invite dissident groups, draft resisters, anti-war activists, hippies, Weathermen, rock stars, beatniks, bohemians, poets. I agreed that we should form a highly visible, alternative government to the Nixon regime. There was no question that, if we could get a base operating, many counter-culture people would come by to visit. The most effective tactic would be to operate a media centre. If the Algerians will let us set up broadcast facilities, we can start a Radio Free America that would beam over to Europe and the armed forces bases. We could win the respect of the youth and the liberals and the anti-war people in Europe… [for] a popular front of the large majority of Americans who want a peaceful friendly prosperous world’. [v]
Leary’s sentiments were received politely but with sceptical bemusement. Cleaver saw no future for any kind popular front, least of all one composed of the people Leary had in mind. When Leary began receiving visitors – old friends, revolutionary tourists, psychedelic pilgrims and journalists – Cleaver complained that the journalists tended to relegate the Panthers’ revolutionary politics to the colourful backdrop of the story of Leary’s prison escape.[vi] Anita Hoffman of the Yippies recalled,

‘…I revolted against Cleaver’s dictatorial rule, but was surprised to find I had no allies among the obedient lefties I was travelling with. So I escaped by climbing out of window and talking my way out at customs at the airport. Since the Panthers were guests of the Algerians, the Algerians wanted the Panthers’ approval to let me leave. But at that point they didn’t know I was gone’.[vii]

Cleaver assured the Algerian government that he could control Leary’s drug use and bouts of ‘nonsensical political eloquence’. First, Cleaver got Leary to participate in a film shooting session for the Panthers aimed at a US audience. Cleaver wanted Leary to publicly renounce drugs as a distraction from building armed resistance to US imperialism. Leary was diplomatic rather than apologetic:

‘If taking any drug postpones for ten minutes the revolution, the liberation of our sisters and brothers, our comrades, then taking drugs must be postponed for ten minutes … However, if one hundred FBI agents agreed to take LSD, thirty would certainly drop out’.[viii]
Leary was still committed to fulfilling his promises to the Weather Underground. Now that the escape from prison and flight into exile had been accomplished, it was time for the third part of the mission: to organise a tripping session with Eldridge Cleaver, in the hope that he would became less insular and sectarian; and embrace unity between Black Revolutionaries and hippie radicals such the Weather Underground. Cleaver had actually tripped on LSD with Yippie leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in Berkeley back in 1968. They had failed to change Cleaver’s thinking, but Leary thought it was still worth trying to do so. As he had a good supply of LSD smuggled to him in Algiers, he suggested to Cleaver that they trip together, and Cleaver agreed. The session however, simply aggravated Cleaver’s paranoia, and plunged him into a mood of pessimism.

Cleaver, wishing to assure the Algerian government that he was hosting a real anti-imperialist revolutionary, rather than a white American drugs fiend, sent Leary on a Panther-led delegation to the PLO training camps in the Levant. The delegation consisted of Leary, Donald Cox of the Black Panther party, Panther fundraiser Martin Kenner, and Bernadine Dohrn’s sister, Jennifer , who represented a sort of ‘political wing’ of the Weather Underground. The idea was to have Leary appear before the world media at a PLO camp in Jordan alongside Fatah guerrillas, Black Panthers and white American sympathisers. However, when they arrived in Beirut via Cairo they found themselves besieged at their hotel and followed everywhere by the Western press, who had been tipped off about their arrival. The plan to visit Fatah training camps in Jordan and Syria had to be abandoned when the Lebanese government, under US diplomatic pressure, sent a police squad to escort them to the airport.

Leary and party returned to Cairo. In Cairo, according to Cleaver’s then collaborator Elaine Mokhtefi, Leary became ‘paranoid and hysterical… uncontrollable… scaling walls, hiding behind buildings, raising his arms and screaming in the streets’. The Algerian ambassador to Egypt put them on a plane back to Algiers. On their return Leary and Rosemary began partying with LSD at the desert oasis of Bou-Saada, much to Cleaver’s disapproval. Having recently returned from a conference in North Korea, Cleaver had become a devotee of Kim Il Sung. He now believed that the Panther strategy of uniting with white radicals of the psychedelic counterculture had been mistaken.[ix] And it was not just white hippies that Cleaver wanted to disassociate his movement from. In Leary’s words, ‘Eldridge invented himself a security crisis. Like Nixon, like Brezhnev’:

‘Everything the Panthers did was in the name of security. We were constantly lectured on the precariousness of our situation; American police were after us. All Algerians were racists. The town was crawling with enemies. Our foes were multiplying. The other national liberation fronts turned out to racist too and riddled with double agents. Even our American allies became deadly rivals one-by-one: Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Stokeley Carmichael – all running-dog lackeys of imperialism’.[x]
The CIA’s top-secret Algeria operation had been set up after Cleaver’s arrival in Algiers in 1969. The CIA, as later revealed by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times had recruited Black Americans to spy on members of the Black Panther Party both in the United States and in Africa, especially Algeria. One agent gained access to the personal living quarters of Cleaver in Algeria in the late 1960’s. Another later boasted to his colleagues that he had managed to penetrate Cleaver’s Algerian headquarters ‘and sat at the table’ with him. The CIA’s aim, in the case of the Black Panthers living abroad, was to ‘neutralize’ them; ‘to try and get them in trouble with local authorities wherever they could’.[xi]

According to Leary, the problem with Cleaver was that he was ‘totally American. He doesn’t want to change the system, he just wants to run it’.[xii] On one occasion Cleaver pulled a gun on Leary and threatened to denounce him to the Algerian authorities for his activities with LSD if a sum of $10,000 was not forthcoming. On 9 January 1971, Cleaver ‘imprisoned’ the Learys, placing them under armed guard. A CIA document dated 12 February 1971 noted:

‘Panther activities have recently taken some interesting turns. Eldridge Cleaver and his Algiers contingent have apparently become disenchanted with the antics of Tim Leary… Electing to call their actions protective custody, Cleaver and company, on their own authority, have put Tim and Rosemary under house arrest due most probably to Leary’s continued use of hallucinogenic drugs’.[xiii]
Tim and Rosemary were fearful about ever getting out of Cleaver’s personal prison. They had good reason to be. Unknown to Leary, months earlier Cleaver had shot dead his fellow exile, Clinton Smith, after accusing him of amorous intentions towards his wife, Kathleen Cleaver. Byron Booth, who witnessed the murder, helped Cleaver bury Smith’s body in the mountains and fled Algeria the next day.[xiv]

Cleaver’s imprisonment of the Learys came just as a serious split was developing between Cleaver’s faction and the California-base leadership. Panther leaders Huey Newton and David Hilliard wanted the party to focus on community service and avoid any armed actions beyond self-defense; others, such as Cleaver, wanted to continue and extend offensive armed struggle. Some activists had given up on the Black Panther Party and joined the Black Liberation Army. The Panther split became public in mid-February 1971. In the weeks and months that followed, four members of the party in both factions were killed in tit-for-tat shootings.

As reports reached the Panthers in the US about the disappearances of Clinton Smith and Byron Booth, suspicions of murder began to spread, and Cleaver began to fear being overthrown by a coup at his own headquarters. The Learys took advantage of Cleaver’s distraction and escaped his clutches. Leary made contact with officials of the Algerian government, who told him that they themselves were unhappy about Cleaver’s activities in their country and assured the Learys that they could stay for as long as they wished. Now under the protection of the Algerian government, Leary was visited by the English writer and dope-dealer, Brian Barritt, whose rebel status was very different from Cleaver’s. Barritt, who had been introduced to LSD by Alex Trocchi in London in the mid-1960s, was an enthusiastic student of ‘English Magick’ in the ‘tradition’ of John Dee and Alistair Crowley. He was to become Leary’s co-author on the forthcoming book, Confessions of a Hope Fiend, in Switzerland, the next stop on the Leary’s journey. Leary’s archivist, Michael Horowitz, summarises Confession of a Hope Fiend as the story of his prison escape flight to exile and ‘revolutionary bust’ by the Black Panther Party leader ‘after he either won or lost the debate on the role of psychedelic drugs in the revolution’:

‘In Algeria, the role of Hassan-i-Sabbah – the founder of the hashishin and the first recorded person to brainwash with euphoric drugs – was not necessarily up for grabs. The Aleister Crowley persona emerged during an acid trip in the Sahara. But survival dictated another space time co-ordinate’[xv].

Hotel Abyss

In April 1971, Leary accepted an invitation to give a talk at Aarhus university in Copenhagen. The Learys flew first to Geneva and sought advice from his friend, Pierre Benoussan. He advised them to stay in Switzerland because he thought that if they went to Denmark, they were certain to be arrested and deported to the US. Benoussan gave them the address of Michel Hauchard, arms dealer for the Palestinians, convicted fraudster and jailbird.[xvi] Hauchard, as gentleman rogue, felt obliged to help Leary as a persecuted philosopher. He provided the Learys with a chalet at a Lake Geneva ski resort. Thanks to Hauchard’s generosity, Rosemary Leary was now able to seek the fertility treatment she needed to become pregnant. Hauchard’s largesse had a price. Leary had to promise he would not leave Switzerland and had to sign away in advance half the royalties on the book, Confessions of a Hope Fiend.[xvii] But for the moment Leary had landed in the lap of luxury, and revolutionary politics was now irrelevant to him. As Higgs puts it,

‘Indeed, just three months after pledging “eternal solidarity” to the Brazilian Marxists who had escaped from jail and fled to Algiers, he found himself drinking with the Brazilian aristocrats who had jailed them in the first place. “Torture,” one of them told him, “was nothing more than an advanced form of acrobatics.” By now Tim was quite used to imprinting an entirely new worldview whenever he found himself in a different environment, but rarely was the process as effortless as this’.[xviii]

Hauchard provided the Learys with a lawyer to obtain temporary Swiss residence for them. When, in June 1971, Tim was arrested by the Swiss police to face an extradition request from the US government, the lawyer got him out of prison on health grounds. In December, Leary’s appeal against extradition was upheld by the court, on condition that he would keep out of subversive politics and stay away from illegal drugs; the first was easy, the second was out of the question for Leary, although he believed he could take his daily doses of acid discreetly.  The downside was that the court ruled he would have to leave Switzerland before the end of the following year, 1972.

In September 1971, Leary got to meet Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD. Hoffman told Leary that it was regrettable that investigations into LSD and psilocybin had ‘degenerated’ so much that continuance of psychedelic research in the academic milieu had become impossible:

‘In this conversation I further objected to the great publicity that Leary sought for his LSD and psilocybin investigations, since he had invited reporters from daily newspapers and magazines to his experiments and had mobilized radio and television. Emphasis was placed on publicity rather than objective information. Leary defended his publicity program because he felt it had been his fateful historic role to make LSD known worldwide. The overwhelming positive effects of such dissemination, above all among America’s younger generation, would make any trifling injuries or regrettable accidents as a result of improper use of LSD unimportant in comparison, a small price to pay’.[xix]
David Solomon travelled from England to Switzerland to see Leary and secure a role as an agent negotiating with publishers.[xx]  Another arrival in the Learys’ Swiss household was Dennis Martino, Leary’s hash-smuggling son-in-law from a previous marriage. He was wanted in the US for jumping parole, but in December 1972 made a trip to the US. This should have raised Leary’s suspicions, but didn’t. Leary and Brian Barritt ventured into music production with German krautrockers. Barritt got Leary into heroin, until after few weeks Leary wisely decided to quit. During this period Leary was constantly on LSD, though could function rationally in his day-to-day interactions. Leary had now decided that ‘whereas the space games are survival, power and control, the corresponding time games are sex, dope and magic’.[xxi]
By this time Rosemary Woodruff Leary had had enough of Tim’s new life and entourage. Rosemary took up with John Schewel, an associate of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and spent the next twenty years hiding out in various parts of the world.

Leary hooked up with an aristocratic Englishwoman, Joanna Harcourt Smith, who was introduced to him by Hauchard. Meanwhile the US authorities were renewing pressure on the Swiss by drumming up more charges against Leary, accusing him of being ‘the godfather of the largest drug-smuggling ring in the world’ – the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence).[xxii] At the end of 1972 Leary and Joanna moved to Vienna. Joanna wanted to take Leary to Ceylon, where she had rich relatives to put them up. Then, fatefully, Dennis Martino arrived in Vienna. He suggested that rather than head straight for Ceylon, the three of them should go firstly to Afghanistan, where, he assured them, he had Brotherhood of Eternal Love contacts who would help them. Leary, accompanied by Joanna Harcourt-Smith and Dennis Martino arrived in Afghanistan in January 1973. In Kabul, former CIA agent Terrence Burke was now working in Kabul for the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and was monitoring the brothers Aman and Nasrullah Tokhi, who were supplying the Brotherhood of Eternal Love with large shipments of hash. The Afghan authorities provided Burke with copies of American travellers’ embarkation and disembarkation cards, so he was thus warned of the impending arrival of the Learys and Martino. Burke arranged for US Embassy staff disguised as Afghan immigration officers to be on hand to confiscate Leary’s fake passport. Burke then persuaded the Afghan authorities to deport Leary. Dennis Martino, also a fugitive, struck a deal with Burke in Kabul to become an informer. Or was he one already? What is certain is that Martino, spirited back to California after Leary’s deportation from Afghanistan, arranged for at least two dozen of his dope-dealing associates of the Brotherhood to be arrested.[xxiii]

Eldridge Cleaver left Algeria for France in 1972 and went into hiding. He returned to the USA in 1977 a born-again Christian. After some plea-bargaining and public repentance for his political past he got away with a sentence of 1,200 hours community service for the outstanding assault charge.[xxiv] His Black Panther rival, Huey Newton, came out of prison in 1970. He failed to revive the party and fell into gangsterism and cocaine addiction.

Leary ‘Co-operates’

At his trial in March 1973 for the 1970 prison escape, Leary was sentenced to five years imprisonment in addition to the twenty he had been serving. For management of his affairs outside of prison Leary still relied on Joanna Harcourt-Smith. In November, 1973, Leary was transferred from Folsom to Vacaville Prison. There he learned that Martino had become a government snitch and that Joanna was sleeping with him. When Allen Ginsberg met Joanna Harcourt-Smith during a prison visit, he told her he suspected she might be a ‘double agent’. In response, Joanna turned to Leary and said ‘Oh, he just hates women’. Leary simply threw up his hands in exasperation. But for Leary himself, in this latest reality tunnel informing was taking on a new meaning: Leary, in return for early release, was prepared to talk to the FBI.

On the evidence of Leary’s autobiography, the ‘Leary Turns Fink’ story, which gained wide circulation in the late seventies, was, in part at least, the product of an FBI counter-offensive aimed at blunting the revelations about the Bureau’s own illegal actions against dissidents. When a transcript of Leary’s testimony was leaked to journalist, Jack Anderson, Leary complained that it made it sound as if he was testifying against anyone who had ever offered him a joint. But the story severely damaged Leary’s reputation among his followers. Becoming a political extremist under extreme circumstances might have been understandable; but becoming a renegade fink put him beyond the pale. After the FBI milked Leary for all the information they thought they get, Leary was finally given his freedom in April 1976.

According to Leary, he only wanted to convince the FBI that people like the Weather Underground and Brotherhood of Eternal Love were really just all-American kids who had grown a little too enthusiastic about realising their ideals. Regarding his ‘motives’ for talking, Leary said that he wanted an ‘intelligent, an honourable relationship’ with Government institutions:

‘So this does not just turn someone over to get out of prison, it’s part of a longer range plan of mine… I intend to be fully active in this country in the next few years however the things turn out… I’m never going to work at it illegally ever again, but I would prefer to work constructively and collaboratively with intelligence and law enforcement people that are ready to forget the past…’[xxv]

Leary did talk to the FBI about the Weather Underground and name names, but in the long run the group was not impacted by Leary’s testimony. By the mid-1970s the Weather Underground leadership had grasped the reality that they weren’t going to be able to bomb US Imperialism out of existence. Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn believed they could avoid federal prosecution and lengthy prison sentences because of illegal wire taps and reluctance on the government’s part to reveal sources and illegal methods. Ayers and Dohrn favored a strategy of ‘surfacing’ as above ground revolutionaries. Bernadine Dohrn’s sister, Jennifer, organised an umbrella organization of radical groups which was named the Prairie Fire Committee (inspired by Mao Zedong’s polemic against ‘pessimism’: ‘A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire‘).

In 1977 a pamphlet appeared entitled The Split of the Weather Underground Organization – Struggling Against White and Male Supremacy. This contained an abject ‘confession’ by Bernadine Dohrn, admitting to charges of racial and sexual chauvinism, and ‘opportunism’. An article by Clayton Van Lydegraf, ‘In Defense of Prairie Fire’, indicated that the new ‘line’ was a very orthodox Marxist-Leninism committed to supporting armed actions. But Van Lydegraf’s takeover of what was left of the Weather Underground’s military structure proved disastrous. Since 1969 the FBI had largely failed to penetrate the group, but they soon succeeded in doing so when the Bureau’s Weather hunters infiltrated a couple of undercover agents into the West Coast Weather Underground Organization as firearms instructors; one of whom actually moved in with Van Lydegraf as his housemate. In 1977, Van Lydegraf, and several Weather Underground members were arrested for plotting to bomb the offices of a California state senator and got two-year prison sentences. This essentially finished the Weather Underground. All three of the groups Leary had operated with during his fugitive period – the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground – were broken up largely within that timespan. In between 1970 when he escaped prison and 1976, when he was released, Leary created for himself one ‘reality tunnel’ after another: first with the Weather Underground, then with Cleaver’s Black Panthers, then with Hauchard, then finally with the FBI. As John Higgs puts it:

‘Enlightenment thinkers assumed that everyone operates in the same reality, but that, Leary believed, was not true on a practical level. Concepts, relationships and events were now relative, and could only be really understood when analysed alongside the reality tunnels that created them’.[xxvi]

As Leary said of his first LSD trip with Michael Hollingshead ten years earlier,

‘From that day I have never lost the sense that I am an actor, surrounded by characters, props and sets for the comic drama being written in my brain’.[xxvii]

[i] Quoted in Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age.

[ii] John Higgs, I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, p.125.

[iii] Quoted in Lee and Shlain, Acid Dreams, p.230.

[iv] Paul Krasner, ‘A Game of Mind Tennis with Timothy Leary’, in Forte (ed.), Timothy Leary p.122.

[v]  Leary, Flashbacks, ps 301-2.

[vi] Higgs, p.127.

[vii] Forte, Timothy Leary, p.85.

[viii] Elaine Mokhtefi, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers , Chapter 5.

[ix] Donn Pearce, ‘Leary in Limbo’, Playboy, July 1971.

[x]  Leary, Flashbacks, p.304.

[xi] Seymour Hersh, ‘Huge CIA Operation Reported in US Against Anti-War Forces’, New York Times, 22 December, 1974; ‘CIA Reportedly Recruited Blacks For Surveillance of Panther Party’, New York Times, 17 March 1978.

[xii] Timothy Leary, Confessions of a Hope Fiend, p240. Quoted in John Higgs, I Have America Surrounded, p.138.

[xiii]  Lee and Shlian, ps.268-9.

[xiv] Mokhtefi, op.sit.

[xv]  Higgs, ps.139-140.

[xvi]  Lee and Pratt, ps.340-2.

[xvii]  Leary, Flashbacks, ps.300-310.

[xviii]  Higgs, p.158.

[xix] Albert Hoffman, ‘My Meetings With Timothy Leary’, in Forte, op.cit. ps.89-90.

[xx] Tendler and May, p.112; Lee and Pratt, ps.340-342.

[xxi] ‘Prophet on the Lam: Timothy Leary in Exile’, in Forte op.cit. p.98.

[xxii] Forte, p.70.

[xxiii] Higgs, p.223.

[xxiv] Mokhtefi, op. cit.

[xxv] Timothy Leary, The Politics of Psychopharmacology (Ronin Publishing: 2009), p.110.

[xxvi] John Higgs, I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, ps.46-48.

[xxvii] Leary, Flashbacks, p.119.


Asger Jorn, Détourned Painting and the Situationists

JORN, Asgar, 1963, Artiste, membre du groupe Cobra, (DK) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

JORN, Asgar, 1963, Artiste, membre du groupe Cobra, (DK) © ERLING MANDELMANN

[15 November 2020]

In 1954 the celebrated Danish painter Asger Jorn (1914-73) became aware of, and made contact with, Guy Debrod’s Paris-based Letterist International. Jorn, who had founded the International Movement for an Imaginative Bauhaus in 1953, shared the Letterist International’s hostility to abstract expressionism and socialist realism, and saw their concepts of unitary urbanism and psychogeography as in line with his own critique of functionalist design and architecture.[i]

Debord’s new friendship with Jorn and other leading figures of the artistic avant-garde convinced him that the time had come for the Letterists to shift their focus from the bars of Paris to developments in the wider cultural field of struggle. In an article published in Potlatch in 1957, entitled “One Step Back,” Debord argued that the L.I., rather than constitute itself as an “external opposition,” needed to “seize hold of modern culture in order to use it for our own ends” and join forces with artists – even painters, whose activities has been generally despised by the Letterists. Although Debord accepted that the L.I. might have to initially settle for a minority position within a new international movement, he thought, “all concrete achievements of this movement will naturally lead to its alignment with the most advanced program”:

‘…we need to gather specialists from very varied fields, know the latest autonomous developments in those fields… We thus need to run the risk of regression, but we must also offer, as soon as possible, the means to supersede the contradictions of the present phase through a deepening of our general theory and through conducting experiments whose results are indisputable. Although certain artistic activities might be more notoriously mortally wounded than others, we feel that the hanging of a painting in a gallery is a relic as inevitably uninteresting as a book of poetry. Any use of the current framework of intellectual commerce surrenders ground to intellectual confusionism, and this  includes us; but on the the other hand  we can do nothing without taking into account from the outset this ephemeral framework.’[ii]

Debord cannily added that the L.I. needed an expansion of its “economic base,” being well aware of the huge amount of money being made out of avant-garde art by the artists themselves as well as the curators and galley-owners. Debord’s potlatch anti-book, Mémoires, published in 1959, featured collages produced in collaboration with, and financed by, Asger Jorn. In July 1957, at a conference in Cosio d’Arroscia, Italy,  the Situationist International was founded. Those attending were: Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein of the Letterist International; Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio, Asger Jorn, Walter Olmo, Piero Simondo, Elena Verrone and Ralph Rumney (Rumney was representing the London Psychogeographical Association, of which he was the sole member).  Debord argued in his Report on the Construction of Situations and the Prerequisites for the Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency that “the problems of cultural creation can now be solved only in conjunction with a new advance in world revolution.” In order to combat the passive consumption he saw defining spectacular culture, Debord called for the international to organize collectively towards utilizing all of the means of revolutionizing everyday life, “even artistic ones.”

‘We need to construct new ambiances that will be both the products and the instruments of new forms of behavior. To do this, we must from the beginning make practical use of the everyday processes and cultural forms that now exist, while refusing to acknowledge any inherent value they may claim to have… We should not simply refuse modern culture; we must seize it in order to negate it. No one can claim to be a revolutionary intellectual who does not recognize the cultural revolution we are now facing… What ultimately determines whether or not someone is a bourgeois intellectual is neither his social origin nor his knowledge of a culture (such knowledge may be the basis for a critique of that culture or for some creative work within it), but his role in the production of the historically bourgeois forms of culture. Authors of revolutionary political opinions who find themselves praised by bourgeois literary critics should ask themselves what they’ve done wrong.‘[iii]


The S.I.’s later judgment that production of works of art was “anti-situationist,” should be seen in the context of this founding declaration. Although any genuinely experimental attitude, based on critique and supersession of existing conditions, was usable, production of artistic forms was seen as a dead end, leading at best to recuperation and commodification within the spectacle:

‘It must be understood once and for all that something that is only a personal expression within a framework created by others cannot be termed a creation. Creation is not the arrangement of objects and forms, it is the invention of new laws on such arrangement.‘[iv]

Within a few months on the founding of the S.I. in 1957, other groups and individuals from Italy, West Germany and Scandinavia affiliated, thus inaugurating a stormy fifteen-year process of fusions, schisms and expulsions, and an equally stormy spread across the globe of Situationist ideas, which were themselves by no means immune to ideological and cultural “recuperation.” Vincent Kaufman suggests that it would be a mistake to see the exclusions and resignations of the artists (thirty-two in the first four years) as a breakup of, or split in, the S.I.; or as a significant change of direction on Debord’s part:

It was a clarification, a return to a stance that was more coherent, more radical, and certainly closer to that of the defunct Lettrist International… Unitary urbanism survived, but in a politicized form, and developed its critical side, freed of the chimeras, utopias, and models that had characterized it until then. [v]

In the world theorized as the “Society of the Spectacle-Commodity,” Debord and Wolman argued (in 1956) that art could no longer be justified as a “superior activity” or as an honorable “activity of compensation.” In the new conditions of the culture industry only “extremist innovation” was “historically justified.” The “literary and artistic heritage of humanity” could however, still be used for “partisan propaganda” because its artifacts could be deflected or “détourned” from their “intended” purposes.

(Asger Jorn, Ainsi s’Ensor (Out of this World – after Ensor), 1962)

Asger Jorn, in an essay entitled “Détourned Painting,” published in the Exhibition Catalogue of the Galerie Rive Gauch, Namur, in May, 1959, wrote,

‘Intended for the general public. Reads effortlessly.

Be modern,

collectors, museums.

If you have old paintings,

do not despair.

Retain your memories

but détourn them

so that they correspond with your era.

Why reject the old

if one can modernize it

with a few strokes of the brush?

This casts a bit of contemporaneity

on your old culture.

Be up to date,

and distinguished

at the same time.

Painting is over.

You might as well finish it off.


Long live painting.’

Jorn then added, in a section entitled “Intended for connoisseurs. Requires limited attention”:

‘The object, reality, or presence takes on value only as an agent of becoming. But it is impossible to establish a future without a past. The future is made through relinquishing or sacrificing the past. He who possesses the past of a phenomenon also possesses the sources of its becoming. Europe will continue to be the source of modern development. Here, the only problem is to know who should have the right to the sacrifices and to the relinquishments of this past, that is, who will inherit the futurist power. I want to rejuvenate European culture. I begin with art. Our past is full of becoming. One needs only to crack open the shells. Détournement is a game born out of the capacity for devalorization. Only he who is able to devalorize can create new values. And only when there is something to devalorize, that is, an already established value, can one engage in devalorization. It is up to us to devalorize or to be devalorized according to our ability to reinvest in our own culture. There remain only two possibilities for us in Europe: to be sacrificed or to sacrifice. It is up to you to choose between the historical monument and the act that merits it.’[vi]

(Asger Jorn – Le Canard Inquiétant, 1959)

Although Asger Jorn’s membership of the Situationist International ended in 1961, when he decided he could not reconcile his working life as an artist with the organizational demands of the International, his financial support for Debord’s work continued until his death in 1973. The concept of détournement, in the hands of practitioners throughout the world, was to give rise to numerous innovations, such as the subversive use of comic books and pirate radio, and the defacing of advertisements with additional images. But detournement was further developed by the Situationists into a more general concept of spontaneous rebellion against the technology of consumption.

(This text has been extracted from David Black’s book, The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism: Essays on History, Culture and Dialectical Thought, Part Two ‘Critique of the Situationist Dialectic: Art, Class-Consciousness and Reification’, Lexington Books 2013/                                                                           

[i]      Kaufman , Guy Debord, pp. 131-32.00/

[ii]    Debord, “One Step Back,” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, (Cambridge: MIT press. 2002), pp. 25-27. Quoted in Vincent, p. 99.

[iii]   Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations” (1957). S.I. Anthology (excerpts), pp.17-25. Reproduced in full at

[iv]   Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations.”

[v]    Kaufman, pp. 149-50.

[vi]             Asger Jorn, Situationist International Archive Online.



King Mob Echo issues1-6

King Mob Echo issues1-6 -1968-70

Complete run in 5 issues (no.4 was never published) of this legendary British counter-culture magazine King Mob Echo, put out by David & Stuart Wise, later joined by Christopher Gray, Donald Nicholson-Smith and TJ Clark (all former members of the British Section of the Situationist International).Also included here is a leaflet listing all King Mob publications.


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