‘This book is not for children or morons’. Thus concludes William Powell’s introduction to his infamous text The Anarchist Cookbook. Written in 1971, the Cookbook is essentially a how-to guide for revolution, containing detailed instructions on making tear gas, “so simple anyone can do it” (Powell, 1971, p 104), drugs like LSD, and explosive booby traps. In short, the Cookbook is “an anthology on disobedience”, as described by Rocco Castoro, former Editor-in-Chief at Vice magazine.
Powell was just 19 years old when he wrote the book, and a staunch anti-war activist. He later wrote that he was “pissed off at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in”. Instead of hitting the streets to protest, Powell went to his local library and wrote the Cookbook, basing it on texts such as the U.S. Army Field Manual for Physical Safety and Homemade Bombs and Explosives.
Considering the violent nature of the Cookbook, it is deeply ironic that Powell became a born-again Christian and teacher in the years following its publication. He was even the headmaster of a school in my hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, among many others. Only two years ago in 2013, Powell called for the Cookbook to be taken out of print. In the Guardian newspaper, he wrote ‘today I realise that violence can’t be used to prevent violence’. However, Powell no longer owns the copyright so the Cookbook continues to be publicly available. You can find it on Amazon and even at some Australian libraries.
Inspired by the Julie & Julia phenomenon, I’ve decided to try out a few “recipes” from the Cookbook and document them over a few posts on this blog. First of all though, let’s start by saying that some of them are notoriously inaccurate. As others have pointed out, you can’t get high smoking banana peels.
So which recipe should I choose first? I’m reluctant to try something I might lose a finger making or go to jail for. Thanks to Australia’s gun laws, I’m unlikely to get hold of a shotgun, so I can’t try to convert it into a grenade launcher:
I think I’ll attempt one of the simplest options – how to incapacitate someone using one of the methods under the ‘hand-to-hand’ combat section.
Okay. So unsurprisingly, I can’t find anyone who is willing to let me knock them out, which is just as well. The truth is that The Anarchist Cookbook should not be taken lightly as it has inspired horrific violence. Eric Harris, one of the teenagers behind the Columbine High School massacre, had a page from the Cookbook hidden in his room. Other readers include Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, Puerto Rican separatists and Croatian nationalists. Here in Australia, it’s been read by members of far-right groups, as was discovered during this recent anti-immigration rally in Baybrook, Victoria.
On the most fundamental level, The Anarchist Cookbook embodies the belief that violence is a legitimate tool to achieve one’s political aims. It’s a question that every activist has to answer: how far will you go in order to achieve your objectives? In one aspect at least, William Powell is certainly correct: “… men, not weapons, make up a revolution” (1971, p. 77).
In my next blog I will revisit the Cookbook in its updated, post-Internet form and try out another recipe: the flour bomb.
Post by Elena Yeo
Elena has just completed a Masters Degree in Curating & Cultural Leadership at UNSW Art & Design. This post was written as part of a capstone project undertaken between the university and the Powerhouse Museum.
William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook, Barricade Books, New York, NY, 1971