The book came with a warning: “Not for children or morons.”
March 30, 2017 4:21 PM   Subscribe

“The central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change,” William Powell wrote. “I no longer agree with this.” William Powell, author of the infamous radical tome The Anarchist's Cookbook, has died. A film about Powell and his book, American Anarchist, premiered on Friday, March 24. His death on July 11, 2016 was revealed in the film's closing credits.

Powell's 1969 book covered a myriad of taboo subjects, from how to kill someone with a garrote to how to make LSD. Written while the author was still a self described "angry young man," Powell's book became an underground best seller. As time passed, however, Powell distanced himself more and more from the book, eventually penning a 2013 article in The Guardian, urging the book's publisher to discontinue publishing the book: "I wrote the Anarchist Cookbook in 1969. Now I see its premise as flawed."

His 2013 Guardian article concluded with this final thought, "I do not know the influence the book may have had on the thinking of [the alienated and disturbed young people who have launched attacks against classmates and teachers], but I cannot imagine that it was positive. The continued publication of the Cookbook serves no purpose other than a commercial one for the publisher. It should quickly and quietly go out of print."

As the obit mentions, Powell did not remain an angry and violent man his entire life. He became a Christian and "eventually found a more conventional life, returning to college, earning a master’s degree in English, becoming a teacher, getting married and raising a family. He also led a nomadic life, teaching special needs children as he roamed the world with his wife and children, traveling from China to Tanzania."

Previously; Previously-er
posted by mosk (51 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by howfar at 4:31 PM on March 30, 2017 [14 favorites]


A while back I read the Wikipedia article for the book (and, later, checked out and skimmed it) out of morbid curiosity. It led me to this other anarchist cookbook, which I have to say I much prefer (topics covered include: antifascist action, nonmonogamous relationships, how to make a bicycle into a record player).

Which isn't to say that I necessarily endorse anything the book contains (though it has some surprisingly excellent sections on mental health and privilege), but it was a pretty fascinating window into an ideology and subculture I didn't know much about. The Anarchist Cookbook by contrast was much more straightforward and dry, and as someone not exactly inclined to violence I didn't get much out of it.

(Is it weird to say that I had assumed the author was already dead? Fascinating to hear what became of him later in life, though.)
posted by perplexion at 4:42 PM on March 30, 2017 [6 favorites]


I assume he died while mixing the fertilizer with the oxidant a little too fast because he was tripping on bath tub acid? I know, kidding, I'm sure it was a brain aneurism from praying too hard.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 4:46 PM on March 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


I came across the Anarchist's Cookbook in my parents' shelves once when I was maybe 13 or 14. The title jumped out at me but I was old enough to know a lot of the time titles are just meant to do that and the book inside will be dry. Hoo boy was that not the case with this one. I took it to my dad, who was sitting in his reading chair, all like, "Dad? What the hell?"

"I donno." he said, going back to his book, "Sometimes you gotta blow up a bridge."
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 4:54 PM on March 30, 2017 [146 favorites]


William Powell was my high school principal. When i was working on the school newspaper we tried to interview him about the AC. He declined to comment.

Thanks for not suspending me for playing hookey and smoking cigarettes, Bill.

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posted by dazed_one at 5:01 PM on March 30, 2017 [74 favorites]


I'm not an angry young man, but I'm an angry middle-aged woman who's been getting angrier since November 9, 2016. As a result I've been ruminating on the notion that violence stopped Hitler. I'll say it again: violence stopped Hitler. But that doesn't mean it's necessary to disseminate instructions on making LSD and garrotting someone. However, I think that if the publisher lets it go out of print, it will become a sought-after treasure to the kind of people who really want to know how to garrotte and make acid. I guess what I'm saying is, if they keep it in print, it will keep selling. If they let it go out of print, it will keep selling but for enormously inflated prices. In any case, there's stuff like that all over the glory that is the Internet, so perhaps I'm just putting forth the fallacious argument that if the author distances himself and the publisher lets it go out of print, somebody will be right behind them, ready to take up the slack.
posted by scratch at 5:02 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


That book was the wrong thing for me to read as a persecuted teen. That's all I'm going to say about that. And no, that wasn't me who shot the football during the big play of the big HS game.

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posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:06 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


This book was a big ticket item back in the Usenet and early WWW days, as I recall. As an edgy teen, I found a couple of websites hosting it. I also seem to recall a lot of rumours that the FBI had replaced most of the instructions (in the print version or just in the 'net copies? I don't recall the details of the conspiracy theory) with incorrect ones just to foil would-be terrorists.

Anyway, yeah, Crimethinc is a better source of information on actual resistance as opposed to adolescent protest. And most real, practicing anarchists are indeed a good source of general social justice information. They're not perfect (hoo boy, I've heard some stories), but for the most part they're making a genuine effort at living their ideals.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:10 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


Alright, so I had a strong opinion on the guy and the book and so I didn't read TFA before commenting...

Anyway, these days, there's nothing in that book that you can't find online in like 3 minutes, so I mean who cares.

But yeah, redemption, I still dunno. I'm sure he spent more time teaching challenged and disadvantaged kids than writing the book. And done right, there's nothing wrong with bath tub acid. And none of us know where our next fuckup will take us.

So: .
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 5:13 PM on March 30, 2017 [5 favorites]


But that doesn't mean it's necessary to disseminate instructions on making LSD and garrotting someone.
One of these things is not like the other...
posted by b1tr0t at 5:15 PM on March 30, 2017 [13 favorites]


i wouldn't worry too bad about people reading the anarchist's cookbook and getting factual information, scratch

but god bless TAC and steal this book and other such niceties. in the same vein i just googled up totse to see if it was still around and - lo and behold

these things were fun to read as a kid, the combo of danger / illegality and agency -- that you could really do this shit if you had the right tools -- was totally intoxicating even if a large amount of the info contained inside ended up being either b.s. or not worth exploring . same deal with Big Secrets / Bigger Secrets / Biggest Secrets -- never built any of the homemade explosive devices but they weren't lying about weird shit on shortwave radio....
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 5:19 PM on March 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


did you know it's on archive.org?

not trying to cause trouble, but this has been all over the internet for decades and it's kind of silly to talk about it as if it was some kind of secret, arcane tome that is only whispered about

by the way, it's my understanding that the advice dealing with explosives is dangerous and/or downright wrong
posted by pyramid termite at 5:20 PM on March 30, 2017 [16 favorites]


>William Powell was my high school principal. When i was working on the school newspaper we tried to interview him about the AC. He declined to comment.

Thanks for not suspending me for playing hookey and smoking cigarettes, Bill.


Wait, WHAT dazed_one?! A school district (or maybe a private school?) hired the author of the Anarchist's Cookbook to be its principal? That's astounding!
posted by mosk at 5:23 PM on March 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


The main effect of disseminating accurate instructions on making LSD is to make high school students realize how much more chemistry they're going to need to learn before they have the slightest chance of doing it. On the other hand I'm not sure what results, if any, might come of whatever LSD recipe is printed in the Anarchist Cookbook. I was a high school student when I read it, and even then it was obviously wrong, based on my extensive knowledge from other text files.
posted by sfenders at 5:27 PM on March 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


It was a private international school. He was a good principal, and much time had passed since he wrote the AC. I'm not privy to the hiring process that was involved, but I can attest to the fact that he didn't promote its ideals (as exhibited by his refusal to discuss the cookbook once we students figured out he'd written it), nor his newfound religion, while he ran the school.
posted by dazed_one at 5:35 PM on March 30, 2017 [9 favorites]


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posted by valkane at 5:36 PM on March 30, 2017


^^^ Gotta say, that's one pretty goddamn cool factoid, dazed_one. My HS principal was just a boring administrator.
posted by mosk at 5:37 PM on March 30, 2017


I bought my copy of the Anarchist Cookbook at a Waldenbooks in a mall in Sarasota, Florida, which I'm pretty sure is missing the point about as completely as possible.

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posted by Naberius at 5:59 PM on March 30, 2017 [26 favorites]


violence stopped Hitler.

I hear The Multi-Trillion-Dollar War Cookbook's a pretty good read.

Sounds like The AC author went on to complete an interesting life. Appreciate the personal anecdotes of him greatly.
posted by michaelh at 6:00 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


rec.pyrotechnics faq was better
posted by ryanrs at 6:08 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


I can attest to the dissolving Styrofoam into gasoline made pretty shitty napalm.

Needed an oxidizer, I think.

Still, lots of fun when you're twelve. Thanks, Internet!
posted by leotrotsky at 6:18 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


The main effect of disseminating accurate instructions on making LSD is to make high school students realize how much more chemistry they're going to need to learn before they have the slightest chance of doing it.

Yes, I have heard it is very far from being do-able by an amateur
posted by thelonius at 6:18 PM on March 30, 2017


At Borders we didn't keep this in stock, you had to special order, and you had to be 18.

I still think about the angry faces of those pre-teen dudes when we told them they couldn't just buy it. They thought we were keeping them down, when in reality, it was about the fact that they'd steal the fucking thing if we stocked it and we were tired of eating the cost.

And then the internet happened and it passed into legend.
posted by emjaybee at 6:44 PM on March 30, 2017 [15 favorites]


My parents had/have(?) a copy, that was known to me since at least the age of 10 or 11 - I don't recall the specific recipes too well, but it seemed like a more apt title would be the Violent Radical's Handbook, since the means it facilitated weren't really specific to anarchy. My household at that age, and on into my late teens, was one that actually prepared for violent communist revolution -- the SLA & the Weather Underground were model organizations that we're going to come together eventually into a huge coalition that would then violently overthrow the US government. (we all overcame this delusion many years ago, thankfully)

It was a weird environment for a sensitive, introspective, musical kid, but there I was. I learned to shoot all manner of firearms from .357s (I Only tried the 44 magnum once then demurred) to sawed off shotguns, to 30-round banana clips in M-1 carbines, to... You get the point. I learned to re-load, & one time we even experimented with making mercury-tipped hollow points. Man, do those blow up a watermelon, let me tell you what.

But we never actually made a single thing from that book.
posted by Florida Lee at 7:02 PM on March 30, 2017 [8 favorites]


He printed the straight up Albert Hoffman/Sandoz original LSD synthesis. Which process has been much refined by various others since... It is not an easy, rank amateur friendly synth. He got basic pot growing instructions down at least well enough to work somewhat- But hemp grows all by itself just fine.

The high explosives section was very much crap. The booby traps, demolition and general mayhem instructions were just childish. Trying to teach what you have not yourself learned never works well...

15 minutes on the old roguesci.org explosives and weapons forum would be far more to the point than reading the entire cookbook, if one were truly wanting to commit mayhem... It's gone now, save for a few bits and pieces mirrored here and there.

But THIS is still on line:

Scinecemadness Energetic Materials Forum
posted by bert2368 at 7:02 PM on March 30, 2017 [5 favorites]


When I worked at a library, this was one of the most-stolen books, along with some of the erotica. But at least at that library, there were no age restrictions on checking it out, as long as it hadn't just been stolen again.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:11 PM on March 30, 2017


I remember reading it in my late teens/early 20s. Skipped over most of the bomb parts, read the protest instructions (even though I've never gone to a protest), and read all the drug-making stuff (even though I've never done drugs). The thing I remember most is how much effort it took to smoke banana peels or oregano or licking toads but, man, he was down even if, by his own description, it only gave a shitty high. Except for heroin. Heroin junkies he described as the living dead. I figured if the Anarchist's Cookbook told you to stay away, that was some solid advice.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 7:17 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


Reminded me of a one of those marriage manuals written by a Catholic priest.

I didn't think he'd had hands on experience with much of anything, much less the stuff he was presuming to write about.
posted by jamjam at 7:43 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


I have my copy still. It was very much a thing of it's time. It's almost sweet in how earnest it is. I shelve it near my Subgenius, and Principia Discordia, because to me, those books capture a specific microcosm of time and space.

That said, when Teenager discovered it on the shelf, and asked about it, I truly, truly wish I had said what Phobos the Space Potato's father said. Because that is a thing of beauty.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 8:34 PM on March 30, 2017 [10 favorites]


Oh man I haven't thought about this in a long time. Did we ever find out whether or not nutmeg will make you trip balls?
posted by cosmologinaut at 9:23 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


So we need a movie to bring this instruction manual back into the spotlight? Just in case a few violent psychopaths didn't already know about it? Swell.
posted by Beholder at 9:40 PM on March 30, 2017


Powell stated in the movie that all of the info in TAC had been previously published in other books and pamphlets, which he found at the main branch of the New York public library.
posted by brujita at 9:45 PM on March 30, 2017 [6 favorites]


I'm struggling to encapsulate the extent to which the Cookbook influenced the earliest incarnations of the electronic underground, and helped give birth to the entire pre-web "textfile" scene. Nearly every BBS that carried pirated software had a copy, along with an entire section of writings influenced by it. The nomenclature for the entire subculture included a nod to it, categorized under the acronym H/P/A/V/C (Hacking/Phreaking/Anarchy/Virii/Cracks).

It's funny to think there was a time when not wanting to pay for computer games was considered inextricable from an entire revolutionary movement, and pirates were expected to be renaissance men devoted to liberating information and disrupting all forms of corporate and governmental control. Often times an individual would have to prove they were "elite (31337)" enough to deserve access to such information, by filling out applications or passing tests which included things like defining the acronyms for various piracy groups.

Identifying the role of the Cookbook becomes a chicken-or-the-egg problem in this context. Did a bunch of kids who were into digital theft and trespassing decide they were actually revolutionary anarchists as a result of stumbling across it, or was it just something they latched onto in the process of building a personal mythology and self-justifying ethical framework? Either way, the thing was legendary and had cultural implications way beyond inspiring a bunch of teenagers to play with pipe bombs.

.
posted by prosopagnosia at 11:31 PM on March 30, 2017 [21 favorites]


brujita: "Powell stated in the movie that all of the info in TAC had been previously published in other books and pamphlets, which he found at the main branch of the New York public library."

Obviously the reason we have terrorists is the public library!!!
posted by chavenet at 1:55 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


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posted by Gelatin at 2:31 AM on March 31, 2017


At Borders we didn't keep this in stock, you had to special order, and you had to be 18.

I still think about the angry faces of those pre-teen dudes when we told them they couldn't just buy it. They thought we were keeping them down, when in reality, it was about the fact that they'd steal the fucking thing if we stocked it and we were tired of eating the cost.


At the "head shops", they were kept behind the counter.
posted by mikelieman at 3:19 AM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think the most remarkable thing about the AC is not what it taught the reader to do, but just the idea that if you didnt like their fucked-up rules then you didn't have to play by them.

That's a pretty door-opening message for a kid, even if they never make bathtub acid or backyard napalm.
posted by entropone at 4:39 AM on March 31, 2017 [10 favorites]


I think the most remarkable thing about the AC is not what it taught the reader to do, but just the idea that if you didnt like their fucked-up rules then you didn't have to play by them.

See also: The Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison.
posted by mikelieman at 6:56 AM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


I was one of those teenagers that got a hold of the AC as a text file from the internet (or possibly a BBS) back when "internet" mostly meant a text browser if you were poor, or Compuserve/AOL if you were rich. I still remember bits and pieces, like the thing about making napalm by dissolving styrofoam in gasoline or ASCII diagrams showing the proper way to make a molotov cocktail.

It never even occurred to me that I would ever need to make these things. The appeal of having and reading the AC was two-fold: one, adults totally would not want you to; and two, the idea that you now possessed that knowledge and had somehow become more, I don't know, worldly? as a result. Like, now that you knew how to fuck shit up, you were suddenly someone to be taken slightly more seriously or something.

It otherwise changed absolutely nothing about my life, and I kind of wish I owned a print copy just so I could use the "sometimes you need to blow up a bridge" line on my kids one day, if I ever have them. It was never really an instructional manual for me, and now is basically a cultural artifact.
posted by chrominance at 8:17 AM on March 31, 2017 [9 favorites]


For me, in my youth, it was The Cookbook along with Steal This Book and Our Bodies, Ourselves that informed my world view. Then I read Gulag Archipelago and decided that the world was no damned good. I never applied my impotent rage at anything that deserved it. It just remained an unscratched itch.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:07 AM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


Oh man I haven't thought about this in a long time. Did we ever find out whether or not nutmeg will make you trip balls?

In my experience, it will not. And I tried a lot of times and a lot of ways when I was 14.
posted by frimble at 9:24 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's funny to think there was a time when not wanting to pay for computer games was considered inextricable from an entire revolutionary movement, and pirates were expected to be renaissance men devoted to liberating information and disrupting all forms of corporate and governmental control.

I think people today can hardly appreciate how countercultural (in a very white male way) the early Internet was. Unfortunately, the spiritual descendants of those dope-smoking Unix gurus seem to be the intolerable hordes of libertarian boys.
posted by praemunire at 9:51 AM on March 31, 2017 [8 favorites]


To be fair, there were a lot of girls in the early disruption days. Way more than people give us credit for. I mean, we weren't naming ourselves PinkPrettyUnicorn4eva, but we were there. I built a functional blue box when I was 12 or 13.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:23 AM on March 31, 2017 [11 favorites]


Do people actually buy this book from the publisher? It seems a little bit outside the spirit of the thing. The copy I got in high school was a very bad photocopy of a photocopy, hole-punched in a three ring binder. I made my copy of that copy for free at the library over the course of a few weeks. The thought of this thing existing as a crisp, bound, freshly unboxed book seems laughably weird.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:28 AM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


He STILL never told people "try to do any of these things and you could die/end up in jail because I made mistakes." as I mentioned before, so he's a dick. Albeit a dead one. The v.666 iteration of the AC is more fleshed out (with cheap hacks, minor destruction and now-almost-completely-redundant phone 'boxes) and has warnings about creating some of the nastier stuff. I'm not linking to it but it's as easy to find as it is easy to log your IP address: use protection.
posted by Zack_Replica at 10:29 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


The thought of this thing existing as a crisp, bound, freshly unboxed book seems laughably weird.

Time and place.... It was brill coming across the American book in a bookshop in a city in Yorkshire in 1974.
posted by Mister Bijou at 10:45 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


A grad school friend of mine was visited by the RCMP in BC when he ordered his copy by mail. So Canada must have been watching the distributor pretty closely.
posted by srboisvert at 1:10 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


my favorite album title of all time is from a good friend of mine who named his release "the anarchist fakebook".
posted by lescour at 2:41 PM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


Mom basically said the Anarchist Cookbook blew up more anarchists than people said anarchists might want to blow up. She gave examples. Chilling examples.
There are better sources of info. Just saying...
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 5:55 PM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, the spiritual descendants of those dope-smoking Unix gurus seem to be the intolerable hordes of libertarian boys.

I *am* a dope-smoking Unix guru. Those kids have no chops. The app-dev equivalent of script-kiddies.
posted by mikelieman at 7:22 PM on March 31, 2017 [5 favorites]


Had a copy of this (either on the PC or printed out, I can't remember) when I was like 14 or 15. Couldn't do anything with it as all the measurements were imperial, which nobody understands. Good deterrent, I guess!
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:29 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]


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