William Powell, and The Anarchist Cookbook

Today I learned that the William Powell who was headmaster during my time at the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) is the author of the original Anarchist Cookbook. Upon learning this, I decided that I would dig a little deeper, to see what has been reported in all these many years of the Cookbook.

There are few references that connect the two. I was able to turn up one on tumblr, where littlemisval wrote:

dude. william powell was my headmaster in iskl (the international school of kuala lumpur) and i asked him about this book and all he said was “i was young. it seemd like a good idea at the time”

Source: andeverythinginbetween.tumblr.com

William Powell in 1971
A photo of Powell as a young man. The photograph is captioned, “William Powell, Author of ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’”
Source: http://www.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/0000405496-002/william-powell-author-of-the-anarchist-cookbook

William & Ochan Powell
A photo of Powell, with his wife, as I knew him.

Powell has made a best effort to cut all ties from The Anarchist Cookbook, sending a consistent message of the need for non-violent demonstration.

Most recently, Powell wrote an editorial in The Guardian (I wrote the Anarchist Cookbook in 1969. Now I see its premise as flawed). He has also been corresponding with NBC News (After latest shooting, murder manual author calls for book to be taken ‘immediately’ out of print).

Wired did an article on The Anarchist Cookbook (The Anarchist Cookbook Turns 40) which provides a clear summary of the relation that Powell has with his work. There is also a Wikipedia entry on The Anarchist Cookbook.

On the Amazon listing for the Anarchist Cookbook, Powell has written an editorial review:

I have recently been made aware of several websites that focus on The Anarchist Cookbook. As the author of the original publication some 30 plus years ago, it is appropriate for me to comment.

The Anarchist Cookbook was written during 1968 and part of 1969 soon after I graduated from high school. At the time, I was 19 years old and the Vietnam War and the so-called “counter culture movement” were at their height. I was involved in the anti-war movement and attended numerous peace rallies and demonstrations. The book, in many respects, was a misguided product of my adolescent anger at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in.

I conducted the research for the manuscript on my own, primarily at the New York City Public Library. Most of the contents were gleaned from Military and Special Forces Manuals. I was not member of any radical group of either a left or right wing persuasion.

I submitted the manuscript directly to a number of publishers without the help or advice of an agent. Ultimately, it was accepted by Lyle Stuart Inc. and was published verbatim – without editing – in early 1970. Contrary to what is the normal custom, the copyright for the book was taken out in the name of the publisher rather than the author. I did not appreciate the significance of this at the time and would only come to understand it some years later when I requested that the book be taken out of print.

The central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change. I no longer agree with this.

Apparently in recent years, The Anarchist Cookbook has seen a number of ‘copy cat’ type publications, some with remarkably similar titles (Anarchist Cookbook II, III etc). I am not familiar with these publications and cannot comment upon them. I can say that the original Anarchist Cookbook has not been revised or updated in any way by me since it was first published.

During the years that followed its publication, I went to university, married, became a father and a teacher of adolescents. These developments had a profound moral and spiritual effect on me. I found that I no longer agreed with what I had written earlier and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas that I had put my name to. In 1976 I became a confirmed Anglican Christian and shortly thereafter I wrote to Lyle Stuart Inc. explaining that I no longer held the views that were expressed in the book and requested that The Anarchist Cookbook be taken out of print. The response from the publisher was that the copyright was in his name and therefore such a decision was his to make – not the author’s. In the early 1980’s, the rights for the book were sold to another publisher. I have had no contact with that publisher (other than to request that the book be taken out of print) and I receive no royalties.

Unfortunately, the book continues to be in print and with the advent of the Internet several websites dealing with it have emerged. I want to state categorically that I am not in agreement with the contents of The Anarchist Cookbook and I would be very pleased (and relieved) to see its publication discontinued. I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication which should be taken out of print.

William Powell

On Powell’s Goodreads.com profile, I found this statement:

“I want to state categorically that I am not in agreement with the contents of The Anarchist Cookbook and I would be very pleased (and relieved) to see its publication discontinued. I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication which should be taken out of print.”

I dug past Powell’s interviews and combed through the FBI files on the Anarchist Cookbook, collected from 1971 to 1999, and released under a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s clear that the book caused significant controversy when it was first published in 1971 — many letters from concerned citizens addressed to J. Edgar Hoover call for government action to pull the book from distribution.

The FBI files, however, depict Powell’s book as being mostly harmless. The Anarchist Cookbook was a collection of information that would have been generally known by activists at the time. The intended audience of The Anarchist Cookbook was the general public, specifically those more independent-minded individuals who weren’t already engaged in demonstrations and the counter culture movement. Powell’s work made accessible a wide body of knowledge that would have taken an outsider of the movement significant time and effort to acquire. If you were a square, you might have picked up his book and thought that you were ready for action.

Powell did make an effort to market the book. With the help of his publisher, a conference was held at the Hotel Americana in New York City. “The author William R. Powell and publisher Lyle Stuart defended the book, Anarchist Cookbook, on the reasoning that it was not intended for extremist groups, either right or left wing, since they already had access to all the information anyway, but for individuals who felt the need to be able to defend themselves against the Big Brother antics of the government”. It’s also noted that during the press conference, “a group of radicals were exploding stink bombs and fireworks” in an effort to disrupt it. “The contention of the radicals was that Powell was a phony, not a radical himself; but only exploiting the revolution for personal monetary gain”.

Powell also held a meeting on March 3, 1971, at the cafeteria of the Student Union Building in Windham College, where he was a student at the time. The informant to the feds “advised that the meeting was not attended by a large group, but the subject of Anarchy and the publication ‘Anarchist Cookbook’ was discussed and it was apparent that Powell had called the meeting for the purpose of promoting his publication”.

Decades after Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook was originally published, I found a collection of text files called The Anarchist Cookbook produced by The Jolly Roger. These text files have little connection with Powell’s book of the same name, save for the name.

I recall my amazement at the bold claims made by The Jolly Roger, and I remember disseminating some of the materials amongst a group of my peers at the time. I would come upon this Anarchist Cookbook time and time again, though I was unaware of the original and am now astounded to learn how close I had come to its author..

I admire Powell for his transformation, and imagine it must have been difficult to reconcile the two parts of the same man. I admire him for standing by his work when asked whether he was the author, but also for disowning it on the grounds that it was fundamentally flawed.