Since the late 1990s, Gabriel Kuhn has been publishing political books on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from female pirates to the relationship between football and the state. During this interview, Freedom reviewer Luther Blisset discusses the Autonomen with him, as well as workers’ councils and the history of anti-fascism in sport.
You completed your doctoral studies at a young age, at least in comparison to others in the United States. Were you aware that you wanted to study philosophy for a considerable amount of time? What sparked your interest in radical politics and philosophy in the first place? And why get a PhD when you could just get an undergraduate degree instead?
Even when I was still in high school, I was already sure that I wanted to major in philosophy. Simply put, it was a fascination with issues that appeared to be of fundamental importance to our existence, such as whether or not there is a God. What are some examples of good and evil? What exactly is the point of living? Why is there something rather than nothing in the world?
My fascination with politics didn’t emerge until a bit later in life, but it blossomed into a powerful interest very quickly and inexorably shaped my perspective on philosophy. Political philosophy and ethics eventually emerged as the subject areas that captured my attention the most. When I was in school in the early 1990s, the field of humanities was experiencing something of a revolution, at least in Europe. This was the case. Marxism, which was still the predominant ideology among academics on the left, was severely damaged in the eyes of many people after the fall of the Soviet Union. The popularity of poststructuralist leftist thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari skyrocketed during this period. Even though much of the work that was inspired by poststructuralism has deteriorated into gibberish in recent years, I recall that period as being very exciting.
I was able to get my doctorate relatively easily in Austria, which is one of the reasons I decided to pursue that goal. It didn’t cost you a thing (university education was free, and to a large extent, it still is), and I didn’t even have to take that many classes. To put it another way, all that was required of me was to compose a thesis, which didn’t feel like much of a burden given that I’ve always enjoyed writing. Because of this, I saw the project through to completion, even though I had no interest in pursuing a career in academia. I have never worked in the academic field before.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that you were associated with the Autonomen for several years. How would you characterize the things that you do? Demos? Publishing? Outreach? Could you talk about some of the things that you discovered as a result of the experience?
If they didn’t want to get involved in party politics, most radical leftists in the German-speaking world ended up in the autonomous milieu. This was the case especially if they wanted to maintain their independence. It had a wide range of perspectives and was very inclusive ideologically. I was a part of a collective in a smaller town in Austria that played a role in and distributed the country’s largest independent newspaper for several years; I guess in the more contemporary language you’d call it an affinity group. The collective contributed to and distributed the paper. We also went to protests together and were involved in a variety of protests, including those against the first Gulf War, the rise of the FPO (a right-wing party, which is today one of the largest in the country), real estate speculation, and Austria joining the European Union (during that period, opposition to the EU was primarily a leftist issue; today, it has been taken over by the nationalists). In addition, we were involved in the establishment of a pirate radio station, which paved the way for legitimate non-commercial radio endeavours that are still active today. Since I left Austria in 1994, I can’t claim that I’ve been active in the German-speaking autonomous movement since then. However, I have always been keeping up with the latest developments and discussions, and it’s still the milieu that I move in whenever I go back to visit. A few years ago, I took part in a publishing project in Germany that was attempting to reassess the relevance of the autonomous movement in the twenty-first century.
What did I gain from going through those different experiences?
That’s an intriguing subject, but to be honest, I’ve never really given it much attention. That was the beginning of my education in independent organizing, which might have gone the other way. I gained knowledge about militant protest and direct action, as well as concerns regarding safety and the law, the printing and distribution of material, the dynamics of radical collectives, and the process of creating wider alliances or at least attempting to do so. In addition, there was a great deal of discussion on the objectives, plans, and methods. When I left the nation to travel and eventually settle in another country, I believe that the primary purpose of those years was for me to just absorb impressions; I had not in any way arrived at any specific conclusion by that point. Probably the most important thing I took away from the experience was the realization that even a very small group of people can make a difference in the world so long as they remain linked to a larger social movement via consistent communication and collaborative effort. If, on the other hand, that link is lost, which is something that I believe is happening more often with radical collectives, at least in Western and Northern Europe, it is simple to suit the picture of an isolated social club with radical pretensions.
Taking into account your history, the things you’ve read, and the connections you’ve made, can you think of any event or organization in the United States that is similar to one of the iterations of the European Autonomen? If that’s the case, would you mind elaborating or discussing this a little bit?
In many respects, I believe that the anarchist subculture that I encountered during my time spent studying and travelling in the United States between the years 1994 and 2005 was very similar to that of the Autonomen. This encompassed every aspect of people’s lives, including what they wore, what they ate, the music they listened to, the appearance of their homes and social centres, and everything else. Everything about it felt very acquainted. And notwithstanding the certain differences in focus, the primary political topics that were being discussed were also the same: gender, racial prejudice, anti-capitalism, etc. When you add in the common interest in participating in direct action, Black Blocs, and other related forms of protest, you end up with very similar scenes.
Perhaps the most significant differences concerned ideological perspectives. I didn’t see much of that in the United States, but the Autonomen were still fairly influenced by Marxism, even if it was Marxism of the “left communist” or “operaist” variety. This was something I didn’t see much of in the United States. It pains me to use tired generalizations, but I got the impression that there was a fairly strong anti-intellectual current running through the radical circles I encountered there. All of this, however, could have developed differently. As a result of problems with immigration, I have not been able to visit the country since the year 2005.
You were the editor for a book that collected important source documents on workers’ councils. How did you initially come into contact with the subject matter? And how exactly did you choose which documents to translate into English? That must have been an extremely challenging task! It has piqued my interest to learn why you believe it is important for these documents to be made public. What specific knowledge have you gained as a result of working with this collection of documents?
The book was conceived of through circuitous means. In the beginning, I was interested in the part that the anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam played in the Bavarian Council Republic, which was a short-lived government that served Bavaria for a few months in the spring of 1919. I was asked to translate a personal account that Mühsam had written about the period. A friend from the United States wanted to publish it as a pamphlet and needed it translated. The pamphlet was never published, but when discussing the project with other English-speaking friends, it became clear that there was a more widespread interest in the German Revolution of 1918–1919, particularly in the radical currents, which include anarchist, syndicalist, and communist ideologies. I discussed the book idea with a few different people, including those working at PM Press, and this is how the book came to be.
Finding the necessary information was not difficult at all. The period has received a lot of attention in German literature. I selected the texts to be included in the English edition with consideration given to both their overall significance and the degree to which they were representative of the prevailing ideas I wished to highlight. Including the most influential texts was a given for me, but I also wanted to weave a narrative throughout the book. It is not uncommon for anthologies, particularly academic ones, to be made up of separate texts that may have a high level of quality but are only tangentially connected; it can be challenging to locate a common theme that is present in all of the pieces. To me, it was essential to construct a story out of the many components, which included tying their unique elements together. Consequently, I attempted to achieve that.
The traditional response to the question of why it is important to publish historical information is that we have to take the lessons from the past into account if we want the future to be a better place. In this particular instance, the issue of whether or not there would be a revolution has not been answered. Happily, there are still a lot of individuals who want a socialist society; but, very few of us know how to even begin the conversation about how to go there where they want to go to get there. Examining the work done in past iterations seems like a good place to start.
What is the maximum number of languages that you can translate with or across?
I mostly interpret between German, English, and Swedish, even though Swedish translations take much more time and need additional editorial assistance. In addition to being able to translate from French, although slowly, I am also able to translate automatically from Danish and Norwegian since these languages are so closely related to Swedish. Because I have such a limited working knowledge of those languages, I am unable to translate them into them.
I adore translating. It is quite similar to writing, with the exception that you are free to concentrate only on the more technical components of it since someone else has already thought for you. It’s a fantastic activity to become involved in if you like writing and have an interest in language.
To tell you the truth, I was taken aback when I saw the work you had done regarding anti-fascism and sports. Traditionally, nationalism plays a significant role in the administration of sports in the United States. Other ugly forms of chauvinism will frequently rear their ugly heads. It seems to me that anti-fascist sports are, in many ways, similar to anti-racist or communist skinheads: a unique exception or innovative concept. What got you interested in working on and writing about this topic? What kind of reaction have people had to the work? Do you engage in physical activity on your own?
I have always been very athletic and participate in a wide variety of sports. Sport is the most important aspect of my day-to-day life, ranking third behind my family and the political realm (which includes the work that I do). This is another reason why I feel compelled to write about it.
You are correct; there is a great deal of ugliness in sports, particularly in the professionalized and commercialized varieties: competition, chauvinism, exploitation, unhealthy body norms, and so on. However, sports play a significant role not only in my life but also in the lives of many other people. Even in a more egalitarian society, this shouldn’t change because there is a lot of beauty to be found in the world of competitive athletics.
Play and exercise are two of the most important components of our overall health, and sport is essentially the combination of the two. Sports can be a lot of fun when the conditions are just right, they can bring people together, and they can teach us important lessons about society. The task facing radicals is to establish an atmosphere that, rather than bringing out the worst in athletes, encourages them to perform to their full potential.
Indeed, it is not always easy to find good examples, but they do exist: from the workers’ sports movement of the early twentieth century to sport’s role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to antifascist organizing among sports fans today. These are all examples of social movements that have occurred in the past and continue to occur today. The fight for emancipation must take place in athletics just as much as it does in other areas because of the enormous political importance that sport carries.
The feedback that I’ve gotten for the work that I’ve done on this topic, for the most part, has been favourable. The majority of people who read it are extremists who have a passion for athletics and find the stories to be motivating. However, I have also received positive feedback from individuals who have no particular interest in sports but who felt that they had discovered new facets of it through reading my articles.
I will inevitably receive criticism accusing me of “misusing sports for political purposes,” but I must remember to remain calm in the face of such accusations. Some people believe that addressing issues of injustice is a distraction from having fun, which is something they associate with participating in sports. There are some people who, in general, do not want to hear about injustice. This could be because these individuals do not face much injustice in their own lives. However, even for those who are exploited and oppressed, sport can serve as an escape, and when they are in that zone, the last thing they want to hear about is politics. This must be acknowledged and respected, but in the long run, it will not break the cycle where running away from injustice is the only viable option, which can never be a sustainable coping mechanism. It seems like the goal is to have politics and sports be based on the same values so that mixing the two will appear more natural and less contradictory. In my opinion, this would represent a significant advance.