BAMN bristles with in-your-face aphorisms, and programmes for action

BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), a 1971 Penguin publication, which I recently dug out of the mouldy tatters of books left unattended for half a century, is a collection of “Outlaw Manifestos and Ephemera, 1965-70”. These had made quite a splash in the context of the counter-culture movement by radicalised youth of Western Europe and the United States protesting against what one of its ideologues saw as “terrorism of the consumerist state”. Jerry Rubin, the fiery radical of the mid-1960s wrote DO IT! Scenarios of the Revolution, another book of a similar genre. Like Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote the introduction to the Ramparts Press imprint of Rubin’s book, Rubin became an icon of successful American business enterprise.

In India too similar instances of youthful instant radicalism are familiar, whose proponents have done well for themselves, their radicalism becoming a plus point in their CVs.

BAMN is a typical document of its times, self-indulgent and self-righteous, disdainful of the ‘system’. Its 12 chapters, accompanied by reproductions of sketches and photographs and mimeographed documents, and a casual sprinkling of what were then seen as rank obscenities, were intended to advance the cause of revolution By Any Means Necessary, including the tactics of ‘shock and awe’ against the bourgeoisie. Perhaps it is not accidental that ‘shock and awe’ were integral to the tactics of the Bush War against Iraq.

A documentary sourcebook, BAMN bristles with in-your-face aphorisms, and programmes for action. Thus the slogan “An Act of Destruction is an Act of Liberation.” Item seven of the projected activities of the “Yippie” movement, cloned from the Hippie, proclaims: “Filth will be worshipped.”

Forty years on, what has happened to those angry and now no-longer-young women and men? It is in such moments that one realises what a corrective farce and low comedy are to such insensate and manufactured rage, which, when unravelled, turns out to be yet another smart marketing gimmick.

Reading these manifestos, I was reminded of Ambrose Silk, a character created by Evelyn Waugh, than whose personality and writings nothing could be more anti-countercultural.

Author and intellectual, Jewish and gay, of but not in the Left, Ambrose Silk is somewhat of a specialist in composing manifestos, having written several while at school and university, even once composing the invitation to a party in the form of a manifesto. The only reason for Ambrose shunning Communism, despite his left-wing opinions, is that its manifesto had been written once and for all! He makes his debut in Put out More Flags (1942) and appears again, in the ripeness of years and respectability and invested with the Order of Merit, in that uniquely nasty tale, Basil Seal Rides Again (1962). Antoine Blanche in Brideshead Revisited (1944), another Waugh novel, resembles him a bit. However, while Antoine is a rancorous charlatan, Ambrose is a more appealing figure of authentic comedy and farce.

The novel is situated during the willing-to-wound-but-afraid-to-strike ‘phoney war’ phase of the Second World War, after Britain formally declared war against German expansionism rather than against the evil that Nazism represented. Basil Seal, an utterly amoral character who appears in several other novels of Waugh, and Ambrose Silk, his friend, are the central characters of the novel. Basil wants to be one of “the hard-faced men who did well out of the war” in 1914-18.

Unwilling to be involved in what he sees as the folly of war, and haunted by his vulnerabilities, Ambrose is induced by his publisher-friend to join the vast bureaucracy of the Ministry of Information, full of literary people producing morale-boosting literature. Ambrose is encouraged to edit Ivory Tower, a journal propagating anarchic anti-war views.

However, the central piece of the first (and only) issue is Monument to a Spartan, a manifesto of his beliefs in the form of a paean to Hans, a romantic German youth and Ambrose’s boyfriend, hardly the stuff to go with wartime bellicosity.

Induced by Basil who acts as agent provocateur, Ambrose ‘edits’ the article seemingly to make it more pacifist. Basil fans Ambrose’s fear of imminent arrest for his heretical views. Ambrose flees the country, enabling Basil to take the first step to make good out of the war. He takes over Ambrose’s comfortable flat, from which base he wins the rest of his battles: the girlfriend of his superior officer and a promotion. In short, he turns out to be one of the hard-faced men who did well out of the war, not very different from the many latter-day Western radicals who have done well for themselves out of their radicalism.