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(en) US, The New Formulation* Vol.2, #2 - Toward an American Revolutionary Praxis - book Review by Geert Dhondt

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 15 Sep 2004 08:35:56 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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* How the Irish Became White By Noel Ignatiev New York: Routledge, 1995
* Race Traitor By Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (editors) New York: Routledge, 1996
* The Lesson of The Hour: Wendell Phillips on Abolition and Strategy
By Noel Ignatiev (editor) Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2001.

[O]f all struggles in which a popular victory would fatally weaken
U.S. Capitalism, the fight against White Supremacy is the one with
the greatest chance of success. — Noel Ignatiev(1)
One hundred years ago, W.E.B. Dubois wrote in The Souls of Black
Folk that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of
the color line.” How has this analysis from one of this
nation’s greatest revolutionary intellectuals influenced American
anarchism? Not much, I guess. Alexander Berkman and Emma
Goldman, for example, did not write much on the “Negro
Question,” nor did many of their contemporaries in the heyday of
the anarchist movement. While the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW) were a welcome exception to this phenomenon, most of the
revolutionary proletariat did not pay much attention to the color line.
The famous Eugene V. Debs even stated that revolutionary politics
was “white men’s business.” In the late 19th century and
early 20th century, much of the revolutionary proletariat—in which
the anarchist movement was based—was from Europe or of
European decent and their outlook and experiences reflected these
origins. The European immigrants brought with them anarchism and
other revolutionary traditions from Europe, but—of course—this
here is not Europe; the United States, while part of this global
capitalist system, has its own peculiar development, with its own fault
lines and its own revolutionary heritage, and U.S. anarchists are
frequently much less familiar with it than with the European
revolutionary tradition. Anarchists in the United States tend to know
more about Russia’s Makhnovist movement or the details of the
Spanish Civil War than about—for example—the Abolitionist
Movement, the Reconstruction era, or the Civil Rights Movement.
The New Abolitionists, with their Journal Race Traitor, are a
refreshing exception to this. They are looking not to the European
revolutionary legacy to imagine the possibility of social revolution in
this country, but instead look at America’s own revolutionary
tradition, to people such as the Abolitionists and the Wobblies, to try
figure out a strategy for revolution in the belly of the beast.

New Abolitionist politics have had an increasing influence on the
anarchists in the United States. The politics were present in the now
defunct Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation,(2) they
have influenced the new revolutionary group that is forming around
the Bring the Ruckus Draft Proposal(3) and they have had some
influence in the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists.
This book review will look at three books by New Abolitionist Noel

Noel Ignatiev—who has called himself an anarchist among
Marxists, and a Marxist among anarchists—has been involved
with revolutionary politics since the 1950s. He was involved with man
movements, among them the Civil Rights movement, the Sixties
movements, the Sojourner Truth Organization, and (briefly) with
Love and Rage. After nearly a half-a-century of agitation and
writing,4 his ideas are finally available in book form.

How the Irish Became White (1995)

Probably the most interesting history book of 1995... — Nell
Irvin Painter, Historian5

In the historical literature on race relations, there is much that
safely can be ignored. However, from time to time a study comes
along that truly can be called path-breaking, seminal, essential, a
must read. How the Irish Became White is such a study. Noel
Ignatiev has produced that rare work of historical scholarship that,
while firmly grounded in past events, also speaks forcefully to current
concerns. — John Bracey, W.E.B. DuBois Department of
Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst(6)

After spending many years working and organizing in the factories in
the Midwest, Noel Ignatiev—lacking a bachelor degree—went
to graduate school to study History at Harvard; How the Irish
Became White was the result. This book is one of the many great
books on “Whiteness” studies that came out in the 1990s.
These books—including The Rise and Fall of the White Republic
(Alexander Saxton), Wages of Whiteness (David Roediger) and The
Invention of the White Race (Ted Allen)—target the New Left
Labor Historians, such as David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and
Eric Arnesen.(7) While these historians focus on the experience of
the daily lives of ordinary people, they get race wrong, downplay
racism, or overlook racism. These books, following in the footsteps of
DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, try to make a political
intervention. While changing the world is what is important, your
strategies spring from your understanding of how the world works,
and these books and historical controversies are important
contributions to the development of an American revolutionary
praxis. An American revolutionary praxis needs to recognize the
pivotal role that racialized slavery played in the formation of the
working class in this nation, and this praxis needs to recognize what
W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James(8) recognized long ago—the
centrality of the struggle against white supremacy in the fight for a
new and free society.

How the Irish Became White, divided in six chapters, focuses on how
the Irish went from being part of an oppressed race in Ireland to being
members of the oppressing race in the United States in the 19th
century. The Irish Catholics were victims of a type of discrimination
in Ireland which was analogous to what we consider racial
discrimination in the United States. Through the story of a
revolutionary of Irish stock, John Binns, Ignatiev shows how Binns
transforms from being an Irish revolutionary militant on one side of
the ocean to fighting with the Irish on this side of the puddle to
establish citizenship in the White Republic. At the same time, in
1841, Daniel O’Connell—an important and influential political
leader of the Irish liberation struggle—wrote an appeal to the Irish
in America to join with the Abolitionists to overthrow slavery and to
treat the Negro as their brother. The racially oppressed Irish in Ireland
and the Abolitionists linked their struggles to overturn racial
subjugation in both places. The Irish in America, though, rejected
this and chose to reject their love for Ireland, and instead fought to
gain access to the privileges of the white club in their new White

The Irish did not automatically become a part of the white club just
because they had white skin. They had to earn it. Malcolm X
describes in his autobiography how he was witnessing European
immigrants getting of the plane and he then said, “Pretty little
children. Soon they’re going to learn their first English word:
nigger.”(9) The Irish had to earn membership in the white club
and thus gain access to the material benefits and the public and
psychological wages of whiteness by distancing themselves from
Blacks. The Irish—or the white Negroes, as they were
called—had to create barriers and separate themselves from the
black population with whom they lived in the ghettos. They also had
to fight to overcome the resistance from members of the white club
and demand their own civil rights from the Protestant elite. The Irish
forced themselves into the White Republic—insisting that they
deserved the rights of citizenship enjoyed by whites—by joining in
the subjugation of Blacks.

Ignatiev details this struggle for Irish membership in the white race;
he describes how the Irish used the riot, the Democratic Party, the
labor unions, and the church to transform themselves from
“white Negroes” to respectable citizens. One example of this,
as portrayed in the recent popular fictional film, Gangs of New York,
were the draft riots in New York City in July, 1863. These riots,
which were initiated by the unfair practices of the Civil War draft,
lasted a week and in the process the Irish turned against the Black
population of New York, killing up to 1,000 of them, while they raised
the Confederate Flag and fought to exclude Blacks from civil service
and other jobs that the Irish and Blacks both held. The Irish rioted not
just against the unfair drafting practices of the bourgeoisie but also to
defend and define the White Republic. They wanted a monopoly on
certain jobs; they did not want the war to turn into a war against
slavery; and they were in the process fighting to gain entrance into
the white club and not for a racially free republic. The Irish used the
riot to distance themselves from the Black population and thus helped
shape a White Republic.(10)

How the Irish Became White ends in 1877 with the end of the
Reconstruction, when the new color line that the Irish helped define
was marked. “If the abolition of slavery had called into question
the meaning of whiteness, the overthrow of Reconstruction marked
the restoration of the color line on a new basis. No longer did it
coincide with the distinction between freedom and slavery; it now
came to correspond to the distinction between free, wage labor and
unfree, semi-feudal labor, and between those who had access to
political power and those who did not.”(11)

This story of the Irish is a powerful one. Noel Ignatiev writes that
“no one gave a damn for the poor Irish. Even the downtrodden
black people had Quakers and abolitionists to bring their plight to
public attention (as well as the ability to tell their own stories
effectively), but there is no Irish-American counterpart of the various
Philadelphia studies on the condition of free colored people.”12
Ignatiev goes on to offer a possible explanation, “perhaps it
reflects a perception that the striving of the Negro for full freedom
carried within itself a vision of a new world for everyone, while the
assimilation of the Irish into white America meant merely more of the

In the same spirit, C.L.R. James, when he was looking for the new
society in the present—a society where self-organization would
replace bureaucracy—wrote that the Afro-American people were
the most self-organized people anywhere. James also wrote that the
task of the revolutionary was to study, observe, and write down what
the workers are doing since they are already creating the new society.
James advised that the daily ways in which the worker creates the
new society should be recorded in a paper. To a certain degree Noel
Ignatiev, John Garvey, and others have been publishing a journal,
Race Traitor, that has detailed how people are unmaking the white

Race Traitor (1996)

...the most visionary, courageous journal in America. — Cornel

...among the strongest, funniest and most politically charged
critiques of whiteness to appear since slave storytellers spun out the
‘Master and John’ tales. — David Roediger(15)

While How the Irish Became White was a study of how a group of
non-white people became white, Race Traitor is about the very
opposite of that. It is about how people who think of themselves as
white might become non-white, and thus, as Malcolm X wrote,
human.(16) Race Traitor: Journal of New Abolitionism is a journal
that first appeared in 1993 and the book is a “best of”
collection of articles from the first few years. The book is divided into
six chapters and defines new abolitionism; describes how white
people, individually and collectively, challenge the white race;
discusses how race has changed over the years; analyzes current
events and popular culture from a new abolitionist perspective; and
contributes to the development of a new revolutionary praxis in the
American context.

“[T]he key to fundamental change in the US is to challenge the
system of race privilege that embraces all whites, including the most
downtrodden.”(17) The goal is not just to strive for equality of
opportunity within the existing society, but to focus on race privilege,
on the white race, as a strategy for revolution. New abolitionism is
something different from what is usually defined as anti-racism. New
abolitionism strives to challenge the institutions that reproduce race
as a social category. New abolitionism seeks to abolish the white race.
“The white race is a historically constructed social
formation—historically constructed because (like royalty) it is a
product of some people’s responses to historical circumstances; a
social formation because it is a fact of society corresponding to no
classification recognized by natural science.”(18) Ignatiev and
Garvey explain that “the white race consists of those who partake
of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched
members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the most
exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their
support to the system that degrades them.”(19) To further explain
what new abolitionists mean by the white race, the editors use the
analogy of a country club to describe how race functions. “The
white race is a club that enrolls certain people at birth, without their
consent, and brings them up according to its rules. For the most part
the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership,
without thinking about the costs.” Race Traitor’s goal is
“to dissolve the club, to break it apart, to explode it.”(20)

Why would this make any sense at all? Race is a historically
constructed political category, but so is gender and even class for that
matter. One can argue that gender or class exists in such a way that
those categories also cut across all others and that members assigned
unwillingly to the dominant gender at birth also place these gender
interests above class and race or any other interests they might hold.
Why focus on race? And why would this focus be a strategy for
revolution? To answer this it will be useful to look at the particular
way that race developed in the United States.

When the first pilgrims settled in Virginia race as we know it now did
not yet exist. As in Ted Allen’s book title, the white race had to
be invented. Why?

The rulers in colonial America had a problem. After they stole and
cleared the land of the American Indian people, backbreaking work
needed to be done to turn the land into arable pastures. They were not
going to do this work themselves, so where were they going to get the
labor to do this? They brought in bound labor from Europe and
Africa. The indentured servants would become free after a period of
perhaps seven years. After these seven years they usually did not
become wage-labor—since this was very rare at that time—but
instead became independent commodity producers or farmers. Black
and white indentured servants toiled together, lived together, escaped
together, and revolted together. Thus the rulers of 17th century
Virginia had a major problem in addition to the labor shortage that
characterized economic life in the colonies. Who was going to police
the laborers in a place where land was up for grabs? It became
necessary to enlist one part of the workers to police the other part.
Toward the end of the 17th century, Virginia started to pass a series
of laws to drive a wedge between African and European
decedents— laws such as those forbidding marriage between
Europeans and Africans. By 1705, Virginia’s rulers had driven
the wedge between Black and white wide enough to give every white
bond laborer a musket after they finished their term of
indenture—while only twenty-five years previously Virginia was
plagued by servile revolts. The rulers created race by drawing
discriminatory lines against Africans and Indians. The white race was
the product of political choices. Race did not exist—it had to be
invented to divide the masses and to police the labor force. Racialized
slavery solved both of colonial Virginia’s major problems: it
solved the labor shortage and created docile workers. The invention of
the white race started the way in which special privileges were
granted to one part of the labor force, including the extension of
democratic rights to the white population.(21)

Capitalism is a system that recognizes nothing but individuals acting
independently in an impersonal market and thus is colorblind. It can
exist without race, as it does in other places in the world. However,
the problem for us today in the United States is that capitalism
developed hand in hand with white supremacy; working class
formation and the concept of the white race developed simultaneously
and thus in a sense created a white and a non-white working
class.(22) While capitalism everywhere develops its own
gravediggers, in the US race developed as a system of social control,
to control the internal contradictions inherent in capitalism. Race in
the US then functions much as social democracy does in Europe;
both make exploitation more tolerable for certain segments of the
working class. The white race is central to understanding the
functioning and history of U.S. capitalism and to understanding the
social movements that struggled against exploitation.

Each and every time the white race was challenged by social
movements—as it was by the abolitionists in the 19th century and
by the civil rights movement in the 20th century—this struggle
opened up opportunities for revolution by temporarily breaking down
the system of social control. Today, the criminal justice system has
inherited this role in the capitalist society from slavery and Jim

While the Race Traitor anthology offers interesting personal stories of
how certain individuals temporarily step outside the white race, these
acts by themselves don’t threaten the institutions—such as
schools, the criminal justice system, the labor market, and
hospitals—that perpetuate white supremacy in our society. Only
collective action as demonstrated by the abolitionist movement in the
19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century will
threaten the system of social control and create the space for

Nevertheless, one very interesting and fascinating story in the
anthology is the one of Joel Gilbert. Gilbert grew up alienated from
society and was attracted to the neo-Nazi movement in the Midwest.
Later, Gilbert was exposed to the Black power movement and
became a left wing revolutionary. Now Gilbert wants to “destroy
this so-called white society. I don’t want any more kids to grow
up like I did. I don’t want to see psychiatry being used to hurt
people. I don’t want to see cops beating down anybody, black or
white. I don’t want to see families destroyed the way mine was.
The kid this society gave birth to and tried to socialize has

There are also many other outstanding pieces in the anthology,
including a critique of multicultural education, a great analysis of the
Rodney King riots and of police killings, Lorenzo Komboa
Ervin’s account of his experience behind prison walls, and many
other articles that together play an important part in the creation of an
American revolutionary praxis.

The Race Traitor project follows C.L.R. James in recognizing the
importance of the struggle against white supremacy and the centrality
of this fight in the United States in the struggle for human liberation.
James wrote in Facing Reality that every country “has many
national political issues peculiar to it, some of them rooted deep in the
national historical development.”(25) One task of the
revolutionary is to bring these issues to the forefront. Another is to
show how this peculiar history has been challenged in the past. Noel
Ignatiev’s collection of the speeches of Wendell Phillips shows
that we can learn much from the radical abolitionists about revolution

The Lesson of The Hour: Wendell Phillips on Abolition and Strategy

By the South, I mean a principle, and not a locality. I mean an
element which cannot tolerate free speech, and punishes it with
stake. I mean the aristocracy of the skin, which considers the
Declaration of Independence a sham, and democracy a
snare—which believes that one-third of the race is born booted and
spurred, and the other two-thirds already saddled for that ride. I mean
the intellectual, social, aristocratic, South—the thing that
manifests itself by barbarism and the bowie-knife, by bullying and
lynch-law, by ignorance and disease. That South is to be annihilated.
This Country will never know peace nor union until the South (using
the words in the sense I have described) is annihilated, and the North
is spread over it. — Wendell Phillips(26)

For “South” read “the white race,” and for
“locality” read “physical type,” and you will have the
outlook of the new abolitionism, perfectly stated. — Noel

The collected speeches of Wendell Phillips are very powerful.
Included among others are “The Philosophy of the Abolitionist
Movement,” “The Lesson of the Hour,” and
“Disunion.” These speeches, along with five others, are
prefaced by a long and excellent introduction by Noel Ignatiev.

The introduction is at once a short history of the radical abolitionist
movement and an analysis of how the abolitionists created a crisis
and a dual power situation that yielded possibilities for a social
revolution in the U.S.. Historians have argued that the period after the
Civil War is the closest the U.S. ever came to a social revolution.
Ignatiev quotes C.L.R. James to show how the abolitionists were
revolutionaries who sought “to tear up by the roots the foundation
of the Southern economy and society, wreck Northern commerce,
and disrupt the Union irretrievably...They renounced all traditional
politics...They openly hoped for the defeat of their own country in the
Mexican War...They preached and practiced Negro equality. They
endorsed and fought for the equality of women...”(28)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Phillips delivered a passionate
speech in which he argued for the break up of the Union and stated
that for all of his grown-up years he had been “devoted to creating
just such a crisis as that which is now upon us.”(29) This crisis
opened up space in the struggle for human liberation. At the outbreak
of the war, the task for the abolitionists was to transform the war for
the Union into a war against slavery.

Previously, after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859,
Phillips had given a powerful speech in his defense, entitled “The
Lesson of the Hour.” Phillips stated, “I think the lesson of the
hour is insurrection. Insurrection of thought always precedes
insurrection of arms. The last twenty years have been insurrection of
thought.”(30) Later in the speech he explains the power of John
Brown. “Virginia did not tremble at an old gray-headed man at
Harpers Ferry; they trembled at a John Brown in every man’s
own conscience.”(31)

In 1853, Phillips gave a speech that called for “Immediate,
Unconditional Emancipation.” In “The Philosophy of the
Abolition Movement,” Phillips argues for revolutionary politics.
“The cause is not ours, so that we might, rightfully, postpone or
put in peril the victory by moderating our demands, stifling our
convictions, or filling down our rebukes, to gratify any sickly taste of
our own, or to spare the delicate nerves of our neighbor.” And he
continues, “The press, the pulpit, the wealth, the literature, the
prejudices, the political arrangements, the present self-interest of the
country, are all against us.” Thus, “he who cannot be
reasoned out of his prejudices must be laughed out of them; he who
cannot be argued out of his selfishness must be shamed out of it by
the mirror of his hateful self held up relentlessly before his
eyes.”(32) Wendell Phillips was not seeking to win over others by
talking, reasoning or arguing with them, but instead by drawing lines,
by agitating to change the boundaries of the debate.(33)

Anarchists are more part of a scene than part of a revolutionary social
movement. The anarchist scene is plagued by disorganization and
lack of analysis, vision, and strategy. Even those who are organized
and serious revolutionaries often draw on European anarchist roots to
create a revolutionary praxis at home. A serious reflection on the
United States’ own historical development and revolutionary
tradition will be necessary if we are going to get out of our scene and
develop a serious movement that will be part of the struggle for a free
society. How the Irish Became White, Race Traitor, and The Lesson
of the Hour are essential contributions to the creation of this
American revolutionary praxis. I hope that these three accessible and
fast-reading books will be widely read and hotly debated by American
anarchists and other revolutionaries.


1. Noel Ignatiev, “The White Blindspot” (1976) cited in
Bring the Ruckus reading packet for the November 2002 meeting in
Phoenix, AZ.

2. A New World in Our Hearts, ed. Roy San Filippo (Oakland: AK
Press, 2003).

3. See http:// www.agitatorindex.org

4. See “The White Blindspot” (1966, from Bring the
Ruckus meeting reading packet) and An Introduction to the United
States: An Autonomist Political History (Denver, CO: Final Conflict,

5. Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post, cited on back cover
of Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York:
Routledge, 1995).

6. John Bracey cited in Danny Postel, “Interview with Noel
Ignatiev,” Z Magazine, http://www.zmag.org.

7. See David Montgomery, Citizen Worker (Cambridge: Cambridge
University, 1993) and Eric Arneson, Waterfront Workers of New
Orleans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1991).

8. See Scott McLemee and Paul LeBlanc, “The Revolutionary
Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States” in C.L.R.
James and Revolutionary Marxism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ:
Humanities Press, 2000) and Grace Lee, Pierre Chaulieu and J.R.
Johnson, Facing Reality: The New Society, Where to Look for It,
How to Bring It Closer (Detroit: Bewick Editions, 1958/1974).

9. Cited in Danny Postel, “Interview with Noel Ignatiev,” Z
Magazine, http://www.zmag.org

10. Ibid.

11. Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, 173.

12. Ibid., 178. Much has been written by and about the Free Blacks
of Philadelphia. The autobiography of Frederick Douglass is perhaps
the most famous work. Philadelphia was not only the home of many
Free Blacks, but also the home of many Irish immigrants. Not that
much has been written about the latter group.

13. Ibid., 178.

14. Cornel West cited on Race Traitor back cover, 10, Winter 1999.

15. David Roediger on back cover of Race Traitor, ed. John Garvey
and Noel Ignatiev (New York: Routledge, 1996).

16. The full quote is from a longer passage when Malcolm X is
waiting at a red light and another car pulls up and asks him,
“‘Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?’
Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, ‘I
don’t mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you
one?’” Cited in Joel Olsen, Democratic Problem of the White
Citizen (Ph.D. diss.; University of Minnesota, 2001), 1. Book
forthcoming: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

17. John Garvey and Noel Ignatiev, eds. Race Traitor (New York:
Routledge, 1996), 1.

18. Ibid., 9.

19. Ibid., 9-10.

20. Ibid., 11.

21. For a longer treatment of the topic, see Theodore Allen,
Invention of the White Race (New York: Verso, 1994), Joel Olson,
Abolish the White Citizen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota,
forthcoming), Noel Ignatiev, Introduction to the United States: An
Autonomous Political History (Denver, CO: Final Conflict, 1978),
and Jacqueline Jones, American Work (New York: Norton, 1998).

22. See “Interview with Noel Ignatiev” by The Blast!
reprinted in Race Traitor, 287-292 for discussion on the relationship
between capitalism and whiteness.

23. For an article that lays out four successive “peculiar
institutions” from the first slave society to the first prison society,
see Loic Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” in
New Left Review 13, Jan/Feb 2002. Also see Christian Parenti’s
Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New
York: Verso, 2000) for an excellent and well-written class analysis of
the U.S. Prison system. See also Joel Olsen’s “Garden’s
of the Law: The Role of Prisons in Capitalist Society,” in Criminal
Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, ed. Elihu Rosenblatt
(Boston: South End Press, 1996).

24. Garvey and Ignatiev, eds., Race Traitor, 57.

25. C.L.R. James, Facing Reality.

26. Noel Ignatiev, ed., The Lesson of the Hour (Chicago: Charles
H. Kerr, 2001), 1.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., 16.

29. Ibid., 23.

30. Ibid., 75.

31. Ibid., 86.

32. Ibid., 46.

33. For an extensive discussion of Abolition-Democracy politics,
see Joel Olsen, Abolish the White Citizen (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2004)

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