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REVIEW – Sober Living for the Revolution

category international | culture | review author Friday May 07, 2010 22:37author by Stefanie K. Report this post to the editors

A review of Gabriel Kuhn's book, "Sober Living for the Revolution".

REVIEW – Sober Living for the Revolution

Kuhn, Gabriel, ed, 2010, Sober Living for the Revolution. Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics, Oakland: PM Press, 299 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60486-051-1, US $ 22.95

I learned about Gabriel Kuhn accidentally - a comrade of mine met him at the London Anarchist Bookfair in 2009 and told me about this book on his return to South Africa. Excited about the book, I googled it and discovered that Gabriel was not only born in the same small town as I was - Innsbruck in Austria - but that he's also an anarchist (there aren't many in Innsbruck) and also straight edge (there are only three of us in Innsbruck as far as I know)! Excited as I was about this I got in touch with him and, after some e-mails sent back and forth in our Alpine dialect, he sent me a free copy for review, something which I must say I'm very happy to be able to do.

As soon as the book arrived (which, with the postal service in South Africa, can take ages) I forgot about the PhD I was supposed to write - I just couldn't put Sober Living for the Revolution down. It was just what I had been longing to read in these last years that I've been living in South Africa; in my circle of friends I'm the only remaining straight edge person, and possibly the only one in South Africa who is not Christian. Because of this I always have to defend why I'm straight edge and how this is connected to my politics (which I think it is) and this book does a great job in providing all the right arguments.

The hardcore scene in South Africa is lame - it's mostly white (in fact most shows are exclusively white), male and tough guy. Most bands are Christians and dedicate their songs to Jesus, and those few international bands that make it out here are almost always tough guy bands without any message...the usual commercial hardcore bands that have enough money to tour the world. There was one exception to this rule last year: Have Heart. I screamed my lungs out and wore the X on my hand with pride (I was the only one wearing it in the audience). Have Heart are not particularly political and I didn't watch them when I had the chance to in Europe, but hey, at least they're not Christians!

Back to the book. First off, it looks fantastic! Maybe it's our straight edge aesthetics, but I really like the design, and the back cover photo is amazing. Because of this, I made an effort to read it in public spaces so people could see it. Unfortunately, no one commented on it. The sadness of living in a place where drinking and driving is a national sport and seen as a great accomplishment (well, for those who can afford to have cars)....

Another thing that struck me immediately when I looked at the table of contents was that Gabriel really made an effort to interview a wide range of people of different nationalities, genders and sexual orientations. This kind of diversity is welcome in a scene that is too often focused on what's happening in the United States. The South African hardcore scene, for example, is completely oriented towards the US, and most bands sing in a fake American accent.

It's also interesting to note that most of the interviewees don't see themselves part of a straight edge movement any more; instead they distance themselves from it, with many not even attending shows any more. I guess they've grown out of it and have become disgusted by some of the prevailing attitudes, but at least all of them are still straight edge and none of them are dogmatic. They make an effort to show that straight edge isn't a puritanical position and distance themselves from conservative elements like hardline (a tendency which developed out of the militant vegan straight edge scene in the 1990s). The distancing from hardline is obvious, because such views don't go well with radical politics - the focus of this book - and especially not anarchism, the ideology most of the interviewees subscribe to in one way or another.

The book is structured as a selection of interviews and articles, with an overall introduction written by Gabriel as well as short introductions to each of the interviews/texts. It also contains a very helpful timeline graphic near the beginning that puts the straight edge scene into perspective. The book is divided into 5 sections: Section 1. Bands - in which famous radical straight edge bands known to everyone in the scene are interviewed. This begins with the band any discussion on straight edge has to start with: Minor Threat. In fact, all the other bands/interviewees/texts refer back to Minor Threat. Section 2. Scenes - interviews with various people from around the world talking about their local scenes. Section 3. Manifestos - a selection of three radical straight edge texts with follow up interviews. Section 4. Reflections - interviews with queer activists and feminists, as well as one straight edge crusty and one anarcho-primitivist. Section 5. Perspectives - five more personal articles.

Gabriel makes the scope of the book explicit in the introduction by stating that he's not claiming to represent the whole straight edge movement, only its radical fringe. He's looking at people who are, “engaged in political struggle and social transformation, but not judgmental, belligerent, or narrow-minded” (page 14).

What was not surprising to me, but is important for anyone who thinks that all straight edgers are conservatives, is that most of the radical bands were/are, apart from a few Marxist bands like ManLiftingBanner (who are interviewed in Section 1), anarchists! In this vein, there is a reprint of the CrimethInc pamphlet “Wasted Indeed: Anarchy and Alcohol”, another article titled “Towards a less fucked up world: Sobriety and anarchist struggle” and an interview with someone from Anarchists Against the Wall in Israel. Additionally, many of the interviewees explicitly state that they are anarchists.

Many interviewees also talk about veganism and the importance of animal liberation, while drawing a clear distinction between their views and those of the militant vegan straight edge (hardline) scene that started with the worst named band ever - Vegan Reich - and that now often uses the even more nauseating term “vegan jihad” to describe their views.

As already mentioned, the book opens with an interview with Ian MacKaye, singer of Minor Threat, the guy who created the term “straight edge” in order to encapsulate his personal policy of “don't smoke, don't drink, don't fuck, at least I can fucking think”. These lyrics, unfortunately, led many to believe that straight edgers are against sex but, as Ian tells us, this is a misunderstanding; he was simply referring to the prevailing attitude of the time of going to shows to get laid without caring about people's feelings. Many now interpret this as not engaging in promiscuous sex, only religious folks use it to justify their celibacy. Iain also mentions that he never wanted to create a movement, but hey, neither did Marx! He tells us about Rock against Racism concerts the band organised, and about Revolution Summer 1985, where, amongst other actions, they organised an anti-apartheid protest in front of the South African embassy. As he says, “Straight edge was just a declaration for the right to live your life the way you want to. I was not interested in trying to tell people how to do that. I mean, obviously things got pretty crazily perverted over the years.” (MacKaye in Kuhn 2010: 34). Finally, Iain also explains that straight edge is not a lifestyle. It's life - we're born that way.

Moving ahead, many interviewees point out that sobriety is crucial for those who want to help bring about revolution. In this regard, the example of how the US government brought drugs into African American communities to destroy the Black Panthers and criminalise poor communities is mentioned a few times. We also learn how Native Americans deal with the divisiveness of alcoholism in their poor communities. South Africa provides another example of the ravages of alcohol abuse: Soweto is full of alcohol advertisements and on weekends the only sober people you find in townships are the kids.

Facing the problems instead of escaping them seems to be one of the main rallying cries from radical straight edgers. Many of them also point to the lack of ethics in the alcohol and tobacco industries - huge corporations that clearly don't give a shit about their consumers (millions of whom die every year from alcohol and tobacco related causes) – and some also note that tobacco ingredients are tested on animals and a lot of alcoholic beverages use animal derived ingredients. As if these facts weren't enough of an indictment, tobacco companies have often chased away indigenous peoples to grow tobacco, or even tricked them into selling away their land for a pittance.

For me, however, the most beautiful article in the book was definitely Point Of No Return's “Bending to stay straight”, in which the connections between being straight edge, vegan and anarchist are looked at, as well as the the need for a sisterhood in this male dominated scene. If you only read one piece in the book, read this one! The interview with Frederico Freitas of Point Of No Return that follows the article talks about the connection between straight edge and anarchism in Brazil. He mentions that many working class and anarchist movements at the beginning of the 20th century viewed sobriety as important. The FAI in Spain before and during the Spanish Revolution of 1936 is one such example: FAI members did not drink or smoke (and many were vegetarians).

In the same spirit there is a great picture on page 127 of a Mayday march in Sweden that shows a banner reading, “Don't drink away the class struggle: drug-free organizing!”. I can definitely relate to that!

Another article I really liked was “The Antifa Straight Edge” manifesto, published by Alpine Anarchist Productions. I'm especially fond of this piece because it reminds me of a similar manifesto (against hardline) my best friend (the other vegan straight edge anarchist from Innsbruck) and I wrote in 2006 without knowing about this one.

Further along in the book are some articles and interviews with “queer edgers” followed by two interviews with feminists involved in XsisterhoodX. Both of these sections highlight the challenges queers and women face in the scene as well as the need for safe spaces; they also show how women are often central to the running of shows, etc.

One thing this book highlighted for me about the straight edge scene - especially the more political, vegan part of it - is that we are a relatively close-knit community. All of us seem to know one another directly or indirectly. For instance, while I've met some of the people interviewed in the book personally, I also have good friends who are good friends with many interviewees, from the US West Coast to Israel.

This book did also remind me of a sad realisation I've had a few times though, something I experience on a daily level in a circle of friends who are all pro-drugs: it's not them who have to defend themselves for taking drugs, it's straight edge people like me who have to defend our views, and this is especially true in the political and alternative scenes. To me, especially when I think back to what Ian MacKaye points out – that straight edge is not a lifestyle, it's life – this is a sign of just how upside down this world is. I hope readers of this review and book will consider this; hedonism seems to be our present paradigm and it fits all too nicely into the American dream/myth and into an individualistic neoliberal world.

In conclusion, I want to say that I learned a lot from this book. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in political hardcore and the political straight edge scene. It demonstrates conclusively that we are not a bunch of conservatives...Far from it!

Related article:

One for the Resistance? Oppression, Anarchism and Alcohol

Related Link:


author by DaveMoralpublication date Tue Jul 20, 2010 13:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I think it's clear from browsing this book, how far off the timeline is about the emergence of the Hardline Movement and Vegan Straight Edge generally, and quite frankly the obvious and blatant ignoring of the Hardline Movement's(and Vegan Reich's) contribution to politics in the Straight Edge and hardcore scene and the very formation of the entire Vegan Straight Edge scene, that the author knows next to nothing about the Hardline Movement and it's origins. He would be well served with reading the interview with Sean Muttaqi in Burning Fight just as a starter.

Nevermind the historical revisionism of the likes of Kurt (Catalyst) Schroeder on the importance of Hardline in the introduction of comprehensive political and ethical ideas in the straight edge hardcore scenes of the US and Europe. In 1997-1998 the Hardline Movement was the only outlet for a comprehensive political and ethical platform in the vegan straight edge scene in the United States... and this was Hardline at it's zenith. In 1999 Hardline would be officially disbanded with some ousted members moving on to do more environmental education projects(the short-lived Education for a Sustainable Future or ESF), and those that converted to Islam formed the Ahl-i Allah(People of Allah) and later Taliyah al-Mahdi(Vanguard of the Mahdi) groups. POA and Taliyah were both essentially HL dressed in Islamic garb, with the POA being much more spiritually oriented while the Taliyah was more militantly revolutionary minded. Both groups reached out to a greater number of minds than HL, or vegan straight edge for that matter, because it was detached from the hardcore punk scene it had originated in. Both groups have faded quietly partially from governmental pressure and partially from internal strife, but those who were drawn to them have tended to remain directed on the same platform of what HL called the "One Ethic," that all innocent life is sacred and should be liberated from oppression.

Disagree as some might with the Hardline Movement's ideology, particularly as relates to sexuality and abortion, it's role in bringing radical revolutionary politics to the forefront of the straight edge scene in the US and in parts of Europe cannot be ignored without being factually and historically inaccurate. Hardline, in fact, was the only group within the hardcore punk scene that specifically stated it's abstinence from drugs and alcohol were tied to it's politics. Most straight edgers become politicized as a secondary consideration to becoming straight edge. Hardline's purpose in being drug and alcohol free was a reaction to the often drunken stupidity of the anarchist movement and to the lessons learned from past revolutionary groups destroyed by drugs and alcohol. One could, and probably should, consider Hardline to be something distinct from vegan straight edge and not merely the "more militant" version of vegan straight edge simply because Hardline had a very specific platform and was not a mere sentiment as is vegan straight edge and was indeed an organization with chapters and memberships. "Hardline" was not something one could just one day decide you were and go around saying "I'm Hardline" though many did, and in so doing often promoted a great many more misconceptions about HL than arose simply out of HL's own zine, Vanguard.

Furthermore, to this day there are people all over the world... and especially in European countries I've noticed... that are attracted to the Hardline Movement and wish to start it up again. There are numerous kids in European countries starting up new chapters and making discussion groups on MySpace and Facebook for the purpose of rallying around Hardline and these kids have no connection to the Hardliners of the 90s.

Hardline's platform covered animal liberation, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, holistic medicine, sexual discipline(often including Taoist sexual yoga), anti-abortion for the sake of being consistent with an ethic that said all life is intrinsically valuable, martial arts and firearms training, human rights concerns related to anti-imperialism/anti-colonialism, fair trade before fair trade was a huge and open concern which often included calling on Hardliners to abstain from seemingly benign cash crops like bananas and chocolate, holistic dietary discipline mostly concerned with eating foods as natural as possible(a whole foods diet), and the list goes on and on. I never knew anyone that wasn't inspired by Hardline in part or in whole, even those that disagreed with Hardline's position on sexuality and abortion.

To ignore and mock that is to ignore and mock one of the most important contributions to the politics of the straight edge, especially vegan straight edge, scene. Especially in the US. Furthermore, when politics seemed to really fade from US hardcore scene and the vegan straight edge scene shrunk so fast it made your head spin in the late 90s-early 2000s... it was presaged by Hardline's disbanding and the retreat of Hardliners from the hardcore scene and moving on to other venues.

author by Gabriel Kuhnpublication date Tue Aug 03, 2010 01:23author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Hi Dave!

You don't need to worry: I've read Sean Muttaqis statements in "Burning Fight." They include lines like the following: "In regards to what some people perceived as 'homophobia' was the stand hardline took that if you were hardline, you could not be gay, that homosexuality was not part of a healthy, natural lifestyle from its perspective. People took that and wanted to jump to conclusions and would say hardliners were homophobic […] It was a case of a sort of reverse P.C. fascism where they were saying, 'If you don't believe what we believe then we're going to make demagogues out of you.' […] In general, I think the P.C. liberal crowd is just as eager as the 'Christian Right' to make other people believe in what they believe and to enforce their views." To be honest, this reflects a pattern that I see illustrated by your comment as well: whenever hardline is critiqued, the critic is called ignorant, ill-intentioned, or both. I never get the sense that self-identified hardliners at least somehow understand how offensive and frightening hardline was to a lot of people – and, no, not evil capitalists, but many women, queers, their allies, and generally everyone who feels uncomfortable when folks claim to be judge and jury based on supposed "righteousness" and "purity." If there was any indication for self-reflection, I might see hardline differently – although I admit that being anti-abortion and homophobic (I'm sorry, but Sean's explanation does not convince me of the opposite) is enough for me to question people as companions in "actively pursuing a fundamental social change in order to create free and egalitarian communities," which is how radical politics are defined in the introduction to "Sober Living." So these are the reasons why hardline is "obviously and blatantly ignored," not because I know nothing about it – as far as I am concerned, I know too much about it, as I could have done with a few less frustrating discussions back in the day.

With respect to the hardline resurgence in Europe, you might wanna check some of those websites more carefully – unless you wanna get excited about hardline appearing in clearly neofascist contexts:

Take care,

author by sober anarchypublication date Tue Oct 26, 2010 18:49author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I found this to be a great book. I've always loved PONR politically and musically and really enjoyed reading the parts on them.

Only point I didnt really enjoy was the featuring of Man Lifting Banner. While they rightly critiqued right wing, apolitical sxe and hardline; I found them distastefully linked to authoritarian socialism political groups. They were even Russian Revolution fetishists - listening to red army marching songs on the car stereo outside the venue whilst waiting to play a gig.

I believe the vocalist even mentions the authoritarian socialist groups that he was involved in. These groups are linked to authoritarian hierarchical socialist groups here in the UK such as the SWP - Socialist Workers Party. I think he even mentions that he had travelled over to London to attend a festival held by the SWP.

Anyone involved in activist and anarchist politics here in the UK knows the SWP and its nature. Activists act from below while the SWP try to impose its aims and means from above. These groups, such as the SWP are authoritarian, hierarchical, self serving and in essence counter revolutionary. In short, alot of these socialist groups see us activists and anarchists as the enemy.

It was funny to see NATIONS ON FIRE and MAN LIFTING BANNER linked under the same banner of political sxe when in reality the anarchist tendencies of NOF were bitterly opposed to the socialist authoritarianism of MLB.

author by DaveMoralpublication date Sun Oct 02, 2011 02:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors


You may or may not read this response, as obviously it's been about 13 months since you responded to my first comment on this.

I agree, Hardline could have stood to better articulate their positions vis-a-vis abortion and homosexuality in so far as how they would relate to those effected by their views. To my knowledge, which is pretty good, they never used militant language towards homosexuals or threatened violence to homosexuals as a group or as a point of reference for their behavior towards the gay community. I had never known anyone in that group to have held such views. They merely held the belief that homosexuality was contrary to the Natural Order, the authority for which they turned towards Abrahamic traditions and Taoist sexual yoga. Thus the idea that if one wished to join Hardline and consider one's self a Hardliner, homosexual behavior was out of the question. Which went hand-in-hand with their attitude towards sexual licentiousness of any kind.

They did use militant rhetoric regarding abortion, and that was aimed exclusively towards providers when it was employed. Which was almost always pretty much tangential to the main thrust of their militant rhetoric, which was animal exploiters, racists and the capitalist system in general.

Unfortunately, Hardline suffered from never effectively articulating their message on abortion, how they... and most importantly the women that joined the organization... perceived abortion as it not only related to the quasi-mystical Natural Order that was often the crux of many of their positions, but also to how they conceived of feminism in the first place. Their stance on abortion was/is consistent with early women's movement figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. Legislation would be a hard issue for Hardline to address, being generally against the system. I'm sure there were some, but as an organization I think more important to them was fostering a conception of the sanctity of all innocent life under the "One Ethic." A softer approach was probably warranted. Then again, what can one expect from mostly teenagers? Who were often responding to equally vehement teenagers who chose to focus on issues that were arguably tangential to the main thrust of Hardline's message. A message that caught on well enough to cause a massive spike in people who considered themselves vegan, straight edge and politically conscious.

I don't believe that in the early 90s, heck even today considering some of the totalitarian language employed by vehement anarchists, feminists, etc that anyone would legitimately fit your definition of "working to form egalitarian communities." One side viciously attacks the other, and it continues today, often with the employ of epithets that in no way encourage reasoned debate(such as Nazi, fascist etc).

The blog you linked to alleging the author(s) using Hardline in a neofacist context I cannot verify, because it no longer exists. If that is truly the case, however, they are most likely woefully ignorant of the origins and writings of the Hardline Movement because it was a decidedly anti-fascist organization and everyone I have met that still holds an affinity with Hardline is strongly anti-fascist.

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