Sober Living for the Revolution in Interfaceby John L. Murphy
Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements
Volume 3(1): 266-291 (May 2011)
Ian MacKaye of Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat sang in 1981’s “Straight Edge”: “Never want to use a crutch/ I’ve got the straight edge.” This assertion turned an admonition: abstaining from not only intoxicants but from harmful sex and a non-vegan diet that fuelled a capitalist dependence upon a destructive system.
Anarchist-activist Gabriel Kuhn’s anthology gathers sXe (I will employ this shorthand for “straight edge”) international contributors from bands, scenes, and labels. He interviews participants, includes manifestoes, and compiles an introduction situating this movement emerging from 1980s hardcore punk.
Five sections comprise this collection. This review will follow Kuhn’s presentation of these chapters.
Kuhn notes his decision to expand sXe coverage beyond white, male, American contexts which dominate conventional media. Radicals tend to dismiss the movement as dogmatic, exclusive, and privileged. Kuhn emphasizes the “politically conscious” challenges within sXe, defining radical as those who actively pursue social change for free and egalitarian communities, and who “maintain a clear distance to politically ambiguous ideologies” (p.14). These include “religious groups or belief systems.” He omits sXe members from Christian, Hare Krishna, or Islamic communities, although a few contributors allude to these outside Kuhn’s self-imposed frame. The total absence of Buddhist contexts disappoints, given American advocates and authors “hardcore Zen” Brad Warner and “dharma punx” Noah Levine have earned prominence among dharma-practitioners who grew up alongside sXe. However, Kuhn acknowledges his focus aims at politics, not sobriety or culture.
Ian MacKaye logically begins the interviews. He tells how his lyrics to “Out of Step” set the scene: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t fuck, at least I can fucking think,” were not directives, but “anti-obsession,” while they were followed by “But at least I can fucking think” (pp.34-35). That is, the choice remains for the punk to think through the ramifications of this pledge. The second line’s subtlety may have been lost on many, yet MacKaye’s example remains a guiding force through his inspired, “all access” approach to overcome barriers of age, income, and expenses for concerts with his band Fugazi and through Dischord Records. He defends a “free space” for unconventional ideas as a “constant, ever-flowing river” that persists as a river channels its energy endlessly (p.24).
MacKaye’s distrust of dangerous sex matches his disdain for alcohol and drug abuse. These encourage selfishness, blurring awareness of the present moment.
They also diminish willpower, break down defences, and weaken potential for positive change. But, as a movement, sXe contained its own dogmatic danger.
MacKaye analyzes how movements falter by creating a “higher calling” which mimics the pursuit of power and the imposition of violence upon dissenters.
These “triggers” ignite nationalism and persecution; as more of a “Minor Threat” they foment prejudice between punks. This intolerance within sXe sparked a backlash from the hardcore scene, as violence among supporters and deniers led to sensationalist treatment from political activists and the mainstream media. Articulating sXe as “straight” for MacKaye builds a basis for a life, not a lifestyle.
The straight line equals common equality. Food, water, air remain, with sex as the imperative for survival. Converting these needs with wants, advertising sells out the communal, organic solidarity formed by sXe, with its slogan “Live as you desire the world to be!” (p.43) Such idealism compels others to follow MacKaye.
Liner notes to the Swedish band Refused’s 1998 album The Shape of Punk to Come remind the listener: “It’s never been safe to live in a world that teaches us to respect property and disregard human life” (p.66). ManLiftingBanner, a Dutch communist band, presents here the clearest allegiance to a standard political philosophy. Many contributors cite them as a major influence. Frederico Freitas of Brazil’s Point of No Return agrees with Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén: the European and Third World traditions of resistance impel many sXe supporters outside America to connect with established progressive forces. While the U.S. by WWII lost its radical mass, Freitas and Lyxzén by their thoughtful if idealized manifestoes hearken back to a proletariat integrating contemporary working-class and communally organized opposition struggles.
This evolution offers a counter-reaction to three earlier sXe stages. The 1980s individually-centered reaction which Minor Threat jumpstarted, the “wolfpack” street crews of Boston and New York City, and the VeganStraightEdge 1990s trend all, for Freitas, lack militancy. Bruno “Break” Teixiera from Portugal’s New Winds seeks a similarly leftist link to class-based politics now, while Robert Matusiak from Poland’s Refused Records contrasts the Russian and German tendencies among a sXe minority reverting to race-based extremism with a community situated in co-operative enterprises and non-profit employment. This internal shift for the committed activist has led to charges by radicals and punks of sXe elitism. Jonathan Pollack’s pro-Palestinian direct action involvement in Against the wall ensures him, as an Israeli, a prominent position of opposition.
As a political idea, the Straight Edge of ebullient refusal to the decadence of our times is not that of an ascetic anchorite in the badlands of western civilization or of religious purity. The need to extract oneself from society, so prevalent in Straight Edge, is fuelled by the desire to see and live in a different reality; a desire that can’t subsist in the clubs, cafés and drug culture of mainstream society. Both my Straight Edge and my activism are strongly rooted in this passion, and neither is dependent on whether we will reach this different reality or not (p.112).
As this anthology progresses, interviewees and contributors seek to stand apart from the commodification which, as punk became marketed as fashion, weakened its oppositional stance. Pollock muses how “the farther you get from cleancut looks and fancy clothes,” the more interesting the movement becomes. That is, sXe itself may represent conformity amidst punk’s supposedly purer (non-)conformists, so the move away from puritanical commitment may signal the imminent realization of values which transcend music or style: to transform.
Catalyst Records’ Kurt Schroeder speaks from another confrontational stance, the vegan aspiration. He admits many adherents come from America’s middle class.
This context may weaken vegan sXe acceptance by European or Latin American radical fellow-travellers drawn to socialist or leftist aspects. Yet, all two dozen contributors appear to thrive on vegan diets and radical ideologies. This skews the political message in Kuhn’s edition to the already converted. However, this affirmation of connections between sXe and radicalism provides an encouraging collection for those seeking exactly this compendium.
While Refused and Point of No Return in their extensive liner notes produced manifestoes in all but name reprinted earlier in this anthology, a separate section matches three lengthy pamphlets with their authors, who reflect years later upon the impact of their messages. Under the aegis of Alpine Anarchist Productions, XsraquelX repels conservative punk reactions to veganism with DIY ethics grounded in personal choice rather than ideological duty. By its exclusivity, xSe risked reduction into a “fascist mentality” constrained by moral codes which refused any deviation. She argues for an “antifa[scist]” decision of absention as “an actual and symbolic mode of promoting a life of responsibility and shunning dependency” on capitalism (p.158). Feminism, minority and animal rights, and environmentalism accompany “like-minded social action” for Antifa sXe communities.
For the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective, an “intoxication culture” looms as the class enemy. Yet, Kuhn wisely prefaces this entry with the collective’s explanation that it originally had added a “hypertrophied appendix,” which was “a sort of sendup of primitivist historical revisionism, though based on kernels of truth.”
They left it out of this reprinting “for fear it could be taken too seriously outside its original context”(p.164). A sense of humor too often lurks far outside this edition.
While many entries remain worthy for their unstintingly committed determination, the moral tone at such an elevated register, over hundreds of pages of similar-sounding justifications, may weary the less ardent.
Therefore, “Wasted Indeed: Anarchy and Alcohol” manages to convince more than its stolid comrades by its lightly self-deprecating narrative. “Like the tourism of the worker, drink is a pressure valve that releases tension while maintaining the system that creates it” (p.166). Pithier and wittier than previous entries, this statement argues for abstinence as a fulfilling, truly engaged response to life’s possibilities. “No war but the class war—no cocktail but the molotov cocktail! Let us brew nothing but trouble!” It does so as a slight caricature of leftist sobriety, to highlight its self-righteous dangers of insecurity (“they cannot rest until everyone in the world sees that world exactly as they do”). It concludes amidst gentle satire with sincere encouragement, “as a reminder for all who choose to concern themselves that another world is possible” (pp.170-71).
Nick Riotfag’s queer advocacy gains in-depth coverage; he narrates the difficulty of creating safe spaces for non-drinkers within environmental gatherings, co-op meetings, and anarchist settings. He supports “Take the straight out of straight edge” campaigns, as gays confront homophobes and reactionary punk enclaves.
Similarly, Jenni Ramme from Poland’s Emancypunx sets herself apart from mainstream feminists who work within capitalist and corporate settings. She rejects integration. She seeks utopian space beyond the state or the conventional network of the firm, the market, the press, or the broadcast.
Mainstream media will never see underground culture as anything but new, fresh meat to make profits. They are part of a capitalist and consumerist culture of blood-sucking zombies. They take without giving anything back. This is not a base to build radical movements on (p.226).
While Andy Hurley now drums for Fall Out Boy, a successful American “emo” band adopted by the mainstream, he retains his credibility with anarcho-primitivist advocacy influenced by Kevin Tucker’s “feral edge” post-civilized and John Zerzan’s anti-leftist, pro-wilderness perspectives (Marshall 2010). Hurley rejects leftist participation in politics and power. Kuhn gently prods Hurley, the most mainstream of those included by his current band’s allegiance, but the most radical by his drift away from communal solidarity in the pursuit of self-reliance.
This interview sidles towards thoughtful, if admittedly incomplete, explanations of Hurley’s responses to a set of complicated compromises. For all its open-endedness, this concludes this section with a relevant portrayal of how an activist works towards his own truth.
Global networking within the social margins, prominent in this cross-cultural sub-cultural anthology, flows through Argentinian-Israeli Swedish resident Santiago Gomez’ punk and anarchist-vegan efforts. His footnoted, lively essay interprets sXe as “intuitive resistance.” He moves from Melville and Turgenev to Tolstoy and Lenin within the context of hardcore; he cites Zapatista liberated zones which have banished alcohol—without appearing pedantic. His ironic sense shows as he quotes Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (the scene when followers pick up and immediately imitate, and then debate, the accidental discarding of Brian’s single shoe, or is it a sandal?) to illustrate how Minor Threat’s two lines from their lyric for “Out of Step” became adopted as a creed.
Tellingly, Gomez segues into a reminder of how the “X” on the back of the hand used as a signifier of sXe started not out of a devotion to sobriety, but a nightclub’s stamp that the patron was simply too young to legally drink. He sketches out a nuanced position, that sXe has faltered by its anti-intoxicant and animal rights definition while neglecting the larger struggle against all capitalist exploitation. Gomez does not retreat from his own ideological agreement with abstinence, but he reminds his audience that the imperative fight against oppression endures.
Three veteran activists end this collection with their own rallying cries. Mark Andersen brings the entries back to their Washington D.C. origins with his own account of inner-city community organizing at Positive Force House. He champions collectives as a logical foundation for incremental change. He rejects superior attitudes formed by snobbish sXe members, and sets out revolutionary progress as coming from not only the process—“profoundly aided by the clarity and health that drug-free, meat-free lifestyles can bring,” but the victory. This triumph waits, Andersen wraps up this volume, by reaching out beyond sXe.
This anthology does preach to the choir. Those outside the sXe community will find no explanation of how the music sounds compared to hardcore (a “crust” punk’s recollections comprise a bit of variety, albeit marginal), even if sXe lyrics urge a nobler practice. Kuhn gathers those with whom he agrees; the book’s main intention is to reinforce leftist and radical ties to sXe. Within these parameters, the collection succeeds, for what will likely remain a small, but committed audience seeking social and political change by principled transformation of their own appetites and desires and by communal solidarity.
Levine, Noah. Dharma Punx: A Memoir. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004).
Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. (Oakland: PM Press, 2010).
Murphy, John L. “’Sex, sin, and Zen’: 25 years hardcore as
punk bassist, sexual seeker, and Zen student.” PopMatters.
warner/ (accessed 2.5.2011)
Murphy, John L. “Noah Levine’s ‘The heart of the revolution.’” New
York Journal of Books. http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/heart-
revolution (accessed 2.5.2011)
Warner, Brad. Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth about
Reality. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003).
About the reviewer
John L. Murphy coordinates the Humanities sequence at DeVry University's
Long Beach, California campus. He earned a Ph.D. from UCLA in British and Irish
literature. His research interests include religious, literary, and musical currents
in cultures of resistance and reinvention. He can be contacted at jmurphy2 AT