Sober Living For the Revolution on

Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics

By Stefanie Knoll
Friday, May 7, 2010

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!

Back to Gabriel Kuhn’s Author Page