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It may be dramatic to compare Mark Andersen’s advising activists to re-examine their tactics to Lenin’s requesting that the Bolsheviks take it down a notch in Petrograd 1917. But it’s not exactly a stretch, either.
In his new book, All the Power: Revolution Without Illusion, the 45-year-old co-founder of legendary punk collective Positive Force DC offers a strident and surprising critique of an activist movement he’s long nurtured.
“[The book] was written for me, to help me figure out things….I’m talking about my illusions, my mistakes,” Andersen says. As if to illustrate his self-flagellation, he jabs that most sacred of harDCore cows: straightedge. “My purist impulse is to say, ‘Anybody who drinks is a conformist.’” he says. “[But] it becomes a wall between other people….[Abstinence is] something that makes us feel good about ourselves but can separate us from other people.”
All the Power’s thesis, of course, cuts much broader than that; Andersen distills it to “Let us radicals not fall in love with our ideals at the expense of people.” His tract is not the first time a radical heavyweight has spoken out against counterproductive activist behavior. Pioneering Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky had much the same reaction to the hippie excesses of the ’60s and ’70s; his disaffection led to the 1973 classic Rules for Radicals, which drew a sharp line between community-based organizers like Alinsky and such violent, alienating groups as the Weather Underground.
Not long after 9/11, while on a tour for his first book, D.C. punk history Dance of Days (co-authored with Washington City Paper contributor Mark Jenkins), Andersen took part in a peace protest in Denver. The rally featured all the hallmarks of a typical radical event: drummers, masked protesters, police confrontations. But in those raw-nerved weeks after the attacks, Andersen says going through the same old motions struck a sour note. “It felt so out of sync with what people were feeling,” he recalls. “[I thought to myself], I understand the emotion, and I can’t think of a worse way to proceed. It was kind of like, Fuck other people—we’re going to do this.”
After the protest, Alinsky figured heavily in Andersen’s thoughts—in fact, he had a copy of Rules for Radicals with him that day. After discussions with the AK Press cooperative, publisher of Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and other left-wing authors, Andersen set out in early 2003 to write rules for a new generation of radicals, to “do what [Alinsky] did but with more humility.”
AK, however, did not end up publishing the book; some members of the co-op objected to its content, Andersen says. All the Power instead came out last month on the Punk Planet imprint of Akashic Books, a New York alternative publisher. Alinsky’s is the name Andersen invokes earliest, but it’s far from the only one: In his eclectic 230-page “anti-manifesto,” he references Southern California punks Bad Religion on one page, Hegel on the next.
AK passed on the book, but there shouldn’t be much carping from the D.C. scene, where Andersen’s presence as éminence grise looms large. But convincing the rest of the fractious activist community may be a challenge: This week, Andersen begins a three-week nationwide book tour with former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who recently released a political book of his own.
One reviewer, from PressAction.com, wrote that the book was “guaranteed to frustrate and irritate much of its target audience,” but Andersen hopes activists can set aside their ideological parochialism. “It’s a very dangerous moment,” he says. “In this context—George Bush, post 9/11—there’s not a lot of room for fuckin’ up by the left.” —Mike DeBonis