In the endorsement blurbs on the first page of All the Power: Revolution Without Illusion by Mark Andersen, Fugazi front man Ian MacKaye notes that “The fact that questions in a written form can at times resemble answers is a danger for most activist writers, as well as writing activists.” This observation adequately describes Mr. Andersen’s book within which he dissects and critiques various aspects of “revolutionary politics” here in the United States.
Mark Andersen is a longtime community organizer and fixture of the punk rock scene in Washington D.C. This is readily apparent as two of the recurring themes throughout the book are his experiences working with poor and minority communities in the nation’s capital and his constant use of punk rock lyrics to summarize his points.
The chapters of the book are each devoted to a particular type of organizing, within which the author offers his observations and critiques. The first half of the book deals with the punk rock subculture, college activism, identity politics and lifestyle activism as vehicles for social change. This is the more useful part of the book and the authors insights are thoughtful and based in personal experience. While he does sometimes contextualize his comments with material with other writers, such as Naomi Klein or Audre Lorde, the book does not rely much on other authors or works. For younger people, this part of the book could very well prove valuable, as it provides a perspective with a greater depth of experience than the novice activist is bound to have.
The seventh chapter, Don’t Mind Throwing a Brick, is the part of the book bound to cause the most controversy amongst radical readers. This topic addressed in this chapter is the role of violence in revolutionary politics. The author starts the chapter making a series of reasonable observations concerning the utility and appropriateness of revolutionary violence. After using several examples of international revolutionary struggles, he concludes:
“I don’t think that money or guns are the most profound base of power; I believe it is always the people. While armed struggle will sometimes be necessary, the only way this can ever work against a better trained and funded enemy is to have enough people standing behind the effort.
Make no mistake: I am hardly some wild-eyed “street fighting man.” No, I am simply a realist. Power will concede nothing essential without a struggle. Nonviolent confrontation is, of course, preferable. But when push comes to shove, this contest will tend to involve violence, at least in self-defense. This is shown by the history of my own country as well as much of the world.”
From this quite reasonable conclusion the author then launches into a several page critique of Ward Churchill’s short book Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. While not disagreeing with Churchill’s central conclusion in that book, the author’s endorsement is grudging at best, with repeated criticism of Churchill’s historical analysis, tone, and “leaden” prose. From there the author goes on a long, and largely negative, analysis of the Weather Underground, a topic that has received a good deal of attention over the last couple years. His description of the Weather Underground contains quotes from various former members and is a highly critical, but fair examination of that group. Interestingly, the author does not devote nearly the same amount of time to two of the other armed revolutionary groups active at the time of WOU, the Black Panthers and AIM. Next the author starts a brief discussion about the appropriateness of “black block” tactics and direct action. The chapter ends with the author concluding, rightfully, that “while violence may be legitimate, even necessary in certain circumstances, it cannot take the place of a political strategy that seeks to convert masses of people.”
The next chapter, The American in Me, starts with the obligatory “where I was on 9-11” story that has become so common in books of all sorts these days. In this chapter the author talks about the possible uses of patriotism as an organizing tactic. After relating to the reader about his childhood patriotism and later disillusionment with the U.S., the author asks “If we give up on any possible redemption of this country, what is our alternative?” Somewhat surprisingly, the author answers this question by again discussing Ward Churchill, in even less complimentary terms than in the previous chapter. In the next two pages the author uses many of the same objections that the right wing is currently making in their crusade to against Ward Churchill, namely his “little Eichmanns” comment from the essay On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. Churchill’s essay is easily misinterpreted and written with a certain level of hyperbole. Perhaps due to this, Andersen mistakenly assumes that Churchill endorses the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, and that he has called for other people to do the same.
The other writer mentioned often by Andersen, although in much less critical terms, is former 60’s radical, now respectable college professor and Mother Jones columnist Todd Gitlin. Somewhat surprisingly, Andersen refers to Gitlin’s writings several times, and always in complimentary terms. Considering that Gitlin was a supporter of Clinton’s bombing in Kosovo and seemingly spent more time during the 2003 invasion of Iraq criticizing the anti-war movement than actually organizing against the war, he seems an odd choice to be quoted repeatedly in a book ostensibly about revolution.
Regardless, Andersen’s book does what it sets out to do, posing questions that most serious activists will be forced to grapple with at some point in their organizing career. While not always claiming to provide the answer, Andersen accurately points out some of the tendencies and pitfalls inherent in political activism in the United States. While the book is not, nor is it intended to be a detailed analysis of all the various movements and issues confronting American would-be “revolutionaries”, the book is a good starting off point for discussion. The experienced activist may find parts of the book old hat, but others new to revolutionary politics may find All the Power to be a valuable read.
Mark Andersen, All the Power: Revolution Without Illusion, (Punk Planet Books, 2004).