Stop Mucking About: Catechisms, Straight Edge, and Why It’s Not as Bad as It Sounds
This text was written for an upcoming book on the history of the radical record, book, and merchandise distributor Fire and Flames. Since it’s unsure when the book will come out, the text is being made available here first.
There are things in one’s past that one doesn’t necessarily make a point of telling everyone about, even if (or, perhaps, because) they say a lot about your personality. What would fall into this category in my case? Shouting along to “Firestorm” by Earth Crisis, digging John Zerzan’s Future Primitive when it first came out—or, a few years earlier, believing that Sergey Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary ought to define your life. Let us not spend too much time with Earth Crisis and John Zerzan here, and focus on Sergey Nechayev instead. (It will become clear why.) For those of you who are not familiar with the background, here it is in a nutshell…
Sergey Nechayev (or, simply, Nechaev) was born in 1847 in Ivanovo, Russia. He grew up poor and got involved in radical politics when moving to Moscow as an eighteen-year-old. A turbulent life brought him to numerous European countries and revolutionary circles. For a while, he was “adopted as a son” by the famed Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. In 1872, Nechayev was arrested for the murder of a comrade and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. He died in prison halfway through his sentence.
Nechayev was known as a passionate (some would say, fanatic) revolutionary who was equally compelling and appalling to those around him. He had great influence on the European anarchist movement and on Russian nihilism (some say even on Vladimir Lenin, but that might be a stretch). I have also heard that he remains popular with anarchists in Greece, which wouldn’t surprise me; Greek anarchists do it their own way.
The “Catechism of a Revolutionary” is Nechayev’s most famous text. Written in 1869, it sums up his beliefs. Some excerpts:
The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.
He has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions.
All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him.
He knows only one science: the science of destruction.
You get the picture. The lines make the main problem of the “Catechism” rather obvious: it is embarrassing, elitist, quasi-religious, tough-guy, macho bullshit. Yet, the truth is that at one stage in my life it led me to explaining to my girlfriend that we might have to break up because our relationship stood in the way of a Catechism-approved lifestyle. After all, Comrade Nechayev stated about the revolutionary: “All the worse for him if he has any relations with parents, friends, or lovers; he is no longer a revolutionary if he is swayed by these relationships.” I did not follow through with the break-up. Too swayed, I suppose. Mind you, said girlfriend didn’t stick around for too long. Who can blame her?
The way I look at it today is that the “Catechism” feeds the wrong end of radical politics. Not the one about liberation, but the one about the moral high ground; you know, being more radical than thou, a saint of the revolution, or (if one is also into Nietzsche) a superhuman. This ties in with confusing revolutionary rhetoric with melodramatic oversimplifications of life, for example when Holger Meins of Germany’s Red Army Faction declared that we were “either pig or human.” Fortunately enough, it’s a little more complicated than that.
My infatuation with Nechayev didn’t last too long. I suppose I was out of it by the age of 20. I conveniently brushed the whole thing under the rug, where it rested for a good twenty years.
Fast forward to 2011, when, for having done one favor or another, I was allowed to choose a Fire and Flames shirt from their online catalog. Scrolling through the offers (one more fabulous than the other), a particular design caught my attention: “Nechaev Brigade: Original Straightedge.” I was quick to place my order.
The main reason, of course, was that it was a straight edge shirt. I’m not going to bore you with the story, but discovering straight edge was the biggest discovery of my life. Okay, I’ll bore you with the story for a minute: I grew up in the Austrian Alps, where drinking and getting into fistfights was pretty much the only entertainment available to village boys. I hated it and didn’t partake. I can’t say that it turned me into an outsider, because I was good at sports and some sort of a rebel (disobeying teachers and the like), both of which gave me credit. Still, discovering straight edge turned me from being an odd fellow who no one could quite figure out to belonging to a worldwide community of sober subversives. It’s not always been an easy ride (way too much conservatism and self-righteousness in the scene), but as an identity it has been priceless. I’ve dealt with the challenges and contradictions in two books, Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics (2010) and X: Straight Edge and Radical Sobriety (2019).
Back to the Nechayev shirt: whenever straight edge appears in a radical political context, I get excited. With the shirt, we had a cheeky twist. The neo-Nazi straight edge crowd (yes, it exists) has long entertained the slogan “Hitler: Original Straightedge,” exploiting the fact that the Führer didn’t drink or smoke. Countering that with Nechayev, who was also gung-ho for discipline, but from a different political angle, was witty. This was confirmed by my friends’ reaction to the shirt: lots of laughs. I, however, wondered about the shirt’s serious implications. After all, here was the long lost hero of my youth tied to an identity that seemed very precious. Was he not as bad as I’ve been thinking since then? Had I been unfair? Did Nechayev deserve to be revisited, reexamined, reevaluated?
Let us look at “discipline,” which seems to be the obvious link here. No shortage of lyrics about it in straight edge circles. Earth Crisis, already mentioned, named one of their anthems “The Discipline.” The song contains the line: “Striving to attain higher levels of purity / The beauty in life is mine to know / Amidst the ruin, I survive.” Nechayev-like indeed.
But let’s not escape into irony. We were looking for serious implications. So, how about discipline in radical circles? It seems that many would see that as a contradiction in terms. With the proliferation of libertarian forms of socialism (anarchism, autonomism, left communism) after the end of so-called “real socialism,” “discipline” has taken on bad connotations, at times appearing as a mere synonym for “authoritarianism” or even “fascism.” But the truth is that discipline has always (always!) been a key element in revolutionary movements, particularly in the context of military confrontation and self-defense. And no, I’m not just talking about Lenin or Mao, this goes for all currents. Consider Nestor Makhno’s summary of the anarchist fate in the Russian Revolution: “Had the anarchists been closely organized and had they in their actions abided strictly by a well-defined discipline, they would never have suffered the crushing defeat they did.” Consider the following assessment by Julius Deutsch, chairman of the antifascist workers’ militias in Austria in the 1930s: “Discipline and solidarity belong together! To keep discipline means to practice solidarity and to contribute significantly to the working class’s advancement.” Consider the words of Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, recorded in 1936 by Emma Goldman: “I consider discipline indispensable, but it must be inner discipline, motivated by a common purpose and a strong feeling of comradeship.” Finally, consider the following anecdote from the memoirs of the “communist bandit” Max Hoelz, who roamed the Eastern parts of Germany with his red guards in the early 1920s:
The same night, however, I went to check on the soldiers keeping guard. At one of the posts furthest away from town, the leader was missing. I was astonished to hear from the guards that he had already been missing for several hours. After a search of almost an hour I found him completely drunk in an inn. His bill was considerable, although alcohol consumption was strictly prohibited for Red Guards. I got the suspicion that such an irresponsible man might also be capable of stealing from his host. When we searched his pockets and the lining of his coat, we found some silver coins. He could not explain in any satisfying way how he had gotten them. When I pressured him, he finally admitted that he had taken the money and had buried the rest in the forest. I was so furious that I disciplined him right there and then. I beat him with his rifle until he fell down like a brick. I had hit him so hard that I feared he might be dead. My companions carried him to a nearby police station. The next morning, he came to me sober and asked tearfully for forgiveness and to be reaccepted into the fighting unit. This, of course, had to be rejected.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating to beat folks with rifles until they fall down like a brick. That’s not the point. The point is that discipline is something we can’t get away from if we are serious about revolution, no matter how uncomfortable this makes us. I don’t know if we need Comrade Nechayev’s “Catechism” to remind us of that, but it does remind us of it. And so does the Fire and Flames shirt tying the man to straight edge. It was a bold and risky move. Well done!