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BOOK REVIEW: Roger Sabin, editor, Punk Rock, So What? The cultural legacy of punk, Routledge, London and New York, 1999, 258 pp, 40b/w illus, pb, 0 415 17030 3.

The editor of this book hopes it will '(re)construct punk in a new and exciting way.' Sabin's anthology is filled with tensions and contradictions but both the editor and his contributors tend to retreat from the unorthodox positions they set out to champion. This failure can be illustrated by David Huxley's evasion of my claim in the book Cranked Up Really High that the Sex Pistols weren't a punk band. Huxley baldly states that: 'Although Home's argument is interesting, the fact that the Sex Pistols are widely held to be synonymous with punk makes this a difficult position to maintain.' Huxley's ruminations stop there and he might just as well assert that since under feudalism many people in Europe believed the earth was flat, it was de facto flat at that time.

Editor Roger Sabin also fails to engage satisfactorily with some of the works he cites. In the footnotes to his essay 'I Won't Let That Dago By: Rethinking punk and racism' Sabin states: 'The best theoretical background to race politics, for our purposes, is Gilroy.' In There Ain't No Black In The Union Jack, Paul Gilroy argues for broadly based black liberation struggles. Rather than developing Gilroy's critique of a narrow anti-racism that falls back on bigoted stereotypes, Sabin sets out to disprove the ridiculous contention that 'punk was essentially solid with the anti-racist cause'. Given the propensity of those involved in punk towards "extremist" provocation, it is difficult to imagine anyone outside a tiny coterie of ideologically motivated revisionists claiming - let alone believing - that taken en bloc punk is 'anti-racist'.

Sabin's sensationalist approach leads to distortions. He stresses the prevalence of racism in the British Isles during the seventies, for example: 'The Labour government itself was far from non-racist... Culturally, racist gags were everywhere...' The implication is that British society has become less racist over the past twenty years. Unfortunately, while the ways in which racism is configured has changed, bigotry does not appear to have diminished. One only has to think of Stephen Lawrence or the recent nail bomb attacks in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho. Likewise, Tony Blair's current labour government is 'far from non-racist', particularly in terms of its immigration policies, while racist jokes and stereotypes are still common currency on the comedy circuit.

While I agree with Sabin's criticism of the racism in songs such as Puerto Rican by Adam And The Ants, it is disappointing that he should choose to take an offensive line from this ditty to use as the main title of his essay, where it appears detached from the context of critical discussion. I talked to the band about the song in the late-seventies at a time when they were still performing it. They claimed it was anti-racist and ironically confronted the listener with bigotry. Regardless of the group's intention, the result was still racist. Puerto Rican has never been officially released and Sabin uses this as evidence that 'punk's racist leanings (intentional or otherwise)... has been "edited out" of history over the years.' Describing this process as 'editing' implies complicity between too many people - rock journalists, publishers, record companies, musicians - to be credible. The factors involved are considerably more complex.

Sabin's argument is cleverly but not convincingly constructed. Perhaps the most basic blunder is Sabin's misreading of anarchism: 'there's the... question of the politics of punk... One major strand has centred on (1976-79) punk's supposedly "left-wing" credentials, and what kind of anarchism it stood for - if any.' Contra Sabin, anarchism covers a broad range of political positions, many of which are far removed from anything that could be described as 'left-wing'. Indeed, academics such as Zeev Sternhell have produced whole books about how fascism first emerged from the convergence of anarchist and monarchist currents in France at the turn of the twentieth-century.

Anyone who has read the major anarchist propagandists is unlikely to view this doctrine as left-wing or progressive. Proudhon, the nineteenth-century founder of anarchism, wrote in his diaries: 'The Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent back to Asia or exterminated.' Bakunin, a towering figure within the anarchist movement, was also virulently anti-Semitic. Rapports personnels avec Marx: provides a typical example of Bakunin's racism: 'This whole Jewish world, comprising a single exploiting sect, a kind of blood sucking people, a kind of organic collective parasite... (is) at the disposal of Marx on the one hand, and Rothschild on the other...' If Sabin's reading of anarchism was a little more informed he might have found himself drawing out the ways in which both this political doctrine and punk rock produce white identities and white subjectivities. Such an approach would provide a more effective challenge to punk racism than rhetoric that daisy chains the terms left-wing, progressive and anti-racist, and through such associations falsely implies anarchism is a bulwark against bigotry.

While Sabin is more sophisticated than many of his contributors, as the editor of this collection he must accept some responsibility for the outpourings of Robert Garnett. Having discussed Jamie Reid's interventions during the course of mass working class struggles such as miners' strikes, Garnett opines: 'When... Reid received the call... to work for the Sex Pistols he seized the opportunity to put the above strategies into practice in the context of pop culture on a much larger scale. This time it was for real...' (my emphasis). I do not view producing advertising material for a second rate pop group as more significant than participation in struggles that culminated in the three day week and the fall of a government. It is difficult to take this book seriously precisely because it propagates such preposterous and reactionary nonsense.

First published in Art Monthly #229, September 1999.

We Mean It Man: Punk Rock and Anti-Racism


Stewart Home in skinhead drag

Stewart Home tells it like it is...